U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Oscar Handlin (1915-2011) and the Emergent Culture Wars

This weekend, I heard that Oscar Handlin had passed away last week at the age of 95.  Handlin seems to be nearly universally celebrated online. In addition to admiring obituaries in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, bloggers from left to right are singing Handlin’s praises.

And rightly so.  Handlin virtually invented the field of immigration history in the 1950s.  His history of American immigration, The Uprooted, won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in history and helped solidify the mid-century notion that the U.S. was essentially a nation of immigrants.

Especially in the first half of his career, Handlin also distinguished himself as a public intellectual, writing numerous book reviews in general circulation publications, signing an ACLU-organized petition of scholars demanding that the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) cease operations, and, perhaps most significantly, playing an important role in the great immigration reforms of the mid-1960s.*

But my first impression of Oscar Handlin was very different. I first heard of Handlin when I arrived as a freshman at Harvard in 1982.  And though he was known as a great historian (though I didn’t really appreciate his achievement at the time), he had more recently made himself famous as a culture warrior (though we wouldn’t have used that expression at the time).

In many ways, Handlin’s political journey was typical of many Cold War liberals of his generation.  Although Handlin was a civil libertarian and a supporter of opening the gates to new immigrants, he was also a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War.  In December, 1967, as public opinion began to turn against the War, Handlin was one of fourteen scholars who co-wrote a report for the Freedom House Public Affairs Institute arguing that disaster would strike if the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam.** 

And it was Handlin’s continuing sense that the Vietnam War should have been won, and that the anti-war movement constituted a threat not only to freedom around the world but to the proper functioning of representative government at home, that led to his move to the right over the next two decades. 

Handlin’s political reputation at the time I arrived at college was based in part on his recent publication of The Distortion of America (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1981), a book which repeated Handlin’s arguments for the Vietnam War, accused recent American intellectuals of anti-Americanism and “neutralism,” and enthusiastically repeated the charges that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn had leveled against this country in his 1978 Harvard Commencement speech.   In many ways the book echoed the themes sounded by Handlin’s near-contemporaries among the first generation of neoconservatives.

And yet Handlin wasn’t really a neoconservative. While neoconservatives in the late 1970s and early 1980s spent as much time on domestic affairs–the unintended consequences of the welfare state, opposition to school busing, and the like–as they did on foreign relations, The Distortion of America is focused on foreign policy.  And the book was strangely stuck in the past.  Cobbled together from shorter pieces that Handlin had published earlier, Distortion‘s source material was overwhelmingly from the 1960s.  And though Handlin was hardly alone in remaining focused on Vietnam in the early 1980s (the decade brought us Rambo, after all), the case for the disaster of American defeat in Vietnam was, if anything, less coherent in 1981 than it had been in 1967.

Although widely reviewed, Distortion was not widely admired.  M.E. Bradford in The National Review gave it something resembling a positive review, agreeing with Handlin on his critique of the recent trahisons des clercs, but suggesting that Handlin, in retaining his Cold War liberal views, failed to grasp that liberalism itself had created the monster he wrote against:  “The way not to have Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and John Anderson [three politicians that Handlin singles out for criticism] is not to have Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” wrote Bradford.***

Other reviewers were less kind. James Neuchterlein in the New York Times, noted that “this is one of those books whose cause is better than its argument.”  “Even for those inclined to accept the author’s assumptions of national decline,” wrote Norman Graebner in the Journal of American History, “there are other ways of interpreting the trends in recent years.”  “Polemical in tone, long on assertion, and short on new argument or convincing analysis,” concluded Choice.****

Oscar Handlin would continue to be at least a fellow-traveler of academic conservatism over the course of the 1980s. In 1988, Handlin, alongside other former Sixties liberals like John Silber, would become a founding member of the conservative National Association of Scholars, one of the signature campus organizations of the culture wars.*****

And yet, unlike his student and Harvard colleague Stephan Thernstrom, Handlin never became a leading member of the new academic right.  Indeed, I’m not even sure if he ever considered himself a conservative.

Perhaps Handlin was a few years too old to really make the neoconservative journey and say “I used to consider myself a liberal, but thanks to the anti-war movement, I’m outraged by AFDC!”******

And perhaps The Distortion of America just hit the shelves a few years too early to take advantage of the culture war publishing boom of the mid-to-late 1980s.*******

At the end of the day, it is fitting that the remembrances of Handlin have largely focused on the first half of his career while largely passing over its second half.  Just as Charles Beard is better remembered as a founder of progressive historiography than as a Pearl Harbor truther, Handlin’s proper place in the history of our discipline–and our country–is as an interpreter of the immigrant experience and its meaning for this nation.

Nevertheless, his journey into the nascent culture wars is a fascinating instance of what the experience of the Sixties did to many liberals of his generation.

* On the anti-HUAC petition, see “250 Teachers Hit House Comittee,” New York Times, March 20, 1961.

** “14 Scholars Warn A Vietnam Means Bigger War,” New York Times, December 20, 1967.  Freedom House was an interventionist organization originally founded by Dorothy Thompson and others in 1941 as a counterweight to Hitler’s propaganda operations. More on Freedom House can be found here.

*** M.E. Bradford, “The Nightmare of Oscar Handlin,” The National Review, May 14, 1982.

**** All of these quotes can be found in Book Review Digest. Hey…it’s a blog post!

***** Joseph Berger, “Scholars Attack Campus Radicals,” New York Times, November 15, 1988. For an interesting account of Silber’s early career as a leading liberal on the UT Austin campus, see Doug Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity.

