The Perils of the Court Historian


Richard Aldous, Schlesinger: The Imperial Historian (W.W. Norton, 2017)

Anyone who has ever been a geek at a frat party will shudder at a story involving Arthur Schlesinger, President John F. Kennedy’s pet historian, being thrown, fully clothed, into a swimming pool at a Kennedy family pool party in the summer of 1962. With his bow tie, egg head, and “four-eyes” (in his own self-deprecatory verdict) and midwestern upbringing, Schlesinger cut an odd figure in this glamorous and sometimes raucous environment. After the swimming pool incident, his ego still bruised even as his clothes were dried, the distinguished scholar offered his resignation to the president. “Don’t worry about it,” came the amused reply from Kennedy. It later emerged that the culprit was Lee Udall, the wife of the interior secretary Stewart Udall. She confessed that the sight of the pontifical scholar proved too much: “he was standing there holding forth and looking so Arthurish and something came over me.”

This unflattering vignette did not make its way into Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, a keyhole history of the short-lived presidency that became a bestseller within weeks of publication in 1965. But it does capture something about the nature of the challenge that Schlesinger faced, as he attempted to translate success in the intellectual realm to influence in the world of power.

Discussions about the role of history in the making of policy are as old as the practice of the history itself. In recent years, though, it is fair to say that the idea that more history is needed in Western statecraft — particularly foreign policy — has undergone a renaissance. One need not list all the protagonists, but notable evangelists for an infusion of historical thinking in American foreign policy include the Clements Center at the University of Texas (with its focus on “history, strategy and statecraft”), the Kissinger Center at the School of Advanced and International Studies, and the Applied History Project at the Belfer Center at Harvard University.

As my colleague Andrew Ehrhardt has pointed out, there is a long and prestigious heritage for such initiatives, particularly in the United Kingdom. Professional historians such as Arnold J. Toynbee and Charles Webster played a significant role in the making of British foreign policy over the last century. The exigencies of two world wars — and the requirements of “post-war planning”— created a demand for their insights that was not always there in more peaceful times. For historians to float in and out of the War Office or Foreign Office in these years was common. And yet there were few in the British context who could claim the influence of a Henry Kissinger or Schlesinger.

Today, one could be forgiven for thinking that the historian-practitioner is an increasingly rare breed. The current political atmosphere does not seem conducive to long-sightedness. Although it is possible to identify a group of intellectuals who might loosely be described as Trumpian, few seem to have been able to exert any influence in the mad king’s court. In the Obama administration, of course, the atmosphere was much more conducive to intellectual reflection. Indeed, Schlesinger may have had a tangential influence on the shaping of the Obama worldview. The revival of interest in Reinhold Niebuhr — whom Obama claimed as his favorite philosopher — can probably be traced back to a 2005 article by Schlesinger, one of the last he wrote, urging Americans to rediscover Niebuhr’s writing for their troubled age. Moreover, one of the many underappreciated aspects of Niebuhr’s thinking is just how grounded it was in a deep understanding of history. Yet it is hard to think of a historian who exerted much influence in the administration. Obama’s foreign policy guru, Ben Rhodes, was of a more literary bent.

If there is an emerging consensus that we could do with more history, then, does it follow that we need more historians in senior advisory positions? Schlesinger provides an interesting test case. Rather mischievously, Richard Aldous frames his brilliant biography of the man as a study of animperial historian.” He confronts the awkward question at the outset. Was Schlesinger, perhaps America’s most famous historian of the era, an exemplar of the insights that academics can bring to the policymaking world? Or was he a “court historian,” under the spell of the politicians who found it useful to have him around, but usually ignored his advice?

The origin of the dismissive label of “court historian” to describe Schlesinger is interesting in itself. It was the response that Taylor Branch, biographer of Martin Luther King and historian of the Civil Rights movement, gave when asked by Bill Clinton in 1993 if he wanted to be “an Arthur Schlesinger” in the White House. Schlesinger was once considered to be on the liberal left of the Democratic spectrum, but service in government — plus changes in the direction of the American left in general — took the sheen off his reputation. By the late 1960s, Schlesinger, the great chronicler of the American Progressive tradition, had fallen foul of the New Left movement. Specifically, the movement’s activists picked at the Progressive notion — held dear by Schlesinger — that historical inquiry would help promote liberal reform.

