Reinhold Niebuhr and American innocence

One of the more peculiar claims about the changes that took place after the World Trade Center attack is that it marked the end of American innocence. Reinhold Niebuhr was already casting a sceptical eye on American claims of innocence back in the 1950s:

Our pretensions of innocency therefore heightened the whole concept of a virtuous humanity which characterizes the culture of our era; and involve us in the ironic incongruity between our illusions and the realities which we experience. We find it almost as difficult as the Communists to believe that anyone could think ill of us, since we are as persuaded as they that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions.

Niebuhr sees two great historical traditions behind these American claims to special innocence and virtue: the New England Calvinist tradition of America as a nation set apart by God and Thomas Jefferson’s belief of a new beginning for humanity in an escape from corrupt Europe. Such claims, however, have never really coincided with reality:

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.

The climax, for Niebuhr, came at the end of the Second World War, with the development of nuclear weapons:

an “innocent” nation…finds itself the custodian of the ultimate weapon which perfectly embodies and symbolizes the moral ambiguity of physical warfare. We could not disavow the possible use of the weapon, partly because no imperilled nation is morally able to dispense with weapons which might insure its survival…But we also could not renounce the weapon because the freedom or survival of our allies depends upon the threat of its use…Yet if we should use it, we should cover ourselves with a terrible guilt.

What Niebuhr wanted was a delicate balance of idealism and realism, an acceptance by the US of the moral responsibilities that went with its power, but without too great a confidence in its own virtue. National interests had to be accepted, but policy could not be reduced to that:

We were drawn into the [First World] war by considerations of national interest, which we hardly dared to confess to ourselves. Our European critics may, however, overshoot the mark if they insist that the slogan of making ‘the world safe for democracy’ was merely an expression of that moral cant which we seem to have inherited from the British, only to express it with less subtlety than they. For the fact is that every nation is caught in the moral paradox of refusing to go to war unless it can be proved that the national interest is imperilled, and of continuing in the war only by proving that something much more than national interest is at stake…Loyalty to the community is…morally tolerable only if it includes values wider than those of the community.

Niebuhr wasn’t a realist in the degraded Henry Kissinger sense of believing that moral values were irrelevant in foreign policy. He was a realist in seeing the need on occasions to choose the lesser of two evils and in rejecting a retreat from the world to keep oneself morally pure. Reinhold’s America isn’t innocent, because it can’t be: it has to be streetwise and tough enough to exercise power wisely. Its claims of innocence are largely self-deluding: it has to ‘slough off many illusions’.

Fifty years on, has anything changed? After all, one of Bush’s bigger lies was ‘They hate us because we are good.’ After Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua etc, it’s harder for Americans to claim that their foreign policy is invariably positive. I think more Americans are aware of these problems and yet too many still seem able to believe that the US is a purely benevolent force in the world. In one way things have got worse. Niebuhr contrasted the American idealists and realists in their attitudes towards the foreign policy problems of 1950s. The idealists then were arguing for world government or unilateral disarmament, while:

The realists on the other hand are inclined to argue that a good cause will hallow any weapon. They are convinced that the evils of Communism are so great that we are justified in using any weapon against them. Thereby they closely approach the Communist ruthlessness.

In Bush’s America we have similar ruthless realists who yet claim to be idealists and appropriate and taint liberal values. Bush wants to make an end to tyranny in the world, via bombing and torture. Niebuhr has the neo-cons nailed though, long before ‘the end of history’ was proclaimed and the ‘reality-based community’ was declared irrelevant:

Communism believes that it possible for a man, at a particular moment in history, to take “the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.” The cruelty of Communism is partly derived from the absurd pretension that the Communist movement stands on the other side of this leap and has the whole of history in its grasp. Its cruelty is partly due to the frustration of the Communist overlords of history when they discover that the “logic” of history does not conform to their delineation of it. One has an uneasy feeling that some of our dreams of managing history might have resulted in similar cruelties if they had flowered into actions. But there was fortunately no programme to endow our elite of prospective philosopher-scientist-kings with actual political power.

Reinhold, thou shouldst be living at this hour. America (and the world) has need of thee.


One thought on “Reinhold Niebuhr and American innocence

  1. Were Socrates and Plato themselves to be living at this hour there’s no guarantee they’d be listened to.

    Citizens’ idea of the ‘goodness’ of their national regime derives from the degree of personal comfort and success they enjoy, from their formal education and from their own reflections based on what they read, listen to or believe.

    If a large majority has a reasonable standard of living then they’re more likely to accept the official version of history and current policy. There has to be a lively group of the disatisfied – on whatever grounds (economic disparity, discrimination, belief system) – to challenge complacency.


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