American Classics

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952)

In the very last chapter of Reinhold Niebuhr’s influential (if oft-forgotten) work, The Irony of American History, Niebuhr asks his readers whether or not objective patterns can be discerned in the flow of history.  After all, liberalism and communism, the two most dominant ordering theories of the world of the 1950s, are in large part based on a theory of history and how it should “end.” The short answer, of course, is yes—but only if those who find such patterns do not make violence to the facts of history.  The question then transforms into whether or not interpretations of those patterns and facts are valid—and again, the answer is yes, but only if those facts do not “single out correlations or sequences of events, which are so fortuitous that only some special interest or passion could persuade the observer of the significance of the correlation.” (152)  In writing The Irony of American History, Niebuhr provides a framework through which we can interpret, organize, and create patterns out of the facts of history.  In order to do so, Niebuhr points us towards three broad categories: pathos, tragedy, and most importantly for Niebuhr, irony.  The Cold War conflict between liberalism and communism, and in particular America’s role, is Niebuhr’s case study for understanding those categories of history.

Niebuhr’s Life and Context

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was one of the most popular and influential Protestant, political theologians of the twentieth century.  The author of works such as Moral Man and Immoral Society, The Nature and Destiny of Man, and The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Niebuhr influenced many of the well-known thinkers from his own time, including George Kennan and Kenneth Waltz, Hans Morgenthau and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.  His continuing influence is felt even today—in an interview in 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama expressed his own interest in Niebuhr.[1]  Others, including former President Jimmy Carter and Senator John McCain have also written of the influence that Niebuhr has had over them.

Although highly influential, the path of Niebuhr’s life did not follow any straight lines.  As such, it is exceedingly difficult to box Niebuhr into one category or another.  During World War I, Niebuhr preached to his almost exclusively German-American congregation about the importance of American patriotism.  In the 1920s, as a young minister in Detroit, Niebuhr took up the cause of the industrial working class, a class facing persistent problems in the new but booming automobile industry.  In the 1930s, despite his concern for the working class, Niebuhr rejected the nominally working-class philosophy of Marxism—in large part because of the idealistic view that human reason is capable of solving all of man’s problems.  Niebuhr rejected the forms of liberalism that struck him as equally idealistic.  He advocated pacifism in the 1930s, but the aggressive actions of both fascism and communism turned him away by the start of World War II—in fact, Niebuhr became a strong proponent of American intervention in the war.

Following the defeat of fascism, and with the rise of the Soviet Union as a real threat, Niebuhr supported a strong role for the United States in the world, so long as it tempered its expectations of what was and was not possible to do.  Communism was already evil, but the liberalism of the United States held the same potential to become evil.  This was the world within which he penned The Irony of American History.  The United States had recently found itself unexpectedly fighting a war in Korea, a war apparently without end, in a place of which most Americans had absolutely no knowledge.  There were calls for widening the war to include China and even preventive war against the Soviet Union.  President Truman had apparently pledged American support for “free peoples” everywhere.  McCarthyism was nearing its peak.

The United States, Niebuhr recognized, possessed more power and influence than it had at any previous point in its history.  It faced a foe that it little understood, despite the similar origins between communism and its own defining political theory, liberalism.  And because of all this, it found itself unable to understand why, exactly, the nations in the world that came under the sway of communism could hate it.  Would not those nations mired in their own poverty want to emulate the success of the United States?  And so America found itself at war in Korea and, a decade later, in Vietnam (a conflict which Niebuhr famously opposed), against foes it little understood, and peoples with no interest in being just like it.  Niebuhr recognized these flaws in America’s outlook, and in writing The Irony of American History he brought attention to what he regarded as the dangers of attempting to remake the world in one’s image, to the dangers of thinking that one can know how history should end, and to the dangers of a foreign policy that is too idealistic.  In writing this book, and in setting it in the Cold War, Niebuhr turned our attention to three possible “moments” in history: pathos, tragedy, and irony.

