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Reinhold Niebuhr finds that, ironically, we turn our virtues into vices when our virtue is “too complacently relied upon” or naively affirmed or trusted in—maybe even brazenly signaled to others—just as our power becomes problematic if we have an overweening confidence in our wisdom to employ this influence or force justly…

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr (198 pages, Scribner, 1952)

The Irony of American History, which Charles Scribner’s Sons published in 1952, grew out of a series of lectures which the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) delivered between 1949 and 1951. Overlapping with the onset of McCarthyism, these lectures were very much concerned with the East-West conflict. In fact, the first lecture was given at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri, in May 1949. A little more than three years before—in March 1946—Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister, spoke in the same venue, declaring: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

Although Irony is clearly a product of its period, it cannot be dismissed as simply a relic of the Cold War. Focused as it is on examining contemporary events in the light of timeless truths, it retains the capacity to speak to conscientious citizens today. Its sentences might require more patience to decipher and its ideas more work to interpret than, say, the famous Cold War novels of Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon) and George Orwell (Animal Farm or 1984), but a reader’s investment will be repaid in handsome dividends, fit for retaining and handing on for the benefit of future generations.

For example, who today has not cringed at the mounting levels of virtue-signaling on all forms of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter? In the middle of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr—a political liberal and a founder of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)—had a realistic, indeed conservative grasp of human nature: of human beings’ possibilities and their limitations. He notes in Irony: “Our moral perils are not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power.” In that sentence, the adjectives “conscious” and “explicit” do a great deal of work.

Ethical hazards should be understood instead as rooted in a tendency of human nature which Niebuhr labels “ironic”—because the good that we would we do not, and the evil that we would not, that we do, often while supposing that we are accomplishing something positive, probably even making a difference. Niebuhr finds that, ironically, we turn our virtues into vices when our virtue is “too complacently relied upon” or naively affirmed or trusted in—maybe even brazenly signaled to others—just as our power becomes problematic if we have an overweening confidence in our wisdom to employ this influence or force justly.

What is the way out of this predicament, which seems to be a habitual blind spot, caused by pride? In our national experience, moral statecraft benefits from a realistic appraisal of our true condition: “The ironic elements in American history can be overcome… only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue” (133).

This sentence incorporates Niebuhr’s oft-repeated insight: We are neither as good nor as wise as we think we are. We stand a better chance of doing what we ought to do and thus of surmounting the ironic elements of our experience if, chastened, we recognize this fragmentary—this broken—quality of both our wisdom and our virtue. Always strive for the good, yes, but in doing so never fail to be aware of our constant inclination to think ourselves both better and more perceptive than we really are. Inevitably, the shadow of our selfishness falls across all our perspectives, and so to be human is to be self-deceived. Especially avoid, as individuals and as nations, arrogance in the form of self-righteousness—as if anyone with any intelligence and moral fiber at all could see that, of course, I am right: Why, the media and the bien-pensants all agree with me—and look how many “likes” I have accumulated!

Niebuhr would counsel: Learn humility by beginning with the acknowledgment that the Bible has not been superseded by modernity and technology after all: Take the doctrine of original sin seriously, if not literally; but in any case never forget it. If users of social media could just remember these basic themes, then our national “conversations” would be altogether different.

But what are the chances of a revival of a widespread belief in the reality of original sin? Not good: “Practically all schools of modern culture,” Niebuhr avers, “are united in their rejection” of this traditional Christian teaching. Perhaps our own times, less sunnily optimistic than Niebuhr’s, offer a more propitious environment for this doctrine’s reinstatement in contemporary thought and action. Part of the arduous journey toward this recovery could be eased by the recognition that what Niebuhr means by this hoary claim about humans’ fallenness is no more or less than what he refers to as an “obvious fact”: namely, that all persons “are persistently inclined to regard themselves more highly and are more assiduously concerned with their own interests than any ‘objective’ view of their importance would warrant” (17). Each of us tends to believe that he or she is slightly more real than anyone else, and consequently our time is more valuable, our projects more imperative, than others’.

Is our self-centeredness the last word in this story? To answer this question, Niebuhr would have us consider not theory alone but concrete examples from American history.

My dissertation supervisor, Professor Kenneth W. Thompson, director of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, was a good friend of Reinhold Niebuhr. From him, Thompson learned many of the most crucial lessons he would pass along in his books on morality and foreign affairs—as well as in his work with his many graduate students. In my case, these lessons made their way into my Ph.D. thesis on Abraham Lincoln’s theology and political ethics. Of course, Niebuhr got there first, for Lincoln was one of his great heroes, as he was also for Reinhold’s brother, the Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr.

