History & the Historians
To the Editor:
In “The Schlesinger Thesis” [March], Kenneth S. Lynn raises the interesting question of why the field of 20th-century American political history “has declined to the point where senior-faculty positions . . . have gone unfilled at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and other institutions, for want of candidates who have proved themselves scholars. How, and when, and why, did the discipline fall into such woeful difficulty?” Mr. Lynn gives an ideological answer to his own question, but he is so fixated on one ideology that he remains blind to another.
Mr. Lynn cites the careers not only of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. but of John Morton Blum, Frank Freidel, and William Leuchtenburg in a strained effort to explain why eminent scholars in the field failed to recruit a critical mass of graduate students to succeed them. “And the most likely reason for their pedagogical failure was the political bias that drastically narrowed their conceptions of what reform was and kept them from seeing that in modern America virtually every President has been a reformer.” The idea that only liberal Presidents had a “rendezvous with destiny” was “good theater,” Mr. Lynn suggests, “but as a means of cutting into and understanding American history, it was an instrument of limited usefulness, and most of the intellectually sophisticated graduate students—that saving remnant—avoided having it thrust upon them.”
The curious thing about this passage is that it applies with equal force to the author himself and his own field of American intellectual history. Mr. Lynn, after all, is not exactly the model scholar who has established an enduring school of thought and produced a brilliant galaxy of graduate students to sustain the field. Surely he knows that intellectual history, along with political history, was rejected by the 60′s generation as an elitist apology for the status quo. He would have readers believe that the “sophisticated graduate students” of that era rejected “reform” because they had finally awakened to the deceits of liberal historiography and the snares of the welfare state. But many young New Left graduate students chose not to study either political or intellectual history because they were searching for a way not to change the “system” but to overthrow it. Their rendezvous was not with reform but revolution.
Anyone who would understand what has happened to the study of American history solely by reading Mr. Lynn’s article would miss the important point that the field has come to be dominated by Marxists and feminists. Evidence? Three elections to the presidency of the Organization of American Historians, countless panels on such topics at the annual OAH conventions, and the enormous number of young historians who have been influenced by the late Herbert Gutman, who did much to reshape the field of American labor history and had students doing history “from the bottom up” in search of “class consciousness.” Other academic fields have also come to be dominated by radicalism, as indicated in the recent COMMENTARY article on “The Tenured Left” by Stephen H. Balch and Herbert I. London [October 1986].
What killed liberal historiography, whether political, intellectual, or diplomatic, was Marxism, a term not even mentioned in Mr. Lynn’s article. I suppose when a neoconservative wants to see his ideological foe finished of, it hardly matters who does the job. Thus Mr. Lynn scarcely bothers to inform COMMENTARY readers that two excellent chapters in Schlesinger’s book critically take on cold-war revisionist historiography. Had Mr. Lynn discussed these learned chapters, honesty would have compelled him to concede that Schlesinger has fallen into disfavor among those “intellectually sophisticated graduate students” because he has defended the West in the cold war and devastated all left-wing explanations of its origins.
It is strange that Mr. Lynn fails to mention the late Richard Hofstadter, a 20th-century political historian who was also repudiated by the 60′s generation. A few years before his death he had been nominated to the presidency of the Organization of American Historians. I recall watching in sadness and anger as graduate students at the OAH convention in Los Angeles in 1971 organized to deny him the honor. “That saving remnant” indeed!
Mr. Lynn is delighted to describe liberal historiography as discredited, but he does not want to admit to COMMENTARY readers that its current precarious status is the work of younger radical scholars who are now entrenched in academia. In his war against liberalism he is a consistent Leninist: no enemies on the Left.
John Patrick Diggins
University of California
To the Editor:
Kenneth S. Lynn has told his readers nothing that historians haven’t known for decades: that some of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s books were written as celebrations and should be read cautiously with that in mind. Instead, Mr. Lynn has used the occasion of Schlesinger’s The Cycles of American History as yet another opportunity to wield his cooking spoon and spank those in the intellectual community who have the audacity to utter the slightest criticism of American culture. Will his tiring enthusiasm for enforcing a unanimous affirmation of our culture never flag? And if he ever succeeds in his project, will any of us truly be proud of a community of intellectual critics reduced to cheerleading?
The answer to Mr. Lynn’s question of why there aren’t good 20th-century political historians any longer is not, as he suggests, that Schlesinger and others have been too liberal, too critical of America, or too engaged in politics. Rather, it has been figures like Mr. Lynn who have driven the best minds of the past two decades into the social sciences rather than history. In the social sciences, those who have a curiosity about contemporary America can more easily pursue their investigations—and weave together an affirmation with dissent—without being subject to the constant accusations of Mr. Lynn and his fellow conservative guardians of American civilization. With Mr. Lynn guarding the gate, checking the affirmation quotient of each who enters, who with a genuine and independent curiosity about the recent past would choose to work in the field of 20th-century history? . . .
Kenneth S. Lynn writes:
John Patrick Diggins believes that the process of intellectual decline described in “The Schlesinger Thesis” originated in the 60′s. But on the basis of personal memory I am convinced that the calamity began somewhat earlier, in the late 40′s and the 50′s, and I focused my argument accordingly. “The academicians who came to dominate 20th-century American political history in the decade and a half after World War II” wrote some useful books, I said, yet they “did not have much success with the best graduate students of the period.” In a time of academic expansionism, when a “saving remnant” of gifted graduate students chose to specialize in other aspects of American history, “only a scattering of . . . the young people with genuine historical interests” was more than briefly drawn to the specialty of Professors Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., John Morton Blum, Frank Freidel, et al. Thus, Mr. Diggins’s catalogue of the horrors of the 60′s that I did not discuss is irrelevant, and so is his criticism that I did not talk about intellectual history, diplomatic history, and labor history. For my more modest purpose was to analyze the decline and fall of one particular discipline, 20th-century American political history, in the hope that through circumscription I could achieve solidity.
Mr. Diggins’s climactic statement that my failure to mention the word Marxism, or deal with the depredations of the feminist historians, is the result of my not wanting to criticize the radical scholars who are now entrenched in academia is simply wild. As I wrote four years ago in the preface to a collection of my essays, the political turbulence of the 60′s inspired “a whole new scholarship about American civilization [which] incorporated a host of dubious theories, old and new.”
Mr. Diggins thinks of me as a Leninist who wants no enemies on the Left; Neil Jumonville, by contrast, characterizes me as a cheerleader who hates “the slightest criticism of American culture.” It is not Schlesinger and company, he goes on to say, who are responsible for the current state of 20th-century American political history; rather, it is “figures like Mr. Lynn.” “With Mr. Lynn guarding the gate . . .,” he concludes, “who with a genuine and independent curiosity about the recent past would choose to work in the field of 20th-century history?” Somehow, Mr. Jumonville has got the idea that I am a political historian. Alas, that assumption is almost as wide of the mark as his belief that I seek to stifle the intellectual curiosity of graduate students about tragic problems in the American past.