“The most important book ever written on American public policy,” if we can believe Andrew J. Bacevich, began as lectures delivered on college campuses shortly after the close of World War II. The lecturer was Reinhold Niebuhr, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and his speeches were published in 1949 as The Irony of American History.
President Obama is well versed in Niebuhr’s ideas, which may be one reason why the University of Chicago Press has reissued the book, sixty years after its first appearance. It has a new introduction by Bacevich whose 2008 book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, draws extensively upon Niebuhr’s work.
Niebuhr’s organizing motif is irony, which he describes as a situation with incongruities that on the surface seem unrelated, but upon closer examination are closely tied together. “Virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue,” and “strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt” the person or nation that is strong.
Applied to American life, irony comes in two patterns. First, the good in American life—our scientific developments, our emphasis upon the dignity of every person, our freedoms, our preeminence in world affairs—carries with it unrecognized tendencies which, if allowed to develop unchecked, undercut or destroy the good. Second, certain elements of American society that are undervalued or scorned—the young, the deviant, the culturally dispossessed, the uneducated—possess within themselves the possibilities of contributing new strength that can make the nation better.
Irony helps us understand that America’s necessity to exercise power carries with it the inescapable development of guilt.
Niebuhr’s illustration is the threat to use atomic weapons after World War II. As Americans, we had always thought of ourselves as a most innocent and virtuous nation, but after the war we also found ourselves the world’s most powerful. We were custodians of the most destructive weapon ever developed, and we could not disavow its use in order to maintain our virtue. Yet if we had used it, we would have covered ourselves with a terrible guilt.
For Americans, the irony is that “the greatness of our power is derived on the one hand from the technical efficiency of our industrial establishment and on the other from the success of our natural scientists. Yet it was assumed that science and business enterprise would insure the triumph of reason over power and passion in human history.” We know that this assumption was (and is) ill founded.
The ironic dimension of American foreign policy helps us understand current efforts to protect the world from forces that threaten freedom, dignity, and life itself. The exercise of power has been defended as the action of a nation that believes in freedom and wants to extend it to people around the world. Yet, the defense of freedom, supported by a significant body of intellectual analysis, has led the nation into preemptive wars in the Middle East.
Not only has this warfare brought violence and suffering; it has also caused our military forces to engage in actions that emulate many of the most coercive tactics of those whom we battle in the name of our superior freedoms and way of life.
Toward the end of his book, Niebuhr writes that in America common sense trumps theory. Truth “becomes falsehood, precisely when it is carried through too consistently.” Common sense prevents both of the primary theories (Niebuhr calls them wisdoms) now operating in America from being carried through to their logical conclusions.
Niebuhr writes as a theologian, often drawing upon the Bible in order to show the ironic point of view in full operation. His book is a splendid example of how theological ideas can be brought into public discourse in ways that transcend sectarianism. Social policy and political action would be improved if more of our public discourse were of this kind.
In the nation’s capitol and in legislative assemblies around the country, let this be remembered: Carried too far, held until the bitter end, our virtues become vices. When we are most certain of ourselves, those things we demean or despise may lead to positive change.
Niebuhr is right. A renewed awareness of the ironic character of American culture and politics could allow common sense to trump our ideologies again. The result: foreign policy and political action at home would both be much improved.
Note: Thanks to Pastor Bob Cornwall, friend and mentor, who is posting this review on his blog in order to help spread the word. http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com/