10/28/2013 09:38 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2013

The Schlesinger Legacy

My father, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., spent his life in a struggle to help shape a liberal society in the United States. As a public intellectual, a Democratic Party stalwart, and a renowned American historian, he plunged into the ideological battles of his day in an effort to push for progressive changes during a professional career that lasted from 1945-2005. My brother, Andrew, and I, have just completed editing a book of his letters (The Letters of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.), which is being published this week by Random House. What is most striking about this 60-year compendium of correspondence is the breadth, persistence and consistency of my father's liberal concerns -- for affirmative government, public expenditures, civil rights, diplomacy instead of militarization. No matter whom he communicated with, high or low, famous or fans, he stuck unswervingly to his convictions that liberal solutions to our domestic and foreign policy problems were the most worthy and practical answers.

Some of my father's most disputatious exchanges in his epistolary archives revolved around his leadership of the national liberal anti-Communist movement -- his belief that one could be both a good liberal and anti-totalitarian. His involvement brought him into confrontations with many prominent figures of his era, literary as well as political. On the right, for instance, there was the English writer Rebecca West, who publicly defended Senator Joseph McCarthy's "crusade" against Communists in the U.S. McCarthy had attacked my father as being pro-Communist. On the left was the playwright Lillian Hellman, who tacitly embraced Stalinism as a defensible philosophy and opposed any liberal anti-Communism. In his exchanges with both women, my father made clear his differences with their positions, arguing for democracy as the anchor point between the extremes of fascism and communism -- the "Vital Center," as he entitled one of his most notable books.

But he also opposed outlawing the Communist Party as some in Congress desired. He broke with Hubert Humphrey, otherwise a close liberal ally, over such legislation. He wrote Humphrey that "never before in [our] history has a political party been outlawed," and, in any case, "we licked a strong Communist movement to a frazzle by democratic means." He criticized campus organizations at his own university, Harvard, for barring Communist-tinged speakers from speaking. "Is [the students'] faith in themselves and in democracy so feeble that they fear subversion," he wrote The Harvard Crimson. In another dispatch, he warned a Harvard Dean about "the damage Harvard can do to free education by seeming to waver at all in its defense of the free exchange of ideas."

A trip he took in the early 1940s for the U.S .Office of War Information to the South tested other liberal principles. He encountered there for the first time the wretched conditions of American blacks. In letters that followed, he made a point to raise the issue of civil rights with the men and women in politics with whom he worked. As a speechwriter and advisor to the two-time Democratic presidential nominee (in 1952 and 1956), Adlai Stevenson, he gingerly suggested to the candidate in 1955 that he fight publicly for federal protection of voting rights. And, later, in a note to one of Stevenson's top aides, he expressed alarm over his hero's own seeming "coldness about the whole problem" of desegregation. But he forswore the other extreme on racial matters. In other letters, he opposed the notion of an American multiculturalism in which every ethnic and racial group retreated into its own enclave, a phenomenon he denounced in his 1991 best-selling book, The Disuniting of America.

He was most identified in the public eye by his relationship with John F. Kennedy. He first met Kennedy as a young congressman in 1946 at the house of the journalist, Joseph Alsop. Later Kennedy asked him to critique his draft of his book Profiles in Courage. My father dispatched a lengthy commentary to him that was notable for its detail and blunt advice. When Kennedy was preparing to run for the presidency, my father sent him a series of candid missives urging him to clarify his views on the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the matter of birth control and to project a more national "vision" in his campaign. After JFK's election, he agitated for the appointments of more progressives to his cabinet.

His most emotional letters came over the Vietnam War. He had a series of difficult and personal disputes with friends like Hubert Humphrey, Joseph Alsop and Henry Kissinger over the conflict. He sparred with Humphrey over the Vice President's embrace of the Johnsonian policies, calling his rationale "hectoring and evasive" while Humphrey retorted he was acting as "General Schlesinger." He exchanged fusillades with Joe Alsop over the latter's "public tantrum" regarding Schlesinger's anti-Vietnam stance. He lamented Kissinger's own "babbling about his honor" at a Salzburg press conference on whether he approved wiretapping subordinates. Kissinger called this "McCarthyism of the left."

One gleans from this cache of letters the pervasive sense that my father was a liberal conscience to many people. He was invariably appreciated for the clarity of his progressive convictions. And, indeed, many Democratic politicians sought him out to gain validation of their own liberal credentials. Remembered today mostly for his contributions to American history, his letters, too, are likely to shine in posterity.