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The Irony of American History

[Apr 14, 2015] The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr

Andrew J. Bacevich foreword is along is worth the price...
By -_Tim_- on December 26, 2006

The Irony of American History

In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr reviews the competing ideologies of communism and liberal democracy and finds that they both express an overly optimistic view of human nature.

History, of course, shows that these views are dangerously inaccurate. Against them, Niebuhr offers the Christian view that man must struggle to create justice in this world while realizing that ultimate solutions lie beyond his grasp: "every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history."

This book was written more than 50 years ago, during the hottest part of the cold war. Much of the book focuses on America's new (at that time) responsibilities as a superpower, and on the struggle between communism and democracy. Still, a modern reader will be surprised by the book's relevance to the current position of the United States in the world.

Niebuhr takes it as self-evident that, if there is one center of power and authority, "preponderant and unchallenged, ... its world rule would almost certainly violate basic standards of justice." He outlines the attempts made in the U.S. constitution to diffuse power among different institutions and create a system of checks and balances. He cites James Bryce's assessment: "The aim of the constitution seems to be not so much to attain great common ends by securing a good government as to avert the evils which will flow not merely from a bad government but from any government strong enough to threaten the pre-existing communities and individual citizens." This works well enough in the United States, but how can the dangers associated with hegemonic power be averted in an international context? Niebuhr, a realist, notes that "no world government could possibly possess, for generations to come, the moral and political authority to redistribute power between nations in the degree in which highly cohesive national communities have accomplished this end in recent centuries." However, he expresses optimism that the United Nations might serve as a forum in which national policies are subjected to the scrutiny of world opinion. He also suggests that a sense of community with others might serve as some kind of internal check on power. Establishing such a sense of community requires recognition of our own fallibility and of the valid elements in what are to us foreign cultures, outlooks, and systems of government.

Niebuhr sees that the strength of the United States after World War II has brought us into contact with very different societies, and "... neither their conceptions of the good, nor their interests, which are always compounded with ideals, are identical with our own." Lacking a deep understanding of the complexities of national aspirations and cultural differences, U.S. foreign policy often lunges between two extremes of offering economic advantage to secure cooperation or overcoming intransigence through military force.

Moreover, the United States has always considered itself an example for others to follow: "except in moments of aberration, we do not think of ourselves as the masters, but as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection." People in the United States do not lust for world power, although we feel the pride that accompanies power. Because we see our motives as idealistic, the anger that others feel toward us is hard for us to understand or accept. The great danger for the United States is an excess of hubris.

"Our moral perils are not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power. They are the perils which can be understood only if we realize the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon; and of power to become vexatious of the wisdom which directs it is trusted too confidently. The ironic elements in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom

David R. Cook on August 15, 2008

Niebuhr's warning to America

"Simply put, [this] is the most important book ever written on American foreign policy." Thus writes Andrew Bacevich in his introduction to the newly reissued book written by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1952. Bacevich is a Niebuhr scholar and author of the just published book, "The Limits of Power". He was largely responsible for getting "Irony" reissued.

The timing of this book becoming available, as well as of Bacevich's own book, couldn't be better. Niebuhr was a pastor, teacher, activist, moral theologian and prolific author. He was a towering presence in American intellectual life from the 1930's through the 1960's. He was, at various points in his career, a Christian Socialist, a pacifist, an advocate of U.S. intervention in World War II, a staunch anti-communist, an architect of Cold War liberalism, and a sharp critic of the Vietnam War.

The Irony of American History traces the course of American idealism and exceptionalism from its very beginnings in the providential thinking of the Pilgrims who settled Massachusetts. Written early in the Cold War, Niebuhr devotes much of his analysis to comparing and contrasting Marxian communism and the "bourgeois" liberalism, or liberal democracy of America. While he clearly argues that the liberal project of democracy offers more to the "common good" of the community than does Marxism, both have the seeds of their destruction in the illusions they hold. So-called "Niebuhrian realism" is the ability to see through such illusions as a condition for avoiding the worst pitfalls they carry.

