Daily Archives: June 1, 2011

Reinhold Niebuhr: America and the Promised Land

Reinhold Niebuhr died on this date in 1971 (born 1892). From a circa 1952 CBC radio review of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History:

American history is ironic, according to Dr. Niebuhr, because it has not turned out the way that the great Americans of the Revolutionary period expected. To Jefferson, for instance, America was the new Promised Land: it was making a new beginning in history, and was avoiding the mistakes of the past by getting rid of kings and nobles. As far as possible America turned her back on the rest of the world and tried to work out her own destiny. She got very rich and prosperous, and this seemed like a reward for her merits. But now Americans have suddenly found themselves, not out of the world, but practically holding it up, like Atlas. They also find that their prosperity, which has given them this position, is the very thing that makes it hardest for them to hold their allies. Now if America strikes an attitude of outraged virtue, she will succeed in isolating herself, and if she does that she’s done for. She has to realize that, with all her good will, a lot of the ideas she has cherished about her destiny are sentimental illusions, not very different from the illusions the Communists use as bait for mass support. The best American attitude for today is the one represented by Lincoln during the Civil War. Lincoln was sure of the justice of his cause, and he was convinced that the United States, like the world today, couldn’t survive half slave and half free. But still he warned against self-righteousness, against assuming that those who were fighting the Union were sub-human, and so he adopted the Christian principle of malice toward none, and charity toward all. (CW 10, 321-2)