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America’s Place in History According to Reinhold Niebuhr: The Irony of American History (2008 Ed.) Revisited

America’s Place in History According to Reinhold Niebuhr: The Irony of American History (2008 Ed.) Revisited

May 31, 20101675Views

By J. Lee

Since 9/11, the so-called “Niebuhrmania”[1] has generated fierce disputes IAMamong those who claim Niebuhr as their mentor to the point where Paul Elie laments that “a well-turned Niebuhr reference is [their] equivalent of a photo op with Bono (the lead singer of the Irish band, U2).”[2] To many who claim Niebuhr as their intellectual “precursor,” the late sage was a “prophet” who would concur passively with their preconceived weltanschauung without objections. However, Andrew Bacevich challenges such distorted notion when he defines the traits of a “prophet” as “requir[ing] persistence, tough-mindedness, and a commitment to principle… [for t]he prophet tells people not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. He (or she) does not pander or spin or sugarcoat.”[3] Indeed, throughout his life, Niebuhr was renowned for his candor and clear vision for his country’s place in history. Which leads one to ask, what lessons did the prophet try to impart through his writings, and how can we apply them in light of current issues facing us today?

Niebuhr, in his treatise, The Irony of American History,[4] saw statecraft and diplomacy in terms of Christian faith. He recognized his nation’s place in what he called the “vicissitudes of actual history”[5] as both its agent and its creator,[6] for it is a fallen entity borne of “original sin.” For this reason, Niebuhr was contemptuous of those who viewed the United States as the anointed “tutor of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.”[7] The recurrent ironies and ambiguities embedded throughout his manifesto find their ultimate expression in his overarching themes of “faith,” and “charity.”[8] Were he alive today, the prophet would have been aghast at the shallow and specious attempts by his supposed adherents to “crib [Italics mine] from [his] works to bolster their own preconceived convictions”[9], with no profound understanding of the sage’s true message. While the late philosopher would by no means advocate a return to isolationism and inaction, Niebuhr would urge the United States to be more circumspect and cognizant of its limits and foibles on world stage, for the prophet saw the world through “his passionate sense of the tragedy of life, irony of history and fallibility of humans.”[10] That is why his salient wisdom still retains its relevance to this day.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a Niebuhr admirer who knew him personally, writes that Niebuhr’s “emphasis on sin [during the course of, and in the aftermath of World War II] startled [his] generation … [Nonetheless, he] persuaded [Schlesinger] and many of [his] contemporaries that original sin provides a far stronger foundation for freedom and self-government than illusions about human perfectibility.”[11] Indeed, in The Irony of American History, Niebuhr saw acknowledgment of “original sin,” his contempt for the horse-fire-jump1so-called “American Exceptionalism,” along with his belief in “relativity of all human perspectives,”[12] as the greatest weapons against the “fierce and unscrupulous Don Quixote on a fiery horse, determined to destroy every knight and lady of civilization.”[13]

The Irony of American History was first and foremost concerned with disabusing the United States of its illusions of “innocency… [that] heightened the whole concept of a virtuous humanity [which] involve [it] in the ironic incongruity between [its] illusions and the realities.”[14] According to the sage, this belief in the “`new beginnings’” for the United States was “never quite as new [Italics mine] as is assumed.”[15] American Exceptionalism had its roots in the new settlers’ collective opposition to the old “feudal” system in Europe.[16] The Puritan settlers in New England were “convinced that the American mind had achieved a freedom from the prejudice which corrupted the European minds.”[17] Endowed with a vast expanse of territory which seemed to yield unlimited natural resources, yet, insulated from the Old World by two oceans, and armed with their unflinching belief in scientific progress, Americans came to see their nation as the “New Israel” chosen by God.[18]

This belief in America’s supposed innocence, which gave birth to its moral superiority and exceptionalism, was pernicious in Niebuhr’s view, because he feared it might “delude” its citizens to the point where they may be “ill prepared to deal with the temptations of [and lust for] power which now assail [them].”[19] Such delusions, to Niebuhr’s mind, were flagrant perversions of his perceived “Biblical truths” as embodied in the Book of Deuteronomy[20], for their emphasis on “prosperity in this world” was a form of noxious idolatry which might degenerate into “Yankeeism”[21] whereby wealth “[might] now [be] sought for its own sake.” This degenerate idolatry worried Niebuhr because he feared that the rest of the world might be “inclined to regard [American] prosperity as evidence of [its] injustice,”[22] with the result that “[America will be] ironically held responsible for disparities in wealth.”[23] More importantly, he debunked the myth of American innocence by noting that American foreign policy has always been informed by the “force[s] of imperial expansion,”[24] and that for this reason, the United States was “drawn into” World War I due to “considerations of national interest.”[25] Niebuhr clearly understood that “[n]ations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem, are insufferable in their human contacts.”[26]

Further, the sage warned us that “[t]here are no simple congruities in life or history,”[27] for “the paths of progress in history… prove to be more devious and unpredictable…  [since they] refuse to conform to the logic prescribed for it.”[28] For this reason, Bacevich argues that Niebuhr was “scathing and relentless [against t]hose who pretend to understand history’s direction.”[29]

