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What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr

The Irony of American History

by Reinhold Niebuhr, with an introduction by Andrew J. Bacevich
University of Chicago Press, 174 pp., $17.00 (paper)

A fog of know-nothing ideology, anti-intellectualism, cronyism, incompetence, and cynicism has, for eight years, enveloped the executive branch of the United States government. America’s role in the world and the policies that should shape and maintain it have been distorted by misguided decisions and by willful misinterpretations both of history and of current events. That fog is now being dispersed, and the vast intellectual and managerial resources of the United States are once again being mobilized.

A blessing of this time of liberation and hope is that serious works of political analysis and philosophy may contribute to the new administration’s approach to its daunting agenda of global and national problems. That Barack Obama has made clear his admiration for one of the books under review—Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History—is in itself reassuring.1

It will take time to develop once again the elements of a coherent national program that most Americans can agree with and support, not to mention Congress, where the recent lack of a single House Republican vote for the President’s economic stimulus package makes a mockery of bipartisanship on important matters. In the meantime, thinkers and writers of various political persuasions offer a rich harvest of ideas and suggestions.


Andrew J. Bacevich, in his introduction to the republished edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, calls it “the most important book ever written on US foreign policy.” Certainly it would be hard to think of another book from the 1950s that retains, nearly sixty years later, both its compulsive readability and so much of its relevance. The elegance, strength, and charm of Niebuhr’s writing invite quotation at every turn. And behind the prophetic style lie wisdom, Christian charity, and a profound understanding of both history and the ways of human beings, individually as well as in groups.

The Irony of American History was published in 1952, the year in which Niebuhr suffered a stroke that limited his public activities for the remaining nineteen years of his life although he continued to teach and to write books. Primarily a Protestant theologian, Niebuhr, as a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928, also became a social reformer. From 1928 to 1952, as a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, he was an influential voice on a wide range of issues, including politics, ethics, and foreign policy. He was a strong supporter of United States intervention in the war in Europe, but in 1946 was a drafter and signatory of the Federal Council of Churches statement that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “morally indefensible.”

Niebuhr warns of “our dreams of managing history” as a source of potentially mortal danger for the United States. To quote Andrew Bacevich again, his book “provides the master key…to understanding the myths and delusions that underpin this new American view of statecraft.” By 1952 the United States had reached a unique position of world power and influence. In such circumstances “dreams of managing history” seem understandable, if unwise.

Prosperity and the country’s almost unlimited abundance were dominating forces in the growth of America. Niebuhr foresees the danger of an excessive national pursuit of gratification. In 1952, a powerful agent of mass gratification, television, was rapidly invading American homes. “Television,” he writes, “may represent a threat to our culture analogous to the threat of atomic weapons to our civilization.”

In 1952 the ideological-military-political standoff with the Soviet Union was the defining phenomenon of American policy. As a Christian socialist and a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action, Niebuhr detested the Soviet system as a monstrous tyranny disguised as a utopian democracy. The struggle against it, however, was also the cause of a major irony: “…The necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument for the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation.” “Thus an ‘innocent’ nation finally arrives at the ironic climax of its history.”

Niebuhr’s main indictment of the “communist movement against which the whole world must now stand on guard” rests upon

the cruelties which follow inevitably from the communist pretension that its elite has taken “the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom,” and is therefore no longer subject to the limitations of nature and history which have hitherto bound the actions of men.

The delusions of grandeur implicit in such an idea rule out once and for all the Soviet Union’s claim to be the master of historical destiny. At the same time, along with his fellow members of the ADA, Niebuhr deplored McCarthyism and other attacks on civil liberties in the name of anticommunism.

There has, from the country’s earliest Puritan years, Niebuhr wrote, also been “a deep layer of Messianic consciousness in the mind of America,” which the unprecedented scope and influence of America’s post–World War II power did little to discourage while vastly complicating the country’s involvement in world affairs. As to the universal values that the United States supposedly holds in trust for mankind, “we were, of course, not immune to the temptation of believing that the universal validity of what we held in trust justified our use of power to establish it.” Niebuhr quickly adds, “Except in moments of aberration we do not think of ourselves as the potential masters, but as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.” During the last eight years we have learned a good deal about “moments of aberration” and have, as a result, fewer illusions about our ability to manage historical destiny.

