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.