U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Do You Still Read Schlesinger’s Vital Center (1949)?

Andrew’s post “Do You Still Read Nash?” provoked a fascinating and long debate that raised lots of issues about insiders writing about their own group and the role of politics in one’s understanding of the past. But it also got me thinking about other works that people refer to but maybe no longer read. So in the spirit of Andrew’s post, I’d like to ask about Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s book, The Vital Center (1949). The book’s subtitle, “The Politics of Freedom,” suggests the wider argument. Schlesinger’s book defends and promotes the postwar consensus around the international policies of FDR. Suggesting that communism resulted in totalitarianism (which showed the bankruptcy of the left) and that the social organicism of paleo-conservatives yielded another kind of fascist totalitarianism (which showed the bankruptcy of the right), Schlesinger placed the vital center as the mean between these two failed extremes. It was the cold war liberal vision that avoided both kinds of totalitarianism while promoting liberty around the world.

I first heard the term “vital center” in a lecture on the larger political context of postwar liberalism. While acknowledging the cold war liberal (and therefore foreign policy) application of the term, the professor emphasized that this consensus bled over into domestic issues as well, so much so that Eisenhower and even (to some extent) Nixon fell within this Vital Center. My professor was not alone in borrowing the term while ignoring the book. In essence, he took the notion of vital center and made it the center not between fascism and totalitarianism but between conservatism and the New Left.
Schlesinger himself strongly objected to such a formulation and sought to reign in the definitional unclarity. But as he did so his efforts exposed the originally partisan function of the term. For example, he wrote in the introduction to the Transaction edition of the book in 1998: “‘Vital center’ refers to the contest between democracy and totalitarianism, not to contests within democracy between liberalism and conservatism, not at all to the so-called ‘middle of the road’ preferred by cautious politicians of our own time. The middle of the road is definitely not the vital center: it is the dead center. Within democracy the argument adheres to FDR’s injunction to move always ‘a little to the left of center.'”
Put that way, the book seems more of a primary source written by a Cold Warrior in the middle of ideological battle, which of course it is, rather than a usable secondary source today. So I ask: Do you still read Schlesinger’s Vital Center?

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Absolutely, but as a vital primary source for understanding a key strain in Cold War liberalism (as you suggest).

    I have trouble imagining anyone treating it as a living text, but I suppose there was that revival of Cold War liberalism a few years back on the part of historians like Kevin Mattson. But I’d like to think that even they would turn to Niebuhr rather than Schlesinger.

  2. Yes, the Vital Center is a must-read, but only as a primary source–as perhaps the best expression of cold war liberalism. In fact, I think all of ASJ’s major works read best as primary sources. Take a much more recent work, “The Disuniting of America.” It nicely represents how uncomfortable cold war liberals were with the multicultural turn of later 20th-century liberalism. But reading it now, 20 years after publication, it doesn’t really offer any insights except as representation of an earlier moment.

    On another note: ASJ was not being entirely honest when he wrote in 1998 that the Vital Center was not about domestic politics, since he aimed his rhetorical arrows more at the “doughface progressivism” of Henry Wallace than at international communism. ASJ was unwilling to accept as legitimate the notion that the threat of communism was overblown and was likely to distract from building a social democracy at home.

  3. As phd student it’s on my exam list in U.S. intellectual history for next week. Yes, it’s read as a primary work.

  4. I had hoped there would have been a more vigorous remembrance of the Vital Center in 1999–the 50th anniversary of its publication, but, alas, it was left basically to Mattson and Beinart to inject ASJ and Niebuhr back into a discussion about liberalism. All to say, I find the book fundamental to understanding the early cold war intellectual debates.

    On Andrew’s point regarding ASJ’s relationship to “building a social democracy at home” I wonder if you actually give ASJ too much credit for having a full-blown domestic vision. He strikes me in the Vital Center as not caring much about tax policy and social welfare and far more concerned about, as he writes, “the soft and shallow conception of human nature” peddled by progressives. We know ASJ has an acute fear of totalitarianism and even if he failed to recognize a connection between anti-communism and stunted social progressivism, he probably would not have changed his position as anti-progressive. I think in this area he shared JFK’s view on domestic politics–as Kennedy expressed to Nixon in one quite memorable remark.

  5. In fact, I think all of ASJ’s major works read best as primary sources.

    I remember reading The Age of Jackson early in graduate school and thinking that Schlesinger’s admiring portrait of Andrew Jackson, which I think was supposed to sound like FDR, sounded to me disturbingly like Ronald Reagan (who was still president at the time).

    Reading that book certainly didn’t get me up to speed on the latest scholarship on Jacksonian America but it told me a whole lot about a certain 20th-century image of the presidency and the political malleability of that image.

    (I should add that Schlesinger wrote so many books that serve as wonderful primary sources because he was both a terrific writer and, in certain ways, a prisoner of his times. The single most pathetic piece of plagiarism I ever discovered was in the undergraduate thesis of a varsity athlete at Princeton who had cut-and-pasted long passages from A Thousand Days. Usually when a student copies from someone else it just looks wrong: the writing is suddenly coherent and, well, different. In this case I took one look at it, said “that’s Schlesinger!” and got the book out of the library and quickly found the passages in question.)

  6. Never have read The Vital Center, but I do still like to point out to my students that _The Age of Jackson_ only mentioned Indian Removal in passing on one page! I agree that much of Schlesinger’s work serves better today as primary source than as secondary monographs. Same with (in many cases) Richard Hofstadter and Christopher Lasch.

  7. Ray: Good point. ASJ didn’t outline his domestic vision in Vital Center. He just assumed that supporting the basic tenets of the New Deal was the only respectable domestic political position to take. But my point is that “Vital Center” was pitched to render domestic ideologies such as progressivism beyond the pale of respectability. And in so doing, in his Cold War concern that the American spirit be hardened to its international struggle, I think he narrowed the spectrum in ways that would ultimately do damage to his beloved New Deal. He helped cut down his logical allies at the knees.

  8. For my part, I’ve read ~around~ ASJ’s *Vital Center*. Particularly enlightening is K.A. Courdileone’s 2000 JAH article, “Politics in an Age of Anxiety: Cold War Political Culture and the Crisis in American Masculinity, 1949-1960.”

    Based on that article and spot reading in VC, I’ve never read it as anything other than a primary document (despite whatever historical content it may contain).

    But VC is important to me because it captures something of the kind of liberalism I attribute to M.J. Adler his band, his community of discourse, that upheld the great books idea as fundamental to vigorous discourse about ideas in a democracy.

    So I was planning on having a copy of VC at my side during my next chapter rewrite on the Adler project—a chapter that pivots Adler as a mid-century liberal who disliked, with emotion, the changes to culture and politics that took place from 1965-1975, but never turned toward neoconservatism—except insofar as Adler maintained a cordial relationship with W.J. Buckley, Jr. And thanks, by the way, David, for making me aware of that quote from the introduction to the 1998 Transaction edition. It will help me, somewhat, in making my case.

    – TL

Comments are closed.