Volume > Issue > The Continuing Irony of American History

The Continuing Irony of American History


By Charles L. Garrettson III | June 1989
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 America’s 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 America’s 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 Carter’s 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 Carter’s 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, Carter’s 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 Carter’s suc­cessor, Ronald Reagan. This is so, for, despite Rea­gan’s 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 Carter’s? 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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