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The Irony of American History Paperback – May 1, 2008

38 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226583983 ISBN-10: 0226583988 Edition: Reprint

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Editorial Reviews


“[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.”
(Barack Obama New York Times)

“A blessing of this time of liberation and hope is that serious works of political analysis and philosophy may contribute to the new administration's approach to its daunting agenda of global and national problems. That Barack Obama has made clear his admiration for . . . Niebuhr's The Irony of American History is in itself reassuring. . . . It would be hard to think of another book from the 1950s that retains, nearly sixty years later, both its compulsive readability and so much of its relevance. The elegance, strength, and charm of Niebuhr's writing invite quotation at every turn. . . . It is impossible to summarize a book so strong and yet so subtle, in which every word has meaning.”
(Brian Urquhart New York Review of Books 2009-03-26)

“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 the new Foreword)

About the Author

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)taught for many years at Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, as well as lecturing and preaching all over the country. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, he is the author of many books, including The Nature and Destiny of Man.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations and history at Boston University, is the author of The Long War.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 198 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (May 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226583988
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226583983
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,369 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

192 of 197 people found the following review helpful By -_Tim_- on December 26, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr reviews the competing ideologies of communism and liberal democracy and finds that they both express an overly optimistic view of human nature. In the liberal view, the defects in human nature are curable through education or changes to social and political institutions. In communist ideology, the proletariat is a repository of virtue that will create a perfect society when the corrupting influence of the institution of private property is abolished. History, of course, shows that these views are dangerously inaccurate. Against them, Niebuhr offers the Christian view that man must struggle to create justice in this world while realizing that ultimate solutions lie beyond his grasp: "every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history."

This book was written more than 50 years ago, during the hottest part of the cold war. Much of the book focuses on America's new (at that time) responsibilities as a superpower, and on the struggle between communism and democracy. Still, a modern reader will be surprised by the book's relevance to the current position of the United States in the world.

Niebuhr takes it as self-evident that, if there is one center of power and authority, "preponderant and unchallenged, ... its world rule would almost certainly violate basic standards of justice." He outlines the attempts made in the U.S. constitution to diffuse power among different institutions and create a system of checks and balances.
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102 of 103 people found the following review helpful By David R. Cook on August 15, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Simply put, [this] is the most important book ever written on American foreign policy." Thus writes Andrew Bacevich in his introduction to the newly reissued book written by Reinhold Niebuhr in 1952. Bacevich is a Niebuhr scholar and author of the just published book, "The Limits of Power". He was largely responsible for getting "Irony" reissued.

The timing of this book becoming available, as well as of Bacevich's own book, couldn't be better. Niebuhr was a pastor, teacher, activist, moral theologian and prolific author. He was a towering presence in American intellectual life from the 1930's through the 1960's. He was, at various points in his career, a Christian Socialist, a pacifist, an advocate of U.S. intervention in World War II, a staunch anti-communist, an architect of Cold War liberalism, and a sharp critic of the Vietnam War.

The Irony of American History traces the course of American idealism and exceptionalism from its very beginnings in the providential thinking of the Pilgrims who settled Massachusetts. Written early in the Cold War, Niebuhr devotes much of his analysis to comparing and contrasting Marxian communism and the "bourgeois" liberalism, or liberal democracy of America. While he clearly argues that the liberal project of democracy offers more to the "common good" of the community than does Marxism, both have the seeds of their destruction in the illusions they hold. So-called "Niebuhrian realism" is the ability to see through such illusions as a condition for avoiding the worst pitfalls they carry.

Alas, one of the greatest of these pitfalls is the American tendency to suppose that we can manage history.
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72 of 75 people found the following review helpful By John Martin on November 11, 2008
Format: Paperback
The "useful" rating I have received for all of my reviews to date is about 47%--now I know how John McCain feels! In an effort to raise my rating to an Obama-like 53% I have undertaken to review a book that has been republished for this election year.

Whenever a book by someone now deceased is re-published one should ask why, and when that author has written several books the additional question becomes why now. In the case of The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr the answers are clear from reading the back cover. There you will find Barack Obama saying that Niebuhr "is one of my favorite philosophers," (which is akin to a chocoholic saying, "Herseys is one of my favorite candy bars.") There is also a reference that the book has been cited by "politicians as diverse as Hilary Clinton and John McCain." So it's re-publication is about making a buck in this presidential year. Still it is well worth reading.

Niebuhr has some important things to say in this book, but not what people such as Andrew Bacevich, who wrote the Introduction for the book, claim. It is not, as Bacevich boldly states, "the most important book ever written on U.S, foreign policy." It is not even a book, in the sense that, as Niebuhr himself writes in the Preface, the substance of the book consists of two series of lectures given in 1949 and 1951. Also it is not about American foreign policy, or for that matter even about the irony of American history. What the book is really about is a critical examination of the differences between Communism, as it existed at that time and the Western political and economic system and values with which it was in conflict.

Niebuhr begins by calling attention to the idea of American exceptionalism.
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