Alas, one of the greatest of these pitfalls is the American tendency to suppose that we can manage history. As Niebuhr writes: "The illusions about the possibility of managing historical destiny from any particular standpoint in history, always involves, as already noted, miscalculations about both the power and the wisdom of the managers and of the weakness and the manageability of the historical 'stuff' which is to be managed." He goes on to point out that "In the liberal versions of the dream of managing history, the problem of power is never fully elaborated. ...On the whole, [American government] is expected to gain its ends by moral attraction and limitation. Only occasionally does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power and use it in order to gain the ideal ends, of which providence has made us the trustees."

Is it not painfully evident that we reached one of those "occasional moments" after 9/11 when "hysterical statesmen" - Bush and Cheney, et al - argued for a profound increase in the power to gain the "ideal ends" of bringing "freedom" to Iraq and the Middle East since we are the obvious "trustees" of this freedom?

Herein lies the element of "irony", the philosophical and spiritual core of Niebuhr's arguments. The first element of irony, Niebuhr points out, "is the fact that our nation has, without particularly seeking it, acquired a greater degree of power than any other nation of history" and we "have created a 'global' political situation in which the responsible use of this power has become a condition of survival of the free world."

He continues:

"But the second element of irony lies in the fact that a strong America is less completely master of its own destiny than was a comparatively weak America, rocking in the cradle of its continental security and serene in its infant innocence. The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire. We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the 'happiness of mankind' as its promise."

In Iraq we have met the enemy and "it is us". Not enough of us understood that "we cannot simply have our way" in the exercise of American power, which is thought to be essentially military power, to head off the folly in which we are buried and the prospect of a war without end.

Writing all this in 1952 with the cataclysmic dangers of the Cold War becoming a hot war, Niebuhr foresaw the increasing globalization of the world and the danger of not recognizing and accepting the limits of our power to bring freedom and happiness to the rest of the world, especially through military means.

This slender book of 173 pages is loaded with these prescient observations warning us clearly of the catastrophic dangers that can follow from a failure to understand the limits of our power of our exceptionalism and of the illusion that we can manage all this history to accomplish our supposedly moral and "good" ends for other nations.

When you finish reading this book you will then want to read Bacevich's book, "The Limits of Power", in which he essentially channels Niebuhr's understanding and traces the history of the last 60 years in which the Bush-Cheney foreign policy has become simply an extension of the direction American foreign policy has taken, primarily from the Reagan administration onward.

John Martin on November 11, 2008

Must reading for any person wishing to be informed on life

The "useful" rating I have received for all of my reviews to date is about 47%--now I know how John McCain feels! In an effort to raise my rating to an Obama-like 53% I have undertaken to review a book that has been republished for this election year.

Whenever a book by someone now deceased is re-published one should ask why, and when that author has written several books the additional question becomes why now. In the case of The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr the answers are clear from reading the back cover. There you will find Barack Obama saying that Niebuhr "is one of my favorite philosophers," (which is akin to a chocoholic saying, "Herseys is one of my favorite candy bars.") There is also a reference that the book has been cited by "politicians as diverse as Hilary Clinton and John McCain." So it's re-publication is about making a buck in this presidential year. Still it is well worth reading.

Niebuhr has some important things to say in this book, but not what people such as Andrew Bacevich, who wrote the Introduction for the book, claim. It is not, as Bacevich boldly states, "the most important book ever written on U.S, foreign policy." It is not even a book, in the sense that, as Niebuhr himself writes in the Preface, the substance of the book consists of two series of lectures given in 1949 and 1951. Also it is not about American foreign policy, or for that matter even about the irony of American history. What the book is really about is a critical examination of the differences between Communism, as it existed at that time and the Western political and economic system and values with which it was in conflict.

