Customer Reviews

38
4.4 out of 5 stars
The Irony of American History
Format: PaperbackChange
Price:$12.59 + Free shipping with Amazon Prime
Your rating(Clear)Rate this item


There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.

192 of 197 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2006
Format: PaperbackVerified 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. He cites James Bryce's assessment: "The aim of the constitution seems to be not so much to attain great common ends by securing a good government as to avert the evils which will flow not merely from a bad government but from any government strong enough to threaten the pre-existing communities and individual citizens." This works well enough in the United States, but how can the dangers associated with hegemonic power be averted in an international context? Niebuhr, a realist, notes that "no world government could possibly possess, for generations to come, the moral and political authority to redistribute power between nations in the degree in which highly cohesive national communities have accomplished this end in recent centuries." However, he expresses optimism that the United Nations might serve as a forum in which national policies are subjected to the scrutiny of world opinion. He also suggests that a sense of community with others might serve as some kind of internal check on power. Establishing such a sense of community requires recognition of our own fallibility and of the valid elements in what are to us foreign cultures, outlooks, and systems of government.

Niebuhr sees that the strength of the United States after World War II has brought us into contact with very different societies, and "... neither their conceptions of the good, nor their interests, which are always compounded with ideals, are identical with our own." Lacking a deep understanding of the complexities of national aspirations and cultural differences, U.S. foreign policy often lunges between two extremes of offering economic advantage to secure cooperation or overcoming intransigence through military force.

Moreover, the United States has always considered itself an example for others to follow: "except in moments of aberration, we do not think of ourselves as the masters, but as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection." People in the United States do not lust for world power, although we feel the pride that accompanies power. Because we see our motives as idealistic, the anger that others feel toward us is hard for us to understand or accept. The great danger for the United States is an excess of hubris. "Our moral perils are not those of conscious malice or the explicit lust for power. They are the perils which can be understood only if we realize the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon; and of power to become vexatious of the wisdom which directs it is trusted too confidently. The ironic elements in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historical configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue."
55 commentsWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
102 of 103 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified 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. As Niebuhr writes: "The illusions about the possibility of managing historical destiny from any particular standpoint in history, always involves, as already noted, miscalculations about both the power and the wisdom of the managers and of the weakness and the manageability of the historical 'stuff' which is to be managed." He goes on to point out that "In the liberal versions of the dream of managing history, the problem of power is never fully elaborated. ...On the whole, [American government] is expected to gain its ends by moral attraction and limitation. Only occasionally does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power and use it in order to gain the ideal ends, of which providence has made us the trustees."

Is it not painfully evident that we reached one of those "occasional moments" after 9/11 when "hysterical statesmen" - Bush and Cheney, et al - argued for a profound increase in the power to gain the "ideal ends" of bringing "freedom" to Iraq and the Middle East since we are the obvious "trustees" of this freedom?

Herein lies the element of "irony", the philosophical and spiritual core of Niebuhr's arguments. The first element of irony, Niebuhr points out, "is the fact that our nation has, without particularly seeking it, acquired a greater degree of power than any other nation of history" and we "have created a 'global' political situation in which the responsible use of this power has become a condition of survival of the free world."

He continues: "But the second element of irony lies in the fact that a strong America is less completely master of its own destiny than was a comparatively weak America, rocking in the cradle of its continental security and serene in its infant innocence. The same strength which has extended our power beyond a continent has also interwoven our destiny with the destiny of many peoples and brought us into a vast web of history in which other wills, running in oblique or contrasting directions to our own, inevitably hinder or contradict what we most fervently desire. We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the 'happiness of mankind' as its promise."

In Iraq we have met the enemy and "it is us". Not enough of us understood that "we cannot simply have our way" in the exercise of American power, which is thought to be essentially military power, to head off the folly in which we are buried and the prospect of a war without end.

Writing all this in 1952 with the cataclysmic dangers of the Cold War becoming a hot war, Niebuhr foresaw the increasing globalization of the world and the danger of not recognizing and accepting the limits of our power to bring freedom and happiness to the rest of the world, especially through military means.

This slender book of 173 pages is loaded with these prescient observations warning us clearly of the catastrophic dangers that can follow from a failure to understand the limits of our power of our exceptionalism and of the illusion that we can manage all this history to accomplish our supposedly moral and "good" ends for other nations.

