The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr

Cover of "The Irony of American History"
Cover of The Irony of American History

Takeaway: I wish more people read Reinhold Niebuhr.  He has much to say both about politics and international relations, and also about the limits of security and state power.

The Irony of American History is oddly relevant.  It was written in 1952 and based on two lectures given earlier than that. The introduction calls it the most important book on American foreign policy ever written. That is a bit too strong, but still Niebuhr understands in a way that very few do, the weaknesses of all human forms of government, while still being hopeful that government can serve the people.

Niebuhr, with proper use of irony, speaks of the issues of the 1950s in similar terms to many others in talking about the global reach of US power.  It is almost funny that Niebuhr quotes US policy makers that think that the Asians should be more grateful to the US (at the time it was Korea, soon to be Vietnam) for our intervention to their affairs. But it is very similar to the way that some in the Bush administration thought we would be received in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The narrator on the audiobook is a bit pretentious sounding and I think that detracts from what Niebuhr is trying to say. But in general Niebuhr traces the thought patterns of a Jeffersonian (roughly secular) and a Puritan (certainly Christian) that both view the United States as a fundamentally separate place. The language of the Puritans is a “City on a Hill” and “called out by God for a specific purpose”. But the Jeffersonian ideals are not much different. Jefferson was secular in his reasoning, but thought that the separateness of the geography and the rightness of our political will and life also left us with a specific calling and purpose that in the end was not much different from the calling and ideals of the Puritans.

Niebuhr does spend a good bit of time talking about the weaknesses of communism throughout the book. This may tire some readers because it so strongly dates the book. But I found it interesting that at the height of the cold war, Niebuhr correctly points to virtually all of the major weaknesses of communism and suggests several of the methods that caused communism to began to fall.

The use of the word irony (briefly described in the introduction but not fully fleshed out until the end of the book) is rooted in the fact that Niebuhr thinks that the very strengths of the US are also the root of its weaknesses. So the feeling that we are called out gives us a passion and sense of duty, but also a pride and hubris that leads to our downfall.

Throughout all of the books that I have read by Niebuhr is a strong sense of the concept of original sin. In this case, it is used to describe the weaknesses of the communist perspective of the world, because without the concept of the original sin, communists were unable to foresee the corruption of power that would cripple the leadership of communist countries. But in the United State, that same concept of original sin is used by Niebuhr to show that any attempts at moving beyond our limited boundaries and capabilities will inevitably lead to a future downfall. By this, he did not mean that the US should not be involved outside of the US borders, he was an early advocate of entry into World War II. But that the purposes of any activity outside of the US borders should be humble and limited in scope. The idea that the US can lead the world (or any small part of it) toward a future Utopian or perfected governmental state was absurd to Niebuhr. That absurdity is the root of what he means by irony. His rough definition of irony in this book is the strengths that lead to weaknesses that end up being humorous because of the way that strengths and weaknesses are intertwined.

Niebuhr can be a bit dense at times. And obviously we cannot re-write this book or any of his others directly onto our 21st century world. There are limits to how much of Niebuhr can be used today. But I think that Niebuhr’s realistic view of humanity and his strong grounding in an orthodox (small o) Christianity should place him on many more book shelves of Christians in the US and around the world.

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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