Niebuhr begins by calling attention to the idea of American exceptionalism. The founders of this country regarded themselves as God's new chosen people and set out to be different from, and better than, their European counterparts. Niebuhr expounds on two ideas, Calvinism that was predominate in New England, and Jeffersonian values that prevailed in Virginia. He also refers to Max Weber and the idea of a "Protestant Ethic." What developed was a "cult of prosperity" and eventually a reliance on technology to solve our problems. "The irony of America's quest for happiness," Niebuhr writes on page 63, "lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life more `comfortable,' only finally to run into larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it (sic) escaped the smaller ones."

Niebuhr devotes much of the middle of the book to an analysis of Communism. He notes that Communism developed primarily in those countries that were feudal, agrarian static societies (Russia, China and Southeast Asia). Even in Europe it made the most inroads in those countries--France and Italy--that retained the remnants of feudalism. He also castigates both Communism and Capitalism for taking too simplistic a view of reality. Communism assumes that the differences in wealth in the world are due to the manipulations of the owner class and if class differences can be removed everyone will live in a utopian world. In this view it overlooks the fluidity of the capitalist system in which people can readily move from a low economic status to a high one (the essence of the American Dream). Capitalism, on the other hand, assumes that the differences are due solely to differences in abilities, access to resources and personal ambition, ignoring in the process the effects of prejudice and efforts of the rich and powerful to control others and consolidate their power.

We have to remember that Niebuhr was writing at a time just after China became Communist and during the Korean War. Thus he shows what now we can call an undue concern for the spread of Communism in Asia. He also fails to foresee the collapse of Communism which occurred some 40 years later, the rise of Islam and the role that globalization has played in transforming the world.

A second important aspect of the book is Niebuhr's comments on values. For example the following quote is from page 63:

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint; therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."

This statement is as good a recipe for how to live as any I have ever read and by itself makes the book worth reading.

I have rated this book as five stars because I think it is vital reading for any thinking person, even given its somewhat dated ideas. But the book should be read slowly and carefully and even several times to get the full meaning.

Jonathan Zasloff

3.0 out of 5 stars Loses Its Power With Age, May 9, 2010

Everyone, it seems, is a Niebuhr fan -- most importantly President Obama, who specifically cited Niebuhr as one of his favorite writers. At least in the case of The Irony of American History, that's a shame, because more than a half a century after its appearance, it seems full of platitudes.

I suppose that for its time, Irony was important, because it stressed the idea that for all of America's vast power, it could not solve all of the world's problems, that attempting to uplift the developing world would bring us into contact with cultures that we did not (and still do not) comprehend, and that any triumph over Communism would be a long struggle. Niebuhr himself had superb judgment -- he opposed the Vietnam War early, from this sort of realist perspective. So in that sense, it is useful.

But from the perspective of the early 21st century, this seems a little trite. And even in its own time, it was hardly unique. Dean Acheson spent most of his time as Secretary of State saying the same sorts of things, and so did George Kennan. Now, in Irony, Niebuhr criticizes Kennan, saying (correctly, in my view) that Kennan's brand of realism so totally de-emphasized ANY moral considerations that it took out of American diplomacy what was best in America. But to say this, and little more, to me makes Niebuhr's position less rigorous than Kennan's. At least Kennan would have the guts to say that yes, focusing exclusively on the national interest might undermine humanitarian goals, but yes, that was necessary. Niebuhr would not. But then he should have tried to come up with a way of synthesizing his realism with his idealism -- really coming up with a unique brand of CHRISTIAN realism, which was, after all, what he was trying to do. He didn't.

Thus, we hear that we need to be cautious, that Communism is evil, that liberalism can be naive, that we need to be engaged in the world but not expect too much. All true. But certainly someone of Niebuhr's intellectual power could do better than that; in fact, he DID do better than that. Just not in this book.