When you finish reading this book you will then want to read Bacevich's book, "The Limits of Power", in which he essentially channels Niebuhr's understanding and traces the history of the last 60 years in which the Bush-Cheney foreign policy has become simply an extension of the direction American foreign policy has taken, primarily from the Reagan administration onward.
22 commentsWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
70 of 73 people found the following review helpful
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. The founders of this country regarded themselves as God's new chosen people and set out to be different from, and better than, their European counterparts. Niebuhr expounds on two ideas, Calvinism that was predominate in New England, and Jeffersonian values that prevailed in Virginia. He also refers to Max Weber and the idea of a "Protestant Ethic." What developed was a "cult of prosperity" and eventually a reliance on technology to solve our problems. "The irony of America's quest for happiness," Niebuhr writes on page 63, "lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life more `comfortable,' only finally to run into larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it (sic) escaped the smaller ones."

Niebuhr devotes much of the middle of the book to an analysis of Communism. He notes that Communism developed primarily in those countries that were feudal, agrarian static societies (Russia, China and Southeast Asia). Even in Europe it made the most inroads in those countries--France and Italy--that retained the remnants of feudalism. He also castigates both Communism and Capitalism for taking too simplistic a view of reality. Communism assumes that the differences in wealth in the world are due to the manipulations of the owner class and if class differences can be removed everyone will live in a utopian world. In this view it overlooks the fluidity of the capitalist system in which people can readily move from a low economic status to a high one (the essence of the American Dream). Capitalism, on the other hand, assumes that the differences are due solely to differences in abilities, access to resources and personal ambition, ignoring in the process the effects of prejudice and efforts of the rich and powerful to control others and consolidate their power.

We have to remember that Niebuhr was writing at a time just after China became Communist and during the Korean War. Thus he shows what now we can call an undue concern for the spread of Communism in Asia. He also fails to foresee the collapse of Communism which occurred some 40 years later, the rise of Islam and the role that globalization has played in transforming the world.

A second important aspect of the book is Niebuhr's comments on values. For example the following quote is from page 63: "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. 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." This statement is as good a recipe for how to live as any I have ever read and by itself makes the book worth reading.

I have rated this book as five stars because I think it is vital reading for any thinking person, even given its somewhat dated ideas. But the book should be read slowly and carefully and even several times to get the full meaning.
11 commentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on September 20, 2008
Format: Paperback
Neibuhr makes a strong case that America's history has in some ways worked against us, and brought us to a perspective that we, and we alone, have the best world view and the best way of doing things. The book is not a response to our invasion of Iraq, but our culture as he saw it during the Cold War era in which it was written.

Beginning with the attitudes which developed as a result of our being on an incredibly rick continent, and able to thrive in relative isolation from European wars, our prosperity led us into kind of an echo chamber of self-confirming blessedness: of course we (and our way of life) must be superior, or why would God have given us such a continent to live on?

Among the ironies which Neibhur focuses on is how our strength has actually put us in a position of weakness; because of our strength, we have a responsibility to use that strength very carefully (kind of a weakness, since we can't use the strength willy nilly).

Secondly, the confidence we have in the righteousness of our views is a confidence which communism also has, although Neibhur is explicit in labeling Communism as tyrannical.

It's a fine book, and I can't begin to do justice to his arguments here. But I highly recommend it, and in case you're wondering, it's not at all a "hate America first" book.
11 commentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2010
Format: Paperback
Everyone, it seems, is a Niebuhr fan -- most importantly President Obama, who specifically cited Niebuhr as one of his favorite writers. At least in the case of The Irony of American History, that's a shame, because more than a half a century after its appearance, it seems full of platitudes.

I suppose that for its time, Irony was important, because it stressed the idea that for all of America's vast power, it could not solve all of the world's problems, that attempting to uplift the developing world would bring us into contact with cultures that we did not (and still do not) comprehend, and that any triumph over Communism would be a long struggle. Niebuhr himself had superb judgment -- he opposed the Vietnam War early, from this sort of realist perspective. So in that sense, it is useful.

But from the perspective of the early 21st century, this seems a little trite. And even in its own time, it was hardly unique. Dean Acheson spent most of his time as Secretary of State saying the same sorts of things, and so did George Kennan. Now, in Irony, Niebuhr criticizes Kennan, saying (correctly, in my view) that Kennan's brand of realism so totally de-emphasized ANY moral considerations that it took out of American diplomacy what was best in America. But to say this, and little more, to me makes Niebuhr's position less rigorous than Kennan's. At least Kennan would have the guts to say that yes, focusing exclusively on the national interest might undermine humanitarian goals, but yes, that was necessary. Niebuhr would not. But then he should have tried to come up with a way of synthesizing his realism with his idealism -- really coming up with a unique brand of CHRISTIAN realism, which was, after all, what he was trying to do. He didn't.