Pathos, Tragedy, and Irony in The Irony of American History

Although, much as the name of the book suggests, Niebuhr focuses most of his efforts on the ironic element of American history (as, he says, it is the more revealing category), he does not shirk the duty of explaining pathos or tragedy.  While the ironic element might be the most revealing element of the three, an understanding of all the categories of history (or at the very least possessing the ability to organize facts into the three accordingly) is a requirement to fully appreciate the historical elements at work.

With this, albeit brief, explanation out of the way, how does Niebuhr define pathos?  Pathos is

That element in an historic situation which elicits pity, but neither deserves admiration or warrants contrition.  Pathos arises from fortuitous cross-purposes and confusions in life for which no reason can be given, or guilt ascribed.  Suffering caused by purely natural evil is the clearest instance of the purely pathetic. (xxiii)

And later:

Pathos is constituted of essentially meaningless cross-purposes in life, of capricious confusions of fortune and painful frustrations.  Pathos, as such, yields no fruit of nobility, though it is possible to transmute pathos into beauty by the patience with which pain is borne or by a vicarious effort to share the burdens of another. (166)

Admittedly, Niebuhr does not spend much time on the pathetic elements of history.  However, we can discern a few things from his definition.  First of all, unlike the other two elements, a pathetic situation is the fault of no one in particular.  A nation that finds itself in the throes of one disaster after another cannot necessarily ascribe guilt.[2]  Second, someone involved in a pathetic situation can recognize the pathos, whereas ironic situations are usually not discernible by their participants.  Those who suffer understand that they suffer, even if they might not know why.  Still, recognition of pathos does not “dissolve it since the participant does not bear responsibility for it.” (166) Third, as Niebuhr says directly, if borne with patience and a good nature, pathos can become a form of beauty.  Think, for instance, of a nation whose luck consistently runs bad, but whose citizens face their daily lives with an almost inhuman resilience, whose citizens do not allow suffering to break them, and whose citizens retain an unexplainable happiness in light of the pathos.  This does not make the pathos good, but it helps us to look at pathetic situations without being blinded by an irrational pity.

Niebuhr spends a bit more time describing the tragic elements of history.  He does so in part because the tragic element is a prominent part of the historical situation of the United States of the 1950s.  Tragedy he defines as the

Conscious choice of evil for the sake of good.  If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice.  Thus the necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument for the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation.  Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt. (xxiii-xxiv)

Tragedy, much like pathos, is recognizable by the persons or nations most commonly associated with it.  One cannot make a tragic choice unknowingly.  Thus, in Niebuhr’s age, the fact that the United States can only preserve world peace by threatening the use of atomic weapons is a purely tragic situation—a threat that cannot be abandoned but also makes the use of atomic weapons more likely.  Even more tragic, the use of nuclear weapons in defense of the physical world would totally subvert and destroy the moral aspects of the culture threatening their defensive use, even in victory: “The victors would also face the ‘imperial’ problem of using power in global terms but from one particular center of authority, so preponderant and unchallenged that its world rule would almost certainly violate basic standards of justice.” (2)  Furthermore, recognition that a situation is tragic does not dissolve its tragedy but in fact multiplies all of its tragic elements, as more often than not they are inescapable.

Tragedy, however, cannot color all of our views of life and history.  Although both liberalism and communism might argue that the actions they take, good and bad, are in pursuit of some good—in fact they would argue that they make “noble sacrifices” in pursuit of the good—a purely tragic view of life is simply not viable according to Niebuhr. “Destructiveness is not an inevitable consequence of human creativity.  It is not invariably necessary to do evil in order that we may good.” (157)  One does not always need to make a sacrifice to do good, and thinking that sacrifice is a consistent necessity, while certainly in line with tragedy, is invariably false.  And sometimes, a situation or element of history labelled as tragic is really actually ironic—and so, in the final sense, the tragic elements of history are ultimately subordinated to the ironic.  Tragedy requires that the ends of human freedom and creativity be evil and destructive (thus necessitating the noble sacrifice to prevent those ends), but there is absolutely no requirement that the ends of human life possess these qualities—and so what may be mistaken as tragedy really becomes irony.

