The Irony of American History

The Irony of American History

Reinhold Niebuhr

Language: English

Pages: 198

ISBN: 0226583988

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

“[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
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.
 “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 US foreign policy.”—Andrew J. Bacevich, from the Introduction

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have not learned) that high wages for workers make mass production efficiency possible. Perhaps it ought to be added that this insight was not a purely rational achievement. It was forced upon the industrialists by the pressure of organized labor; but they learned to accept the policy of high wages as not detrimental to their own in*Ibid., pp. 42-45. 56 PROSPERITY AND VIRTUE terests somewhat in the same fashion as monarchists learned the value of constitutional monarchy, after historic

"Mr. Dooley," the court decisions "followed the election returns." Long before the "New Deal" radically changed the climate of American political life the *At the tum of the century a Supreme Court decision declared that, "It is the constitutional right of the employer to dispense with the services of an employee because of his membership in a labor union." In another decision the Court declared, "To ask a man to agree fn advance to refrain from affiliation with a union-is not to ask him to give

More recently, housing, medicine and social security have become matters of public and political policy. All this has been accomplished on a purely pragmatic basis, without the ideological baggage which European labor carried. The development of American democracy toward a welfare state has proceeded so rapidly partly because the ideological struggle was not unnecessarily sharpened. It has proceeded so rapidly in fact that the question must be raised in America, as well as in the more

THE CLASS STRUGGLE these pretensions any force, even among prospective devotees. Thus, every aspect of the cultural crisis in the sleeping cultures of the Orient combines with the socio-historic tension between poor and rich nations to give this spurious religion a tremendous plausibility and attractive power. This ironic situation is heightened by the fact that the ethos in our technical and democratic world, more particularly in the highly favored American nation, is so different from that of

responsibility for it. He is the victim of untoward circumstances; or he has been caught in the web of mysterious and fateful forces in which no meaning can be discerned and from which no escape is possible. An ironic situation is distinguished from a pathetic 166 THE SIGNIFICANCE OF IRONY one by the fact that a person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is distinguished from a tragic one by the fact that the responsibility is not due to a conscious choice but to an unconscious

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