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The Irony of American History

4.03  ·  Rating Details ·  585 Ratings  ·  83 Reviews

“[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they

Paperback, 202 pages
Published 2008 by University of Chicago Press (first published 1952)
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Reinhold Niebuhr can be best described as an author of political theology. Though he draws a deep influence from scripture and bases his worldview on questions of faith, hope, and sin, he is not the bloody crusader we have seen over the past thirty years.

Niebuhr's thought straddles the two conceptions of american history, between the 'Puritan' moral ideal and 'Yankee' ideal of power. The United States, in time, became an exceptional nation. This was not necessarily due to any touted claims of m
Apr 03, 2008 J.A. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2008-books
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
Feb 13, 2010 Jon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jan 19, 2009 J. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010-reads
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
Nov 30, 2008 Raully rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"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 ...more
Daniel Clausen
Jan 16, 2015 Daniel Clausen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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,
Apr 03, 2011 Todd rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Astounding in it's prescience. The danger of failing to heed Niebuhr's prophetic words is as great today, if not greater, than when he wrote in the opening years of the Cold War. Like then we are today faced with a fanatical enemy convinced of the eternal rightness of his struggle, the existential threat is an equally self-righteous destructive tendency from within our own ranks, a reflexive hatred from the far Right. His economic analysis of internal dynamics of rich and poor within the Western ...more
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.
Apr 05, 2016 Whitney rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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 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.
Justin Tapp
In 2007, David Brooks interviewed candidate Obama and almost randomly asked him if he'd ever heard of Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama replied "I love him," and proceeded to give him a detailed summation of Niebuhrian thought. This was rehashed again in January when NPR's Speaking of Faith hosted a forum on the subject. You can download the discussion and other Niebuhr-related info.

I was apparently oblivious to all of this at the time. When Obama gave his Nobel acceptance speech, the media pundits all no
Henry Sturcke
May 18, 2015 Henry Sturcke rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the book rescued from out-of-print obscurity by Boston University Professor for International Relations Andrew J. Bacevich, who bought a copy for 10¢ at a yard sale, read it, and proclaimed it the most important work in its field. It gained further fame when candidate Obama planted a reporter with the question of who his favorite philosopher was. Add to this the fact that I enjoyed and profited from Niebuhr’s central work, the two-volume Nature and Destiny of Man, it is no surprise that ...more
Ubaid Dhiyan
Jul 04, 2013 Ubaid Dhiyan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
With dense but satisfyingly well constructed prose and in under 200 pages, one of America's great theologians put forth an analysis of America's perception of its position in the world, that is so current it is shocking. Reinhold Niebuhr juxtaposed the forces of liberalism and American 'bourgeios' culture against the 'religion' of communism and explains why both have evolved and flourished in their respective spheres of influence. He warns of the limits of actions wrought by idealistic thinking ...more
Dec 31, 2014 Ci rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: re-read-books
This book is a brilliant, eloquent, and poignant analysis of American history from Reinhold Niebuhr, an erudite Christian theologian.

To start, Niebuhr asked us to differentiate three different elements of history (1) pathos, which is due to cross-purposes of forces — elicit pity, but no admiration nor contrition. In other words, “stuff happened”. (2) tragic, which is conscious choices of evil for the sake of higher good — elicit admiration, guilt, and pity (3) “Irony consists of apparently fort
Niebuhr comes at the nature of international relations from his perspective as a professor of divinity. As such, the book does not read as straight historical analysis, but an examination of the philosophical soul of American life - from the Puritans and Jeffersonain ideal onward - and it's outward pretensions. The book is built upon collection of collegiate addresses that Niebuhr gave in 1951 regarding the precarious position of the United States as a newly emerged global power in the early yea ...more
Paul D.  Miller
Apr 06, 2014 Paul D. Miller rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
First reaction: Niebuhr is less profound than his reputation suggests. He dresses up obvious truisms (power corrupts) in overly-complex language. He layers on the skepticism about American power and virtue all the while claiming that he isn't falling prey to cynicism, but offers only a few lines reaffirming the goodness of American aims and beliefs, which gave me the impression that Niebuhr really is, in the end, the theologian of cynics. And not much of a theologian, by the way: he rarely invok ...more
Christian Dibblee
Not really sure what to say about this book. The philosophy in here does a great job debunking American exceptionalism.

I enjoyed how he focused not only on the inconsistencies of Marxism but also that we as Americans like to master the historical process. We have no sense that certain factors enter history totally unexpectedly, and instead try to foresee everything. In a great quote, he says a weaker America has a better ability to do that as opposed to a powerful America because we grow arroga
Kw Estes
Apr 25, 2010 Kw Estes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A couple things to say about this fairly short book, which was written by an extremely poignant political, religious, and moral thinker:

-It has very effective anti-Communist thoughts (it was written right at the beginning of the Cold War, when Stalin was still in power). It hits on many of the ideology's contradictions. This is not to make it sound like Niebuhr is any sort of anti-Leftist hawk--he's much more nuanced than all that.

-The most important idea in this book is an explication of the ir
May 13, 2008 Craig rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
After having read "Moral Man and Immoral Society", I was perhaps a bit disappointed that the main ideas of the 2 books were so similar. "Moral Man..." struck me in a way few books had before; my one criticism of that book was that he seems just a bit too enamored of Marx's ideas and too often frames the world through the lens of Marxist thinking (ie proletariats vs. burgeois, etc). "Irony" annoys me even more so on this front.