But what is irony?  After all, among the three categories the facts of history can be organized into, Niebuhr classifies irony as the most important and relevant for the problems of his age.  Niebuhr defines irony as

Apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous.  Incongruity as such is merely comic.  It elicits laughter.  This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony.  But irony is something more than comedy.  A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity.  If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in 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. (xxiv)

Irony is further distinguished from pathos and tragedy.  First of all, someone in the midst of an ironic situation cannot recognize the irony—in fact, they require someone else to point it out to them.[3]  This is probably due to the fact that ironic situations are formed from an extreme accentuation of an aspect of the object involved.  How could someone, thinking that what they do is right, recognize that they take their strengths to such an extreme that they become weaknesses?  Thus, we come to the second distinction of irony from the other categories—once recognized, the ironic situation should dissolve.  The person or nation involved in the irony, recognizing that they have taken such an extreme position that positives have turned into negatives, will work to reel back to a more moderate position.  If it does not dissolve (that is, if the person does not take steps to remedy it), Niebuhr asserts, the situation will transform from an ironic one to a more purely evil one—the persons involved, recognizing where they are wrong, make a conscious choice to continue along that path.  While it is true that tragic situations are marked by conscious action, the ironic element of history that fails to dissolve does not elicit the admiration that someone consciously pursuing the tragic would.  Instead, the world would recognize the irony for what it has become—pure evil.

American History and Irony: American Innocence

Understanding what Niebuhr means when he writes about irony allows us to examine the “ironic” elements of American history.  And there are plenty of them.  We have already pointed to the tragic threat of nuclear weapons, necessary to keep the world at peace but disastrous if used.  But that is a surface-level, contemporary issue; ironic elements run deeper and longer.  And no wonder.  Since the participant in irony does not, by definition, recognize that irony, the situation will persist.  Niebuhr makes it very clear that the roots of American irony have existed since the very first settlers came to the shores of North America and based on their depth and nature will continue to exist for quite some time.

One of the ironies of which Niebuhr writes is the idea of “American innocence.”[4]  From the earliest Puritan settlers, through the Jeffersonian agrarians, and beyond, Americans have long believed that they occupy a unique, innocent position in the world.  They have stuck firm in the belief that the creation of America represented a solid break from Europe; that both the earliest and the newest Americans made a “new” beginning by moving across the globe, as if their prior connections to Europe meant nothing, as if the ideas they allowed to flourish were completely their own and not European in origin.  The idea of a new beginning has persisted in America ever since (Niebuhr quotes Alexis De Tocqueville encountering this phenomena in the 19th century, for instance).

All of this aside, Niebuhr points out that Americans have never been innocent—and, as such, to continue to proclaim innocence is ironic in that the accentuation of the belief leads to an inability to admit wrongdoing.  Ultimately, the accentuation of the belief would prevent Americans from exercising the responsibilities of power.  In domestic politics, especially, has so-called American innocence been ironic longest—most often in relation to economic arguments, as the mainline American ethic argues firmly that economic power should not be inhibited by political power.  Although it is true that the absence of a rigid class structure in America has prevented the wide-scale class conflict that has been a persistent problem in Europe, the mechanism through which class tensions were released cannot exist forever.  Niebuhr writes that when social tensions ran high in America, expansion first across the continent and then through innovations in the scientific sphere allowed those tensions to abate: “it can hardly be denied that the fluidity of our class structure, derived from the opulence of economic opportunities, saved us from the acrimony of the class struggle in Europe … When the frontier ceased to provide for the expansion of opportunities, our superior technology created ever new frontiers for the ambitious and the adventurous.” (29)  Ultimately, these amount to economic expansions.  And while many Americans continue to hark the “American Dream”, what they do not realize is that economic expansion, at least at the rate it has existed at in the past, cannot continue forever, and “ultimately we must face some vexatious issues of social justice in terms which will not differ too greatly from those which the wisest nations of Europe have been forced to use.” (29)  One might even go so far as to argue that very situation exists today, and to continue to insist on American innocence, as if there are not serious economic tensions at work in the United States, is to continue to perpetuate the problem.

