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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 complacenc 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. “[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    “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 USforeign policy.”—Andrew J. Bacevich, from the Introduction


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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 complacenc 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. “[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    “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 USforeign policy.”—Andrew J. Bacevich, from the Introduction

30 review for The Irony of American History (Library of Contemporary Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    "Nothing in history is inevitable." -- Reinhold Niebuhr "Sometimes the irony in our historic situation is derived from the extravagant emphasis in our culture upon the value and dignity of the individual and upon individual liberty as the final value of life." -- Reinhold Niebuhr I read this on a plane ride from Malta back home to AZ. It was probably the only positive aspect of travel. Normally, I wouldn't consider a book of philosophy to be a travel book/beach read, but Niebuhr's prose was so clea "Nothing in history is inevitable." -- Reinhold Niebuhr "Sometimes the irony in our historic situation is derived from the extravagant emphasis in our culture upon the value and dignity of the individual and upon individual liberty as the final value of life." -- Reinhold Niebuhr I read this on a plane ride from Malta back home to AZ. It was probably the only positive aspect of travel. Normally, I wouldn't consider a book of philosophy to be a travel book/beach read, but Niebuhr's prose was so clean and his ideas expressed so well that I could have read it anywhere and not been distracted. It is also a small enough book that it is easy to read in one long session (broken up three times with pretzels, diet Coke, and a warm towel). I'm also fairly fanatical about NOT inking up my books. I use Post It Tabs excessively while reading. However, this book was so quotable. Had so many lines and ideas that I broke down and just started underlining with a pen [GASP]. All of this preamble is meant to do is inform you, reader, of HOW much I enjoyed every page and every minute of this book. The new edition is introduced by one of my favorite historians/military historians/Imperial theorists - Andrew Bacevich. He has written several books on American Empire and military policy (The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, and America's War for the Greater Middle East) that are all built (more or less) using a very Niebuhrian framework. Between Bacevich and Obama loving Reinhold Niebuhr, my quiet clap seems hardly needed.

  2. 4 out of 5

    J.A.

    I already had on file a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr when I came across The Irony of American History (University of Chicago Press, $17.00) in a spring catalog, so my interest was already piqued. Sagely seizing on that interest, my venerable sales rep Henry J. Hubert sent me a copy to review. I'm glad I chose to order it before I reviewed it, because I can add it to our staff picks shelf immediately. This is a timely reissue of a book originally published in 1952. Due to Barack Obama identifying N I already had on file a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr when I came across The Irony of American History (University of Chicago Press, $17.00) in a spring catalog, so my interest was already piqued. Sagely seizing on that interest, my venerable sales rep Henry J. Hubert sent me a copy to review. I'm glad I chose to order it before I reviewed it, because I can add it to our staff picks shelf immediately. This is a timely reissue of a book originally published in 1952. Due to Barack Obama identifying Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers, attention has once again been directed to the writings of this once influential theologian, and rightfully so. Niebuhr's purpose in identifying the ironic forces at play in American history is to increase awareness of them, as awareness of irony dispels it. The book collects a pair of lectures Niebuhr delivered in 1949 and 1951 regarding the danger of American polemics which elevated American democracy by vilifying communism. Niebuhr does define the evil traits of communism, but the focus of his lectures was a clarion call to American policymakers to forsake the Messianic complex that developed along with the opposition to communism. In the one and only creative writing class I took in college, I wrote a short story that involved the Russian mafia presence in Miami. My classmates could have pointed out any one of the multiple flaws and failings of that story, but instead their comments were limited to the fact that the Cold War was over and I needed to update my antagonists from Russians to terrorists. If that was the feeling in the late 90s, how could a Cold War-era book on communism be timely today? Niebuhr deems communism, though officially atheist, as functioning as a fanatical religion, and treats it accordingly. One need only substitute the term terrorism for communism and The Irony of American History comes across as a new release rather than a re-release. The similarities are uncanny: the folly of a preemptive war, the misguided notion of spreading democracy in totalitarian agrarian nations, and the delusions of a powerful nation believing it is the master of its own destiny are all discussed. In the wake of 9/11, Niebuhr's speculation that a skyscraper could symbolize the Tower of Babel and thus become a target for destruction is downright eerie. In the book's introduction, Andrew J. Bacevich refers to Niebuhr as a prophet, and hindsight would seem to concur. Bacevich's statement that The Irony of American History is the "most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy" struck me as hyperbole, as it comes in the second paragraph of the introduction, but, although I still wouldn't agree with it, it wasn't as much of a sticking point for me after I read the book. It is unfortunate that our current administration is still operating under the influence of ironic forces, but that may change with the next administration, and that is encouraging.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis here that US intervention abroad is based on an ironic sense of our own righteousness. The irony is that it then leads us to use the same hegemonic means to achieve utopia that we are supposedly fighting. However, I don't think Americans are as naive about this as they once were. If anything, I think we have now gone past irony and are well into cynicism. I still agree with the premise that we should not be engaged in deciding the fates of nations abroad, b I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis here that US intervention abroad is based on an ironic sense of our own righteousness. The irony is that it then leads us to use the same hegemonic means to achieve utopia that we are supposedly fighting. However, I don't think Americans are as naive about this as they once were. If anything, I think we have now gone past irony and are well into cynicism. I still agree with the premise that we should not be engaged in deciding the fates of nations abroad, but I worry that we've lost faith and are too cynical about the social changes we can make domestically. This book doesn't address that directly, but it was written in a time when Americans were still committed to domestic progress through labor and other reforms. We no longer are, I think.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sheila

    Dry, wordy, and sometimes hard to follow. There were nights reading this where I would finish several pages and have no recall of what I had just read. I did end up highlighting multiple passages though, and the final sentences in the book do seem very appropiate in the current day, as the author talks about our duty in preserving our civilization: :"For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only te secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength Dry, wordy, and sometimes hard to follow. There were nights reading this where I would finish several pages and have no recall of what I had just read. I did end up highlighting multiple passages though, and the final sentences in the book do seem very appropiate in the current day, as the author talks about our duty in preserving our civilization: :"For if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only te secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindess would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory."

