Recollections of a Liberal

Historian H. Stuart Hughes's engaging memoir of a left-leaning life

TOWARD the end of this engaging memoir, the author, now in his 70s, claims the ``distinction, if such it be, of having become obsolete not once but twice'': first, as a belated specimen of a vanishing social class; second, as a ``cosmopolitan, polyglot man of letters affiliated with the democratic Left.'' More briefly, H. Stuart Hughes is an old-fashioned liberal Democrat who grew up in an old-fashioned conservative, upper-class Republican family. But if the outward features of the life he recounts belong to another time, Hughes manages to describe the problems and pleasures of growing up, growing away, and growing old with a freshness and charm that convey the perennial appeal of these subjects. Hughes was born in 1916 into a family that had distinguished itself in legal and political affairs. His father, Charles Evans Hughes Jr., served as solicitor-general in the Hoover administration, only to be forced to resign when his father, Charles Evans Hughes, became chief justice of the Supreme Court a year later, the climax of a career that included serving as an associate justice from 1910 to 1916, running for president in 1916, and being secretary of state under Warren Harding.

Raised, along with his slightly older brother and a pair of much younger sisters, in accordance with the customs of an American version of the British gentry, Hughes attended a series of private schools, accompanied his family on trans-Atlantic pilgrimages to European cultural sites, and tried to live up to what was - and what was not - expected of him. This entailed a certain measure of academic achievement, success in one's chosen profession, some notion of public service, and a touch of ``manliness'' to be acquired on the mountain trails of New England and the playing fields of boarding school.

It was, as Hughes ruefully recalls, a world of ``hierarchies'' from which Roman Catholics (with the exception of the Kennedy boys, John and Joseph Jr.), Jews, blacks, and working people were, for the most part, excluded by design, habit, or both.

For Hughes, growing up involved broadening his horizons, albeit gradually. During his stint as an enlisted man in the months before Pearl Harbor, he found himself at ease with fellow recruits from a wide variety of social, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. A former pacifist, he found himself arguing the case for American intervention, which became a moot point after Pearl Harbor.

From there, it was on to the fledgling Office of Strategic Services, where Hughes helped make the case for regarding the Soviet Union as a valuable ally, and later, the State Department, where he tried to damp down some of the more fiery cold-war, anti-Communist rhetoric. He remains uncertain to this day as to whether he was right.

A kind of centrist liberal, Hughes supported Social Democrats in Europe, but withdrew his support for Henry Wallace's Progressive ticket at home when he realized how heavily influenced it was by the communist line. In a moment of characteristic reflection, he writes, ``I may be typical of a perplexed minority that stood somewhere between the anti-Communists and those commonly called fellow travelers. It may be that quite a few veterans of the Wallace campaign were as unsure as I was whether to be ashamed or proud of what we had done.''

While teaching at Harvard University, Hughes was stigmatized for his leftist leanings. He went on to pursue a reasonably distinguished career as a historian at Stanford, then Harvard again, and finally at the University of California, San Diego. He wrote a number of books, the most famous of which, ``Consciousness and Society,'' was published in 1958. In 1962, he ran a quixotic campaign for the Massachusetts senatorial seat in a field that included Ted Kennedy, Edward McCormack, Lawrence Curtis, and George Cabot Lodge. Later, he found himself caught between a political rock and a hard place as an early opponent of the Vietnam War, who was increasingly appalled by the strong-arm tactics of student radicals.

Political perplexity, a growing interest in feminism, an extended program of psychoanalysis to help cope with feelings of personal and professional inadequacy are recurrent themes, as Hughes, modestly self-deprecating as only the socially self-assured can be, looks back on a life for which he feels no need to make great claims.

He married late: first, to a Frenchwoman from an austere Protestant family, then to an American Jewish graduate student more than 20 years his junior, who is also a historian. Although he had experienced McCarthyism, Hughes was freshly shocked when he and his new wife came up against Harvard's anti-nepotism policy, which had the effect of discriminating against academically qualified wives of faculty members. He found refuge in California.

Hughes writes gracefully, with a remarkable knack for vividly recalling the impressions of his early childhood. By and large, he eschews the path of self-justification as well as the trappings of self-importance. His story, simply and unaffectedly told, speaks for itself.

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