The Irony of American History, etc.

There are few contemporary authors that I admire as much as Andrew Bacevich, a retired military man and professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  Bacevich’s most recent book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.  He has also written the introduction to a new edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History.  Niebuhr’s thought provides much of the inspiration for Bacevich’s thoughts in The Limits of Power.

These two books, and a third, The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did), are discussed in this article (on line) in the New York Review of Books — What You Can Learn from Reinhold Niebuhr, by Brian Urquhart.

The books by Bacevich and Niebuhr would both be on my list for recommendations to the APC book group in the political/current affairs category if we had not done several in this area already.

However, I would enthusiastically raise the flag for the essay in the NY Review of Books.  It’s got some great stuff.  I’ll just grab some parts of the essay.  Urquhart writes:

Prosperity and the country’s almost unlimited abundance were dominating forces in the growth of America. Niebuhr foresees the danger of an excessive national pursuit of gratification. In 1952, a powerful agent of mass gratification, television, was rapidly invading American homes. “Television,” he writes, “may represent a threat to our culture analogous to the threat of atomic weapons to our civilization.”  [“Amusing ourselves to death”, anyone?]

… and …

There has, from the country’s earliest Puritan years, Niebuhr wrote, also been “a deep layer of Messianic consciousness in the mind of America,” which the unprecedented scope and influence of America’s post–World War II power did little to discourage while vastly complicating the country’s involvement in world affairs. As to the universal values that the United States supposedly holds in trust for mankind, “we were, of course, not immune to the temptation of believing that the universal validity of what we held in trust justified our use of power to establish it.” Niebuhr quickly adds, “Except in moments of aberration we do not think of ourselves as the potential masters, but as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.” During the last eight years we have learned a good deal about “moments of aberration” and have, as a result, fewer illusions about our ability to manage historical destiny.  [Myth of progress, per John Gray??]

I love this quote from Niebuhr:

The pretensions of virtue are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power.

Urquhart quotes Bacevich quoting Neibuhr:

One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay that leads to death has already begun.

And this last paragraph in discussing Bacevich

“America doesn’t need a bigger army,” Bacevich writes. “It needs a smaller—that is, more modest—foreign policy….” Instead of the “war on terror,” containment should be tried in order to allow the Islamist threat to wither away. Efforts should be concentrated on major goals like the abolition of nuclear weapons or the reversal of climate change. His conclusion is fatalistic: “Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr’s axiom of willful self-destruction.”

I’ve only picked some parts on Niebuhr and Bacevich, and so doing distorted the thrust of the NY Books essay.  Read the whole thing.

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