I admit that one of Irony's tropes really annoyed me: his confident assertions about the nature of "liberalism", "liberal ideology", and "liberal societies." Yes, they can be naive; yes, there is a tendency within SOME strands of liberalism to assume that fundamental conflicts of interests and values can be eliminated. But not all -- by far not all. Much of liberalism grew out of a very acute sense of power and of the tendency of power to grow and become monstrous. That's why these brands of liberalism resisted governmental power, insisted on the separation of powers, focused on the strength of civil society, etc. At times, Niebuhr's description of liberalism becomes a caricature. And he was better than that. (For more on this brand of liberalism, one might start with the work of Judith Shklar, e.g. Liberalism without Illusions: Essays on Liberal Theory and the Political Vision of Judith N. Shklar.).

I suppose that the book is still saved by its final section, which really departs from the foreign policy section, and talks about human nature and the concept of irony. For Niebuhr, irony occurs when the very strength of a person or a community contains within it that person's or community's greatest weakness. A liberal state's humanitarianism and idealism creates an inability to see viewpoint's different from its own, and a tendency to dismiss objections as based on improper motives. Irony is thus the essential human condition; it represents our inability to perfect ourselves because of the nature of the problem and of reality. Niebuhr suggests that this is the core meaning of Original Sin, which other Christians might object to, but to me, as a Jew, I find very compelling and quite ecumenical (Judaism contains this idea in its notion of the human soul containing both the Good and the Evil Inclination, with both being necessary for human development, growth, and greatness, as well as failure and destruction.). This last section really gives Niebuhr the theologian, the identity for which he justly became famous.

Maybe the best way to look at this book is as a primary source, as an example of mid-20th-century intellectuals searching for a way to justify America and American values against the twin dangers of Communism and McCarthyism (to his credit, Niebuhr goes after rabid anti-Communists in this book, which in 1952, when it was written, was no easy task). And as mentioned before, I would also see the last part as a particularly moving and elegant theological essay.

But, as Andrew Bacevich claims in his introduction, "the most important book on US foreign policy ever written"? Not a chance.

Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER VINE VOICE on April 9, 2015

This Nation Under God

Reinhold Niebuhr had initially titled this book, published in 1952, "This Nation Under God". The publisher wanted the title changed because a United States Senator had published a book in 1950 with Niebuhr's proposed title. This Nation Under God After discussion, Niebuhr and the publisher settled on the now-famous title by which the book is known, "The Irony of American History". The book is based on lectures Niebuhr delivered with the first and final chapters added later. These two additional chapters make the heaviest use of the concept of irony although irony figures throughout the book. One of the difficulties of the book is understanding, through Niebuhr's long explanations, what irony is. Another difficulty is understanding why Niebuhr finds American history ironic. Niebuhr states that to understand the irony of a situation, one must share a certain mindset. The irony that Niebuhr finds in America's history and position in the world must have been all-too-apparent in the early 1950s. With the markedly different world situation and the deflationary views about the United States held by many Americans, it is much harder to find irony in Niebuhr's depiction. But today the concept of irony is widely used and too much used. Nearly everyone thinks ironically. Perhaps there is now too much of it.

Niebuhr wrote this book following the end of WW II during the Korean War, and the beginning of the Cold War. The President was still Harry Truman. This book is short but densely packed and difficult to read. Niebuhr was a minister and a speaker with a compelling way with memorable words. With all the quotable passages in this volume, the book is highly complex. On the most immediate level, the book examines the role of the United States in the fight against the Soviet Union and communism. That aspect of the book remains highly important even if dated. On a broader level, the book examines American history and the promise and limitations of American life as the United States became the leader of the free world. Some of the irony Niebuhr finds results from, with Europe in shatters, the United States being thrust into a world leadership role against communism that it neither wanted nor expected. Niebuhr finds a sense that the United States had not lived up in every respect to the innocence and beacon of hope of its founding and that it was viewed with skepticism and distrust by many other nations. There was a question of the moral capability of the United States to fight communism. On the deepest level, ""The Irony of American History" reflects Niebuhr's complex Augustinian theology with its teachings of original sin, skepticism about humanity's ability to resolve its problems, and realization of human finitude.

