Keeper of the chronicles: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s letters discussed in Hyde Park

Detail from the cover of The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Detail from the cover of The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

On Thursday, April 3, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum’s Henry A. Wallace Center in Hyde Park will continue its ever-impressive series of author talks by hosting third-generation historian Stephen C. Schlesinger, who, with his brother Andrew, recently released a collection of their father’s letters. Said father was, of course, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the preeminent chronicler of Cold War-era America and presidential politics in the days when “liberal” was not yet a dirty word.

It’s hard to overestimate the degree to which our collective retrospective view of the doings of this country in the mid-20th century was shaped by the lens held up by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The titles of his immensely popular books gave us phrases by which several presidencies are popularly defined: A Thousand Days for the Kennedy administration and The Imperial Presidency for Nixon’s. He won two Pulitzer Prizes – the first in 1945 for The Age of Jackson and the second in 1966 for A Thousand Days – and the National Book Award in 1979 for Robert Kennedy and His Times. He served as speechwriter and campaign advisor to Adlai Stevenson, Jack, Bobby and Ted Kennedy and George McGovern, and witnessed some of the tensest moments in modern history firsthand as a JFK administration insider, discreetly advising the president against the Bay of Pigs invasion.

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During World War II, Schlesinger was a spook in the Office of Strategic Services, which eventually morphed into the CIA; he then went on to co-found Americans for Democratic Action with Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey and John Kenneth Galbraith. Though he never earned a PhD, he became a full professor at Harvard and later at the Graduate Center at CUNY. Not least on his long list of accomplishments was the high position that Schlesinger occupied on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List,” and he spent his last years as a vocal critic of the 2003 Iraq War.

Throughout his long and busy life, Schlesinger chronicled his personal experiences among the movers and shakers of the age in journals that sons Andrew and Stephen edited and published in 2007. Now they’ve collaborated again on a volume of their father’s voluminous correspondence with such icons of American statecraft as Harry Truman, Stevenson, Humphrey, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton and John and Robert Kennedy (including a detailed critique of JFK’s manuscript for Profiles in Courage). His pen pals ranged from political allies like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kenneth Galbraith, Gore Vidal and Jacqueline Kennedy to celebrities like Groucho Marx, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bianca Jagger. Schlesinger also made time to reply thoughtfully to inquiries about his works and the issues of the day from ordinary citizens.

Wallace Center speaker Stephen C. Schlesinger has carried on the family tradition of both writing about history as it happens and helping to shape it through activism and commentary. He grew up volunteering in the Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy campaigns, co-founded the progressive magazine The New Democrat, became a staff writer at Time and served as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor to governor Mario Cuomo. He later worked for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme and went on to serve as director of the World Policy Institute at the New School from 1997 to 2006. Currently a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City, Schlesinger fils is perhaps best-known for his books and film documentary work on the founding of the UN and on US involvement in the 1954 coup d’état in Guatemala.

Stephen C. Schlesinger’s talk, starting at 7 p.m., will focus on The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published in 2013. Copies of the book will be available for sale (and signing) after the talk. Admission to the program is free. For more information about the event, call (845) 486-7745, e-mail clifford.laube@nara.gov or visit www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu.

Stephen C. Schlesinger discusses The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Thursday, April 3, 7 p.m., free, Henry A. Wallace Center, FDR Presidential Library and Home, 4079 Albany Post Road (Route 9), Hyde Park; (845) 486-7745, www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu.

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