  5. 4 out of 5

    David Rush

    Why read a philosophy of history book by a mid 20th century theologian who died almost 50 years ago where communism is the primary intellectual foil? And while you could say he is part of the now disappearing breed of liberal theologians, he is definitely a full on Christian. So he can be discounted by the army of conservative Christians as well as their atheistic counterparts. In any case, the fundamental irony for America is that we as a nation think our idealistic virtue has brought our countr Why read a philosophy of history book by a mid 20th century theologian who died almost 50 years ago where communism is the primary intellectual foil? And while you could say he is part of the now disappearing breed of liberal theologians, he is definitely a full on Christian. So he can be discounted by the army of conservative Christians as well as their atheistic counterparts. In any case, the fundamental irony for America is that we as a nation think our idealistic virtue has brought our country to great prosperity, when it is not idealism but pragmatism and dumb luck that did the trick. And it is his relentless reflection that individuals and nations both see the faults in others but not ourselves that motivates his message. Our claim that with American optimism all men can guide their destiny through sheer character is as baseless as the inevitable communist historical dialectic. As I said, he is relentless, as much as he decries communism he feels we have to guard ourselves against the hubris of any idealism, even American idealism. [idealism}...is too certain that there is a straight path toward the goal of human happiness; too confident of the wisdom and idealism which prompt men and nations toward that goal; and too blind to the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound. Pg 133 Make no mistake, he is coming at this from a theological perspective where mankind is assailed by real evil. The evil in human history is regarded as the consequence of man’s wrong use of his unique capacities. The wrong use is always due to some failure to recognize the limits of his capacities of power, wisdom and virtue. Man is an ironic creature because he forgets that he is not simply a creator but a creature. Pg 156 But what makes him different from any preacher or religious pundit you might hear about today, is his conviction each step or decision, individually or as a nation, be made with humility, contrition and compassion. He feels whenever power is wielded it assuredly carries the danger of misuse, ESPECIALLY when we think we are using this power for the cause of justice. A too confident sense of justice always leads to injustice. In so far as men and nations...are bound to betray the human weakness of having a livelier sense of their own interest than of the competing interest. That is the way “just” men and nations may easily become involved in ironic refutations of their moral pretensions. Pg 138 In his day he may have been one of the most popular and thought about theologians, but about the time he was aging and slowing down Billy Graham was becoming the most well known religious leaders. They worked from the same bible and addressed many of the same issues, but developed wildly different interpretations. Graham loved power, loved to be near it, was confident in his righteousness and the rightness of America. Niebuhr said we always had to be cautious of power and fearful of our self deception. Niebuhr longed for charity and humility, a worldview from a different age. There is, in short, even in a conflict with a foe with whom we have little in common the possibility and necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities; to sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities ; and to a sense of gratitude for the divine mercies which are promised to those who humble themselves. Pg 174 Oh yeah, why read such a book? For one thing, if you replaced all references to communism with terrorism it is amazingly relevant. Of course it is not churchy enough for most modern idealistic Christians of the conservative bent, and way to churchy for non believers. But it is refreshing to hear from somebody who acknowledges that that nations must use power to deal with real evil in the world, but simultaneously demands humility and charity....Humility and Charity at a national level is something that just isn't done, especially in the current political climate.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Raully

    "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 if the wisdom which directs it is trusted too confidently. The ironic element in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentatiness of all hum "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 if the wisdom which directs it is trusted too confidently. The ironic element in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentatiness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue. America's moral and spiritual success in relating itself creatively to a world community requires, not so much a guard against the gross vices, about which the idealists warn us, as a reorientation of the whole structure of our idealism. . . .[That idealism] is too certain that there is a straight path to power toward the goal of human happiness; too confident of the wisdom and idealism which prompt men and nations toward that goal; and too blind to the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound." (133)

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jon

    I heard about this book on a local MPR radio program. It was written in 1952 and recently republished largely because of praise from President Obama. The introduction by BU International Studies professor Andrew Bacevich calls it "the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy." (!) I don't know about that, but it certainly deepened my thinking. At first glance it seems dated, since large swaths of it are spent analyzing and distinguishing between American "bourgeois" culture and So I heard about this book on a local MPR radio program. It was written in 1952 and recently republished largely because of praise from President Obama. The introduction by BU International Studies professor Andrew Bacevich calls it "the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy." (!) I don't know about that, but it certainly deepened my thinking. At first glance it seems dated, since large swaths of it are spent analyzing and distinguishing between American "bourgeois" culture and Soviet communism, refuting the latter as a great misunderstanding of history and thus a great evil, but also condemning the first for its naive and prideful overreach, also resulting in evil. He condemns all forms of materialism with their romantic belief in the perfectibility of man, and repeatedly reminds the reader of the more profound Christian understanding that individual human sin will always result in cruelty and failure when power is exercised. And the irony that it MUST be exercised. What I take to be the central paragraph of the book: "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 are 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." Obama seems to have taken this kind of analysis to heart--he calls Niebuhr his favorite philosopher--and I've heard his Nobel acceptance speech described as pure Niebuhr. It certainly goes a long way to explain his patience and forbearance.

  8. 4 out of 5

    J.

    Niebuhr outlines the great ironies of American history, which are: the persistent sin of American Exceptionalism, the indecipherability of history, the false allure of simple solutions, and the failure to appreciate the limits of power (I stole that summary from the intro). Although most of the book is a diatribe against Communism, Niebuhr does not glorify American democracy. His insights into American aggression in 1952 have been validated. More prophet than author at this point. I loved his st Niebuhr outlines the great ironies of American history, which are: the persistent sin of American Exceptionalism, the indecipherability of history, the false allure of simple solutions, and the failure to appreciate the limits of power (I stole that summary from the intro). Although most of the book is a diatribe against Communism, Niebuhr does not glorify American democracy. His insights into American aggression in 1952 have been validated. More prophet than author at this point. I loved his stark realism and kept searching for a pen to underline the text. There is a blurb on the back of the book by then-Senator Obama. I think Obama's presidential record reflects Niebuhr's positions. Niebur chases both liberals and conservatives alike. He dispels their with frightening insight. Observing Niebuhr's America is like watching a parade where the tuba player keeps tripping on his shoe lace but refuses to tie it. A quote to sum up: "The controversy between those who would 'plan' justice and order and those who trust in freedom to establish both is, therefore, an irresolvable one. Every healthy society will live in the tensions of that controversy until the end of history; and will prove its health by preventing either side from gaining complete victory." (edited for clarity in 2014)