****** With apologies to Michael Bérubé.

******* The Distortion of America was reissued in a revised edition in 1996, which was probably a bit too late to take full advantage of the culture war boom…though it would have arrived just as the neoconservatives were beginning to focus more thoroughly on foreign policy. Unfortunately, my library doesn’t have a copy of this version.  It seems to have been less extensively reviewed.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post Ben, but of course you knew I’d like it. If you want to read Handlin at his culture wars best (with his second wife Lilian), check out this article: Lilian Handlin and Oscar Handlin. “America and its Discontents: A Great Society Legacy.” The American Scholar 64 (1995): 15-37. The Handlins introduce the article, which fits nicely in the neoconservative new class vein of thinking, by deriding the National Museum of Natural History for supposedly lauding a cannibalistic New Guinea tribe. They seem incredulous that anyone would be dissatisfied with America, and poke fun at those who might oppose Eurocentrism. It reads neocon all the way.

  2. Thanks for this post, Ben. I had no idea about Handlin’s later politics. I wonder, have you read his Truth in History? I’ve only read a review of it, but it sounded like an early entry into the arguments over history and empiricism that exploded in the later 80s and early 90s.

  3. Great post, Ben. In college, I studied under Stephan Thernstrom and worked as his research assistant. who despite our political differences was a superb scholar and a gentleman in all our interactions (he wrote a letter of reference for me for grad school). He told me that Handlin apparently started his graduate work thinking he was going to be a medieval historian. I always thought that was interesting.

    MY current advisor, Hasia Diner, has said that someone needs to write a biography of Handlin. He lived something of a double-life, as a “mainstream” historian who wrote about many immigrant groups and immigration more broadly, and a Jewish community activist, who was chairman of the advisory board of the American Jewish Yearbook (published by the American Jewish Committee) and wrote “Adventures in Freedom,” in 1954, celebrating the then 300 year old history of American Jewry.

    I was not aware of his later role in the culture wars and found that very fascinating. But I guess that reinforces your point that he is better remembered for the first half of his career than for the second.

    Also, it’s interesting how “The Uprooted” is still celebrated publicly, even though it has been thoroughly discredited academically, especially by John Bodnar’s “The Transplanted,” whose title is a direct repudiation of Handlin’s work. But I think you and the reviewers are right that the over-arching theme of “The Uprooted,” that immigration is more important to American history than the frontier, is valid and and significant.

  4. @Andrew H: Thanks for the reference! I figured that you’d probably have a more thorough knowledge of this aspect of Handlin than I do. So I’m particularly glad you liked the post.

    @andrew: I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read Truth in History. I suspect if I’d arrived at grad school even a year earlier I might have. But when I took the methods course, That Noble Dream had just come out. My sense is that the Novick supplanted the Handlin on a number of syllabi around that time.

    @David: Thanks for the memories of Thernstrom. You’re right, of course, about Handlin. The academic supplanting of The Uprooted took place decades ago and perhaps contributed to Handlin’s sense of bitterness about the academy in the 1980s…though I should emphasize that “perhaps.” Obviously I agree with you that Handlin would make a fascinating subject for a biography, but I’m certainly not writing one here, nor have I done the work to draw any such conclusions firmly. At any rate, my comparison with Beard was chosen in part because Handlin remains extraordinarily significant even if his work has been supplanted. And Handlin’s impact on the 1965 immigration reform (which is rightly thought of as a Good Thing by historians and non-historians alike) makes his significance more than simply historiographical.

  5. This is clearly off the point of this point, but when I think of 1950s immigration history I also think of John Higham’s Strangers in the Land (Rutgers, 1955). Here’s what Higham said in his bibliographic note on Handlin’s Uprooted:

    The Uprooted…subtly reverses the emphasis [on old immigration and the patterns of a frontier society more than urban ones]. An imaginative blend of psychology, history, and personal sympathy, The Uprooted is always challenging if not at every point convincing. A succeeding volume, The American People in the Twentieth Century…carries further Handlin’s central theme, the story of group-consciousness.”

    Higham goes on to note that he reviewed The American People in a 1954 issue of the Mississippi Valley Historical Review (XLI, pp. 544-545).

  6. I think _The Uprooted_ plays roughly the same role in immigration historiography as Stanley Elkins’s _Slavery_ does is the historiography of slavery; it became the book that defined the dimensions of the debate from the 1960s through the 1980s, mostly by creating a standard against which to argue and a basis to assert a new kind of historical agency, to see immigrants and slaves as creators of culture possessing powerful community cultural resources. Like Elkins (and so much post-war social thought), Handlin emphasized the destructive and psychologically destabilizing forces that acted upon people and remade them in a new image. While his immigrants weren’t “Sambos,” like Elkins’s slaves, the image of “the uprooted” spoke to similar questions of anomie, psychological anxiety, and cultural displacement–some of the same concerns we see running like a thread through American thought and culture in the 1950s. I wonder how much Handlin’s book was shaped by postwar thinkers like Hannah Arendt, David Riesman, or the Adorno of The Authoritarian Personality et al.

    I second Tim on HIgham’s Strangers in the Land, a book that appears far less dated than Handlin (despite its clear Cold War provenance)!

  7. The Handlin – Elkins comparison is really interesting, Dan. I don’t know much about the intellectual provenance of The Uprooted, but Elkins’ analogy between slavery and the concentration camp experience was deeply influenced by Bruno Bettelheim, who was also a key figure for Arendt’s understanding of Nazism in Origins of Totalitarianism.

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