Was it better for a historian to steer clear of politics, then? Some in academia thought so: To seek too close an association with the political game was to risk blurring the lines between two worlds that should remain remote. In Schlesinger’s own view, predictably, being close to power made him a better historian. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1963, “To smell the dust and sweat of battle, is surely to stimulate and amplify the historical imagination.” But there was something more instinctive and less scholarly in his urge to enter the belly of the beast. There was, as he reached adolescence, little doubt that he would follow his father into the historical profession. But it was when first contemplating graduate study that he came to view the ivory tower as a “pretty adequate metaphor.” As he put it, “a college professor is rather well insulated from most of the currents that electrify vital life.”

An education at Harvard gave Schlesinger certain advantages not afforded to others with the same yearning. He was a contemporary of a young John F. Kennedy at the university, although — despite being the same age — the son of an ambassador was two years behind the precocious son of a don. The two had different Harvard experiences and lived very different lives. Importantly, though, Harvard also gave Kennedy a lifelong taste for history (not least, a desire to find his own place within it). Like Schlesinger, in 1940 Kennedy was to publish his own final-year thesis, “Appeasement at Munich: the inevitable result of the slowness of conversion of the British democracy from a disarmament to a rearmament policy,” with the catchier title, “Why England Slept”.

Coming to adulthood in such a tumultuous era also left its mark on both men. After Harvard, Schlesinger spent a year in the United Kingdom (at Peterhouse in Cambridge University) during the run-up to the outbreak of World War II. When the Munich agreement was reached in September 1938, he heard the news from a newspaper boy in London’s West End, as he walked out of the theater. He had good instincts. While Chamberlain was widely lauded in the press, Schlesinger wrote that the deal was nothing more than a “temporary peace … disgraceful morally and highly questionable strategically.” By 1940, he commented in his diary that the invasion of Holland had occasioned him to reconsider the unique reality of Nazism too. Hitler was

no mere imperialist conqueror, somewhat nastier and gaudier than the Kaiser … His [is] not a war for markets and colonies. It is a revolution and a crusade. The analogy is not the first world war. It is the spread of Mohammedism [sic]. Hitler will not be controlled by the motives which controlled Cecil Rhodes, say, or even Napoleon. He is the prophet of a new religion, and like all prophets who believe their faith with sufficient intensity, he is out to convert or destroy.

Schlesinger was not, in the first instance, a historian of foreign policy. His primary interest was in the history of American democracy and the Jacksonian era. Rather than a product of the western frontier, he argued that Jacksonianism had more of a national character, including among urban workers, small farmers, and even intellectuals in the northeast. As such, he saw it as a forerunner of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. One wonders what he would have made of the so-called Jacksonian revolt against postwar American foreign policy seen among the followers of President Donald J. Trump.

During World War II, after being turned down by the Navy, Schlesinger had a stint in the Office of Strategic Services. He was stationed in the Research and Analysis Branch, which, as one of his friends put it, “gave refuge to the weenies and wimps, the glassy-eyed students on campus who came out to cheer the team on and who burrowed in the libraries.” That felt too much like a back office for Schlesinger, however, who found it “terrifically remote from the politics of the capital.” William Langer, the head of the Office of Strategic Services, was not fond of him, so Schlesinger transferred to Europe and was in Paris on V-E Day. He felt unappreciated and betrayed by the bureaucratic establishment. If he was to gain influence, it was to come from associating with the politicians themselves.

Democratic politics provided an outlet for these energies. Alongside Reinhold Niebuhr and J.K. Galbraith, another Harvard man, he was one of the founders of “Americans for Democratic Action” in 1947, calling for an expansion of the New Deal. In 1945, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Age of Jackson, at just 28. A year later, The Age of Roosevelt was published, cementing his status as a national public intellectual. In the 1950s, he was one of a number of intellectuals who gravitated toward Adlai Stevenson, and placed their hopes that he was the coming man.

When Stevenson was beaten by Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960, Schlesinger initially felt that his life in politics had ended. At this point, Schlesinger had little affection for Kennedy, whom he regarded as ruthless in his pursuit of the presidency. Yet Kennedy’s enthusiasm for history meant that a channel existed between them. Pressed into action, he made a significant contribution to the 1960 presidential election campaign with a small book called Kennedy or Nixon: Does it Make Any Difference? To his surprise, it was another bestseller. In the book, Schlesinger condemned Richard Nixon for having “no political philosophy” and “no sense of history.”

