The Cycles of American History


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A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian discusses “the Cold War, political parties, the presidency, and many broader philosophical issues [with] incisive wit” (Library Journal).

A celebrated historian, speechwriter, and adviser to President Kennedy, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. draws on decades of astute observation to construct a dialectic of American politics, or as Time magazine called it, a “recurring struggle between pragmatism and idealism in the American soul.”
The Cycles of American History traces two conflicting visions of America—Experiment vs. Destiny—through two centuries of political evolution, conflict, and progress. In this updated edition, Schlesinger reflects on the dawn of a new millennium and how new social and technological revolutions could lead to a revolution in American political cycles.
“Whatever the nation’s political future, it can benefit from the intelligence and regard for our country’s best traditions evident in these informed and humane essays.” —TheNew York Times
“Displays the author at his best: trenchant, erudite, crisp.” —Foreign Affairs
“An excellent and provocative primer on the challenges surrounding the contemporary American political setting . . . First-rate history mixed with a strong sense of public service.” —The Christian Science Monitor



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Date de parution 16 juin 1999
Nombre de visites sur la page 1
EAN13 9780547527505
Langue English

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Title Page Contents Copyright Dedication Foreword to the Mariner Edition Foreword
P a r t I The Theory of America: Experiment or Destiny? The Cycles of American Politics
P a r t I I Foreign Policy and the American Character National Interests and Moral Absolutes Human Rights and the American Tradition The Solzhenitsyn Challenge America and Empire Why the Cold War?
P a r t I I I Affirmative Government and the American Economy The Short Happy Life of American Political Parties After the Imperial Presidency The Future of the Vice Presidency Vicissitudes of Presidential Reputations Democracy and Leadership Acknowledgments Notes Index Read More from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. About the Author Connect with HMH Footnotes
First Mariner Books edition 1999 Copyright© 1986 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Foreword to the Mariner Edition copyright © 1999 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to trade.permissions@hmhco.comor to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016. The Library of Congress has çataloged the print edition as follows: Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, date. The cycles of American history. Bibliography: p. Includes index. 1. United States—Foreign relations—Philosophy. 2. United States—-Politics and government —Philosophy. 3. Cycles I. Title. E183 7.S373 1986 973 86-7706 ISBN 0-395-95793-1 eISBN 978-0-547-52750-5 v3.1117
who hàs seen the cycles pàss, ànd turn àgàin
Foreword to the Mariner Edition
ALOT HAS HAPPENED to America and the world sinceTheCycles of American History first appeared in 198g. The Cold War is over. Commu nism, like fascism before it, is extinct. The specter of nuclear conflict blowinG up the planet has receded. The ideoloGical conflict that so savaGely divided the w orld has been settled, for the time beinG anyway. Democracy has prevailed over totalita rianism, the market over the command economy. But history rushes on. Pent-up reliGious, ethnic, racial, linGuistic and tribal antaGonisms, lonG repressed by the Cold War, now bu rst out of bitter memory to tear nations apart. And forces more potent than politics and war remold our lives. While leaders declaim and commentators second-Guess, scie nce and technoloGy reconfiGure the planet. The Cycles of American Historywas perhaps one of the last books actually composed on that antediluvian instrument, the typew riter. This foreword is beinG written on that Glorious invention, the word processor. The computer and the microchip constitute a permanent revolution. It is a revoluti on no one can stop. Henry Adams’s “law of acceleration” hustles us on into the millen nium. Not for two centuries has the structure of society been in such flux. Two hundred years aGo the farm-based economy was beGinninG to G ive way to the factory-based economy—the time of upheaval we know as the Industrial Revolution. Today we are livinG throuGh another aGe of profound structural transformation—the shift from a factory-based to a computer-based economy. Because the Computer Revolution is far more peremptory and far more compressed than the In dustrial Revolution, it is far more traumatic. We are movinG into a time of turbulence. It will be marked by drastic reproGramminG of attitudes, ideas, institutions and minds. What impact does this profound structural transform ation have on the American political cycle? The cyclical hypothesis, which I i nherited from more distinGuished historians, Henry Adams and my father, finds