The Self-Deceptions of Empire
David Bromwich is a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Moral Imagination: Essays, a collection exploring the importance of imagination and sympathy in illuminating the motives of human action and the reality of justice. The following is an essay from the book.
“Nations,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, “will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s eye; and individuals find it difficult enough.” The last six words crystallize the thought. Niebuhr’s political writings are an exhortation—part history, part criticism, part sermon—to hold nations as closely as possible to the individual standard; to make them recognize that even when they oppose a great evil, what they themselves embody still includes much evil. All of the good that a nation can do by violence is contingent; the evil is real and palpable. “Nothing is intrinsically good,” Niebuhr remarks, “except goodwill.” Hence the need for the discipline of prayer, a wish for the purity of heart to sustain the attention necessary for good will. “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other”: Niebuhr’s own most famous prayer imagines a life of patience and fortitude in which a great many satisfying actions have been refrained from, and strength has been shown in a fight against many evils, not all of them external.
He was born in 1892, in Wright City, Missouri, the son of a German pastor. His religious calling found him early—he was ordained in his mid-twenties—and he worked as a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928, where he supported the efforts of Ford workers to organize. He helped to found the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and later served as an editor of the liberal magazine Christianity and Crisis. In the years of his prime, at Union Theological seminary from 1928 to 1952, Niebuhr was the pre-eminent American Protestant thinker. And “thinker” is the only possible word: his range comprised theology, political theory, foreign policy, and the tactics of social reform. His views were disseminated in pamphlets, columns, book reviews and polemics, in religious and academic publications, but also in the Atlantic Monthly, the Nation, and the New Republic. He achieved wide renown with his arguments against the Christian pacifism that had been the dominant strain in Protestant intellectual circles in the 1930s; a teacher of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and an associate of Paul Tillich, he worked with as single a mind as theirs to draw the German people away from Hitler’s party. By the spring of 1940, when the lend-lease policy for Britain was first discussed by President Roosevelt and his advisers, Niebuhr was a firm supporter of American intervention in the European war. But not even at the height of the war, in 1942 and 1943, did Niebuhr cast himself as a “war preacher.” No argument from necessity, no certainty that the other side was worse, could wipe clean the fact that war is legal murder. In 1946, he helped to draft, and signed, the statement by the Federal Council of Churches which judged that “the surprise bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are morally indefensible,” and added:
Even though the use of the new weapon last August may well have shortened the war, the moral cost was too high. As the power that first used the atomic bomb under these circumstances, we have sinned grievously against the laws of God and against the people of Japan.
In a life of public acts and public speaking, Niebuhr gave a concrete sense to the work of seeing the beam that is in your own eye.
He did it characteristically by asking what we have in common with our unlucky brothers. How did the state, in Germany under Hitler and in Russia under Stalin, achieve so tight a hold on modern societies? What is the enchantment of such collective entities for people who are capable of thought but liable in critical times to lapse from citizens into subjects? A striking passage of Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) gave an answer Niebuhr would reiterate in his later writings:
Patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism. Loyalty to the nation is a high form of altruism when compared with lesser loyalties and more parochial interests. it therefore becomes the vehicle of all the altruistic impulses and expresses itself, on occasion, with such fervour that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed. The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation’s power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations.
This analysis is not, as it is sometimes taken to be, a melancholy defense of the necessary selfishness of nations. It is a lament for the fall of man.
The projection of the generous instincts of self-sacrifice from the individual to a collective object is a psychological jump that contributes a new and unnecessary evil to the life of society—unnecessary because it goes beyond the minimum necessary evils of regulation, coercion, and punishment. The allure of the gregarious satisfaction—as if a team by a victory did more than a person through love—makes a promise only fantasy can deliver, against which reason is helpless and conscience cannot find itself. In action on behalf of the group, I do for my kind (whether they need it or not) what I will not do for a stranger: an inversion of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Yet a large portion of the other-regarding energies which seem a fortunate condition of social life, could never be summoned without the substitution by which I donate my conscious will to a larger and unthinking not-me. The process, indeed, is close to the fictive transfer of properties that we come to know in allegories and in dreams; and there is no doubt, says Niebuhr, that this “combination of unselfishness and vicarious selfishness” is the main element that goes to form the sentiment of nationalism. Vicarious selfishness: what a troubling thought lies buried in that phrase. And it has the temperamental accent of Niebuhr, striving against the flattery of the cheap comfort.