In the last pages of The Irony of American History, the author brings up Abraham Lincoln as a counter to Leo Tolstoy’s cynical belief that the greatest army commanders, for example, could be stupid and self-satisfied as long as they were brave and wholly committed to the task at hand. Niebuhr begs to differ. Consider, he says, “the spiritual attainments of our greatest President.” During the Civil War, Lincoln’s “responsibilities precluded the luxury of the simple detachment of an irresponsible observer” (171).

Niebuhr will go on to discuss the sixteenth president’s ethical stance and larger religious perspective, including his core belief in Providence. Through this example, Niebuhr demonstrates his dismissal of an unduly pessimistic realism; his was instead a principled, Christian realism. Thus he writes: Lincoln’s “brooding sense of charity was derived from a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning than that of the immediate political conflict.” Lincoln was realistic about human nature: He had an “awareness of the element of pretense in the idealism of both sides.” But he trusted in “an over-arching providence whose purposes partly contradicted and were yet not irrelevant to the moral issues of the conflict.” In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln noted that the “Almighty has His own purposes.” Niebuhr observes that Lincoln understood “that such purposes could not annul the moral purposes of men who were ‘firm in the right as God gives us to see the right.’” The president believed that God condemned slavery, but he also urged his fellow citizens not to judge one another.

In this important instance as well as in others, Lincoln combined, in Niebuhr’s words, “moral resoluteness about the immediate issues” with a mysterious sense of the providential context of universal history and eternal truth. In this way, Lincoln’s case provides an almost “perfect model of the difficult but not impossible task of remaining loyal and responsible toward the moral treasures of a free civilization… while yet having some vantage point over the struggle” (172–73).

Because Lincoln refused to make an absolute of his own ethical stance or worldview, he could go on in his Second Inaugural to urge his countrymen to embrace “charity for all,” to act “with malice toward none,” and to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” An awareness of our limitations—rather than reveling in self-esteem—might spark a renewed commitment to the virtues we always need: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime,” Niebuhr asserts; “therefore we must be saved by hope.” In our immediate circumstances we typically cannot quite discern, let alone realize, the true, the beautiful, or the good; “therefore we must be saved by faith.” In realizing our callings, we do so only in community with other selves. We cannot achieve the most virtuous deeds alone; “therefore we are saved by love.” Finally, we will be more faithful, hopeful, and loving if we accept that “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” (63).

In the Cold War, Americans were particularly tempted to overlook the specific ironies Niebuhr thinks so important to keep in mind because this contest was, as he says, a struggle of “freedom against tyranny,” an effort to “preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice” (1). The situation of the West in this period was not so different in some respects from our plight today: We faced and still face a “tragic dilemma.” We “must… hold atomic bombs ready for use” in order to “prevent a… world conflagration.” The threat of the use of these weapons might make war more likely—“and yet [western civilization] cannot abandon this threat” (1).

Because of the political, military, and social history of the intervening decades, Americans in our own time are much less likely than those in Niebuhr’s era to believe in the moral purity or providential exceptionalism of the United States. The early 1950s marked the zenith not only of this country’s relative economic strength but perhaps also of Americans’ self-satisfaction. But temporal transformations have not been so complete that we have managed to come to the end of history or to have somehow leapt beyond it. Indeed, Niebuhr’s work remains compelling precisely because of his cogent identification of the role of the demonic in international affairs even as historical circumstances have changed in dramatic ways. By “demonic” he does not mean the activities of Lucifer, the chief of the fallen angels. Mere mortals on their own have sufficient capacity to wreak havoc and to cause evil through their misguided attempts to realize paradise on earth.

The Soviets’ “demonic religio-political creed” made them particularly deluded and dangerous. Their ideology—or at least that of their leaders—made them believe that they had found “an escape from the ambiguity of man’s strength and weakness.” In that sense, they did indeed believe they could move beyond history. Or, as Niebuhr puts it, “communism believes that it is possible for man, at a particular moment in history, to take [what Friedrich Engels called] ‘the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.’” This new mode of freedom is true—revolutionary—freedom, not bourgeois freedom, which, on the communist view, is limited and in fact an illusion. “The cruelty of communism,” then, lies in its religious pretensions: It believes that “the communist movement stands on the other side of this leap and has the whole of history in its grasp” (3).

Marxist-Leninist doctrine, therefore, has “the character,” Niebuhr points out, “of religious apocalypse.” In the end time, humans will be “delivered” from their mixed situation of “being both creature and creator of the historical process and become unequivocally” masters of their own destinies (66, 67). The allure of communism lies in its appeal to people without jobs, without enough to eat, and therefore without hope or sense of purpose. Throughout the world, communism has appeared as “a historically dynamic religion” and the “harbinger of a great hope” (120). Its failure and the ultimate cause of its cruelty are that “as a religion this faith generates what in Christian terms is… the very essence of sin. It identifies the interests of a particular force in history with the final purposes of the God of history.” Idolatrous, it reckons itself free to immanentize the eschaton (Eric Voegelin), no matter what the consequences along the way: the ultimate end justifies any means, and the individual counts for nothing. (Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is unforgettable on this point.)

