The Irony of American History review

I already had on file most of the quote from Reinhold Niebuhr which I used in my last post 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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3 Responses to “The Irony of American History review”

  1. Thanks for this commentary. There is an excerpt from the book on the University of Chicago Press website that your readers might like to sample.

  2. Hey man: your review is really interesting. I’m diving back into non-fiction myself these days, so this will be a good one to have on my list. Interesting that he seems to have focused on the polemic tendency toward “American exceptionalism” as practiced during the Cold War; I listen to conservative talk radio every day during my commute, so it would be interesting to compare Niebuhr’s critique of ’40’s and ’50’s agitators to their current counterparts…

  3. This is an amazing book. In terms of international relations, it does rank as one of the most important books concerning American foreign policy in history. Unfortunately, this book is not taught as much as it should be in universities these days – Niehbur’s Christian Realism is drowned out by the hard realist views of Morgenthau or the pragmatism of Kennan. Yet this work is especially poignant in our times wherein the myth of American exceptionalism is glued to our very being as a nation.

    Obama’s interest in Niebuhr perhaps stems from his former pastor, yes the controversial one, Jeremiah Wright who also studied him . I wrote an article once about this here

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