This book is strongly and unmistakably anti-communist in contrast to the more ambivalent views Niebuhr expressed in earlier books, written during the Great Depression and During WW II. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics);The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense Niebuhr goes at great length into what he sees as the evil of Soviet communism and its designs over the world. Niebuhr also sees it as the unmistakable duty of the United States to fight communism, through the threat and use of the atomic bomb if necessary. His position became basic to the doctrine of containment and it seems to me to echo an interpretation of foreign policy during the Eisenhower years as discussed in a recent book, "Ike's Bluff" by Evan Thomas, Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World Niebuhr argues that America did not want and in some respects was ill-equipped for the responsibility it faced. But courage and the values of civilization required the United States to persevere.

Niebuhr criticized communism on many grounds, the most basic of which was its materialism and its denial of any transcendent character to life or of individual freedom. Niebuhr also found the individualistic ideology of the United States inadequate in some respects from the communal, momentous nature of its task. He praised the United States for its division between economic and political power which allowed the spread of democracy and the ability on all hands to compromise. Niebuhr was also troubled by what he saw as various "idealisms" in the United States and formulated his teaching of Christian realism in response. Niebuhr sharply criticized Christian leaders and others who were reluctant on moral grounds to risk war with the Soviet Union. He saw this as an abnegation of responsibility. Niebuhr also attacked the American tendency to believe that technology, the natural sciences and, especially, the social sciences were able to identify and resolve all human problems. He feared both America's tendency to rely exclusively on power and its tendency to rely on social sciences as replicating, in more modest form, some of the sins of the Soviet Union. According to Niebuhr, individuals and nations are not only creators in history, they are equally importantly created by it. There are always limitations in the finitude of any situation. In a chapter called, "The American Future" Niebuhr said:

"The difficulty of our own powerful nation in coming to terms with the frustrations of history, and our impatience with a situation which requires great exertions without the promise of certain success, is quite obviously symbolic of the whole perplexity of modern culture. The perplexity arises from the fact that men have been preoccupied with man's capacity to master historical forces and have forgotten that the same man, including the collective man embodied in powerful nations, is also a creature of these historical forces. Since man is a creator endowed with a unique freedom, he 'looks before and after and pines for what is not.' He envisages goals and ends of life which are not dictated by the immediate necessities of life. He builds and surveys the great cultural and social structures of his day, recognizes the plight in which they become involved and devises various means and ends to extricate his generation from such a plight. He would not be fully human if he did not lift himself above his immediate hour, if he felt neither responsibility for the future weal of his civilization, nor gratitude for the whole glorious and tragic drama of human history, culminating in the present moment."

Niebuhr is ultimately a religious thinker who envisages every human society and situation as finite and fallible from a transcendent perspective. In its necessary fight against the Soviet Union -- which Niebuhr saw as evil -- the danger was that the United States would be swallowed by and unable to recognize the limitations of its own perspective. While this position is religiously based, it could largely be restated in a secular perspective. Niebuhr's thought became highly influential, with its insights, difficulties, and ambiguities, to religious and political thinkers from across the spectrum of opinion in the United States. With the War in Vietnam and some of the apparent excesses of the Cold War, Niebuhr himself probably modified his own position yet again late in his life.

"The Irony of History" is a perplexing, thoughtful book that mingles philosophy, theology, history, and then-current events in a provocative, challenging way. The references to the "ironic" character of history perhaps are dispensable.

The books strictures against communism and support of the Cold War are dated, now controversial, but still valuable. The book is at its best when it is broadest, as an Augustinian, contemporary theology and as a portrayal of the finite character of human effort. This book is included as part of a new Library of America volume devoted to Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics: (Library of America #263), and I am reviewing separately the four titles included. The LOA volume has been provided to me for review.

Richard E. Noble VINE VOICE on July 27, 2011

The Hobo Philosopher

In this book the author presents his Holy Trinity of interests. First is "faith." Second is the Cold War. Third is American Foreign Policy.

