What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr

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Reinhold Niebuhr, 1963

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.

1.

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…


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