  9. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Clausen

    In Niebuhr’s iconic book we see many of the same themes that are present in other works on U.S. foreign policy: the seeming providential nature of U.S. power; by contrast, the seeming accidental nature of US power; the corrupting influence of power; the special role material abundance played in the formulation of U.S. culture; and the follies of a young nation coming to terms with its new responsibilities. What makes Niebuhr’s book stand out is the special emphasis he places on morality, hubris, In Niebuhr’s iconic book we see many of the same themes that are present in other works on U.S. foreign policy: the seeming providential nature of U.S. power; by contrast, the seeming accidental nature of US power; the corrupting influence of power; the special role material abundance played in the formulation of U.S. culture; and the follies of a young nation coming to terms with its new responsibilities. What makes Niebuhr’s book stand out is the special emphasis he places on morality, hubris, and guilt. The author advocates less for a new “social science” paradigm of foreign policy than for a deep emotional maturity on the part of the body politic and policy makers. This new emotional wisdom would be based on an appreciation of the contingencies of history and the pain that follows from the responsibilities of power. Rather than a master of history, policy makers should realize the contingency of history and the inevitable follies that occur when humans wield power. The maturation of the state, Niebuhr suggests is reaching a stage of serenity where people realize the pains that follow the responsible use of power, and that prosperity and happiness are a necessary part of a historical destiny (p. 54). The key frames of analysis in this book are pathos, tragedy, and irony. With these broad dramatic frames, the author tries to draw out how societies relate emotionally with their own histories and ideologies. For Niebuhr, the ultimate irony of history is that a supposedly great and virtuous power would need to hold nuclear weapons (weapons that threaten the destruction of humanity) in order to dissuade greater tyranny—this Niebuhr terms “the ironic climax of [US] history.” This irony—that a supposedly great and virtuous nation must use its power imperfectly and often amorally—is something that can be seen throughout the Cold War. In the introduction of the book, Bacevich argues that this is the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy because it warns about “the indecipherability of history; the false allure of simple solutions; and finally, the imperative of appreciating the limits of power” (p. x). In a sense, this warning applies equally to policy makers and scholars. In Niebuhr’s moral universe, proximate solutions are the only solutions available, and power is both a blessing and a burden: a blessing because it gives you the strength to deal with problems, but also a burden because humanity is always cursed to use it imperfectly and to equate their power with righteousness. Thus, while great powers have a responsibility to use it, when they do they are always in some ways guilty. Thus, one must always be humble in the way one yields power and never attempt to become the master of history. Bacevich argues that the book has a contemporary appeal because the U.S., as the sole superpower in the world, is especially threatened by the folly of falling into utopian thinking (p. xii); as Bacevich argues, because Bush believed in the ability to “master history” and tried to fight radical Islam with similar ideas of absolutes and utopianism, his foreign policy is the antithesis of what Niebuhr argued was successful statecraft (p. xviii). Bush’s sin in Niebuhr’s framework is his “complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends” (p. 5). This same tendency, for the U.S. to match utopian thinking with utopian thinking of its own, was present as of 1952 in the US response to communism. Niebuhr left it an open question whether certain tendencies in U.S. history—especially its tendency to see itself as an example to the rest of the world—would lead it to turn its pretensions into “noxious forms of tyranny” (p. xxiv). In addition, Niebuhr’s insights on the ethics of social science are poignant and relevant. He notes how the Cold-War is a contest between two supposedly “scientific” nuclear armed polities; each side had its own science of politics and how the good life was to be achieved. U.S. education Niebuhr suggests is trying to push every subject into the direction of the natural sciences—thus substituting the more necessary study of grand and ironic outlines of historical problems with the study of peripheral minutia (p. 60). He thus equates social science pretensions for “reforming society” with the kind of arrogant totalitarianism that led to the horrors of the Soviet state. This critique of social science pretensions ultimately leads to his advocacy of the philosophy of Edmund Burke (p. 89) and his outline of how the US has become the lesser of the two political evils in the Cold War. The moral superiority of the US Niebuhr suggests comes from the US’s privileging of compromise over fixed dogma (Niebuhr says that the US has a better working example of capitalism than the Soviet Union had of communism). Niebuhr thus notes the incredible pace by which the US was able to move toward the welfare state. This he notes is part of a “creative synthesis” (p. 92) that is often not acknowledged when people speak of U.S. politics. My one criticism of Niebuhr’s use of broad strokes is that he often essentializes places, cultures, and especially history. Europe, Asia, and the US are often presented as coherent concepts with generic trajectories; history, also, finds itself as a stereotyped player in that it is imagined as eternally inconsistent.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Marcás

    Niebuhr makes some good criticisms of various (mostly American) myths: such as ones that place rationality central to our self interests and material prosperity alone as destiny or 'the good life'. Also showing that the dichotomy between those who value life in this world and those that value the next world is not even the main point. People finding meaning in a life beyond mere utilitarianism is... Reinhold says that Political Science belongs properly in The Humanities, to be aided by social sc Niebuhr makes some good criticisms of various (mostly American) myths: such as ones that place rationality central to our self interests and material prosperity alone as destiny or 'the good life'. Also showing that the dichotomy between those who value life in this world and those that value the next world is not even the main point. People finding meaning in a life beyond mere utilitarianism is... Reinhold says that Political Science belongs properly in The Humanities, to be aided by social sciences like psychology, etc where it's beneficial otherwise it'll focus on vapid minutiae and miss the larger contours of history. Unfortunately, since he wrote this book, this has happened. (With History itself too)

