"[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. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard."-President Barack Obama Forged during the tumultuous but triumphant postwar years when America came of age as a world power, The Irony of ...
"[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. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard."-President Barack Obama Forged during the tumultuous but triumphant postwar years when America came of age as a world power, The Irony of American History is more relevant now than ever before. Cited by politicians as diverse as Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Niebuhr's masterpiece on the incongruity between personal ideals and political reality is both an indictment of American moral complacency and a warning against the arrogance of virtue. Impassioned, eloquent, and deeply perceptive, Niebuhr's wisdom will cause readers to rethink their assumptions about right and wrong, war and peace. "The supreme American theologian of the twentieth century."-Arthur Schlesinger Jr., New York Times "Niebuhr is important for the left today precisely because he warned about America's tendency-including the left's tendency-to do bad things in the name of idealism. His thought offers a much better understanding of where the Bush administration went wrong in Iraq."-Kevin Mattson, The Good Society " Irony provides the master key to understanding the myths and delusions that underpin American statecraft. . . . The most important book ever written on US foreign policy."-Andrew J. Bacevich, from the Introduction
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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, Elbert Thomas, had published a book in 1950 with Niebuhr's proposed title. 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 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 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 including "Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics)"; and "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, 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 way. The book's strictures against communism and support of the Cold War are dated, now controversial, but still valuable. The book is at its best as an Augustinian, contemporary theology and as a portrayal of the finite character of human effort. This book is included as part of a Library of America volume devoted to Niebuhr, "Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics: (Library of America #263)". The LOA volume was provided to me for review.
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