In Gandhi alone among modern thinkers, Niebuhr detected a possible method for averting the transfer of unselfish sentiments to the state and the consequent downward sublimation of fellow-feeling into national loyalty. Non-violence, taken as a principle, may counteract the most pernicious of collective fictions, because it robs enmity of its sting. By exposure to the tactic and to the underlying principle of non-violence, the oppressor is made to see his own actions in a starker light. Also, Niebuhr observes, the method of non-violence works to “rob the opponent of the moral conceit by which he identifies his interests with the peace and order of society.” Who is disturbing the peace when a policeman assaults with a club a man and a woman standing quietly in a boycott line? Niebuhr speculated in 1932 that “the emancipation of the negro race in America probably waits upon the adequate development of this kind of social and political strategy.” As it fell out, many of the civil rights leaders who worked closely with Martin Luther King had been trained by Niebuhr’s students, or were conversant with his thinking. King’s great “Letter from Birmingham Jail” would mention Niebuhr as a source of the precept that “groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”
For King himself, according to his biographer David Garrow, Moral Man and Immoral Society was an early and crucial influence. it turned him away from the social-gospel Christianity that looked on war as a unique enemy of progress; Niebuhr, by contrast, taught that war was only one manifestation of that selfishness by which the more benevolent instincts are narrowed and misprized. Yet—and the reservation is typical—much as Niebuhr admired Gandhi for the deliberateness of his campaign to lift the oppression of an empire without reliance on cruelty or revenge, he took care to add that non-violent resistance was often itself a case of the lesser evil. Some of its acts of willing self-sacrifice called for the sacrifice of unasked persons elsewhere: “Gandhi’s boycott of British cotton results in the undernourishment of children in Manchester… It is impossible to coerce a group without damaging both life and property and without imperiling the interests of the innocent with those of the guilty.”
His argument against the self-justifications offered by a righteous nation at war is, a fortiori, an argument against empire: “No nation has ever made a frank avowal of its real imperial motives. It always claims to be primarily concerned with the peace and prosperity of the people whom it subjugates.” Nor is any political or economic system exempt from this corruption of the will. Moral Man and Immoral Society saves its deepest scorn for the idea that there could be a society free of selfishness and the wish to dominate. Nikolai Bukharin, the theoretician of world Communism, supposed that a war between two Communist states was “an impossibility by definition.” Niebuhr quotes the Bukharin axiom and comments that such self-overcoming is improbable for Communism and equally improbable for capitalism: “A trading civilisation is involved in more bitter international quarrels than any civilisation in history.” Better-paid functionaries than Bukharin, in the commercial democracies today, have excogitated the theory that two democracies by definition can never go to war: a deduction all history is said to confirm. Niebuhr recognized that such maxims of social science were a fiction devised by juggling the names of classes of governments and classes of events. If Athens and Sparta were democracies in 431 BC, the theory is false.
If you want a nearer instance—and a case Niebuhr had plainly considered—look at the political character of Germany in the mid-1930s. Starting on March 23, 1933, Hitler enjoyed the powers, as Konrad Heiden put it, of a “dictator, created by democracy and appointed by parliament.” As late as 1935, Winston Churchill could speak of Germany as a democracy that had strayed from itself; and he could wonder if Hitler might yet prove the leader to bring Germany back “serene, helpful and strong, to the forefront of the European family circle.” When, on March 7, 1936, German troops marched across the Hohenzollern Bridge to occupy the Rhineland—an act of war in defiance of the Versailles Treaty—the bloodless infraction could appear a correction by armed forces of a glaring international wrong. You would think it so if you wanted to think it so. One might more truly call it an act of war by a confident but poisoned democracy against a weak and nerveless democracy. The political arrangements of democracy, as Niebuhr took pains to say, carry with them no built-in immunity against such selfish acts.