  11. 5 out of 5

    robin friedman

    This Nation Under God Reinhold Niebuhr had initially titled this book, published in 1952, "This Nation Under God". The publisher wanted the title changed because a United States Senator, Elbert Thomas, had published a book in 1950 with Niebuhr's proposed title. After discussion, Niebuhr and the publisher settled on the now-famous title by which the book is known, "The Irony of American History". The book is based on lectures Niebuhr delivered with the first and final chapters added later. These t This Nation Under God Reinhold Niebuhr had initially titled this book, published in 1952, "This Nation Under God". The publisher wanted the title changed because a United States Senator, Elbert Thomas, had published a book in 1950 with Niebuhr's proposed title. After discussion, Niebuhr and the publisher settled on the now-famous title by which the book is known, "The Irony of American History". The book is based on lectures Niebuhr delivered with the first and final chapters added later. These two additional chapters make the heaviest use of the concept of irony although irony figures throughout the book. One of the difficulties of the book is understanding, through Niebuhr's long explanations, what irony is. Another difficulty is understanding why Niebuhr finds American history ironic. Niebuhr states that to understand the irony of a situation, one must share a certain mindset. The irony that Niebuhr finds in America's history and position in the world must have been all-too-apparent in the early 1950s. With the markedly different world situation and the deflationary views about the United States held by many Americans, it is much harder to find irony in Niebuhr's depiction. But today the concept of irony is widely used and too much used. Nearly everyone thinks ironically. Perhaps there is now too much of it. Niebuhr wrote this book following the end of WW II during the Korean War, and the beginning of the Cold War. The President was still Harry Truman. This book is short but densely packed and difficult to read. Niebuhr was a minister and a speaker with a compelling way with memorable words. With all the quotable passages in this volume, the book is complex. On the most immediate level, the book examines the role of the United States in the fight against the Soviet Union and communism. That aspect of the book remains important even if dated. On a broader level, the book examines American history and the promise and limitations of American life as the United States became the leader of the free world. Some of the irony Niebuhr finds results from, with Europe in shatters, the United States being thrust into a world leadership role against communism that it neither wanted nor expected. Niebuhr finds a sense that the United States had not lived up in every respect to the innocence and beacon of hope of its founding and that it was viewed with skepticism and distrust by many other nations. There was a question of the moral capability of the United States to fight communism. On the deepest level, ""The Irony of American History" reflects Niebuhr's complex Augustinian theology with its teachings of original sin, skepticism about humanity's ability to resolve its problems, and realization of human finitude. This book is strongly and unmistakably anti-communist in contrast to the more ambivalent views Niebuhr expressed in earlier books, written during the Great Depression and During WW II including "Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Library of Theological Ethics)"; and "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense". Niebuhr goes at great length into what he sees as the evil of Soviet communism and its designs over the world. Niebuhr also sees it as the unmistakable duty of the United States to fight communism, through the threat and use of the atomic bomb if necessary. His position became basic to the doctrine of containment and it seems to me to echo an interpretation of foreign policy during the Eisenhower years as discussed in a recent book, by Evan Thomas, "Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World". Niebuhr argues that America did not want and in some respects was ill-equipped for the responsibility it faced. But courage and the values of civilization required the United States to persevere. Niebuhr criticized communism on many grounds, the most basic of which was its materialism and its denial of any transcendent character to life or of individual freedom. Niebuhr also found the individualistic ideology of the United States inadequate in some respects from the communal, momentous nature of its task. He praised the United States for its division between economic and political power which allowed the spread of democracy and the ability on all hands to compromise. Niebuhr was also troubled by what he saw as various "idealisms" in the United States and formulated his teaching of Christian realism in response. Niebuhr sharply criticized Christian leaders and others who were reluctant on moral grounds to risk war with the Soviet Union. He saw this as an abnegation of responsibility. Niebuhr also attacked the American tendency to believe that technology, the natural sciences and, especially, the social sciences were able to identify and resolve all human problems. He feared both America's tendency to rely exclusively on power and its tendency to rely on social sciences as replicating, in more modest form, some of the sins of the Soviet Union. According to Niebuhr, individuals and nations are not only creators in history, they are equally importantly created by it. There are always limitations in the finitude of any situation. In a chapter called, "The American Future" Niebuhr said: "The difficulty of our own powerful nation in coming to terms with the frustrations of history, and our impatience with a situation which requires great exertions without the promise of certain success, is quite obviously symbolic of the whole perplexity of modern culture. The perplexity arises from the fact that men have been preoccupied with man's capacity to master historical forces and have forgotten that the same man, including the collective man embodied in powerful nations, is also a creature of these historical forces. Since man is a creator endowed with a unique freedom, he 'looks before and after and pines for what is not.' He envisages goals and ends of life which are not dictated by the immediate necessities of life. He builds and surveys the great cultural and social structures of his day, recognizes the plight in which they become involved and devises various means and ends to extricate his generation from such a plight. He would not be fully human if he did not lift himself above his immediate hour, if he felt neither responsibility for the future weal of his civilization, nor gratitude for the whole glorious and tragic drama of human history, culminating in the present moment." Niebuhr is ultimately a religious thinker who envisages every human society and situation as finite and fallible from a transcendent perspective. In its necessary fight against the Soviet Union -- which Niebuhr saw as evil -- the danger was that the United States would be swallowed by and unable to recognize the limitations of its own perspective. While this position is religiously based, it could largely be restated in a secular perspective. Niebuhr's thought became highly influential, with its insights, difficulties, and ambiguities, to religious and political thinkers from across the spectrum of opinion in the United States. With the War in Vietnam and some of the apparent excesses of the Cold War, Niebuhr himself probably modified his own position yet again late in his life. "The Irony of History" is a perplexing, thoughtful book that mingles philosophy, theology, history, and then-current events in a provocative, challenging way. The references to the "ironic" character of history perhaps are dispensable. The books strictures against communism and support of the Cold War are dated, now controversial, but still valuable. The book is at its best when it is broadest, as an Augustinian, contemporary theology and as a portrayal of the finite character of human effort. This book is included as part of a Library of America volume devoted to Niebuhr, "Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics: (Library of America #263)". The LOA volume was provided to me for review. Robin Friedman

  12. 4 out of 5

    Brent

    I . . . am not quite sure what I just read. In short, I think Reinhold Niebuhr is brilliant. He had incredibly valid, truthful & profound things to say. Here's his thesis (as much as I could understand): He discusses our "pretension of innocence" - We viewed ourselves as innocent and did not accept the responsibility of our new power and we were not prepared for, say WW2. So he says we are left with two choices: fall back into not accepting our responsibility and power, or basically bully other co I . . . am not quite sure what I just read. In short, I think Reinhold Niebuhr is brilliant. He had incredibly valid, truthful & profound things to say. Here's his thesis (as much as I could understand): He discusses our "pretension of innocence" - We viewed ourselves as innocent and did not accept the responsibility of our new power and we were not prepared for, say WW2. So he says we are left with two choices: fall back into not accepting our responsibility and power, or basically bully other countries because we view ourselves as innocent and superiorly moral. We believed that God wanted us to be prosperous (because of how prosperous our land was i.e. Jeffersonian) and have fully bought into the prosperity gospel. We have essentially chosen the later - we are now bullies who instill colonialism on other countries and believe we are justified because we are establishing freedom. This irony of American history is that America had previously fought evil wherever it has come. Now, during the Cold War, we in fact are the creators of evil. It's our ignorance about who we are and our illusion of control that has made American history ironic. However.... Niebuhr writes exclusively with $5 words. It's quite dull. It's a little painful. This warrants a re-read. I think it would take a few passes through to fully grasp his points. Obama himself called Niebuhr one of his favorite philosophers. I obviously am not as smart as Obama.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    How many times can the word "irony" be used in one book? Go ask Alanis..... But seriously, I was disappointed in this one. The message was solid, often spot on, though somehow it manages to feel both highly dated and still highly relevant. He presages our American hubris leading to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. And in so doing, he wisely admonishes on the limits of human power against history, as well as the vice that is excessive virtue (GWB's invocation of God, for example). But the prose was tor How many times can the word "irony" be used in one book? Go ask Alanis..... But seriously, I was disappointed in this one. The message was solid, often spot on, though somehow it manages to feel both highly dated and still highly relevant. He presages our American hubris leading to the Vietnam and Iraq wars. And in so doing, he wisely admonishes on the limits of human power against history, as well as the vice that is excessive virtue (GWB's invocation of God, for example). But the prose was tortured and marred by horrible run-on sentences. It lacked clarity, concision, and organization. I anticipated a certain dryness in that it is an exploration of political philosophy; but Jesus what a rambling mess. In the end, it was worth the effort. But such for a short book, it felt a slog. Better to have read than to read, I suppose. Isn't it ironic? Don't you think??

