John Wisniewski: Why did you choose to compile and edit “The Selected Letters of John Kenneth Galbraith”?
Richard Holt: The appeal to start the project was my interest in understanding the development of American liberalism in the United States starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt up to the present. There are few individuals who participated so intimately in shaping modern liberalism in the United States than John Kenneth Galbraith. Starting in the late 1940s he founded with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Walter Reuther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eleanor Roosevelt the liberal organization, Americans for Democratic Action, with the goal to keep Roosevelt’s New Deal vision alive and well during the postwar era. In the 1950s, Galbraith worked hard and long on Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaigns writing many of major speeches. In the 1960s he helped pave the way for Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society. There’s also his heroic efforts against the Vietnam war that put him against Lyndon Johnson, which came to a head at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. Without Galbraith, the history of American liberalism would be very different today.
I should also mention that the scholarly work behind the project was daunting. After discussing the project with Galbraith’s son, Jamie, who is also an economist, I went to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston where most of his correspondence is stored. I found hundreds of boxes of letters. That started me off. Over four years, in a variety of places, I found over 40,000 letters dating from 1932 to 2006. It was quite a scholarly Odyssey, but a rich and rewarding one.
John Wisniewski: What major economic and political issues did you find that concerned Galbraith the most in his letters?
Richard Holt: There were three. The first was his commitment to defend the liberal wing of the Democratic Party during the last half of the 20th Century. This meant supporting what he considered to be Roosevelt’s major contribution, which was leading the United States through what Galbraith called the “greatest transition in modern capitalism” – a transition from an economic system in which citizens were expected to bear the full cost of their own helplessness or misfortune to one in which a strong and compassionate country would temper a market system that’s forever on a roller coaster of uncertainty. Roosevelt’s response was New Deal programs like unemployment compensation, old age pensions, public education and employment opportunity that worked hand and hand with the private sector to make life better for the American people — collectively Galbraith called these programs the heart of American liberalism. And I believe that comes out clearly in the Letters volume.
The second issue that concerned Galbraith the was to alleviate poverty both at home and abroad and to do what was needed to improve the overall wellbeing and standard of living for Americans. As we know from his book, The Affluent Society, his answer was a
balance between private and public goods.
And third, his absolute hatred of war, particularly the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts. He believed that the best way to deal with conflict abroad and insure international peace and stability was through negotiations. By the way, Galbraith was the one who wrote the line in President Kennedy’s Inaugural speech in January 1961, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
John Wisniewski: The book features Galbraith’s correspondence with many prominent figures in history. Were there any highlights for you?
Richard Holt: There are many. The first that comes to mind is the very special relationship he had with Jackie Kennedy. There’s over a hundred letters between Galbraith and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis starting in the early 1960s up to a few days before her death in 1994. Caroline Kennedy would only allow me to publish three of her mother’s letters. I was fortunate to get those. I believe that after Jack Kennedy’s death in 1963, Galbraith felt the need to protect her and be something of a father figure, though some of the letters between them are flirtatious. Jackie and Galbraith had a deep and loving friendship. I wish I could have published more of their correspondence, but what I have in the volume is quite wonderful.
The second most telling correspondence in the volume is with Lyndon Johnson. Galbraith started writing speeches for Johnson in the 1950s. The day after Kennedy was shot in Dallas, he met with Johnson and was asked to write the first draft of Johnson’s address to a joint session of Congress to bring the country together after the tragic killing of Kennedy. That draft is published for the first time in the volume. Johnson did not use it and instead use a speech written by Ted Sorensen. I believe the reason why is because of the emphasis Galbraith put on the United States not getting involved with Cold War battles abroad like Vietnam. We find in the letters it was the Vietnam war that finally led to the breakup of the friendship and influence Galbraith had with Johnson. Galbraith’s influence with Johnson’s “Great Society” was large. Galbraith looked at the Great Society programs as an extension of Roosevelt liberalism and he played an important role in developing and defining them. The downfall of their relationship was over Vietnam. He told Johnson that if he kept American troops in Vietnam and escalated the war his political career would be over. He was right. The letters between Galbraith and Johnson are historically some of the most important in the book.
The volume is really a Who’s Who in the World during the second half of the 20th Century with correspondence with Henry Kissinger, all the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Bill Buckley, economists Milton Friedman and James Tobin, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, US Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Reagan, and a very extensive correspondence with Bill Clinton. The number of prominent figures he knew and corresponded with is endless.