Nevertheless, the relationship between the politician and the historian remained awkward after Kennedy’s victory in 1960. Schlesinger looked embarrassed and out of place when he attempted to throw a football with the Kennedy children at a meeting in December 1960. He was uncertain that he would be awarded any worthwhile position in the administration and even turned down the offer of an ambassadorship. There was a brief moment at which the job of national security adviser was mooted before it went to McGeorge Bundy, another Harvard man. Disappointed at the outcome, Schlesinger also turned down the offer of an assistant secretaryship at the State Department, responsible for cultural affairs. Just as he was losing hope, it was Bobby Kennedy who eventually asked him to act as a special assistant to the president.

Schlesinger had got his wish to be at the court of Kennedy in the White House. Schlesinger’s friend, the Time journalist Richard Rovere, rather overdid it when he described the role of “court philosopher” as an “extraordinary assignment” with no precedent in American history. In truth, the terms of the role were vague. The White House press secretary was clear that Schlesinger, to be stationed far away from the West Wing, was “not a policy maker.” Another contemporary disparagingly claimed that his job was “drinking tea with Jackie.” Others suggested that the appointment was archly political on Kennedy’s behalf, seeking to smooth his relationship with followers of Stevenson and the liberal wing of the Democrats. Speechwriting was one definite responsibility but even on this Schlesinger ran up against Ted Sorenson, the president’s principal speechwriter. For his part, Schlesinger reassured Kennedy that he was not on a “historical mission” and was not planning to write a work on The Age of Kennedy before it had begun.

Perhaps Kennedy should have listened to Schlesinger more in these early days. On the first issue of major policy that Schlesinger was able to get his teeth into — plans for what became the Bay of Pigs operation against Castro in Cuba — he firmly opposed it, warning that the effect would be to spoil the American image “of intelligence, reasonableness and honest firmness which has already had such an extraordinary effect in changing world opinion about the US and increasing world confidence in US methods and purposes.” He continued to oppose it, causing irritation to the president’s other advisers.

The Bay of Pigs episode certainly made Schlesinger reflect upon the challenges of his position. As he put it, it was one thing for a special assistant to “talk frankly in private to a President at his request” but quite another for a “college professor, fresh to government, to interpose his unassisted judgment in open meeting against that of such august figures as the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each speaking with the full weight of his institution behind him.” What is more, the military and intelligence agencies were able to “strike virile poses and talk of tangible things — fire power, air strike, landing craft and so on.” Schlesinger had to depend on intangibles such as the reputation of the United States or other “odious” concepts such as “world opinion.” The temptation for diplomats, he added, was always to fall in behind the lines of the military types, to show they were “not soft-headed idealists but were really tough guys, too.”

Schlesinger was also concerned that he had appeared an almost lone voice in opposition to the mission in the court of Kennedy. What might that do to his future prospects, even if he was proved right? Notably, as it became clear that the mission was a disaster, Kennedy took him to Miami where they met the Cuban Revolutionary Council, the exiled group who had been groomed by the Central Intelligence Agency to replace Fidel Castro’s regime. In the fall-out, McGeorge Bundy did concede that Schlesinger had indeed got it right. “Oh sure,” said Kennedy, in anger and with Schlesinger in the room, “Arthur wrote me a memorandum that will look pretty good when he gets around to writing his book on my administration. Only he better not publish that memorandum while I’m still alive.”

Schlesinger claimed to take no pleasure in being vindicated, as he travelled to Europe for a conference on American foreign policy and surveyed the damage. He complained that U.S. leaders not only looked like imperialists, but “stupid, ineffectual imperialists.” He was also concerned about the domestic implications, as the energy of the administration was increasingly sapped by foreign affairs. He rejected a suggestion that he might move to the State Department (as assistant secretary for Latin America) but felt distanced from the president, stuck in his office in the East Wing. He tried to influence policy toward Italy (where he was encouraged by a fracture between the Socialists and Communists) but came up against Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, who suggested he should stick to social events and stay out of the West Wing: “Not content with his life in the East Room [where social functions took place] with the social secretaries, Schlesinger liked to play a role in policy matters.” In turn, Schlesinger privately blamed Rusk for his failure to stand up to Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs. In general, he thought too many officials, while “above the average in decency, intelligence and devotion,” were “emasculated” when it came to the making of decisions. The whole apparatus of Foreign Service training encouraged too subservient and mousy a disposition among its graduates. As he wrote in a memo for the president, he was not advocating a “collection of freewheelers pursuing their independent foreign policies.” Nonetheless, he believed that the “inherent indifference to substance and tendency toward caution” needed to be addressed.