On the matter of "faith," the author uses every opportunity to inject his notions for the necessity and inevitability of faith and its rightful supremacy over logic and reason. But he employs a bit of "doublespeak" in his application of the word faith. The author deliberately obfuscates the term.

There is the generic faith that we all have and share: the faith that there will be a fresh sun up in the sky tomorrow; the faith that life will get better; the faith in the goodness (or corruption) of our fellow man; the generic faith that we all have and exhibit in our lives. Without such a generic faith we would all laps into mental illness of one form or another.

But this generic use of the word "faith" is not the same as the term we use to describe our personal religious belief: the faith that some of us might have in Jesus Christ or others in Jehovah or Allah; the faith that is used to describe a set of dogma and teachings advocated by some particular religious group.

Because I have faith that tomorrow will be a better day, does not mean that I believe in the fundamental tenets of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or any other organized belief system - even in a God for that matter.

The generic faith that we all savor for our peace of mind has no necessary connection to any organized religion, Bible, Koran or the like. And certainly no connection to the Judeo/Christian or Calvinist elitist notions defending dominance and the exceptionalism of the "elect."

The author deliberately or inadvertently confuses these two types of faith and transposes one for the other to suit his theological purposes and to enhance his case that faith supersedes reason and any attempts at logical thinking.

This argument is specious. On this point the author is purposely using this to confuse the minds of his readers or he is legitimately confused himself. I would suggest the latter.

On the Cold War the author's ideas and arguments are very in the 50-ish mode. He tries to make the case against Utopian Marxism by equating Marx and his Darwinian evolution predictions to the actual state of affairs that occurred in Russia under the totalitarian dictatorships of Lenin and then Stalin.

Though I am no Communist I recognize that this argument is also specious.

In the process of denigrating Russian Communism in the 50's Cold War tradition, he then becomes an apologist for American Capitalism - in a backdoor manner. Our American Capitalists were wiser and more understanding of the demands of Labor than were the Capitalists in Europe.

On page 56 and 57 the author points out how American Capitalists learned the value and necessity of paying workers higher wages. He even points out that they did not learn this freely but had the notion forced upon them by labor unions. But the author then goes on to compliment the American Capitalists on their ability to learn and accept this notion as truth and to incorporate higher wages as a permanent part of the American Labor/business reality and philosophy. This is childishly na´ve and contrary to the historical fact.

The American Capitalist adapted to the overwhelming pressure from American Labor but organized and made a long term somewhat clandestine (but really no secret) agenda to undermine the American Labor Movement. Their plan has been very successful. You see the results today in our lost exports, vanishing industrial base, high unemployment, disappearing middle class and tumbling standard of living.

I think that what we are seeing all around us today proves that this magnanimity and theoretical adaptability to higher wages suggested by the author was never by any stretch of the imagination the true situation.

You can find out what really happened in this regard by reading any number of books about the American Labor Movement and its battles with the American capitalist. My book "America on Strike" America on Strike: A survey of labor strikes in America would be a very good primer on this subject.

On America's foreign policy and its misguided notions and intentions, the author finally begins to shine. I could pick one intelligent and prescient quote after another as the author analyzes America's good decisions, bad decisions and horrible mistakes.

Primarily he brings the problem down to attitude and misunderstanding on the part of America and its leadership of basic human nature and what can be accomplished and what can't be accomplished.

On page 146 the author states:

"We might be tempted to bring the whole modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is "preventative 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 preventative war. But military leadership can heighten crises to the point where war becomes unavoidable."

Little did Reinhold know how accurate his hypothesis would be.

That Reinhold Niebuhr could make such a statement in the year 1952 gives credence to the man's insight into American foreign policy.

On this third level, I would recommend the book. But the same notions and advice can be found elsewhere by other authors with a more straight forward attitude and an easier, more readable writing style.

Richard Noble - The Hobo Philosopher - Author of:

"Tenement Dwellers" Anecdotes - Lawrence, Mass