Niebuhr was dismayed by the coming of the Cold War, as only a disappointed socialist could have been dismayed. The Second World War, he wrote in his pamphlet The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), appeared to signal a drastic reform of bourgeois society. He thought this both necessary and good; and he believed that Britain was better adapted than America to the “social friction and convulsion” that would ensue. America had given to “bourgeois illusions” an outsize plausibility, but soon it would be generally understood that “property rights” inevitably “become instruments of injustice.” This was only a slight modification of the hope, expressed in Moral Man and Immoral Society, that “perhaps Communism will furnish the criticism which will save parliamentary socialism from complete opportunism and futility.” The need remained for a current of thought to oppose capitalism: this did not end with the Second World War and the discovery of non-denominational evil in the totalitarian menace. Every nation is subject to a massive complacency: no group, therefore, which “does not stand partly outside of the nation” will ever “criticise the nation as severely as the nation ought to be criticised.” Niebuhr was at most a contingent nationalist, and American history as he saw it was to be judged without giving the benefit of the doubt to national good intentions. On the contrary, the United States, in The Irony of American History, is presented as a nation possessing the usual attributes of nations. It is the ascendant power in 1952, and the world could do far worse, Niebuhr implies; but it shows the characteristic deformations of every proud and aggrandizing country.
The Irony of American History treats America as the self-unknowing protagonist of a new struggle. Soviet Russia is taken to embody the greater evil about which little need be said. The book—drawn from two series of lectures, given in May 1949 and January 1951—instructs Americans to use our power when necessary in order to defend the freedom we value for good reasons; but we are warned not to suppose ourselves disinterested or free from corruption. Niebuhr’s socialist beliefs have survived the twenty years of depression and war with impressive integrity. He declares as a strength of postwar American life the broad acceptance of organized labor and of the justice of collective bargaining; it remains a far from happy circumstance that “the debate in the Western world on the institution of property was aborted in America.” The book presses hard against the assumption of native virtue and the dangerous pride of a nonexistent innocence. Americans like to think good things have happened to us without greed, that our conquests were entailed on us without the lust of dominion. This defect of self-knowledge mars our capacity for intelligent action, but chiefly, according to Niebuhr, in foreign rather than domestic policy; in the latter, Americans “know ourselves to be less innocent than our theories assume”: at home, we have “builded better than we knew because we have not taken the early dreams of our peculiar innocency too seriously.” He draws a strong contrast here with Soviet Communism, which believed its own dream of “a frictionless society” within its borders. (Frictionless is a pejorative word that recurs interestingly in the book; the anti-utopian skepticism of Niebuhr’s analysis is matched by a positive belief in the clash of ideas.)
The U.S. differs from the Soviet Union, he thinks, in looking to achieve its ends “by moral attraction and imitation.” In the years of the Marshall Plan, this was true to a degree that subsequent policies have made easy to forget. Niebuhr alludes just once to a darker possibility: “Only occasionally does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power and use it in order to gain the ideal ends, of which providence has made us the trustees.” But he brings up the convergence of idealistic reasons and imperialist aims only to dismiss it: so long as the stakes of a miscarried war remain as high as they appear, no leader will succumb to such a delusion. Half a century later, he can hardly be held to answer for that notable underestimate. Yet even for the time, he pours a curiously misplaced vehemence into an attack on what he calls the “temptation” of “isolationism.” It was, in truth, not much of a temptation in the last months of the Truman administration and the second full year of the Korean War. What explains this turn of the argument? It seems possible that the warning against isolationism is a veiled reference to McCarthyism (which kept foreign nationals out of America, but did not keep American troops out of foreign countries). If that is the point, the tactic is over-subtle. Another odd detail, when you look at the rhetorical economy of the book, is that senator Joe McCarthy is never mentioned by name—though Niebuhr in fact did much in these years, both in public and in private, to protect old friends and associates from the slanders of the anti-Communist hunt. A likelier target in the attack on isolationism is the diplomat George Kennan. His name does come up, and Niebuhr mostly agrees with the “containment policy” of which Kennan was the architect. He rather dislikes the fatalism with which Kennan resigned himself to letting the Soviet Communist threat burn itself out. Not the policy but the rhetoric of containment was too moderate for Niebuhr’s taste. It comes to a difference of shading, perhaps, without practical consequence; but one may feel in retrospect that Kennan’s fatalism has worn surprisingly well.
