“Niebuhr, a towering presence in American intellectual life from the 1930s through the 1960s, thought deeply about the dilemmas confronting the U.S. as a consequence of its emergence as a global superpower. The truths he spoke are uncomfortable ones.
“One persistent theme of Niebuhr’s writings on foreign policy concerns the difficulty that Americans have in seeing themselves as they really are. ‘Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation,’ he declared in 1932, ‘is its hypocrisy.’ Niebuhr did not exempt his own nation from that judgment. The chief distinguishing feature of American hypocrisy lies in the conviction that America’s very founding was a providential act, both an expression of divine favor and a summons to serve as God’s chosen instrument.
The Anglo-American colonists settling these shores, according to Niebuhr, saw it as America’s purpose ‘to make a new beginning in a corrupt world.’ They believed ‘that we had been called out by God to create a new humanity.’ They believed further that this covenant with God marked America as a new Israel.
“As a chosen people possessing what Niebuhr referred to as a ‘Messianic consciousness,’ Americans came to see themselves as set apart, their motives irreproachable, their actions not to be judged by standards applied to others.’ ‘Every nation has its own form of spiritual pride,’ Niebuhr observed in The Irony of American History. ‘Our version is that our nation turned its back on the vices of Europe and made a new beginning.’
Even after World War II, he wrote, the United States remained an adolescent nation, with illusions of childlike innocence.’ Indeed, the outcome of World War II, vaulting the United States to the apex of world power, seemed to affirm that the nation enjoyed God’s favor and was doing God’s work.
“Niebuhr had little patience for those who portray the United States as acting on God’s behalf. In that regard, the religiosity that seemingly forms such a durable element of the American national identity has a problematic dimension. ‘All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity,’ observed Niebuhr. ‘This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm.’ In the United States ‘the tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.’ ”
A Niebuhr quote (in Partisan Review, May-June 1952) not cited by Bacevich is startlingly resonant 56 years later: “We are almost in greater peril from the foes within than from the foe without. The foes within are the spirits of hysteria, hatred, mistrust, and pride. We are engaged in such a perpetual liturgy of self-congratulation about the vaunted virtues and achievements of the ‘American Way of Life’ that we not only make ourselves odious to the world but also rob ourselves of the political wisdom required to wield power in a world which refuses to be made over into the image of America. . . . [Our] foreign policy has been frozen into inflexible rigidity, and our cherished liberties are being engulfed. History has not revealed a deeper irony than the destruction of the spirit of democratic liberty in the name of devotion to it.”
Bacevich (professor of History at Boston Univ.) again: “We should recall the warning with which Niebuhr concluded The Irony of American History. Should the U.S. perish, the prophet wrote, ‘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 vainglory.’ ”
Bacevich comments on that last quote: “Change each ‘would be’ to ‘was’ and you have an inscription well-suited for the memorial that will no doubt be erected one day in Washington honoring those who sacrificed their lives in Iraq.” Incidentally, Bacevich’s son was killed in the Iraq war.
—Historically Speaking (bu.edu/historic/hs), January-February 2008Julio