What exactly do these things mean? And to the extent that our teacher’s wisdom retains its salience in our present quagmires in the so-called “Long War” waged against our perceived enemies in the “Greater” Middle East, long warhow can we learn and benefit from him? Wisdom begins with recognition that our power and wisdom are limited,[30] because “self-awareness is an essential precondition to… acquiring a more mature appreciation of history.”[31] It must, thus, lead to our cognizance of our place and our assigned role in history. To Niebuhr, who viewed the Biblical truths to be absolute, man and state are both creatures and creators whose assigned role from God is to assume “dominion over nature”[32] within limits prescribed by God. Thus, to deviate from one’s place is to invite both “divine jealousy”[33] and “divine judgment”—“laugh[ter] at [their] pretensions”—from  God Himself.[34]

America can away take from Niebuhr that it needs to be circumspect by adopting humility, patience and the “relativity of all human perspectives” as its guiding principles. In the final chapter of The Irony of American History, Niebuhr cited Lincoln as the paragon of a balanced man of principle who understood well the consequences of “judg[ing] not, [for] ye shall… be judged: condemn[ing] not, [for] ye shall… be condemned.”[35] Just as Lincoln had done some one hundred and fifty years ago against the Confederates, the United States can wage its war against the Islamic terrorists without judging Islam itself. While Niebuhr urged the United States to oppose vigorously the “unscrupulous Don Quixote on a fiery horse” by means of just war, he held in contempt those who use this struggle as an excuse to create a Messianic order whereby they become “the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns.”[36] Bush, and later, President Obama, erred in not heeding the sage’s warnings. Bush was “tempted to [coerce]… history”[37] through a pre-emptive war in Iraq in his “mighty effort to overcome [his] frustration” against the recalcitrant Arab world, and the results speak for themselves. Obama, who, as a presidential candidate, professed his admiration for the prophet as his “favorite philosopher”[38] seemed to have ignored his mentor’s warnings at the nation’s peril when he sought to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and the outcome remains yet to be seen.

In short, hunger for true knowledge brings wisdom, while wisdom brings humility and an attempt to reflect upon one’s self and nation. From The Irony of American History, one lesson needs to be taken to heart. Our prophet attempted to teach the United States to act within limits assigned by God as both agent and creator of mankind’s history. The sage taught us that the “ironic elements in … history can be overcome… only if … idealism comes to terms with the limits of human strivings.”[39] The fruit of such reconciliation shall be America’s awareness “that [it is] just one nation among many, for better and for worse.”[40]


[1] Mark Jensen “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Prospects for Justice in America,” Public Theology, April 29th, 2009 [http://www.pubtheo.com/page.asp?pid=1080]

[2] Paul Elie, “A Man for All Reasons,” The Atlantic, Nov., 2007 [http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/11/a-man-for-all-reasons/6337/ ]

[3] Andrew Bacevich “The Illusions of Managing History; A Boston University Lecture,” Oct. 9th, 2007 [for full transcript, see http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/08152008/profile3.html]

[4] Reinhold Niebuhr The Irony of American History, The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 2008 Edition, pp. 174

[5] ibid., pp. 6

[6] ibid., pp. 80-81

[7] ibid., pp. 71

[8] ibid., pp. 63 & pp. 150

[9] Andrew Bacevich, “Prophets and Poseurs: Niebuhr and Our Times,” World Affairs [Winter], 2008 [http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/articles/2008-Winter/full-prophets.html]

[10] Arthur  Schlesinger Jr. “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Long Shadow,” The New York Times, June 22, 1992 [http://www.nytimes.com/1992/06/22/opinion/reinhold-niebuhr-s-long-shadow.html?scp=]

[11] ibid.

[12] ibid.

[13] Niebuhr, pp. 15

[14]ibid., pp. 24

[15] ibid., pp. 26

[16] See Chapters 2 and 3 of The Irony of American History

[17] ibid., pp. 26

[18] See Chapter 3

[19] ibid., pp. 38

[20] The verses to which Niebuhr referred were, “For the LORD thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills… But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 6: 7-18 King James Version). [see http://www.htmlbible.com/kjv30/B05C008.htm & Niebuhr, pp. 52]

[21] ibid., pp. 52-53

[22] ibid., pp. 57

[23] ibid., pp. 110

[24] ibid., pp. 35

[25] ibid., pp. 36

[26] ibid., pp. 42.

[27] ibid., pp. 62

[28] ibid., pp. 78

[29] Andrew Bacevich, “Prophets and Poseurs: Niebuhr and Our Times”

[30] ibid., and also his “The Illusions of Managing History; A Boston University Lecture”

[31] ibid. and his introduction for the 2008 Edition of The Irony of American History, pp. xiii

[32] Niebuhr, pp. 158

[33] ibid.

[34] ibid., pp. 155

[35] ibid., pp. 171-172 and Luke 6: 37 King James Version [http://www.htmlbible.com/kjv30/B42C006.htm ]

[36] ibid., pp. 71. Niebuhr quoted  from Senator Albert J. Beveridge’s 1900 speech entitled, “In Support of an American Empire.” [see http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/ajb72.htm for full text of the speech]

[37] ibid., pp. 146

[38] David Brooks, “Obama Gospel and Verse,” The New York Times, Apr. 26th, 2007 [http://select.nytimes.com/2007/04/26/opinion/26brooks.htm?_r=2&pagewanted=print]

[39] ibid., pp. 133

[40] Paul Elie, “A Man for All Reasons,” The Atlantic, Nov., 2007 [http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/11/a-man-for-all-reasons/6337/]

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j.leeJ. Lee was a former high school teacher in Pusan where he taught Korean returnee students for five and a half years. He is currently back in Canada, hoping to pursue his master’s degree in International Relations.

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