The Continuing Irony of American History
June 1989By Charles L. Garrettson III
Charles L. Garrettson III is a lecturer in Religion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Some 35 years ago Reinhold Niebuhr, in perhaps his greatest work, The Irony of American History, addressed Americas changing role in the then new post-war era. Given that America today possibly finds itself at the dawn of an entirely new era, it is appropriate to consider what Americas role might be in this new situation. For Niebuhr, it was critical that such considerations involve the appreciation of irony because history itself is inherently ironic: as humans we wish to look to only the better part of our nature to the exclusion of our lesser part when thinking about our past. The irony, however, is that our past is neither as virtuous as our optimists think nor as vicious as our pessimists think. It consists, rather, of a mixture of comic and tragic elements, out of which comes irony. Thus the discernment of irony in history is an indispensable, perhaps the indispensable, tool for truly understanding it, and only by understanding it are we able to come to grips with it.
It could be argued that the irony of recent American history begins with Jimmy Carter. Throughout his 1976 campaign and on into his administration, Carter referred often to his being a student of Reinhold Niebuhr. Rumor had it that a Niebuhr volume sat by President Carters bedside, along with a Bible. The President reportedly often expressed his wish to have known Niebuhr before the latter died. This is ironic because had his wish been fulfilled it is likely he would have found himself being lectured by his ostensible mentor for being the very thing the latter made his career criticizing, namely, a naïve child of light.
Carter was a child of light he recognized a law higher than himself, as was evidenced, arguably, in his human-rights policy. Yet, there remains before us the picture of Carters shocked expression at the news of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, following on the heels of his earlier embrace of Leonid Brezhnev at the Vienna Conference of the same year. Because of his surprise at this Soviet aggression, he has been regarded as naïve and his political opponent and nemesis, Ronald Reagan, used this perception to considerable political effect in the 1980 campaign and afterwards. Fairly or not, Carters place in history is that of a leader who failed to make the distinction between the children of light and the children of darkness; oddly, this failure occurred all the while extolling the very person who made that distinction in the first place. The ironies continued, however, with Carters successor, Ronald Reagan. This is so, for, despite Reagans much touted realism, the truth is that he, too, has been a naïve child of light, though for a different, and more dangerous, reason.
Reagan, of course, has been regarded as one who recognized the children of darkness for who they were and acted accordingly. His actions, whether direct, as in the air strike on Libya and the invasion of Grenada, or indirect, as in the U.S. support for the Afghan resistance, including the crucial Stinger missiles, are even credited by many for the current striking condition of peace breaking out nearly everywhere: the Soviets pulling out of Afghanistan, the Vietnamese pulling out of Cambodia, etc. Given this, how can Reagan nevertheless be considered naïve, let alone his naïveté be regarded as more dangerous than Carters? The answer is that Reagan was naïve with regard to an even greater danger than the darkness from without, namely, the darkness within.
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