Niebuhr’s advice to shun an “isolationism” that constitutes a moral “temptation” closes the argument before his reasons can be entered into. He seems to have wished for a policy that was bold, but not too bold; an encouragement to militant friends of the U.S. but not a provocation to wars. A temptation ought to be resisted—the foregone conclusion belongs to the definition of the word. Niebuhr might have faced a harder climb had he renamed his isolationist opponent an “anti-interventionist” and declared himself in favor of an interventionist policy that stops short of imperialism. In this stretch of the polemic, he may be collapsing the American mood of 1952 with the mood, a world apart, of 1936. A year after his book was published, the CIA fomented the coup against Mossadegh in Iran; a year after that, the coup against Arbenz in Guatemala: covert interventions whose success would make for an utterly different temptation. Yet Niebuhr seems still in search of a eulogistic cover for interventionist policy when he writes that “human life is healthy only in relationship.” Why accord relationship so peculiar a value among nations unless you are (as Niebuhr was not) a cosmopolitan quietist of the school of Hume? This looks like importing into collective psychology a value that has its significance only in the life of the individual: precisely the fallacy that Moral Man and Immoral Society had warned against. It must be added that the wider motive for his use of “relationship” turns out to involve a useful warning. Nations ought not to be judges in their own cause. If they want judges who are adequate and not hostile, they had better keep up international relations.
In all his political books, Niebuhr works out his thoughts by a condensed paraphrase of the thinkers who have helped him—both those whom he admires, like Kierkegaard and Burke, and those he largely rejects such as Dewey and Rousseau. His favorite device is the capsule narrative of intellectual debates juxtaposed with recent historical events. But there is a second, quite distinct, mode of persuasion that becomes very marked in The Irony of American History. The prose sometimes rises to an intensity that is close to prayer. These moments are infrequent, and they arrive suddenly; the context offers no preparation for a paragraph like this:
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.
It is a warning against empire and, more generally, a reminder of the futility of hoping for moral effects from political action. No italics mark the place, but most readers of the book will certainly pause.
If one could abstract a single idea from Niebuhr on the corruption of morality by politics, the thought would come to this. Only the guiltless deserve to wield power; but the guiltless do not exist in politics, for power makes the powerful guilty. No man can rule innocently, and what is more, none can stay innocent for two moments in dealing with hostile powers, or even with friendly rivals. What Americans have construed as our goodness was always, to an embarrassing extent, the result of good fortune and the advice of prudent framers. Nothing about the nature of the United states will guard Americans from the self-deceptions of empire; these are an evil incident to the conquests of war, and every nation “is caught in the moral paradox of refusing to go to war unless it can be proved that the national interest is imperiled, and of continuing in the war only by proving that something much more than national interest is at stake.” The process of exaggerated reason-giving breeds a popular susceptibility to new threats where none exist. “Perhaps the most deleterious consequences of imperialism,” Niebuhr concludes, occur in “the spiritual rather than the economic realm.” He means what imperialism does to the colonizer as much as to the colonized.
Most of the world’s evil is conceived and executed not by wicked persons but by dedicated officers and time-servers. “This might be myself” seems, therefore, an apt response to any glimpse of the workings of a brutal system; and Niebuhr, casting his eye over the Soviet renditions and camps under Stalin in the 1940s, makes a point of saying, not in a subordinate clause tucked into a penultimate chapter but in a staring sentence on page three:
“One has an uneasy feeling that some of our dreams of managing history might have resulted in similar cruelties if they had flowered into action.” Fortunately, he adds, no set of Americans will ever ascend to anything like the control over unchecked power that has become possible in the Soviet system. But the crucifixion is reenacted in every age and in every society; and the cause is not only cruelty but blindness—the instructed and thoughtless compliance of judges of every nation, and priests of every sect.
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.