  14. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    To keep rolling with my mid-20th century liberal intellectuals kick, read and greatly enjoyed this concise reflection on American history. Niebuhr is like the dude who used to sit in the back of the chariots that victorious Roman generals rode in parades, whispering "Remember, you are mortal." America needed this kind of warning in the 1950's, when it's power (and possibly its self-righteousness) were at an all time high. Niebuhr begins with the idea that the US has thought of itself as an innoc To keep rolling with my mid-20th century liberal intellectuals kick, read and greatly enjoyed this concise reflection on American history. Niebuhr is like the dude who used to sit in the back of the chariots that victorious Roman generals rode in parades, whispering "Remember, you are mortal." America needed this kind of warning in the 1950's, when it's power (and possibly its self-righteousness) were at an all time high. Niebuhr begins with the idea that the US has thought of itself as an innocent nation since its birth, one that could rewrite the rules of history and should be trusted with immense power because of its innate goodness. Niebuhr says we fortunately do not always act as if we really believed that, but it can be dangerous in that we overlook how other countries may rightfully fear our preponderance of power. The ironic elements of this history is that in order to finally play this world-saving role as a superpower the US has had to embrace nuclear weapons and MAD doctrine, holding the world hostage to destruction in order to safeguard it. Thus we arrived at the point of our greatest power having to rely on the most morally ambiguous weapon. This book also has some thought-provoking comparisons of classical liberalism and communism. Niebuhr, being a pro-New Deal moderate liberal, sees a lot of similar problems between these otherwise contradictory ideologies. Both aspire to offer the keys to historical problems, the "ends of history" so to speak. The classical liberal solution is to tear down the power of the monarchy and aristocracy and open up total economic competition, from which they believe a balance of human interests will evolve. There is a conceit here, implicit in Jefferson's thought, that as long as people have an economic balance they will not squabble, which ignores the conflict arising from human pettiness and emotion. The problem with this idea of economic balance is that property is itself a form of power, and this balance does not occur naturally because people wield property for their own benefit rather than the common good. He thus support a New Deal style regulated capitalism that compensates for these inequalities. Classical liberalism is flawed but can be corrected, unlike communism. He argues that it, and other forms of liberalism, benefit from a "fortunate vagueness" that makes it harder to form a political program of action and doctrine that so often leads people into violence and total certainty. Communism, on the other hand, does fall into this trap and cannot be rescued. It identifies only one cause of evil in the world, private property, and does away with it by handing power to a group that claims the authority of knowing the direction of history scientifically. This group, believing it is not subject to the flaws of human nature (remember, evil only comes from property) then makes war upon rich and poor alike to reorder society. The results were the 20th century's greatest human catastrophes. One especially relevant point I found in this book in his sections on decolonization was his criticism of the self-perception that victims of historical abuses often adopt that they could not possibly be capable of the crimes their abusers committed. This belief was central to many decolonization movements and to the anti-Israel movements within Arab nationalism and ultimately Islamism. Here's Niebuhr: "Those who suffer from the arrogance or the power of others wrongfully assume that the evils from which they suffer are solely the consequence of the peculiar malice of their oppressors; and fail to recognize the root of the same evils in themselves. Thus the intellectuals of the Orient actually engage in serious arguments on the question whether it would be possible for an Oriental nation to be 'imperialistic.' In the same way members of minority ethnic groups invariably assume that racial arrogance is a peculiar vice of the group which causes their suffering." I immediately thought of the "women can't be sexist" or "minorities can't be racist" arguments when I read this, and I thought this was one of the best refutations of that idea I've ever heard. In left wing circles in the academy today there is clear sacralization of victims; the more marginalized identities you can claim, the more moral authority you have. I find this to be intellectually dishonest and morally dangerous. One can see how this sense of moral purity stemming from victimhood (real victimhood, for sure, in most of these examples) could give decolonization movements the moral certainty to commit horrific crimes once they took power, all while blaming their actions on the West. The point is that belief in one's moral purity is always bad because (as Niebuhr shows) any politics or identity that doesn't grapple with the flaws in our nature will likely tip over into zealotry and intolerance. The more I read this guy the more I see how figures like Obama love him. There are at least 5 more big points I could discuss here that I think we should all wrestle with. Niebuhr would make one excellent source for rebuilding a politics of passionate moderation in the US today because he encourages us to build our politics upon an accurate, unflinching analysis of our flawed nature. His is a Christian view of fallen humanity, but modern cognitive and social psychology has largely borne out his analysis (not to mention, history has borne out his analysis). His writing is a bit dense, but people who are serious about thinking about human nature in politics and America's place in the world should definitely try him out.

  15. 5 out of 5

    George

    I wish I had read this as a young man in college. This should be required reading for any American’s general education. It is astounding to me that it was so prophetic in 1952 about our world today.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bill Roth

    66 years old and still as relevant as the day it was written, perhaps even more so. A good read for anyone who wants to think deeply about what America means.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Chad