The fateful turning point came during and after World War II when “it…became apparent that we could neither be really secure in an insecure world nor find life worth living if we bought our security at the price of civilization’s doom.” The unparalleled scope of American power created “the temptation to become impatient and defiant of the slow and sometimes contradictory processes of history…. Man cannot rise to a simple triumph over historical fate.”

The capacity to make sacrifices and to sustain endeavors without complete certainty of success is an essential element of Niebuhr’s prescription for America’s pursuit of peace and justice in the world. He even seems to anticipate the national security policy of George W. Bush:

We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.

A democracy can not of course, engage in an explicit preventive war. But military leadership can heighten crises to the point where war becomes unavoidable.

In our recent case, of course, the heighteners were civilians.

Discussing the weaknesses of the American political and economic system, Niebuhr, again prophetically, writes:

The lip service which the whole culture pays to the principles of laissez-faire makes for tardiness in dealing with the instability of a free economy…. Some believe that…a recurrence of such a catastrophe [the Great Depression of the 1930s] is impossible; but it is not altogether certain that this is true…. We remain an irritatingly incalculable element in world stability.

Niebuhr often uses the word “pretension” to describe a particularly undesirable state of mind for a powerful state. “The pretensions of virtue,” he writes, “are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power.” Pretension blinds nations “to the ambiguity of all human virtues and competencies,” not to mention “the larger meanings of the drama of human existence beyond and above the immediate urgencies.” And again:

This tendency is accentuated in our own day by the humorless idealism of our culture with its simple moral distinctions between good and bad nations, the good nations being those which are devoted to “liberty.”

In our own day also.

It is impossible to summarize a book so strong and yet so subtle, in which every word has meaning. I have tried to extract a few of Niebuhr’s ideas that seem particularly relevant today and to give some idea of the grandeur of his vision and style. In his peroration he suggests

the possibility and the necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities; to a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities….


Andrew Bacevich is a devoted disciple of Niebuhr, and his latest book is very much in the Niebuhrian spirit, which he applies with great skill and originality to the problems, mostly of our own making, that now beset the United States. Bacevich retired from the US Army as a colonel and became a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. An earlier book, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2002), assailed the myth of the US as a reluctant superpower and urged it to act openly as a benevolent leader in the world. His son Andrew, to whom his present book is dedicated, was killed in Iraq in May 2007. A traditional conservative, Bacevich’s style is compounded of military clarity, great eloquence, and invigorating overtones of Oliver Cromwell, Savonarola, and other inspired reformers. His book is both highly readable and enormously worth reading.

In Bacevich’s account of the descent of the United States few leaders go unscathed. Both successive administrations and the people have ignored common sense in their belief that an exceptionalist America is immune from the normal process of cause and effect. The result is the triple crisis—economic and cultural, political, and military—that has now befallen the country. A quotation from Niebuhr sets the tone for Bacevich’s book:

One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay that leads to death has already begun.

Bacevich traces the “crisis of profligacy” in which the American way of life has outstripped the means available to satisfy it. In 1947 America’s economic position was unrivaled. That moment soon passed. By 1950 the US had begun to import foreign oil, which Bacevich calls “the canary in the economic mineshaft.” The first negative US trade balance occurred in 1971; in 1972 US oil production peaked; and the 1973 “oil shock” caused a 40 percent rise in gas prices. Later in the decade Jimmy Carter’s warnings of “a fundamental threat to American democracy,” which he described as the “worship of self- indulgence and consumption” and a “constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility,” fell on deaf ears. By the 1980s the “Empire of Production” had become the “Empire of Consumption.” Carter does not escape, however. Of his statement that control of the Persian Gulf was a vital US interest, Bacevich writes, “not since the Tonkin Gulf Resolution has a major statement of policy been the source of greater mischief.”

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    On the back cover:

    [Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.
    —Senator Barack Obama
    (Obama’s comments originally appeared in an interview with David Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” The New York Times, April 26, 2007.)

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