a pattern of alternation in American history between neGative and affirmative Government—that is, between times when voters see private action as the best way of meetin G our troubles and times in which voters call for a larGer measure of public action. In the twentieth century, this alternation has take n place at thirty-year intervals: on the public-activism side, for example, Theodore Roo sevelt and the ProGressive era in 1901, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal in 193 3, John F. Kennedy and the New Frontier in 19g1. There is no mystery about the periodicity. Thirty years is rouGhly the span of a Generation, and the Generational successi on has been the mainsprinG of the cycle. If the thirty-year rhythm held, the 1992 election was scheduled to brinG about a swinG toward affirmative Government. That indeed appeared to take place with the victory of the children of Kennedy—Bill Clinton and Al ore—ju st as thirty years earlier the incominG Kennedy Generation had been the children o f Franklin Roosevelt, and thirty years before that the incominG FDR Generation had b een the children of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. What happened to the activist phase supposed to beG in in 1993? By 1994 Newt inGrich and his Contract with America seemed to fo reshadow an epoch, not of proGressivism, but of conservatism. ThouGh the Contract soon evaporated and inGrich
himself eventually departed from politics, the 1990 s have plainly not been the liberal era forecast by the cyclical hypothesis. The cyclical rhythm operated within the framework l aid down by the Industrial Revolution. The Computer Revolution is establishinG a new framework with as yet unknown effects on the political process. The rhyth m may in time be restored, but in the short run the new aGe is a scary voyaGe into uncharted waters. Even while the country prospers in the present, it is filled with forebodinG about the future. This accounts for the otherwise inexplicable coexistence in America o f relative contentment with pervasive anxiety. It accounts too for the prolonGa tion of the conservative phase of the cycle. Other factors have contributed to the derailinG, or deferrinG, of cyclical chanGe. The major previous interruption of the thirty-year rhythm followed the aGonizinGly divisive 18g0s. The traumatic years of the Civil War, Recons truction, presidential assassination and presidential impeachment left a drained nation eaGer for rest and recuperation. The 19g0s were aGonizinGly divisive too. Popular disGus t for the violence and acrimony of those unbridled times drained the nation once aGain and kept the ReaGan counterreformation alive and well into the 1990s. The end of the Cold War is another contributinG fac tor. In days of crisis, power flows from ConGress to the Presidency. When crisis subsid es, ConGress seeks to reclaim lost powers. Harsh reactions aGainst executive aGGrandiz ement take place. As the impeachment of Andrew Johnson followed the Civil Wa r, so the impeachment of Bill Clinton followed the Cold War. The Senate acquitted Johnson, but even the failed i mpeachment had serious consequences for the Presidency. A brilliant younG political scientist at Johns Hopkins, Woodrow Wilson, concluded that ConGress had now bec ome “the central and predominant power of the system” and called his influential book of 1885 Congressional Government.Presidential leadership lanGuished in the more tha n thirty years between Lincoln’s assassination in 18g5 and the (accidental) accession of Theodore Roosevelt to the White House in 1901. Thos e years of a diminished Presidency led James Bryce to write the famous chap ter inThe American Commonwealthtitled “Why reat Men Are Not Chosen Presidents. ” Has the Computer Revolution abroGated the political cycle? I doubt it, for problems have a way of imposinG themselves on politics. The republic could afford an interlude of conGressional Government in the nineteenth centu ry when the United States was a bit player on the world staGe. But the very nature of the challenGes facinG American Presidents in the century ahead calls for stronG ex ecutive leadership. Today the United States is the world’s only superpo wer. It must take the lead in the search for remedies aGainst war and terrorism and w eapons of mass destruction, aGainst poverty and disease. Nor is neGative Govern ment—dereGulation, devolution and privatization—likely to cure our troubles at ho me. From race relations and the reform of education to the extension of health care , the protection of the environment and the modernization of infrastructure, our proble ms call for public initiatives. The cycle, thouGh derailed, is not necessarily dead. If the Computer Revolution is so drastically transforminG our world, what is the point of the reissue of a book published in 198g? This is re ally to ask: What is the point of history at all? The past is not an irrelevance. “We cannot escape h istory,” said Lincoln. History is to the nation what memory is to the individual. As an individual deprived of memory