    I picked up Reinold Niebuhr as a must-read author somewhere in my pile of religious and political books, but I can't pin down which. If you do a quick Wikipedia search, you will find that Niebuhr actually has some modern-day relevance, being cited by Barack Obama as a source of inspiration. He wrote The Irony of American History in the midst of the Cold War, much of the book is dedicated to how to approach Communism from a foreign policy standpoint. Despite the fear and anxiety of the times, Nie I picked up Reinold Niebuhr as a must-read author somewhere in my pile of religious and political books, but I can't pin down which. If you do a quick Wikipedia search, you will find that Niebuhr actually has some modern-day relevance, being cited by Barack Obama as a source of inspiration. He wrote The Irony of American History in the midst of the Cold War, much of the book is dedicated to how to approach Communism from a foreign policy standpoint. Despite the fear and anxiety of the times, Niebuhr talks about Communism critically, but level-headedly, not like an Elder Harold B. Lee railing about "godless Communism" in one of his conference talks. Niebuhr apparently hails left of center, but many of the themes and ideas he discusses feel very much at home in classical conservative thought. He talks about original sin: he doesn't believe in the inherent goodness of man putting him at odds with Rousseau. He is very skeptical of our ability to theorize or plan history, and advises a dash of humility in foreign policy in this regard. Both of these are major themes in one of my favorite books in conservative literature Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present. Conflict with Communism Communism is a vivid object lesson in the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends. The Irony of American History was published in 1952, just as the Cold War was starting to heat up. I think this is a good book to reflect on, as communism seems to be getting new attention from a millennial generation that is willing to look past historic Communism's errors as the mistakes of previous generations. Niehbuhr disagrees and thinks that its baked into Communism as a whole. Throughout the book, talks about Communism in religious terms: A vast religious-political movement which generates more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history. But this isn't just another tirade devoted to tearing Communism apart. He in fact tries to take the beam out of his own eye before taking the mote out of his brother's eye. He examines some of the weaknesses on our own system. The error of American liberalism is assuming that economic interests are not a source of power: One of the most prolific causes of delusion about power in a commercial society is that economic power is more covert than political or military power. The error of Communism is assuming that the proletariat (and ruling oligarchy) are entirely free from economic interests. Marxism added another mistake to this error. It ascribed economic power purely to ownership, thus hiding the power of the manager and manipulator. The consequence of these errors makes it possible for consistent Marxism to create an oligarchy in which the economic and political power in a community are combined while no checks are placed upon such inordinate concentration. Definitely worth the read here. It's lucidity is refreshing. The irony in American history The rest of the book deals with an intertwined theme: America trying to define its place in the international sphere. He dedicates a lot of time outlining America's changing perspective from one of perceived innocency (pre-World War era) to one of increasing responsibility. It's one we took on reluctantly, and now we have to deal with the consequences. The introduction includes an interesting current affairs application with regards to Iraq and the Middle East. The discussion is very applicable. Early on in the book, Niebuhr defines irony and contrasts it with both pathos and tragedy: Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. Incongruity as such is merely comic. It elicits laughter. This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits—in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from a pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution. This sounds more like a literary analysis than history, no? But Niebuhr is of the camp that history cannot be entirely rational or subject to the scientific method: it is ultimately subjective. He devotes to chapter to this discussion: Any interpretation of historical patterns and configurations raises the question whether the patterns, which the observer discerns, are “objectively” true or are imposed upon the vast stuff of history by his imagination. History might be likened to the confusion of spots on the cards used by psychiatrists in a Rorschach test. The patient is asked to report what he sees in these spots; and he may claim to find the outlines of an elephant, butterfly or frog. The psychiatrist draws conclusions from these judgments about the state of the patient’s imagination rather than about the actual configuration of spots on the card. Are historical patterns equally subjective? Much of Niebuhr's critique is aimed at those who think they can plan history, who have interpreted history through the lens of a grand narrative and can thus predict the future. This applies to Communists (who according to Niebuhr worship the 'historical dialectic') as well as our branch of American liberalism attempting to export democracy. History is much more sly than that, and it is with humility to this fact that Niebuhr asks us to submit. We must not erroneously equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of historical destiny. The irony in scripture As a Christian writer, Niebuhr includes a lot of insightful scriptural exegeses. My favorite is his explanation of the Christian interpretation of mankind as one of irony. We aren't in a pathetic state, victims of universal forces that we can't control. And neither is life a tragedy, as interpreted by the Greeks. Instead, our free will and agency give life a sense of irony. Our greatest weaknesses are often undetected and are actually caused by our greatest strengths. Take this passage: There is irony in the Biblical history as well as in Biblical admonitions. Christ is crucified by the priests of the purest religion of his day and by the minions of the justest, the Roman Law. The fanaticism of the priests is the fanaticism of all good men, who do not know that they are not as good as they esteem themselves. The complacence of Pilate represents the moral mediocrity of all communities, however just. They cannot distinguish between a criminal and the Saviour because each violates the laws and customs which represent some minimal order, too low for the Saviour and too high for the criminal.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Saumitra Thakur

    For a serious intellectual effort, this book's a lot of fun. Niebuhr makes it clear that this is meant to have some humor to it, as these ironies are both an occasion to think and an occasion to chuckle. This book's worth rereading periodically because every time through will lead to another new insight. Niebuhr's perspective on Christianity is thoughtful, abstract, academic, and maybe monastic. When the simple interpretation of scripture is insufficient, Niebuhr offers a brilliant, abstract one. For a serious intellectual effort, this book's a lot of fun. Niebuhr makes it clear that this is meant to have some humor to it, as these ironies are both an occasion to think and an occasion to chuckle. This book's worth rereading periodically because every time through will lead to another new insight. Niebuhr's perspective on Christianity is thoughtful, abstract, academic, and maybe monastic. When the simple interpretation of scripture is insufficient, Niebuhr offers a brilliant, abstract one. One of the most refreshing parts of reading Niebuhr, actually, is hearing him frame Christian ideas in their strongest formulations. Niebuhr has a tendency to criticize social and political theory by foiling it against his theology. What frustrates me is while he formulates his arguments from theology in their strongest light, he usually frames the secular theory he's dismissing in a concrete (and, comparatively, mediocre) formulation. Similarly, Niebuhr has a remarkably uncritically negative assessment of non-Western civilization and a fairly cherry-picked positive assessment of Western civilization in contrast. I felt embarrassed for him as I read his passages on other cultures. As someone who stressed self-awareness and humility, his analysis of the rest of the world seemed to reflect neither.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Marcus

    One of the recurring themes in the histories of men and nations is the idea that we can do what no one else has done because of our better [morals, understanding of history, philosophy, intelligence etc.:] (chose one). It's an almost mathematically precise pattern that we seem doomed to repeat. The verbal approximation it is: idealism leads to hubris leads to vice leads to downfall. Rinse an repeat. Niebuhr incisively confronts this historical pattern as it existed in America and the world in th One of the recurring themes in the histories of men and nations is the idea that we can do what no one else has done because of our better [morals, understanding of history, philosophy, intelligence etc.:] (chose one). It's an almost mathematically precise pattern that we seem doomed to repeat. The verbal approximation it is: idealism leads to hubris leads to vice leads to downfall. Rinse an repeat. Niebuhr incisively confronts this historical pattern as it existed in America and the world in the 1950's, and, since it's a pattern, his analysis remains just as relevant today as it was then.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Maggie

    ohdeargoodness. this book is now among my top five ever books! to think that i've only just read it. well, better late than never. and i am sure i will be re-reading if not actually memorizing it. i am a "political" animal but also high-strung and emotional, so as a political devotee i seriously need a solid foundation of reasonable thinking as a solid foundation before setting out (yet again) for political arenas. ohdeargoodness. this book is now among my top five ever books! to think that i've only just read it. well, better late than never. and i am sure i will be re-reading if not actually memorizing it. i am a "political" animal but also high-strung and emotional, so as a political devotee i seriously need a solid foundation of reasonable thinking as a solid foundation before setting out (yet again) for political arenas.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Whitney