However, even with this indictment of the irony of American innocence in domestic politics[5], Niebuhr is at pains to remind us that innocence in the domestic sphere has actually been moderated in practice.  Although on the surface many Americans fervently believe that the United States is dominated by bourgeois capitalism, common sense and experience have prevented that theory from running amok.[6]   As bourgeois or as innocent as we proclaim ourselves to be, “we have established a degree of justice which has prevented the Marxist movement from arising in our society in either its milder or more virulent form” and, further, “America is usually completely on the side of the bourgeois credo in theory; but in practice, it has achieved balances of power in the organization of social forces and a consequent justice which has robbed the Marxist challenge of its sting.” (90-91)  Americans might proclaim to the world that they are innocent, but they have been just as capable of adjusting their domestic experience when common sense and the demands of justice prevail.  The loss of expansion opportunities is mitigated by a sort of communal wisdom and long-term political practice.

And so, the ironic innocence in American domestic politics loses a little bit of its sting.  But how does Niebuhr describe the irony of American innocence in relation to the international world?  Very early on, Niebuhr makes it very clear that if Americans were as innocent as they pretended to be, “we could not be virtuous (in the sense of practicing the virtues which are implicit in meeting our vast world responsibilities)” (23).  But this is not even the brunt of his argument.  The perpetual myth of American isolation is deeply connected to the irony of American innocence.  The expansion of America across a continent assured to others that the claim of innocence was not as honest as it was pretended to be: “We were, of course, never as innocent as we pretended to be … The surge of our infant strength over a continent, which claimed Oregon, California, Florida and Texas against any sovereignty which may have stood in our way was not innocent.  It was the expression of a will-to-power of a new community in which the land-hunger of hardy pioneers and settlers furnished the force of imperial expansion.” (35) Manifest Destiny was manifestly guilty of the use of American power.

And yet, in relation to world affairs, Americans well into the 20th century continued to proclaim their innocence.  Believing that they were deeply different than the Europeans they broke from, “proved by the difference between their power rivalries and our alleged contentment with our lot” (36), they insisted on “neutrality” in the First World War until self-interest forced them into it.  Between World Wars, both American realists and pacifist idealists attempted to preserve the myth of American innocence by returning to a form of isolation.  Isolation may have worked in a world where travel and communication took place over long periods of time, but by the early years of the 20th century it was no longer a viable strategy.  The impossibility of continued isolation was reinforced by the fact that American power continued to grow exponentially greater than its potential rivals; if the belief in American innocence was not so deeply held, perhaps the United States could have responsibly wielded that power to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.  Still, the attempt at re-isolation following World War I ultimately did not prevent World War II from drawing in the United States.  It was only in its experience there that the United States came into its own in responsibility fulfillment: “We emerged from that war the most powerful nation on earth.  To the surprise of our friends and critics we seemed also to have sloughed off the tendencies toward irresponsibility which had characterized us in the long armistice between the world wars.  We were determined to exercise the responsibilities of our power.” (38)

Liberalism and Communism

As already mentioned, the idea of American innocence did not come out of nowhere; it has its roots, in part, in the liberal ideology.  And the idea of liberalism is just another ironic aspect of history.  Liberalism holds, much like the Christian conception of the beginning of the world, that man originally existed in a state of innocence.  But unlike the Christian model, liberalism holds that man can return, in this world (as in, man does not need a heaven), to that state of innocence.  As such, liberalism believes that there are manageable defects in human nature and the human environment.  It assumes that human nature is manipulable, which makes for utopian visions of historical possibilities and materialistic conceptions of human evils.  And finally, liberalism ignores the perils of economic power, instead focusing solely on the problems of political power (it does not seek to strike any balance or distinction between the two).  In short, liberalism tries to bring about the end of history, where the end of history is a return to the innocence of the original state of existence.

Liberalism is not alone in its belief in the end of history.  Communism, born of the same roots, also firmly believes in an end of history that can be obtained through human effort.  Communism, however, provides a much simpler route to that end.  Rather than manipulate human nature and the human environment, communists argue that history will end when the proletariat controls property—the possessor of power in communism.  It is much easier to lead a revolution in which property basically changes hands, to bring about the end of history, than it is to remake human nature.  Communism also takes the idea of innocence much further than liberalism.  Communists might argue that not only was there an innocent state of existence to begin with, but that all actions that they take in this world are imbued with innocence.  Finally, communists fail to make a distinction between economic and political power much as liberals do.  However, communists make the opposite mistake: they blame all human problems on the dangers of economics, rather than politics.  They, too, fail to find a balance in their ideology between these two kinds of power.

