Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, one of America's most eminent and controversial historians, has died after a heart attack aged 89. As a close adviser to President Kennedy and a member of his administration, Schlesinger largely created the "Camelot" myth of the Kennedy years. Subsequent revelations of the president's shady political and personal record did not shift Schlesinger's robustly partisan view.
Distinguished American historian and counselor to presidents, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. had a ringside seat to the most pivotal moments of the twentieth century. Schlesinger's Journals: 1952-2000, the second volume of his journals, were published in 2007 to great acclaim. The Gilder Lehrman Institute is proud to have had Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as a founding Advisory Board member, and we are pleased to present a 2001 Historians' Forum that he delivered on the first volume of his journals, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950.
In fact, the path of Schlesinger's career seemed inevitable almost from birth. He was born Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger Jr, but later gave himself his father's middle name, Meier. His father was a professor of American history in Ohio who moved his family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was offered a professorship at Harvard. Thus seven-year-old Arthur was plunged into the world of America's movers and shakers, an ambience in which he spent the rest of his life. His early education was at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, from which he progressed effortlessly to Harvard, securing his first degree at the age of 20. In an early example of his taste for political controversy (and ready access to centres of influence) he returned from an 11-month world trip in 1939 to pen a controversial series of articles for the Boston Globe. Swimming resolutely against the popular tide, he urged America to abandon its isolationism, introduce immediate conscription, and intervene in the war in Europe.
During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization's principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, "Because the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere," America should support "democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over." That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology "hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great."