    His view of communism/Marxism seems a clear product of his time, but the comparison between 1950s communism and democracy/capitalism (what he calls bourgeois society) made sense. I still need to think about this...it reminded me of some of the arguments in Zizek's work, but I'm not ready to articulate why, yet. Just a disavowal of cynicism, I guess. His view of communism/Marxism seems a clear product of his time, but the comparison between 1950s communism and democracy/capitalism (what he calls bourgeois society) made sense. I still need to think about this...it reminded me of some of the arguments in Zizek's work, but I'm not ready to articulate why, yet. Just a disavowal of cynicism, I guess.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    In a day when so many of us think we are RIGHT while so many others are WRONG, Reinhold Niebuhr’s neglected classic deserves wide reading. Published the year I was born (1952), in the context of a world dominated by the sharply defined conflict between democracy and communism, its clear message is still needed today. As much as we would like to change the world (regardless of our ideals from the right or left), we inevitably bump into both our finiteness and our selfishness (or guilt, as Niebuhr In a day when so many of us think we are RIGHT while so many others are WRONG, Reinhold Niebuhr’s neglected classic deserves wide reading. Published the year I was born (1952), in the context of a world dominated by the sharply defined conflict between democracy and communism, its clear message is still needed today. As much as we would like to change the world (regardless of our ideals from the right or left), we inevitably bump into both our finiteness and our selfishness (or guilt, as Niebuhr calls it). When we ignore these limitations, trouble inevitably follows, sometimes tragically on a massive scale. The problem is that in our idealisms we are “too blind to the curious compounds of good and evil in which the actions of the best men and nations abound” (p. 133). As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn echoed Niebuhr when he famously said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” The world is just immensely more complicated than we can imagine or give credit for. We forget, as Niebuhr says, that we are not just a creator of history but also its creature. Therefore, our overly energetic attempts to control it are sure to be met with disappointment or worse. Throughout the book Niebuhr is a penetrating critic of communism’s flaws and failings, saying, for example, “Communism is a vivid object lesson in the monstrous consequences of moral complacency about the relation of dubious means to supposedly good ends” (p. 5). Yet he is also clear-eyed about how the American experiment can go haywire. Free market thinking is very aware of the dangers of political and military power (especially seeking to limit the former) but downplays the reality of economic power, and sees little need to limit that. Part of the pragmatic virtue (and irony) of the American system is that we were able to recognize this and act on it at least somewhat. The labor movement and the New Deal of the last century created more financial equity and justice while still allowing capitalism to continue to dominate our theories. Writing about the early 20th century he said, “The significant point in the American development is that here, no less than in Europe, a democratic political community has had enough virtue and honesty to disprove the Marxist indictment that government is merely the instrument of privileged classes” (p. 100). America’s potential problems extend into other realms as well. “The American situation is such a vivid symbol of the spiritual perplexities of modern man, because the degree of American power tends to generate illusions to which a technocratic culture is already too prone. This technocratic approach to problems of history . . . accentuates a very old failing in human nature: the inclination of the wise, or the powerful, or the virtuous, to obscure and deny the human limitations in all human achievements and pretensions” (p. 147). Niebuhr’s final chapter lays out what he means by irony—how two contrasting elements come together in a person or a nation with one arising from the other. A strength also contains a hidden weakness, for example. He goes on to highlight the foundation for this view of history, which comes from the biblical perspective of a “divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations” (p. 155). Humility in spirit and modesty in ambition is not a message corporate kingpins, political powerbrokers, or even many humanitarian heroes want to hear. Such restraint does not suit them. Nor does pragmatism seem to rally a constituency as fervently as zealous idealism. Yet his message is essential. That doesn’t mean we have no hope. Rather our hope and ideals are to be seasoned with realism about the world and with humility about ourselves.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Figueiredo

    I decided to read "The Irony of American History" because I had heard it was a favorite of both John McCain and Barack Obama, and Christopher Lasch loved it too. For me, that's a compelling list and I just happened to find a copy at my local used bookstore! Niebuhr diagnoses many ironies in America's history and connects them to the then-occurring Cold War to show how America, like every society, faces various conundrums. Irony exists when in a seeming contradiction, "one element in the contrast I decided to read "The Irony of American History" because I had heard it was a favorite of both John McCain and Barack Obama, and Christopher Lasch loved it too. For me, that's a compelling list and I just happened to find a copy at my local used bookstore! Niebuhr diagnoses many ironies in America's history and connects them to the then-occurring Cold War to show how America, like every society, faces various conundrums. Irony exists when in a seeming contradiction, "one element in the contrast is found to be the source of the other" (155). These ironies stem from a misunderstanding of virtue and the refutation throughout history of idealism. Many of the listed pathologies relate back to a failure to face the transcendent nature of mankind. We have free will, but with that free will often comes evil and downfall, although humankind is not doomed to evil. Niebuhr, as I've noted about President Obama, has a great way of squaring the evils of the world with abiding hope. His book argues that we as a country must practice humility and see how we are both creators and creatures in history (134). The only thing that prevents me from giving this book five stars is how relevant it still is. For all the fame Niebuhr achieved and for every politician versed in his work, the ironies should have been dissolved long ago, as he posits over and over. Yet no longer in a civilizational struggle with Communism, we nonetheless fall prey to the same ironies Niebuhr diagnoses. The disconnect between preached American individualism and practiced pragmatism. The drive to control history paired with the idea of history as marching onwards. The inability to see that limits exist, that virtue can easily become vice, and that pure negative liberty erodes social harmony continue to afflict the body politic. So while history itself pushes back against parts of Niebuhr's thesis, it also proves why his advice is still important. We must not as a nation become blinded to our own faults by arrogance. Only by bringing these ironies into the modern sphere and challenging them can we improve this country's fortunes.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Talmadge Walker

    Published in 1952 when Joe Stalin was still in power in the Soviet Union, and the U.S. and it's allies were fighting in Korea, The Irony of American History is a critical examination of both Marxism and classical liberalism at the height of the Cold War. Niebuhr is more critical of Marxism, since in his view it acts as a secular apocalyptic religion which assumes that virtually anything can be justified in the pursuance of a final proletarian utopia, but he takes the Marxist perspective seriousl Published in 1952 when Joe Stalin was still in power in the Soviet Union, and the U.S. and it's allies were fighting in Korea, The Irony of American History is a critical examination of both Marxism and classical liberalism at the height of the Cold War. Niebuhr is more critical of Marxism, since in his view it acts as a secular apocalyptic religion which assumes that virtually anything can be justified in the pursuance of a final proletarian utopia, but he takes the Marxist perspective seriously, which you don't see in many other western critics. His criticism of classical liberalism (conservative foreign affairs and libertarian economics), while not as dire, is still biting. When left to their own ideological devices, bourgeois American conservatives are unable to critically examine their own positions in the world. Both wings of the ideological spectrum are hampered by the lack of honest self-evaluation, but the classical liberal side can at least be effective when it opts for a pragmatic rather than dogmatic approach to solving its problems. The book is slightly dated, which is no surprise since it is nearly 70 years old. Niebuhr points out that our history is never as glorious as we paint it to be, but he never makes any specific reference to the the decimation of the native American population or the enslavement of Africans. Although Niebuhr does mention the possibility that American classical liberals might dump pragmatism for a more ideological (and ultimately self-defeating) conservatism, he might very well be heart-broken if he were still alive today, when thoughtful Republicans are purged from the party as "RINOs" and politics is determined by the sound bite.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Dan Snyder

