The Irony of American History

25 Nov

The Irony of American History

The Irony of American History

Reinhold Niebuhr

Language: English

Pages: 198

ISBN: 0226583988

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

“[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











makes "living standards" the final norm of the good life and which regards the perfection of techniques as the guarantor of every cultural as well as of every social-moral value. 3 The progress of American culture toward hegemony in the world community as well as toward the ultimate in standards of living has brought us everywhere to limits where our ideals and norms are brought under ironic indictment. Our confidence in the simple compatibility between prosperity and virtue is challenged

brief introduction. We frequently speak of "tragic" aspects of contemporary history; and also call attention to a "pathetic" element in our present historical situation. My effort to distinguish "ironic" elements in our history from tragic and pathetic ones, does not imply the denial of tragic and pathetic aspects in our contemporary experience. It does rest upon the conviction that the ironic elements are more revealing. The three elements might be distinguished as follows: (a) Pathos is that

success must rob life of its meaning. If this be so, there cannot be a simple correlation betwen virtue and happiness, or between immediate and ultimate success. While collective man lacks the capacity of individual man to sacrifice "the body" (i.e. historical security) for 144 THE AMERICAN FUTURE an end which may not be historically validated, yet nations have proved capable of great sacrifice in defending their liberties against tyranny, for instance. The tendency of a liberal culture to

difficulty in the policy of even "just" nations is the ironic embarrassment in which the victorious democracies became involved in their program of "demilitarizing" the vanquished "militaristic" nations. In Japan they encouraged a ridiculous article in the new constitution which committed the nation to a perpetual pacifist defenselessness. In less than half a decade they were forced to ask their "demilitarized" former foes to rearm, and become allies in a common defense against a new foe, who had

applied to historical events does finaUy depend upon a governing faith or world view. There are so many obviously ironic elements in current history, particularly in our own national history, because a nation which has risen so quickly from weakness to power and from innocency to responsibility and which meets a foe who has transmuted our harmless illusions into noxious ones is bound to be involved in rather ironic incongruities. These ironic contrasts and incongruities, though obvious, are not

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