The Irony of American History by Reinhold NiebuhrThe Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr

The Irony of American History

byReinhold Niebuhr

Paperback | May 1, 2008

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“[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
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 r...
Title:The Irony of American HistoryFormat:PaperbackDimensions:198 pages, 8 × 5.25 × 0.6 inPublished:May 1, 2008Publisher:University Of Chicago PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0226583988

ISBN - 13:9780226583983

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Rated 2 out of 5 by from Ironic Failure! The new edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Irony of American History by the University of Chicago Press, with an Introduction by Andrew J. Bacevich, is very much an ironic failure because its message is outdated, and therefore it can’t be compared to America’s situation today. But more importantly, history has shown that this book is a failure because it helped formulate those egos in power during the Cold War. I mean those serving on those committees of un-American activities, and sadly to say, with this new edition, it seems to be doing the same for those in the Obama administration. First, the book’s central argument undermines the evil of communism of that period, and by contrast it reaffirms the belief in the capitalistic system during the 1950s that serves the basis for American democracy today. Please take note that this book was first published in 1952 when the word communism had only one other synonym, like our “axis of evil” today. In fact, in the Introduction, when Bacevich attempts to make the book current, by making a comparison with Niebuhr’s view of communism with that of Goerge W. Bush’s view of “Islam” of today, Bacevich’s attempt faces an ironic twist of fate. Bacevich’s attempt is an “ironic” failure because Niebuhr’s views expressed in this book endorsed the “established” view of his time, and if we follow Bacevich’s logic through, then Niebuhr would be a voice for the establishment today. For evidence of this, the reader need only to browse over the front and back covers of the book to read President Barack Obama endorsement of the author of this new edition as “One of my favorite philosophers. I take away from his works the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world.” Unfortunately for Obama that “evil” is mostly defined in terms of the American conflict with the Islamic led Taliban. Anyone considering buying this product must be warned that when the book was first released in 1952 International Communism was the enemy of America. Hence, Niebuhr represented the “established” view. Likewise, when the reader turns its pages, Niebuhr is at constant war with communism. In fact, the idea returns so much in this book, I came to the conclusion that it would have been more pertinent to release this book twenty-five years before (prior to or just after the fall of the Berlin wall), so that the message would have been more meaningful. In addition, when the book was first release during the era of “McCarthyism” there were numerous individuals appearing before the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HCUA) for the supposed affiliation with communists activities. One could only imagine that those operating those hearings, such as Senator McCarthy himself, would have carried Niebuhr’s book around in his briefcase because it justified exactly what he was doing to “Un-Americans”. Read: “Communism is a vivid object lesson in the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends”(5), or “The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that is foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class” (22). One can only imagine Senator McCarthy smiling as he reads these passages from Niebuhr’s passionate discourse against communism. It is a wonder that Niebuhr did not make any effort to revise his book after “history” has shown us that Ho-Ch Minn represented the real “virtue” that led to America’s failure in destroying communism in Vietnam. Does this mean that Niebuhr’s book is all that bad? Not at all! There are some good things that I took from this book. The third chapter, “Happiness, Prosperity and Virtue” helped me understand how the American Dream can not be separated from the materialistic elements of the Enlightenment thinkers. In addition, Niebuhr imaginatively discusses why American democracy has become the strange bedfellow of capitalism, and he traces this back to a time when in American history the American “collective” decided to defined its destiny in terms of its control over nature, or natural resources. Niebuhr suggests that the founders of our current American culture made a choice from at least two major influences: Calvinism and the ideology that was handed down to them by Enlightenment thinkers; an ideology which framed the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights. What was rejected was the outright religious “virtue” for the secularized version derived from the Enlightenment thinkers (One only need to examine the revisions undertaken in formulating the American Constitution as proof of this). Hence, the Promethean “spirit” of progress, capitalism, democracy, and even our current American imperialism, is the DNA that provides the genetic material for the children of that “America Dream” family today.
Date published: 2010-04-13

Table of Contents


I. The Ironic Element in the American Situation

II. The Innocent Nation in an Innocent World

III. Happiness, Prosperity and Virtue

IV. The Master of Destiny

V. The Triumph of Experience Over Dogma
VI. The International Class Struggle

VII. The American Future

VIII. The Significance of Irony

Editorial Reviews

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.”