When Niebuhr searches for an example of a political actor who exhibits true forbearance and charity, he finds only one, Abraham Lincoln; and if we are looking at the leaders of larger powers in times of war, Lincoln is perhaps the only example modern history affords. Niebuhr admired Churchill as most Americans did and do, but he seems to have recognized that Churchill was thrilled by war and always lived for a contest of some sort. Churchill, too, was apt to suppose that the children of light were not much streaked by darkness. How could one relish the fight while burdened by the reservation? Lincoln, somehow, led his country in a war without coming to love war in any way at all; and when the Civil War neared its end, he gave an explanation of its moral causes in the second inaugural. There was wrong on both sides: if a God was at work in the war, he must have sent its sufferings as a punishment to both sides—the North for its connivance at oppression and the South for its active extension of the evils of slavery. And this is the note struck by Niebuhr in the peroration of his book. Near the start of the Cold War, the message he believes most worth sending to the rulers of the United States is that there is wrong on both sides.
“Irony” is a word that grows more elusive and complex as this argument advances. In the irony of American history (sense one), the United States was rescued from the evils of individualism by the excesses of individualism, which created the necessity for large-scale economic reforms in the 1930s. Americans were thereby saved from the illusion that their way of life was so good that it ought to spread everywhere; yet what saved them was the emergence of an idealism opposed to theirs. Communism, on this view, is a monstrous growth of the utopian germ in democracy itself; and America now confronts a system exhibiting “evils which were distilled from illusions, not generically different from our own.” A steady theme of the book is that the kinship between liberalism and Communism may help us to forgive the development by which Communism became the greater evil, and make us less self-congratulatory about the crossing of fate with character by which America was spared the success of the Communists. But they are never alien, for Niebuhr. Their idealism, without distortion, would be an extension of recognizable American beliefs. That your enemy resembles yourself is the primary lesson to be extracted from the irony of the cold War. Besides, America, in the behaviorist ideology of the social sciences, and in the rationalizing theory of the rational market, has produced its own version of bad utopianism. “Whether or not we avoid another war, we are covered with prospective guilt. We have dreamed of a purely rational adjustment of interests in human society; and we are involved in ‘total’ wars.”
The practical teaching of the later chapters centers on the maxim that in order to retain international power, a country must use it with consistent restraint. A more particular lesson may be learned, Niebuhr believes, through the spectacle of a hero entangled in “pretensions which result in ironic refutations of his pride.” The point is forcibly made in the preface, with a rolling cadence of indignation that cools the fervor of Kipling’s “If”: “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.” So irony (sense two) differs from tragedy, for Niebuhr, because it springs from unconscious weakness and not completed action; and once brought to light, “an ironic situation must dissolve, if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it.” There will be “an abatement of the pretension, which means contrition.” He wrote the book with the aim of producing such an “abatement.”
Yet Niebuhr finally speaks of an irony (sense three) that springs from the gradual perception of the faults not of a situation but of a system, and indeed of any system. We laugh initially at Don Quixote because we can penetrate the illusions he takes for realities; only later do we laugh “with a profounder insight at the bogus character of knighthood itself.” The allegory hardly requires translation: Niebuhr is pointing to the inappropriateness of commercial democracy as a gospel for the world. This was not a pleasant reflection to offer the Truman administration, and it would have been even less happily received by the Clinton administration. The fall of Communism, as Niebuhr all but prophesied, has permanently deadened the capacity for irony among those who took credit for the triumph. Power, as John Adams wrote in a passage Niebuhr cites,
always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s ser- vice when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party.
Good intentions are the watchword of the approving ego. And in American discussions of foreign policy, the good intentions of the United States are assumed.
Niebuhr hoped Americans would become chastened heroes—Quixote at the end of his story, as seen by the reader, not Quixote at the beginning as seen by himself. But for that to happen, we must become enlightened spectators of ourselves. And what has this to do with Christianity? Niebuhr says that “the Christian faith tends to make the ironic view of human evil in history the normative one.” The only judge he can imagine who would forgive the contending parties in a world-historical agon in which both are wrong, is God. If history were a novel, we could say the judge was the author—Tolstoy in War and Peace is Niebuhr’s example. But however we imagine the necessary distance of the accusing and forgiving judge, an ironic view “is achieved on the basis of the belief that the whole drama of human history is under the scrutiny of a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.” The opposite of the honest judge is the person who says of his social group, “We are good.” From such a person nothing good can ever be expected.