It is their belief in the “end of history” that makes both liberalism and communism ironic.  Again, Neibuhr is at pains to point out that the path of history cannot be known, no more than mere humans can claim to know how it is supposed to end.  For liberalism to claim that it knows how history ends sets it on a very dangerous path—especially since its method for getting there, manipulating or mastering human nature, can easily be taken to extremes.  In part, the problem is that it believes it is doing good by trying to reach the end.  But it is incredibly easy to take that good to such an extreme that it becomes pure evil.  Even before it reaches the point of evil, unconsciously pursuing the end is more than capable of doing more bad than good.  Irony pokes its head; what appears to be a good ultimately becomes an evil.  Niebuhr’s view is that communism has already reached this point.  Whatever “good” it is attempting to do is mitigated by the evil that it actually does.  By, for instance, assuming that all power is tied up in property, it ignores the power that a manager might possess—and thus, the evil that a manager can do.  One does not need to have “property” to have power, because power is more than simple economics.  When communists purposely ignore the critiques of their program from others, their ironic claim to do good turns into willful actions of evil.

Both liberalism and communism, then, suffer from very similar ironic situations.  Communism, however, has continued to suffer from the irony far past any point of redemption.  Niebuhr seems to be pointing towards the similar origins and ironies of liberalism and communism to show the dangers of liberalism treading too far down that path; and if communism cannot be redeemed, perhaps liberalism can.  And whether or not liberalism can is incredibly important for the prospects of America, possessing as it does liberalism at its root.

To Where Do We Go?: Niebuhr’s Suggestions for America

Indictments of American history and the improper paths of liberalism and communism aside, Niebuhr does dedicate an entire chapter in this work to America’s future, and what it can do to combat the problems created by American idealism and the ironies of American innocence abroad.   One problem, for instance, is the intersection of the tendency of Americans to think that with guidance other nations in the world can be just like them, coupled with the communist cry of the guilt of American imperialism and exploitation.  This leads to an inability among Americans to understand why there are many nations (such as, in Niebuhr’s time, in Asia) that “hate” them.[7]  Many Americans, equating prosperity with virtue, and seeing their society as prosperous (and thus virtuous) waste no time trying to convince others of the merits of their way of life.  And yet the fortuitous circumstances that coalesced to create American prosperity are not present everywhere—so, more often than not, American pleas fall on deaf ears.  While this might not necessarily be a problem, the insertion of communism into the international sphere turns it into one.  Communists tell the poor nations of the world that their poverty is due to the exploitation of the bourgeoisie.  These nations, in turn, blame the nation that presents itself as the most bourgeois, America, for all of their woes, despite the fact that (as in the previous footnote) their lack of resources, technology, or productivity standards might be more to blame.  By continuously presenting itself abroad as the most bourgeois in theory and practice (despite what we have seen to the contrary), the United States compounds these issues.[8]

Are the views of other nations, positive or negative, impactful on America’s presence abroad?  Of course.  So how should the United States proceed, in order to erase the traces of hate and blame that exist where communism has inserted itself?  And how can the United States prevent the further spread of communism to those places it has not yet reached?  The answer for Niebuhr is rather simple—rein in ambitions, recognize boundaries beyond which ambition cannot cross, and quit insisting that the world can be remade in America’s image:

The fact that this religion [communism] should have a special appeal to decaying feudal societies, which have been left behind in the march of technical progress of the western world is one of those imponderable factors of history, which no one could have foreseen but which can be countered only if we do not try too simply to overcome the ambivalence and hesitancies of the non-technical world by the display of our power, or the claim of superiority of our “way of life.” (141-142)

Shows of power and claims of superiority serve only to reinforce communism’s claims to the poor nations of the world about America’s guilt in their poverty.  Instead, the United States needs to be able to provide a more convincing argument for why those nations should try liberal democracy (without forcing it on anyone), it needs to provide the technical expertise that those nations are lacking (but only if they seek it from America first!), and above all it should leave alone those nations who wish to be left alone.  Respecting the boundaries of others, rather than attempts to remake societies unlike our own, is the only way the United States can counter the communist imperialism argument.