Thus, we hear that we need to be cautious, that Communism is evil, that liberalism can be naive, that we need to be engaged in the world but not expect too much. All true. But certainly someone of Niebuhr's intellectual power could do better than that; in fact, he DID do better than that. Just not in this book.

I admit that one of Irony's tropes really annoyed me: his confident assertions about the nature of "liberalism", "liberal ideology", and "liberal societies." Yes, they can be naive; yes, there is a tendency within SOME strands of liberalism to assume that fundamental conflicts of interests and values can be eliminated. But not all -- by far not all. Much of liberalism grew out of a very acute sense of power and of the tendency of power to grow and become monstrous. That's why these brands of liberalism resisted governmental power, insisted on the separation of powers, focused on the strength of civil society, etc. At times, Niebuhr's description of liberalism becomes a caricature. And he was better than that. (For more on this brand of liberalism, one might start with the work of Judith Shklar, e.g. Liberalism without Illusions: Essays on Liberal Theory and the Political Vision of Judith N. Shklar.).

I suppose that the book is still saved by its final section, which really departs from the foreign policy section, and talks about human nature and the concept of irony. For Niebuhr, irony occurs when the very strength of a person or a community contains within it that person's or community's greatest weakness. A liberal state's humanitarianism and idealism creates an inability to see viewpoint's different from its own, and a tendency to dismiss objections as based on improper motives. Irony is thus the essential human condition; it represents our inability to perfect ourselves because of the nature of the problem and of reality. Niebuhr suggests that this is the core meaning of Original Sin, which other Christians might object to, but to me, as a Jew, I find very compelling and quite ecumenical (Judaism contains this idea in its notion of the human soul containing both the Good and the Evil Inclination, with both being necessary for human development, growth, and greatness, as well as failure and destruction.). This last section really gives Niebuhr the theologian, the identity for which he justly became famous.

Maybe the best way to look at this book is as a primary source, as an example of mid-20th-century intellectuals searching for a way to justify America and American values against the twin dangers of Communism and McCarthyism (to his credit, Niebuhr goes after rabid anti-Communists in this book, which in 1952, when it was written, was no easy task). And as mentioned before, I would also see the last part as a particularly moving and elegant theological essay. But, as Andrew Bacevich claims in his introduction, "the most important book on US foreign policy ever written"? Not a chance.
55 commentsWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of American policy after the Second World War. Peofessor Niebuhr defines communism, liberalism, and American capitalism with an insight rarely encountered. He explains the problem with communism in having politcal and economic power in the same hands, while promoting the illusion that man controls history and that the 'destruction of private property' will solve all of a nation's problems. At the same time he acknowledges that Marx et al did want to produce a better world. American policy, he asserts, is more pragmatic than it's ideal of pure capitalism. Its pragmatism allows it to incorporate social programs that its theory would not include, and thus solves social and economic problems here that were only addressed by revolution in countries like Russia. There is much more, but read it yourself and find out.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Although Niebuhr writes at the time that fear of communism dominated the national stage, he presents a larger historic prism through which we can look at ourselves today. Terrorism, Islam and our sense of being in the right are dwarfed by Niebuhr's larger world vision. The analogy of the communist threat to our current fears is striking. His ability to place our culture and self perception into a larger context grounded in Christian/religious context causes one to examine our national and global self perceptions in a way that allows for a more complete world vision along with our place in it.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Niebuhr's assessment of American and Soviet self-perceptions and ideologies during the Cold War are not only profound in their own day, but remarkably descriptive of our current world. Reading this, I couldn't help but connect the dots between the Cold War and today's War on Terror.

The most thoughtful, damning, hopeful and profound book I have read in years. A must-read.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Absolutely brilliant, and profoundly thought-provoking. Niebuhr's analysis is amazingly prescient, and reveals much of the national psychology that has underlain American action in the world over the past century. It is a must-read for students of history and philosophy alike!
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The re-issue of this book by the University of Chicago Press is very timely. Not only does its view of American character and mission fit the O'Bama era, it insists on a Christian Realism about the national destiny and international relations in the long view that is in sharp contrast to the absolutist religious claims that have been so shrill in the last few decades.

Both the left and the right have something to hear from this book, precisely now. A realistic modesty about America's opportinities and responsibilities among the nations is advocated here -- one that does not simply sell out to either the overly-fearful nationalists or the overly self-righteous America-bashers on the left.

Definitely a book for the times.

Jay Wilcoxen
University Churh, Chicago
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
     
 
Customers who viewed this also viewed


 
     

Send us feedback

How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you?
Let us know here.

Your Recently Viewed Items and Featured Recommendations 
 

After viewing product detail pages, look here to find an easy way to navigate back to pages you are interested in.