Niebuhr’s anti-messianism might seem a form of skepticism if his doubts were not so plainly qualified by a belief in two things: the good of knowledge achieved by self-examination, and the good of prayer as an act of attention that carries beyond the utterance of the words. A member of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, a “quasi-Congregationalist,” he was never a parochial Christian. Twice in this book, he speaks appreciatively of Bertrand Russell, and he alludes to “A Free Man’s Worship” to indicate an attitude of humility close to his own. His daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, in her affecting memoir The Serenity Prayer, quotes an exchange with Felix Frankfurter in which the distinguished lawyer and family friend said once to Niebuhr, after hearing him reason and espouse: “May a believing unbeliever thank you for your sermon?” Niebuhr replied: “May an unbelieving believer thank you for appreciating it?”
Most American liberals today—and let us agree to mean by this: believers in the improvement of the world through free trade and the triumph of appropriative man—are sure that they know the people who ought to run things. Stringent checks on the power of such people are beside the point; they will do the job well. They also firmly believe that, all things taken together, America is to the world of nations what the right people are to the world of people. This feeling cuts across party lines. It was Bill Clinton and not George W. Bush who first withheld the U.S. from recognition of the authority of the International Criminal Court: America was too important, its constabulary duties too serious and far-flung, to allow us the time or patience to submit to every complaint or passing injury imputed by a citizen of Salvador or Sudan. What the good require, in order to become better, are not, according to this liberal creed, checks on their power but rules to guide their policies and actions. Hence the utility of the academic codification of just wars, first strikes, and so on. Liberals cannot conceive that the right people with the right policies could be fundamentally questionable; they do not credit the idea of an original sin of politics, or believe that the foreseeable deadly consequences of war are part of a war’s intention in the eye of conscience. They believe in good intentions and good outcomes too much to nurse a deep distrust of power because it is power.
The answer to their self-confidence is all over Niebuhr’s writings. Yet it has always been possible to emphasize his tactical argument against isolation, and to forget his central warning against the fallacy that might makes right. Niebuhr therefore held a partly misleading prestige among the practitioners of liberal anti-Communism, from the Berlin airlift to the Vietnam War. He was an attractive hero to persons for whom the year was always 1938 and diplomacy was always Munich. Yet the interventionists of three generations have found him in the long run a difficult ally. In 1965, he deplored the mistaken assumption of an old friend, Hubert Humphrey, in “claiming my anti-Nazi stance of the 1930s for the present war.” The truth was that Niebuhr in retirement judged Vietnam a catastrophe—not a failure of democratic persuasion and military planning, but, rather, a case of the sheer destructiveness that springs from the arrogance of power. Lately some opinion makers who urged the moral necessity of the Iraq War have brought up the name of Niebuhr to suggest that the spirit of intervention may yet be purified. In an essay in the New York Times Magazine in 2006, Peter Beinart took Niebuhr to be saying that even though Americans “fight evil,” this “does not make us inherently good.” But for Beinart “paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse… The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world.” But Niebuhr, with reason, was very sparing in his references to national greatness. And “American exceptionalism”? There were no exceptions in morality; none at all.
The jacket of a 2008 paperback reprint of The Irony of American History carries a comment by Barack Obama that attempts a summary of Niebuhr: “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.” That is a fair digest, considering that it was extracted by a columnist on the run. But in Obama’s comment, too, something is missing and the something is not small. Niebuhr said that there is evil in the world; also, that there is evil in ourselves. Only if you take the second point with the first will you discern the depth of the madness in the claim by President George W. Bush, on September 14, 2001, that Americans are now in a position to “rid the world of evil.” Irony can turn into tragedy, and Niebuhr addressed that possibility in the last sentence of his book: “If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the 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 blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vain-glory.” The Irony of American History was written as a sermon for Americans, a warning by a man of mind to the men of power whose habits of thinking he knew well. It has a more than historical interest today for all who wonder how closely the hazards have been reckoned, and with how much self-knowledge, by a nation whose vainglory fifty years ago seemed considerable but corrigible.
Excepted from Moral Imagination: Essays by David Bromwich. Copyright © 2014 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.