becomes disoriented and lost, not knowinG where he has been or where he is GoinG, so a nation without an understandinG of its past will be disabled in dealinG with its present and its future. “In times of chanGe and danGer,” Jo hn Dos Passos wrote inThe Ground We Stand On,soninG, a sense of“when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s rea continuity with Generations Gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.” The shape of thinGs to come, said H. . Wells, “bec omes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Education must of course equip people for the Computer Revolution. Schools and universities must train new Generations to cope with the relentless cascade of diGitized innovation. At the same time, education must establish a moral and intellectual context that wil l teach new Generations how to use hypertechnoloGies with prudence and wisdom. Educati on, if it is to outstrip catastrophe, must enable us to preserve old values as well as to surmount new challenGes. We would err badly if we put all our resources into technical education. The microchip will not abolish the need for analysis, for insiGht and for judGment. Schools and universities must equip the younG not only with the ability to operate the miraculous new instrumentalities but also with the will to use them for the Greater benefit of the human adventure. Education must enco mpass ends as well as means. That is why the liberal arts must remain the heart of the educational enterprise. The liberal arts remind us that human wisdom lonG p redates the Computer Revolution—that, smart as we think we are, we still have thinGs to learn from Plato and from Confucius, from AuGustine and from Machiavelli , from Shakespeare and from Tolstoy. The liberal arts balance past and future, drawinG on the experience of our ancestors to meet challenGes darkly ahead. Technical education helps us to live with the micro chip. The liberal arts help us to live with ourselves. They unmask what Hawthorne called the Unpardonable Sin—self-pride, self-love. They offer the Great entry into that mos t essential of human qualities, self-knowledGe. They instruct us, and stimulate us, and provoke us, and chasten us. They’remind us that, as Paul said, we are members o ne of another. The FoundinG Fathers were steeped in the classics. That is one reason they were able to invent a constitutional democracy that is s till vibrant and stronG after two centuries dominated by the law of acceleration. As we move into the mysterious twenty-first century, we need to know how to run computers . We need even more to know how to run ourselves. Arthur M. SchlesinGer, Jr. February 1999
THIS BOOK offers a historian’s reflection on the past and th e future of the American experiment. The word ‘experiment’ is used advisedly . The men who established the United States of America believed that they were trying something new under the sun. The idea that a democratic republic might endure ra n against all the teachings of history. The vindication of this idea, said Washing ton in his first inaugural, was “an experiment intrusted to the hands of the American p eople.” The Founders were far from sure of success. Can we be certain even today that the experiment has succeeded? At least it has lasted for two centuries, and that is something. Section I of this book raises general questions abo ut the ebb and flow of American history. One essay describes the continuing tension between two divergent conceptions of the nation: does America mean commitment to a national experiment? or consecration of a national destiny? A second ess ay outlines a theory of the cyclical rhythms that characterize American politics. Sectio n II deals with the United States and the great world beyond—foreign policy and the Ameri can character; national interests, moral absolutes and human rights; the rise of the A merican empire and the causes of the Cold War. Section III deals with the United Sta tes as a domestic polity—the role and the prospects of government, of political parti es and of the Presidency. Underlying these reflections is the conviction that the cumulative increase in the rate of change has been decisive in the making of the modern world. The last three centuries have seen dazzling revolutions in scientific theory and dazzling advances in the translation of theory into technology. The world ha s moved faster than ever before, and until recently it has moved fastest of all in the U nited States. The American Revolution and the Industrial Revoluti on began at about the same time. From the start Americans have rejoiced in unremitting technological change. Innovation was unrestrained by custom or tradition or timidity. “I simply experiment,” said Emerson, the quintessential American, “an endl ess seeker, with no Past at my 1 back.” It is hardly surprising that the first historian to emphasize the accelerating velocity of history should have been an American. “The world did not double or treble its movement between 1800 and 1900,” Henry Adams wrote in 1909, “but, measured by any standard known to science—by horsepower, calori es, volts, mass in any shape,— the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were fully