Let me say a little bit more about his letters with Bill Clinton. During the last years of his life Galbraith carried out an extensive correspondence with President Clinton and advised him to write a book on governing the United States. Galbraith initially was willing to write an outline for the book but was too sick to do so. Yet, he continued to push Clinton to write the book. In a letter dated in 2002 he said it would be “a compelling book” that would give the American people “an enduring source of knowledge, experience, and political achievement regarding the strengths and weakness and need for reform” in governance. The importance of the book, Galbraith felt, would be to warn the American people of “a candidate [that] comes to office without requisite judgment and experience.” Too bad the book wasn’t written before the last presidential election.
John Wisniewski: Can you tell us something about your new writing projects?
Richard Holt: My new writing project is just an extension of the Galbraith letters volume. I’m writing a book on the creation of modern conservatism and liberalism in the United States. Intertwined in my story are two of America’s greatest political iconoclasts, William F. Buckley, Jr. and our hero in the letters volume, John Kenneth Galbraith. What makes the story intriguing is that Buckley and Galbraith became friends in the 1960s as they fought passionately for their political causes. As the bitter political fights raged between conservatives and liberals, Buckley and Galbraith worked together to show how those with very different political views could strengthen the democratic process by open forums and debates that allowed all sides to be heard and publicly challenged within a framework of mutual respect, humor, and tolerance. Though their friendship did not change their political views, it made them aware that the best way to deal with differences in a tumultuous and noisy political world is through continued and honest dialogue that shows respect toward those you disagree with. The process of political change became as important to them as the final outcome. Lessons that we can still learn from today, I dare say.
John Wisniewski: How did Galbraith and Buckley change the dynamic of Twentieth Century politics?
Richard Holt: The postwar rise and establishment of the conservative and liberal movements is a fascinating part of American history, for this period engendered some of the most passionate debates, divisive squabbles, and political clashes that still dominate our political discourse. The issues were urgent: The Cold War and the arms race, defining the scope of public welfare under Johnson’s Great Society, the meaning of religious liberty and the future of civil rights. Buckley and Galbraith often found themselves at the center of many of these controversies as unofficial spokesmen for conservative and liberal causes. For example, in the 1950s Galbraith set out to extend Roosevelt liberalism to pave the way for John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society — liberal programs in which Galbraith played an important role in developing and defining. He was also the foremost spokesperson in the Democratic Party against the Vietnam War and played an important role in recruiting both Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern to run against the party’s Cold Warriors. He also predicted the demise of American liberalism with the election of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who he felt were taking the party away from its Roosevelt liberal roots toward the economic and social policies of “neoliberalism,” which he believed would hurt the party and make it indistinguishable from moderate conservatives. Though critical of the direction Clinton was taking the Democratic Party, Galbraith considered him a friend and was pushing him to write a book on American politics at the end of his life. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to help Clinton finish the book. The direction of the liberal movement and the Democratic Party might have been very different today.
Though seventeen years younger, Buckley emerged as Galbraith’s redoubtable adversary by leading the conservative charge not just against Roosevelt liberalism, but also against the policies of moderate Republicans and those on the far-right. As founder of the most influential conservative magazine in America, Buckley was able to solidify a beachhead for the conservative movement that led to the political triumph of Ronald Reagan. By his sheer youthful energy and toughness, Buckley refashioned American conservatism from a staid political force to a powerful and sustainable movement. Buckley was able to define a broad-based acceptance of conservatism during the postwar period in the United States by working hard to get rid of the “kooks” in the movement and criticizing those that refused to stand up for the fundamental principles of American conservatism given to us by conservatives like Robert A. Taft during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Where Roosevelt saw the New Deal policies as providing “security” for all Americans “regardless of station, or race or creed,” Taft saw only the threat of big government and oppression. Roosevelt’s “internationalism” was another issue that drove them apart. Taft became the leading figure against Roosevelt’s international “idealism” and claimed that his “grand designs” were naïve. To the very end of his life, Taft worked against Roosevelt’s liberal vision. After Taft’s death in 1953, Buckley, as a young man, picked up his cause and kept swinging Taft’s conservative hammer against Roosevelt’s liberalism, conservative “kooks” and moderates for fifty years. Some believe Buckley, as the courageous David, was able to finally slain the philistine liberal Goliath with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
As political iconoclasts, both Buckley and Galbraith fought the “conventional wisdom” of their time. Buckley started with God and Man at Yale, which assailed his alma mater for drifting away from its Christian foundation and embracing liberalism; Galbraith launched his criticism of laissez-faire economics and the Cold War mentality of the Democratic Party in the 1950s. As I mentioned, they both passionately believed in their causes but recognized and appreciated the inherent tensions of people holding conflicting political views in a democracy. To hold an opinion deeply is no doubt to throw feeling into it, but both of them had the ability to step back and develop a critical distance to prevent personal feelings from overriding civility and tolerance toward others who held contrary views. This commitment to civil political dialogue, I believe, is why they were so successful in shaping the conservative and liberal movements during the postwar era in the United State and what made them great Americans.