The cure to the ironies of American history and the persistent problem of American innocence require actions not dissimilar to those for combatting communism.  The United States, Niebuhr argues, above all needs to be able to rein in its idealism—indeed, to move towards a “reorientation of the whole structure of our idealism”:

The ironic elements in American history can be overcome, in short, only if American idealism comes to terms with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historic configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue.  America’s moral and spiritual success in relating itself creatively to a world community requires, not so much a guard against the gross vices, about which the idealists warn us, as a reorientation of the whole structure of our idealism. (133)

In short, much as how the United States needs, when dealing with the community of nations, to refrain from trying to remake less prosperous nations in its image, it needs to rein in the boundaries of its idealism.[9]  Humans are limited, human wisdom is never complete and nowhere near perfect, and power does not last forever (especially when it is spent in an unending attempt to mold the world into an unattainable ideal).  Americans would do well to remember these maxims in all of their dealings with the world at large.

The United States also needs to be willing to compromise, or synthesize solutions, with others—despite any disproportions of power.  Niebuhr cites the inclusion of West Germany into the family of nations in Europe as one such “creative synthesis”: “the tolerable solution of this problem was achieved by compromises between the American and the European position.  Thus a creative synthesis was achieved despite the hazards of disproportionate power.” (137)  The possibility of preemptive war during the Cold War is very real, Niebuhr warns, and so it may become even more necessary that a “creative synthesis” occur between the nations of Europe disinterested in waging another war, and an America preoccupied with winning such a war.  The United States cannot solve all of the world’s problems on its own; as such, it needs to be able to work with others to create plausible solutions to the needs of the day.

Niebuhr’s final suggestion comes on the very last page of his work, and very much in line with his ideas of restraint.  It is worth quoting at length, and letting it speak for itself:

There is, in short, even in a conflict with a foe with whom we have little in common the possibility and necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom, and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities; to a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities; and to a sense of gratitude for the divine mercies which are promised to those who humble themselves.

Strangely enough, none of the insights derived from this faith are finally contradictory to our purpose and duty of preserving our civilization.  They are, in fact, prerequisites for saving it.  For 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 vainglory. (174) 


The Irony of American History, as others have said, is a deep depth to plumb.  As such, in this essay I have only scratched the surface of what is there.  If I were to go longer, I could discuss the “unique individual” in human history, man as both creator and the created, the influence of Christianity on Niebuhr’s theory, and the possibility of world government (Niebuhr, by the way, says it would not be good).  In the end, however, we have a framework for his argument.  What is irony?  Are objective patterns in history discernible and understandable?  What is one of the major problems that the United States faces in relation to its current place in the world?  And how do liberalism and communism play into the world historical situation?  Niebuhr provides us with the answers to all of these questions.  And in doing so, he provides a structure through which we can analyze further the facts of history, the possibilities of American excellence and failure, and ultimately the whole set of ironies of American history.


[1] See David Brooks, “Obama, Gospel and Verse,” The New York Times (April 26, 2007),

[2] Although nations in clearly pathetic situations will often, in fact, attribute guilt to everyone but themselves.  See, in particular, Niebuhr’s discussion of the nations that accept the communist line of imperialism.

[3] “These ironic contrasts and incongruities, though obvious, are not always observed because irony cannot be directly experienced.  The knowledge of it depends upon an observer who is not so hostile to the victim of irony as to deny the element of virtue which must constitute a part of the ironic situation; nor yet so sympathetic as to discount the weakness, the vanity and pretension which constitute another element.  Since the participant in an ironic situation cannot, unless he be very self-critical, fulfill this latter condition, the knowledge of irony is usually reserved for observers rather than participants.” (153)

[4] Innocence meaning the avoidance of certain responsibilities of power.  This innocence applies to both the domestic and international spheres.

