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'The Cycles of American History' (Houghton Mifflin: $18.95; 473 pp.)

October 26, 1986| Robert Dawidoff | Dawidoff teaches history at the Claremont Graduate School

President Reagan has just speculated that the United States could prove the first exception to the historical fate of great powers: ". . . I should say that America, with its people and its freedom, which is unique in the world, could be the first exception to the historical rule about which you asked." In this new book, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. explores, among other things, exceptionalist views like these and places them in the long view of American history. The Founding Fathers hoped that their Republic might prove an exception to the general rule but thought it prudent to count on making the best of the rule rather than on proving to be the exception. The tension between the realistic views of the Founders and the exceptionalism of the likes of President Reagan is but one of the cycles in American history that Prof. Schlesinger elucidates. This volume contains his reflections upon our history, his considered account of how it has worked. As always with Schlesinger's books, the history offers an alternative to what he dislikes in contemporary public life. Given contemporary public life and his views of it, this book is a powerful alternative. Schlesinger's history is no armchair diversion, it offers an injunction and an invitation and a case for the engaged consideration of American public life in the light of American history.

"The Cycles of American History" collects 14 essays (revised for this volume) that treat three large concerns. Two essays offer an interpretive theory of our history, six consider aspects of our foreign relations, six domestic political life. The subjects include the general American approach to foreign policy, moral absolutes and human rights as foreign policy objectives, the origins of the Cold War, the question of American imperialism, Solzhenitsyn's challenge to the West, American political parties, the role of government in the economy, the "Imperial Presidency," the vice presidency, presidential reputations and leadership in democracy. All are broached within a context of the shifting cycles of value and opinion and policy that, in Schlesinger's view, characterize our history.

Schlesinger has created a framework of interpretation in which change and repetition, the simultaneous presence of which baffles every student of every history, play the prominent part in our collective past that we know them to play in our lives. He suggests that our history works in rough 30-year cycles that alternate between eras of public purposes and private interest. These are swings in national mood that affect not only government but values and expression, that characterize national life. The effect of this theory is at once clarifying and subtle. It gives our political history a pattern and yet does not rescue the present moment from choice.

Schlesinger construes an American tradition and its counter tradition to inflect these large cycles and interact within them. He admits that his definition of "tradition" suggests where his bias lies and with characteristic urbanity invites "other historians to reverse the terms. . . . Let them betray their own biases." The tradition is founded in American Calvinism and in the classical heritage of the Founders and can be summarized as an awareness on the part of the makers of America of that old- fashioned thing the human condition : "The idea of America as an experiment, undertaken in defiance of history, fraught with risk, problematic in outcome. . . ."

This tradition came in time to vie with a more rhapsodic, redemptive counter tradition of Americans as a chosen people with a manifest destiny, a mission that lifted them above the ordinary ground rules of history, rules the tradition always kept in mind. Schlesinger places our history within the shifts between these outlooks. Schlesinger himself suggests that inspiring as the counter tradition is, "Americans can take pride in their nation, not as they claim a commission from God and a sacred destiny, but as they fulfill their deepest values in an enigmatic world."

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