In squaring off against evil in international affairs, Americans have faced various alternatives. For Niebuhr, neither isolationism nor pacifism nor Wilsonian idealism is the best option: “Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous” (5). Nations must exercise power and should attempt to do so prudently and responsibly, but they are never disinterested; indeed, states can never be as virtuous as self-sacrificial human beings. Niebuhr approvingly quotes John Adams, who noted that power always believes it is doing God’s work even when it is, in fact, violating all of God’s laws (21).

Nor does Niebuhr find the right path in libertarianism—by which he means construing individual liberty as the unqualified end of life—for man is not, finally, the master of his own fate and the captain of his own soul: “Many young men, who have been assured that only the individual counts among us, have died upon foreign battlefields” (8, 10 [quotation], 13).

In his ethical approach to international affairs, Niebuhr might be best characterized as a proponent of conservative internationalism, to use Professor Henry R. Nau’s term in his book of the same name (Princeton University Press, 2013). Realistic, engaged, prudent, modestly hopeful, Niebuhr recognized the virtues of democracy, but he rejected the notion that it was the right system of government for all nations immediately. And he scorned a foreign policy that would have the United States seek to impose democracy on recalcitrant states. Some nations, for example, are simply too corrupt in their civil affairs to make democracy work. Some are too deficient in a pervasive sense of responsibility to the larger political entity: Their people are too narrow in their thinking, too constricted in their loyalty to family or village or tribe for democracy to succeed (115). Democracy might require a degree of modernization to thrive, and Niebuhr realistically observes that needful changes might not occur without “vast cultural and social dislocations” (116).

He also recognizes that democracy is not merely a mechanism by which to elect candidates to various public offices. In the West, it is “a way of life” as well as a system of governance (123). Democracy “requires a high degree of literacy among its citizens” and, crucially, “a sense of the dignity of the individual.” It demands a culture—an ethos—that gives citizens “a sense of… responsibility to a wider community”: a more-encompassing loyalty than what people feel for their families or tribes (124).

In these and other statements, Reinhold Niebuhr sounds as if he would agree with Sir Roger Scruton, who observed in a recent essay (“The Case for Nations,” Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2017) that democracy calls for a demos, a people, united by “a prepolitical loyalty,” grounded in a common history, territory, and culture. The rule of law depends upon “a legacy of social trust,” such as the Americans and the British have enjoyed for centuries. A nation’s stability may be bolstered by economic growth, but essential to “enduring peace,” Dr. Scruton believes, are mutual trust and shared resolution, expressed through “institutions that foster collective decisions in response to the problems of the day.”

For various reasons, I am fairly certain that Reinhold Niebuhr shared Kenneth Thompson’s belief that the European Recovery Program (ERP)—which everyone but Secretary of State George C. Marshall referred to as the Marshall Plan—represented the best that a nation can accomplish in its efforts to reconcile morality (including benevolence toward other nations) and foreign policy (including protecting the national interest). The ERP achieved favorable results for both Western Europe and the United States, not only by responding to humanitarian needs but also by building bridges among the western countries, in the process making crucial progress in their mutual security commitments.

As Secretary Marshall repeatedly made clear in his efforts to convince Americans of the value of the ERP, when chaos and desperation gain the upper hand, social cohesion may break down, and with it the shared commitment that makes democracy and the rule of law work. Economic security can provide a boost in national confidence—as Dr. Scruton observes in his essay—but with it must come a renewed focus on citizens’ common history and culture, their loyalty to principles and values transcending the boundaries—and barriers—of class, of family, of religion. Historically, that’s exactly what ERP funds helped the citizens within the various nations of Western Europe to accomplish, as workers, consumers, and owners sought the common good rather than accepting ongoing strife and societal breakdown.

This history is what people at the time and historians later pointed to when they spoke of the renewal of confidence, the restoration of hope, the fortified commitment to democracy which came with the Marshall Plan. After World War II, the United States did not abandon the nations of Western Europe. The American program respected these nations’ institutions and leaders, their individual goals and policies. And the ERP reflected our common dedication to democratic values, expressed in forms distinctive to the traditions and cultures of the participating European nations.

In both its purposes and its implementation, the Marshall Plan represents a solid case study of principled realism in foreign affairs. Thus the history of the ERP also offers a taste of the meaning, richness, and continuing vitality of this modern classic by Reinhold Niebuhr: The Irony of American History.

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