[5] And of course, as always, Niebuhr does have more to say about innocence—a rather long discussion of Puritan and Jeffersonian virtues that in the interest of brevity will not be touched on in this essay.

[6] Arguably, American innocence and bourgeois capitalism go hand in hand; beliefs that animate one side can be found active in the other.  For instance, the American Calvinist belief that prosperity is equal to divine favor slots right into the bourgeois capitalist ethic.  If any American can become prosperous by “pulling up their boot straps” and getting to work, a core part of the idea of American innocence can be traced back to bourgeois capitalism.  Further, the bourgeois ideology argues that economics should not be inhibited by politics; by denying the responsibility of reining in economic interests, American innocence connects back to the bourgeois capitalist ideology.

[7] “In this situation the hegemony of America in the community of the free world creates some curious moral hazards.  We are ironically held responsible for the disparities in wealth and well-being which are chiefly due to differences in standards of productivity.  But they lend themselves with a remarkable degree of plausibility to the Marxist indictment, which attributes all such differences to exploitation.  Thus, every effort we make to prove the virtue of our “way of life” by calling attention to our prosperity is used by our enemies and detractors as proof of our guilt.” (110)

[8] Chapter Six, “The International Class Struggle,” delves into these issues.

[9] Scholars such as Paul D. Miller argue that Niebuhr’s writings, taken as a whole, offer a somewhat different perspective on democracy than that which appears in Irony, taken in isolation.  Miller writes: “Niebuhr’s most extensive comments on democracy are elsewhere, in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (1944). Here, Niebuhr is strident, unapologetic, and explicit in his defense of democracy—a defense that suggests democratic ideals have universal applicability and should be the aspiration of all societies. Niebuhr then suggests—contrary to the realists who want to appropriate him—that the goodness of democracy should lead us, by love of our neighbor, to make its spread a part of our foreign policy. Niebuhr’s well-known complaint against Wilsonianism wasn’t that it was idealistic, but that it was naive. In Children of Light and the Children of Darkness he applauds the idealism of democracy, even as he understands that it will inevitably be hypocritical. . . . The effort itself is sound in principle; better to be a failed idealist than a successful cynic.”  Paul D. Miller, “What Realists Get Wrong About Niebuhr.” It might be argued, however, that The Children of Light was written during World War II and was intended to discourage Americans from reverting to their disastrous pre-war amoral isolationism.  In 1952, however, Niebuhr was concerned with the opposite problem: that of unchecked liberal sentiments applied to the complex problems of international relations.


For Further Reading

Bacevich, Andrew, “Introduction,” to Reinhold Niebuhr.  The Irony of American History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Brooks, David.  “Obama, Gospel, and Verse.” The New York Times (April 26, 2007).

Diggins, John Patrick.  Why Niebuhr Now? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Lemert, Charles.  Why Niebuhr Matters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Marty, Martin E. “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of American History: A Retrospective.”  The History Teacher, 26.2 (1993): 161-174.

Miller, Paul D. “What Realists Get Wrong About Niebuhr,” The American Interest.

Niebuhr, Reinhold.  Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, edited by Harry R. Davis and Robert C. Good.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960.

Plant, Jeremy F.  “Irony and Public Administration Ethics: An Examination of Niebuhr’s Irony of American

History and Its Relevance to Contemporary Ethical Problems.” Public Integrity, 10.3 (2008): 273-285.

Ribuffo, Leo P. “Moral Judgments and the Cold War: Reflections on Reinhold Niebuhr, William Appleman Williams, and John Lewis Gaddis.” In Cold War Triumphalism, edited by Ellen Schrecker. New York: The New Press, 2004.

Urquhart, Brian.  “What You Can Learn From Reinhold Niebuhr.” The New York Review of Books (March 26, 2009).

Wellman, David Joseph.  “Niebuhrian Realism and the Formation of US Foreign Policy.” Political Theology, 10.1 (2009): 11-29.

“Reinhold Niebuhr combined ‘tough-minded political realism with a sympathetic understanding of society’s injustices.’” Library of America. 4/1/2015. (This is an interview with Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, on the publication of a Library of America collection of his works).


Niebuhr, Reinhold.  The Irony of American History. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.