Arthur M. Schlesinger, 86, Publishes New Book

Historians in the News

Teresa K. Weaver, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 05 Sept. 2004

"History is lived forward but is written in retrospect," wrote the late British historian C.V. Wedgwood."We know the end before we consider the beginning, and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only."

Good historians often cite the wisdom of Wedgwood. They know that all history is subjective --- human beings are involved, after all.

"Historians are prisoners of their own experience," says Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr."They are of their own times, like everyone else. . . . On one hand, you have to deal with irreversible facts: America declared its independence in 1776 and so on. But the arrangement of the facts --- the choice of priorities --- reflects the individual temperament of the historian and it reflects the times.

"In my own lifetime," he adds,"American history has been revised to include the role of women, the role of minorities, to do justice to the horror of slavery and so on."

At 86, Schlesinger bills himself as a"proud and unrepentant" liberal. Court historian for the Kennedys some 40 years ago, Schlesinger enters the contemporary political melee with a slim yet provocative book called"War and the American Presidency" (W.W. Norton, $23.95). It is a typically erudite history and a particularly impassioned argument against President Bush's concept of preventive war ---"a fatal change in the foreign policy of the United States," Schlesinger writes.

Bush"repudiated the strategy that won the Cold War --- the combination of containment and deterrence carried out through such multilateral agencies as the U.N., NATO and the Organization of American States. The Bush Doctrine reverses all that. The essence of our new strategy is military: to strike a potential enemy, unilaterally if necessary, before he has a chance to strike us. War, traditionally a matter of last resort, becomes a matter of presidential choice."

From his home in Manhattan, Schlesinger says he is prepared for the debate that surely will follow in this supercharged political climate.

"A great Dutch historian used to say, 'History is an argument without end,'" says Schlesinger."I enjoy intellectual combat."

A 1938 graduate of Harvard, Schlesinger has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for"The Age of Jackson" in 1946 and 'A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House' in 1966. He breathes rarefied air among American historians, partly because of his exceptionally elegant writing style and partly because of his sheer longevity.

"Arthur was publishing major books before I was born, and I'm over 50," says David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr.

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