The Irony of American History

David Bromwich writes:

The jacket of this paperback reprint of The Irony of American History carries a comment by Barack Obama which attempts a summary of Niebuhr: ‘There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.’ That is a fair digest considering that it was extracted by a columnist on the run. But in Obama’s comment, too, something is missing and the something is not small. Niebuhr said that there is evil in the world; also, that there is evil in ourselves. Only if you take the second point with the first will you discern the depth of the madness in the claim by President George W. Bush, on 14 September 2001, that Americans are now in a position to ‘rid the world of evil’. Irony can turn into tragedy, and Niebuhr addressed that possibility in the last sentence of his book: ‘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.’ The Irony of American History was written as a sermon for Americans, a warning by a man of mind to the men of power whose habits of thinking he knew well. It has a more than historical interest today for all who wonder how closely the hazards have been reckoned, and with how much self-knowledge, by a nation whose vainglory fifty years ago seemed considerable but corrigible.

(LRB 29 January 2009)