J.A.'s Reviews > The Irony of American History

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
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May 06, 08

Read in May, 2008

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.
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Quotes J.A. Liked

Reinhold Niebuhr
“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.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History


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