Also, given the title of this book, perhaps my expectations of the boo
Oct 29, 2013 M.J. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Written in the early years of the Cold War, The Irony of American History is at its core a call to moderation and humility in addition to being a critique of moral complacency in the West and the false moral centre of communism. Reading this book, one comes away with the sense that Neibuhr is a prophet. So much of the critique applies to the U.S. to this day and so many events that he seemed to suggest would come to pass did.

I feel unprepared to offer an engaging critique of the work. I feel tha
Paul Mullen
To be honest, this book is so densely constructed that I think I'd have to re-read it two or three times to pull out the full nuance of Niebuhr's argument. He was writing to a post World War II audience struggling with the Cold War realities of what came to be known later as Mutually Assured Destruction. His use of irony is rooted in the fact that it was many of the USA's strengths that were also its points of greatest weakness. He goes to great pains to show that the communist approach of "bles ...more
Adam Shields
Nov 18, 2010 Adam Shields rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Short Review: This is an oddly relevant book considering it was written in 1952 and based on lectures given in 1949 and 1951. Niebuhr is talking about the constraints of American foreign policy. In particular he is talking about the rise of communism but many of the principals are still relevant in our modern world with the non-state terrorist actors and the relatively minor dictators like North Korea. Obama has trumpeted his love of Niebuhr and that may have turned off some foreign policy conse ...more
Jan 04, 2014 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Reinhold Nieburh is clearly one of the great philosophers of our time. Having just finished reading this book, my head is still managing to wrap itself around the broad and complex concepts that Nieburh outlines in great detail. Throughout his analysis, Nieburh talks about the great ironies in American foreign policy, namely, our ability to accumulate immense power in the name of "idealism." Further he looks at the great ironies of communism under the Soviet Union, principally with the ideologie ...more
Tara Betts
I think the last two chapters summarized what Niebuhr is getting at. I originally heard about it when I was watching an episode of "Bill Moyers' Journal" and his guest was theologist James Cone. Cone has written extensively about black liberation theology. Niebuhr is one of the thinkers that Cone assigns to his students, and he is apparently a philosopher noted and quoted by the likes of recent presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, John McCain and the notable blurb from Barack Obam ...more
Jakob Hulten
Feb 09, 2017 Jakob Hulten rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Not a Christian but this is a fascinating book that anyone interested in where history is going should read. Also pretty meta tbh
Apr 25, 2009 Aaron rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Its hard to think of an American philosopher who’s stock is ridding higher (even setting aside that its hard to think of another American philosopher trading higher than Enron). Neibuhr’s Irony was cited as a favorite philosophical text by both political parties and makes up the pantheon of Very Serious Persons citations. However, on its own terms, it’s not clear why all political stripes should embrace this book as a guiding light. Neibuhr is not trying to write a guide to proper rule or power ...more
Spencer Critchley
A classic and a must-read for anyone interested in politics or the history of the 20th & 21st centuries. Especially valuable for its critiques of dogmatism and intellectual hubris, whether of the right, left, or middle. The Irony of the title refers to the ill effects that ironically proceed from moral self-certainty, in the absence of awareness that "man is both creator and creature" of history, cannot dictate its course, and should not be too sure he knows the divine will, whether the divi ...more
Rich Bergmann
May 30, 2014 Rich Bergmann rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A friend of mine said that you can not read Reinhold Niebuhr without coming away changed. I now know what he means.

Niebuhr writes with remarkable purpose and clarity, for sure. But that a work on religion, ethics, and politics originally published in 1952 is still relevant in 2014 is remarkable. While he wrote on the cold war and nuclear proliferation, the forward shows how this work is still relevant in the context of G. W. Bush's prosecution of the war in Irag, and it continues to be relevant
Mark Valentine
In essence, it is possible for a nation's perception of its history to function within its own confirmation bias of Exceptionalism, of believing that it can shape its own destiny, in thinking history is simple rather than complex. The delusion that our heritage has divine sanctity, that democracy can cure the rest of the world's ills and our frontiers were ours to seize and profit from because Others cannot value it like the business class contorts our sense of history.

Niebuhr takes issue with
Leonart Maruli
Jan 04, 2015 Leonart Maruli rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Sebagai seorang pendeta, analisa yang ia gunakan sangat baik. Ia berusaha menciptakan konservativisme (realpolitik dalam Hubungan Internasional) dalam lingkungan sosial Amerika dan menyerang liberalisme dan sosialisme karena menganggap keduanya utopia. Liberalisme dan sosialisme dianggap sama-sama melihat bahwa dunia ini bisa sempurna dengan akal sehat manusia sedangkan dalam kenyataannya akal sehat manusia selalu memiliki kelemahan seperti yang sering diungkapkan oleh para ahli psikologi kognit ...more
Written in 1952 in the early part of the cold war, Niebuhr looks at the challenges of young idealistic nation that has suddenly become very powerful on the world stage. In this "prophetic" vision, he "warns of "our dreams of managing history" born of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion.". (Bacevich). He emphasizes four truths: the sin of American exceptionalism, the indecipherability of history, the false allure of simple solutions, and the need to appreciate the li ...more
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U.S. theologian. The son of an evangelical minister, he studied at Eden Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School. He was ordained in the Evangelical Synod of North America in 1915 and served as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Mich., until 1928. His years in that industrial city made him a critic of capitalism and an advocate of socialism. From 1928 to 1960 he taught at New Yor ...more
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“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.”
“For man as an historical creature has desires of indeterminate dimensions.” 2 likes
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