Friday, July 10, 2009

Do Historians Make Good Politicians?

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., was a professor of history at Harvard University. When Kennedy won the 1960 election, one of his first moves was to invite Schlesinger to be part of his administration. Schlesinger would have great influence on Kennedy's decisions, somewhat in domestic policy, but mainly in foreign policy. Contemplating how different psychological views of human nature can lead to different governmental forms, Schlesinger wrote:

The very concept of leadership implies the proposition that individuals can make a difference. This proposition has never been universally accepted. From classical times to the present day, eminent thinkers have regarded individuals as no more than the agents and pawns of larger forces, whether the gods and goddesses of the ancient world or, in the modern era, race, class, nation, the dialectic, the will of the people, the spirit of the times, history itself. Against such forces, the individual dwindles into insignificance.

Schlesinger is here comparing two views of history: some see history as the inevitable unfolding of social and historical trends; others see history as a series of significant choices made by individual people. The view that humans never make significant decisions is often called "determinism": if history is an inevitable unfolding of social forces, then we are all merely pawns in the grand game. Schlesinger continues:

Determinism takes many forms. Marxism is the determinism of class. Nazism the determinism of race. But the idea of men and women as the slaves of history runs athwart the deepest human instincts. Rigid determinism abolishes the idea of human freedom - the assumption of free choice that underlies every move we make, every word we speak, every thought we think. It abolishes the idea of human responsibility, since it is manifestly unfair to reward or punish people for actions that are by definition beyond their control. No one can live inconsistently by any deterministic creed. The Marxist states prove this themselves by their extreme susceptibility to the cult of leadership.

Here we must remember that Schlesinger served in the Kennedy administration, when Marxist governments, or at least governments which called themselves Marxist, were a serious threat to world peace. Additionally, there were still a few people who still took seriously the idea of trying to organize a nation around Marxist principles. Although Marx, and his version of communism, have been largely discredited now, we can still learn from these reflections on politics and psychology. Applying the principle further, Schlesinger notes:

More than that, history refutes the idea that individuals make no difference. In December 1931 a British politician crossing Park Avenue in New York between 76th and 77th Streets around 10:30 PM looked in the wrong direction and was knocked down by an automobile - a moment, he later recalled, of a man aghast, a world aglare: "I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry." Fourteen months later an American politician, sitting in an open car in Miami, Florida, was fired on by an assassin; the man beside him was hit. Those who believe that individuals make no difference to history might well ponder whether the next two decades would have been the same had Mario Constansino's car killed Winston Churchill in 1931 and Giuseppe Zangara's bullet killed Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Suppose, in addition, that Adolf Hitler had been killed in the street fighting during the Munich Putsch of 1923 and that Lenin had died of typhus during World War I. What would the 20th century be like now?

Human beings make significant choices, and those choices have consequences, for good or for evil. This is the lesson of history which Schlesinger attempted to translate (successfully or unsuccessfully) into American policy during the Kennedy administration.