    Theories of history being my current fascination, I was directed to Niebuhr as a pessimistic speculative theorist. His concept of innocence and the insistence upon it as a main spring in the tension between prescriptive theorists is a marvelous thing. In the period of this writing of his, he notes the wounded innocence of America at finding itself a world power, and the feral communist scapegoating of America as an example of guilty bourgeois power. Guilt and innocence, the guilty opponent, the Theories of history being my current fascination, I was directed to Niebuhr as a pessimistic speculative theorist. His concept of innocence and the insistence upon it as a main spring in the tension between prescriptive theorists is a marvelous thing. In the period of this writing of his, he notes the wounded innocence of America at finding itself a world power, and the feral communist scapegoating of America as an example of guilty bourgeois power. Guilt and innocence, the guilty opponent, the innocent self, are the primary colors of the history of man. Perhaps we could derive some basis of moral relativism from this work (are you listening B. Obama?), but more importantly we should see the inescapability of this outworking. Man cannot escape his desire for innocence, a vantage point that may be claimed from which to dictate terms to the future. Equally, he cannot escape his entanglement with actual time and history, so that his point of view is subject to violent movement, and not a steady rock at all. Niebuhr points out again and again that the saving grace of overly technical achievement in the West is just that it is not overly self conscious. Because of the complex interworking of people in a society like America's, a veil of complexity is drawn over motives and plans. This is a grace. In Niebuhr's day, the materialists were aligned under a specific doctrine of revenge and righteousness. These patterns are visible today, righteousness the vicious soul of activism, revenge the blind activity of leveling. So far, the focus on 'narrative' instead of world spirit has kept the violence diffuse and ironically pointless.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jon

    Niebuhr is awesome, and his observations and ideas about American politics and history feel very relevant today. This book seems to be (I was never 100% sure I was fully tracking with the author because this subject matter is outside my wheelhouse) a study in 20th-century American foreign policy using a lens of irony. The greatest flaws in our foreign policy, Niebuhr contends, are deeply ironic. A couple examples. First, we have a lofty ideal of peace. The strength of this ideal, coupled with ou Niebuhr is awesome, and his observations and ideas about American politics and history feel very relevant today. This book seems to be (I was never 100% sure I was fully tracking with the author because this subject matter is outside my wheelhouse) a study in 20th-century American foreign policy using a lens of irony. The greatest flaws in our foreign policy, Niebuhr contends, are deeply ironic. A couple examples. First, we have a lofty ideal of peace. The strength of this ideal, coupled with our power on the global scene, demands we amass enough military power to crush forces that would threaten world peace. And so the nation that would presume to herald and ensure peace eventually controls (and uses) a nuclear arsenal. Second, we value economic prosperity, and even though much our nation's prosperity has come through luck (natural resources) and/or evil practices (slavery), we use it to commend democratic capitalism to the world. Meanwhile, our 20th-century foes pointed to our economic power as a signpost of our imperialistic impulse. So the very appeals we made to impoverished nations to urge them to adopt our ideals made them increasingly mistrust us and pushed them toward communism. The key to overcoming these ironies, according to Niebuhr, is to "come to terms with 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." I took away from this book that we all need to check our ideals and understand the limits and weaknesses of all ideological systems.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    Man's (aka human's) downfall comes because she does not recognize her own limits. That is the essential meaning I got out of this book. And I agree with it wholeheartedly. Mr. Niebuhr comes to history through a lens of theology, specifically Christianity. There were a few times in the book I wondered if that particular viewpoint made his statements suspect. But ultimately I decided it did not. If one were to take the religious view out of his theory, the idea that hubris will be the ultimate sin Man's (aka human's) downfall comes because she does not recognize her own limits. That is the essential meaning I got out of this book. And I agree with it wholeheartedly. Mr. Niebuhr comes to history through a lens of theology, specifically Christianity. There were a few times in the book I wondered if that particular viewpoint made his statements suspect. But ultimately I decided it did not. If one were to take the religious view out of his theory, the idea that hubris will be the ultimate sin of our "great nation" stands up to scrutiny. I have read a few other reviews and I cannot do any better than many of them. I can only say that the deep thinking of Mr. Niebuhr is on full view here and his thoughts are just as relevant today as they were in 1952. I often wondered what he would have written if alive and writing still today. I think we would all be better off if he were here to speak out.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alex

    'The Irony of American History' is the kind of book I like to highlight, mark up, write in the margins. This is the kind of book one doesn't passively read, but actively engages. And it's worth the effort. This book, published at the height of the Korean War in 1952, is a Cold War-era volume of political philosophy with a direct application to America's place in the world right now. With a clear understanding of the recently-defeated evil of Nazism and the then-present danger of Communism, Niebuhr 'The Irony of American History' is the kind of book I like to highlight, mark up, write in the margins. This is the kind of book one doesn't passively read, but actively engages. And it's worth the effort. This book, published at the height of the Korean War in 1952, is a Cold War-era volume of political philosophy with a direct application to America's place in the world right now. With a clear understanding of the recently-defeated evil of Nazism and the then-present danger of Communism, Niebuhr teaches the reader to embrace America's leadership position while remaining mindful of the essential irony of a self-proclaimed messianic "beacon on the hill" engaging in the same kinds of empire-building whose vilification forms an essential part of its own foundation. This is heavy stuff, and it isn't always an easy read. However, 'The Irony of American History' rewards serious readers by giving us fodder for deep contemplation on the subject not only of American history, but of the American present and future. Every serious American, particularly those of us working in the pol/mil/dip world, should read this book. It's important.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Peter Henne

    A classic anyone who's interested in US history or foreign policy will have heard of, and one definitely still worth reading. Niebuhr was writing in the Cold War, trying to warn America of over-confidence and a lack of self-criticism while also emphasizing the importance of fighting evil. This laid the foundation for the school of realism in international relations (although it went in a different direction starting in the 80's). It's also highly relevant for today. Obama mentioned Niebuhr was h A classic anyone who's interested in US history or foreign policy will have heard of, and one definitely still worth reading. Niebuhr was writing in the Cold War, trying to warn America of over-confidence and a lack of self-criticism while also emphasizing the importance of fighting evil. This laid the foundation for the school of realism in international relations (although it went in a different direction starting in the 80's). It's also highly relevant for today. Obama mentioned Niebuhr was his favorite philosopher and you can see why. Niebuhr called on America to be cautious and humble in its approach to the world, but still saw America as a potential force for good. He also warned about the nihilistic depths we might sink to if the illusion of American innocence and power faded, which is particularly relevant for today's politics...

  30. 5 out of 5

    J. Alfred

    "Great disproportions of power are as certainly moral hazards to justice and community as they are foundations of minimal order." The care of thought! The embrace of seemingly contradictory truths! The sentence structure! I really like this guy Niebuhr. If you care about America as a moral venture, you ought to read him. This book, from the early fifties, has as its working premise that Communism is a demonic evil and that America is the world's best defense against that evil-- about as conservat "Great disproportions of power are as certainly moral hazards to justice and community as they are foundations of minimal order." The care of thought! The embrace of seemingly contradictory truths! The sentence structure! I really like this guy Niebuhr. If you care about America as a moral venture, you ought to read him. This book, from the early fifties, has as its working premise that Communism is a demonic evil and that America is the world's best defense against that evil-- about as conservative a stance as you can get. It has as another working premise that America is generally mistaken, innocently or maliciously, about the ways in which it is right-- about as liberal a stance as you can get, given the confines of the first premise. A remarkable work, a remarkable mind.

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