a 2 thousand times greater in 1900 than in 1800.” Acceleration left man and mind far behind. Adams’s own education, the best an American could get in the nineteenth century, was, he concluded in the early twentieth c entury, a total waste; the Harvard freshman he was in 1854 probably stood nearer to th e thought of the year 1 than to that of the year 1904. “The law of acceleration,” Adams said, “definite and constant as any law of mechanics, cannot be supposed to relax its e nergy to suit the convenience of 3 man.” Adams’s appeal to scientific law was both romantic and ironic. His notion that history could be reduced to mathematical physics was a delu sion, or perhaps an elaborate joke. Still, as metaphor, his point is powerful. William James, who patiently explained to Adams why the second law of thermodynamics did not apply to history, agreed that humanity had experienced only the most preliminary impact of science and technology. “Think how many absolutely new scientific conceptio ns have arisen in our own
generation,” he wrote, “how many new problems have been formulated that were never thought of before, and then cast an eye upon the brevity of science’s career. . . . Is it credible that such a mushroom knowledge, such a gro wth overnight as thiscan represent more than the minutest glimpse of what th e universe will really prove to be 4 when adequately understood? No! our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.” Humans have lived on earth for possibly eight hundred lifetimes, most of which they spent in caves. “Some five or six score people,” Ja mes said, “if each . . . could speak for his own generation, would carry us away to the black unknown of the human 5 species, to days without a document or monument to tell their tale.” Movable type appeared only eight lifetimes ago, industrializatio n in the last three lifetimes. The static societies that consumed most of human history perce ived no great difference between present and past. Society subsisted on the existing stock of wisdom for a long time. The functional need for new ideas was limited. Trad ition was sacred and controlling. The last two lifetimes have seen more scientific an d technological achievement than the first 798 put together. The shift to a swiftly changing society has not greatly affected the surfaces of daily living. The New York of the 1 980s resembles the New York of the 1930s more than the New York of the 1930s resembled the New York of the 1880s. But the shift has profoundly altered inner perceptions and expectations. It has placed traditional roles and institutions under severe and incomprehensible strain. It has cast off reference points and rituals that had stabilize d and sanctified life for generations. It has left the experience of elders useless to the tribulations of the young. Children, knowing how different their own lives will be, no longer look to parents as models and authorities; rather, parents now learn from their c hildren. The pace of change grows ever faster. A boy who saw the Wright brothers fly for a few seconds at Kitty Hawk in 1903 could have watche dApollo IIland on the moon in 1969. The first rockets were launched in the 1920s; today astronauts roam outer space. The first electronic computer was built in 1946; to day the world rushes from the mechanical into the electronic age. The double heli x was first unveiled in 1953; today biotechnology threatens to remake mankind. The firs t atomic bomb fell in 1945; today the world shudders under the threat of nuclear obliteration. The acceleration of change compels us to perceive l ife as motion, not as order; the universe not as complete but as unfinished. For peo ple of buoyant courage like William James the prospect was exhilarating. Henry Adams sa w change as irreversible, but contemplated the future with foreboding. Others, in the midst of flounder and flux, strive to resurrect the old ways. The hunger for stability is entirely natural. Chang e is scary; uncharted change, demoralizing. If the law of acceleration is not to spin the world out of control, society must cherish its lifelines into the past. That is w hy, even in this age of whirl, so much of the old abides. People instinctively defend the sel f against disruption. “In this matter of belief,” said James, “we are all extreme conservati ves.” When new facts finally drive out old opinions, we take care to graft the new perception on the ancient stock with “a 6 minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity.” Everyone becomes his own Landmarks Preservation Commission. We seek with Eliot the still point in the turning world. Traditions endure, from which, consciously or not, we draw sustenance. It is not fashionable these days for historians to talk about ‘national character.’ But of course persisting traits, values, folkways, create a palpa ble national identity. The reader of Tocqueville is constantly astonished to recognize the lineaments of modern America in his great work, though Tocqueville visited a predom inantly agricultural nation of thirteen million people a century and a half ago. Even Creve coeur still astonishes by the