Schlesinger feared the administration was slow to learn the lesson of the Bay of Pigs. In July 1961, when fears increased of a Soviet attempt to seal the German border in Berlin — through which a growing number of Germans were fleeing west — he found himself party to discussions about a potential military response. “I do not wish to play the role of Cassandra, and this, strictly speaking, is absolutely none of my business, but I cannot help resist the feeling that the present stages of planning for Berlin are ominously reminiscent of comparable stages in the planning for Cuba,” he wrote to the president. He insisted that a better decision could have been reached “if someone had been appointed as a devil’s advocate and charged with the exercise of picking holes in the plan.”

The truth was that playing devil’s advocate, or Cassandra, was a thankless task. On Berlin, American policy quickly hardened around three red lines that had been outlined by the Eisenhower administration, increasing the threat of war. Typical of the frustrated strategist, Schlesinger objected that there was “no long-run political strategy” in this Mexican stand-off approach. Crucially, he warned that any approach had to allow Nikita Khrushchev room to back down from the hardline posture he had also adopted. Otherwise, the United States would be embarking upon another “game of chicken” against the backdrop of nuclear apocalypse.

On this occasion, chastened by the experience over Cuba, Kennedy was careful to take stock of Schlesinger’s warnings. He asked for a memo, which, in the writing of, Schlesinger asked for the advice of another two Harvard colleagues who were working in the administration. One of them was Adam Chaynes, a legal adviser in the State Department. The other was Henry Kissinger, who was then a consultant at the White House (despite his Republican affiliation). The memo warned of the dangers if another “test of will” became “an end itself rather than a means to a political end.” It was the moment of Schlesinger’s peak influence in the making of U.S. foreign policy. Kennedy ran with the memo, scolding the State Department and demanding more options, rather than the current choice being offered of “holocaust or humiliation.” Schlesinger had deliberately sought to use Kissinger’s “disruptive voice” to jolt the administration awake to the dangers of its policy.

Insofar as what this episode says about the practice of “applied history,” a few observations jump out. The first is that Schlesinger’s advice was sound and largely vindicated. The second is that — in his insistence on looking at what might be called the “bigger picture,” from “world opinion” to the longer-term political strategy — he was deploying a historical perspective to useful effect. The third is that personality mattered as much as sagacity when it came to bending the presidential ear. The fourth is that timing was everything. Had Schlesinger not appeared as a Cassandra just months before, it is unlikely that the president would have paused to read his memo.

And so, Schlesinger’s moment in the sun in the summer of 1961 was short-lived as the political orbit around Kennedy shifted again. On the next major issue facing the administration, Schlesinger’s opposition was barely given a moment’s consideration as Kennedy opted to follow the military establishment and ordered the resumption of nuclear testing. A one-man band could only do so much. Without his own staff and without the weight of a bureaucracy, Schlesinger felt it increasingly difficult to interpolate himself in the policymaking process. As attentions tilted toward Vietnam over the course of the following year, Kennedy sought the opinion of other professors, Walt Rostow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or J.K. Galbraith of Harvard, who could at least claim more expertise on Asian affairs. Being able to advise across the range of international issues was challenging for any one scholar.

Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned for the aspirant applied historian of today. One is a simple but crucial point about the importance of presentation and tradecraft. As Aldous notes, those academics whose insights Kennedy did value had a number of clearly identifiable qualities:

What all of these professors, including Schlesinger, offered the president was an ability to analyze and write at the highest levels of expression. Not only were they rigorous thinkers and good stylists, but each was unafraid to reject the pieties and conventional wisdom of the day, giving the president access to the thoughts of clever men who were prepared to say what they thought …

Among some in the academic world, Schlesinger had lowered the tone of his scholarship with his flirtation — and undeniable attempts to ingratiate himself — with those in power. Readmittance into the ivory tower was permitted but he would encounter a curled lip from time to time, for the rest of his life. As Aldous writes in this captivating book, Schlesinger learned to live with the griping. For his own part, he self-identified with an older tradition of historians or philosophers who had muddied their knees in the swamp, including Guicciardini, Machiavelli, Bacon, Raleigh, Macaulay, Tocqueville, Guizot, Henry Adams, and George Bancroft. As Schlesinger put it “They were not just men of the study and the lamp.”


John Bew is professor of history and foreign policy at the War Studies Department at King’s College London and is leading an “applied history” project at the Centre for Grand Strategy. He is also a research fellow at the think tank Policy Exchange where he coordinates its work on British foreign policy.

Image: Photo by Cecil W. Stoughton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons