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Besides being the quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage, 1992 has also been the centenary of the birth of the American churchman Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). From the 1930s through the 1950s, Niebuhr was regarded by many as a kind of prophet, a public theologian who could explain modern discontents and upheavals in language that was explicitly Christian—or “biblical,” as he sometimes put it, acknowledging the common inheritance of Christians and Jews.

One of the most impressive tributes of this centennial was provided by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Writing in the New York Times on the occasion of Niebuhr’s birthday, Schlesinger described his old friend as “one of the great Americans of the century.” The son of a Midwestern immigrant pastor, Niebuhr rose to become a distinguished professor (at Union Theological Seminary in New York), a tireless lecturer and preacher, and a prodigious writer of books and articles on theology, history, foreign policy, politics, and culture. To an intellectually superficial and blithely secular generation raised on “optimistic convictions of human innocence and perfectability,” this politically liberal clergyman spoke compellingly about the reality of evil and sin. Yet the inevitability of human egotism was not used to justify an authoritarian political order; on the contrary, Schlesinger recalls, Niebuhr “persuaded me and many of my contemporaries that [belief in] original sin provides a far stronger foundation for freedom and self-government than illusions about human perfectability.” A modicum of justice, Niebuhr held, is best attained through a balance of power between contending factions or classes within a democratic framework. Schlesinger writes, “Of all his thoughts, I treasure this the most: ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’ ” And, in a particularly evocative passage, Schlesinger observes:

What gave his activities unity and power was his passionate sense of the tragedy of life, irony, and the fallibility of humans—and his deep conviction of the duty, even in the face of these intractable realities, to be firm in the right as God gives us to see the right. Humility, he believed, must temper, not sever, the nerve of action. Lincoln was his ideal as a statesman because he combined “moral resoluteness about the immediate issues with a religious awareness of another dimension of meaning.”

As for Niebuhr’s legacy, Schlesinger says that it “is currently a subject of acrid dispute between liberals and conservatives,” with both parties claiming Niebuhr as a mentor. This last point is slightly behind the times, since the “acrid disputes” of the seventies and eighties have become moot issues in the nineties: the Cold War is over and the imminent threat of nuclear Armaggedon removed; liberation theology as a political enthusiasm is as dead as Christian temperance; the domestic issues of race and poverty remain, but they are no longer discussed in simple liberal/conservative terms, while at the same time new issues of oppression and liberation have arisen. Of course, the past always lives in the present, and the final Niebuhrian verdict on the issues of the age just past will largely determine how his “Christian realism” is applied to current debates.

In the disputes over Niebuhr’s legacy during the past two decades, both the conservative and liberal Niebuhrians were able to find a measure of confirmation in the Master’s writings. In the end, though, judgment of Niebuhr’s legacy must be decided in the light of historical events. We cannot bring Niebuhr back to see which faction among his disciples he would bless; but between the alternate strains in his thought we can, in light of recent events, say which strain proved to be most prescient, prophetic, and wise. In short, the decisive question is not, “Who was right with Reinie?”—but rather, “What did Reinie get right?”

The contest for Niebuhr’s legacy was occasioned by—and tended to focus on—the controversy over America’s role in world affairs, in particular the country’s Cold War policies reconsidered in light of the Vietnam War.

The evolution of Niebuhr’s own thought on America’s international role passed through several stages that are by now familiar to students of his work. During World War I, Niebuhr, as a young pastor of German descent, was an ardently patriotic supporter of America’s war effort; but in the general disillusionment that followed the Treaty of Versailles he embraced, albeit half-heartedly, the fashionable pacifism of the day. (“This is as good a time as any to make up my mind that I am done with the war business,” he wrote in his diary in 1923.) By the late thirties, however, with Hitler menacing the world, Niebuhr shocked the largely pacifist/neutralist American church with his strong advocacy of intervention—in order, he said, “to prevent the triumph of an intolerable tyranny.”

Niebuhr’s position at the outset of the Cold War was one of moral equivalence between the superpowers, but a series of naked power grabs by Soviet Russia quickly persuaded him that “we do face once more the distinction between relative justice and tyranny.” As in the years leading up to World War II, Niebuhr again subordinated his reformer’s misgivings about American institutions and purposes, saying that “we are embattled with a foe who embodies all the evils of a demonic religion.” Communism, he explained, is “an organized evil which spreads terror and cruelty throughout the world and confronts us everywhere with faceless men who are immune to every form of moral and political suasion.” Given Communism’s “monstrous evil,” “poison,” “malignancy,” “demonic” pretension, and “cruel fanaticism,” Niebuhr concluded by the late 1940s that “Russian truculence … cannot be mitigated by further concessions”; therefore “we must be ready to risk war … rather than yield to Russian pressure.”

Niebuhr’s hard-line statements and rhetoric did not, however, reflect a crude anti-Communism or mindless patriotism. He understood that Communism was a perverse form of Western idealism, that it possessed (wrongly but understandably) a measure of prestige among desperate people and reform-minded intellectuals, and that its dangerously utopian solutions to social ills (real and exaggerated) required the free world to wage a political as well as military struggle. A critic of his own society, Niebuhr acknowledged the sinful propensities of all nations and the American/Western democratic complicity in the whole morass of tensions and ancient wrongs that had led to the existing situation.

Moreover, he worried that “we [Americans] are not really good enough for this struggle”: too inexperienced in international affairs, too sure of our own innocence and virtue, unprepared for the uses and perils of power. In The Irony of American History (1952), his most comprehensive statement on the nation’s Cold War responsibility, Niebuhr cautioned that even in the best circumstances “power cannot be wielded without guilt,” since “we cannot do good without also doing evil.” Thus, he worried, “either we will seek escape from responsibilities which involve unavoidable guilt, or we will be plunged into avoidable guilt by too great confidence in our virtue.” Though we might possess a “provisional” moral advantage over our adversaries, that advantage, he said, could be squandered by an arrogant attitude toward our allies, or, in a fit of frustration and self-righteous fury, by a vain attempt at “preventive war” against our adversaries. Though he felt that Communist fanaticism and aggression could be tempered and tamed in the long run, he feared that the American people, accustomed to relatively easy triumphs in domestic affairs and foreign wars, might lack the maturity and patience to bear the insecurity and uncertainty of what John F. Kennedy would later call a “a long twilight struggle, year in and year out,” perhaps for decades. Nevertheless, Niebuhr insisted that defensive actions were required, despite all hazards. Along with the diplomat George Kennan and the academic Hans Morgenthau, Niebuhr became one of the key intellectual defenders of America’s “containment” policy against the Soviet Union, including the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent. As a founding member of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in the 1940s, he firmed up liberal support for a bipartisan foreign policy.

By the 1960s New Left critics and revisionist historians were challenging this consensus account of American policy, finding the Cold War’s origins in American, rather than Soviet, aggression. Walter LaFeber, in America, Russia, and the Cold War (1967), attributed enormous influence to the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr in fashioning and defending the policies of the Cold War. Theologian John M. Swomley, in American Empire: The Political Ethics of Twentieth-Century Conquest(1970), accused Niebuhr and his Christian realism of having “provided the religious rationale for the military foreign policy that created the contemporary American empire and the policy of global intervention culminating in the war in Vietnam.” Christopher Lasch denounced the whole “cult of the hardboiled” with which Niebuhr and the realist school were identified. Though Niebuhr himself had turned against the war by the late 1960s, he was still regarded by doves as a founder of policies that led to Vietnam, whatever their original intent. Religious as well as secular activists now took their cues from revisionist and New Left theoreticians, using Niebuhrian realism as a foil or negative counterpoint to their ideologically “correct” radicalisms—a trend that has continued to the present time in many seminaries and religion departments across the country.

Some of Niebuhr’s old colleagues and students followed the leftward tide in varying degrees, without, however, disowning their mentor; indeed, they argued that he had been leaning in that direction for some time. These left-liberal Niebuhrians—Professor Schlesinger, John C. Bennett, Robert McAfee Brown, Ronald Stone, Richard Wightman Fox, to name just a few—conceded that Niebuhr’s thought had contributed to the fiasco of the Cold War and Vietnam. But they were pleased by Niebuhr’s accusations that Vietnam was “a bloody, costly, and futile war” being fought under the rubric of defending democracy in a country where democracy was unsustainable. For such an act of hubris we were paying a bitter price in human suffering and domestic strife. Thus while the left-liberals acknowledged that Niebuhr never renounced containment altogether, they were pleased by his growing reluctance to approve of specific interventions (as in the Dominican Republic in 1965), and by his criticisms of the war, which widened into a larger indictment of American foreign policy and culture. As Richard Fox put it: “He was summoning up vestiges of the anti-establishment militance he had only rarely expressed since the mid-1930s.”

Besides, some of the left-liberal Niebuhrians said, the Communism that Niebuhr had denounced in such strident terms had been the Communism of Stalin, repressive to a totalitarian extent internally and dynamically aggressive in its external relations with other countries. Even here, Arthur Schlesinger argued, Niebuhr “went too far in postulating a radical, monolithic, invariant totalitarian essence, immune to human incompetence and to historical change.” Furthermore, he “underestimated the extent to which the Soviet Union [in the early Cold War period] was acting on defensive grounds.” In any event, as the Cold War dragged on, Niebuhr did at least speculate about the possibility of an early thaw in superpower relations, and—as if to confirm his left-liberal disciples—he saw the Soviets as being capable of negotiating mutually beneficial agreements with America and the West.

According to Richard Fox, while Niebuhr “had regarded nuclear deterrence with a certain equanimity” in the 1950s, the Berlin crisis of 1961 awakened him to the real danger and possibility of nuclear war. Thus Niebuhr came to speak of the U.S. and USSR as “partners” in preventing a nuclear holocaust, insisting (like nuclear “freeze” proponents of the early eighties) that we needed to “take some risks for peace comparable to our ever more dangerous risks in the game of deterrence,” even if it meant dropping an “unrealistic … insistence on foolproof inspection.” Furthermore, Fox and others pointed out, Niebuhr began to advocate a mild form of unilateralism: i.e., that America should renounce a first use of nuclear weapons, since even a victory won by such means would load an open, democratic society with oppressive, unendurable guilt. Leftists refuted conservatives who invoked Niebuhr’s name as a Cold War liberal disdainful of neutralism and moral equivalence between the superpowers, citing one of Niebuhr’s last statements on this matter, written eighteen months before his death (and published in Christian Century, December 31, 1969):

I must now ruefully change that decade-ago opinion of mine in regard to [theologian Karl] Barth’s neutralism. While I do not share his sneer at the “fleshpots of Germany and America,” I must admit that our wealth makes our religious anti-Communism particularly odious. Perhaps there is not so much to choose between Communist and anti-Communist fanaticism, particularly when the latter, combined with our wealth, has caused us to stumble into the most pointless, costly, and bloody war in our history.

This position was not entirely an aberrent volte-face, the left-liberal Niebuhrians argued, because Christian realism was never a fixed system but rather a dynamic one open to, indeed thriving upon, change and growth. Niebuhr, they said, was always dissatisfied with his previous thought, always revising and refining it in light of new facts and arguments. Once upon a time Soviet Communism was seen as the major threat to justice and world peace, but, according to Arthur Schlesinger: “As the Cold War developed, Niebuhr grew increasingly alarmed over the delusions generated by excessive American power.” Thus the nation had forfeited the provisional, and always tenuous, superiority that, for Niebuhr, had initially justified our Cold War policies. Conservative and neoconservative Niebuhrians who recalled Niebuhr’s anti-Communist writings and hard-line foreign policy statements were accused of “fossilizing” the Reinhold Niebuhr of the forties and fifties, ignoring or minimizing his turn to the left in the late sixties. In effect, the left-liberals said, the right had Niebuhrianism but the left had Niebuhr himself—and the living tradition of Christian realism.

Niebuhr’s hard-line disciples—Cold War liberals who, willy-nilly, had to accept the conservative or neoconservative label—were distressed by all this. One neocon Niebuhrian, Paul Ramsey, famously lamented that in the political climate of the 1960s “even Reinhold Niebuhr signs petitions and editorials as if Reinhold Niebuhr never existed.” Nevertheless, the neoconservative disciples continued to invoke Niebuhr’s memory and to draw from his vast store of anti-Communist writings and hard-line foreign policy statements. They had on their side the better part of Niebuhr’s corpus: in weight, words, and—they were certain—wisdom. Throughout the 1960s, Niebuhr’s writings still occasionally displayed flashes of the anti-Communist, Cold War “realism” characteristic of earlier writings; but now they alternated (incomprehensibly to many readers) with more leftish assessments. Some hard-line Niebuhrians no doubt thought (but did not say publicly) that Niebuhr’s neutralist pronouncements were cranky, unbalanced, and out of touch with reality, products of the advanced physical illness and morbid temper of his final years. Michael Novak, the most persistent proponent of a neoconservative Niebuhr, may have been hinting at this view when, in 1972, a year after Niebuhr’s death, he opined: “It would have been marvelous to have had him at the height of his powers during the turbulence of the 1960s; instead, he could only be an occasional and inevitably distant observer.”

But beyond attempts to minimize Niebuhr’s last musings, the neocon Niebuhrians could turn at least one of the left-liberals’ potent arguments against them: Niebuhr’s perpetual dissatisfaction and revision of his own thought as events unfolded. Thus, if Niebuhr had moved to the left in the sixties—it could be argued—he probably would have readjusted his views once again in the seventies and eighties, having seen the terrible aftermath of the Vietnam War: totalitarian dictatorship and oppressive poverty, hoards of refugees and “boat people,” near-genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge Communists. Beyond its direct consequences for Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War also resulted in an American loss of nerve and purpose, allowing, for a time, considerable reign to revolutionary movements and Communist regimes throughout the third world. Moreover, while détente muted the hostile rhetoric between East and West—a development that Niebuhr in the 1960s thought would help reduce superpower tensions—had he lived longer, with his intellectual powers intact, it seems certain that he would have confronted the menacing realities belied by treaties and talk of mutual understanding. Under the umbrella of détente the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and began their remorseless accumulation of nuclear weapons in an effort to surpass the U.S. In the meantime America froze or cut back on nuclear as well as conventional forces; it even made unilateral concessions, such as foregoing deployment of the neutron bomb and construction of the B-1 Bomber, and living up to an antimissile defense treaty (ABM) that—we now know—the Soviets freely violated.

Whether Niebuhr would have reconsidered his Vietnam opposition in the face of these developments is, of course, an open question. But a persuasive case is made by neocon Niebuhrians that he would have corrected his general drift toward neutrality and moral equivalence, recovering the lapsed policy of containment and deterrence. George Weigel, a neocon Niebuhrian, summarized the situation in the National Interest (Fall 1986):

Niebuhr’s mature foreign policy commentary was written at a time when there was a present danger of American overconfidence. Niebuhr worried publicly in 1952 whether the moral superiority of democracy, the necessity of meeting the threat of totalitarian ruthlessness, and the impressive weight of American military and economic power would “blind [us] to the ambiguity of the drama of human existence beyond and above the immediate urgencies.” The emergence over the past generation of an elite adversary culture in the teaching centers of American life—churches, the media, the academy, popular entertainment—suggests that the present danger is not so much overconfidence as a lack of confidence, which has deteriorated at times into that morally degrading survivalism preached by Drs. Carl Sagan and Helen Caldicott.

Of course it is possible that Niebuhr might have sided with the Carl Sagans and Helen Caldicotts, as well as the Arthur Schlesingers and John C. Bennetts. If he had, he would have betrayed all the finest insights of his earlier years—and been woefully mistaken about the course of recent history as well. By the end of the 1980s it was clear to all but the wilfully obtuse that the revival of American and NATO strength, not the false “sweetness and light” of détente and neutralist survivalism, ended the Cold War on terms consistent with Western ideals of democracy and freedom. The administration of Ronald Reagan renewed opposition to Communist revolutionary movements—in Latin America, Africa, and Asia—thereby imposing terrible burdens on Soviet capabilities. The deployment of the Euromissiles in 1984 prevented a “Finlandization” of Western Europe, while the mere prospect of a “Star Wars” missile defense drove the Soviet military planners to despair. The rearmament of the 1980s, carried out in the teeth of liberal opposition and ridicule, put such strain on the Soviet economy that Kremlin leaders, in order to keep up, were forced to initiate a reform of Communism that, once begun, became uncontrollable, ending finally in a democratic revolution throughout the Communist empire of Eastern and Central Europe. To be sure, internal flaws in the system itself were ultimately responsible for Communism’s collapse—but only, as containment advocates like Niebuhr always predicted, because such internal contradictions could be aggravated by external pressures.

It is a pity that Niebuhr did not live to witness the breathtaking events of recent years, events that vindicate all his predictions and preachments of the forties and fifties. He said that America had to “engage in a patient chess game” with the adversary, containing it until at length it would, of its own internal contradictions, destroy itself. His belief in the untenability of Communism was a consequence of his religious sensibility: he believed that human freedom and human nature in the divine image could not be suppressed and contorted indefinitely, that they would eventually reassert themselves against the remaking and mangling of Communist rulers. Even when there appeared to be no foreseeable change in Russia’s internal governance and feverish aggression, Niebuhr could say, “But we must realize that we are not fated to share the world with the present despotism forever,” that political change was inevitable “in the long run”—provided we kept our nerve and maintained a steady course between war and withdrawal, suicide and surrender. “We … know that a world order based upon Communist force and fraud cannot finally prevail; but we are not so certain when and how it will disintegrate.”

Though he publicly expressed doubts about America’s ability to fulfill the mission presented by history, the fact that we did succeed in the end undoubtedly would have thrilled him as it thrilled millions of others who understood the achievement of bringing down the Communist empire without a third world war. Some left-liberal Niebuhrians said that Niebuhr never sought to “win the Cold War” (Ronald Stone) or that he stressed political rather than military means (John C. Bennett). In reply one may ask, why would he want to wage a Cold War if not to win it? Moreover, while he saw political success as key to Western victory, he knew that diplomacy would be futile unless it was backed up by military power—the “ultima ratio” of all power, as Niebuhr used to put it. The point was to cultivate a readiness and willingness to fight, but also the coolness, skill, and prudence to avoid an all-out war.

Niebuhr often spoke of political solutions as achieving at best a “rough justice.” He saw that in the struggle for justice men never calibrate their use of power perfectly to the threat against them; as fallible human beings they invariably overreact, and as sinners they often equate their own partial vision of the good with perfect goodness, covertly insinuating their own pride and selfishness under the cover of a just cause. This in part is what Niebuhr meant when he insisted that “we cannot do good without also doing evil,” since legitimate assertions of power are inevitably accompanied by illegitimate accentuations of that power. If anything is to be conceded to left-liberal Niebuhrians it is that Niebuhr might have been disappointed that America did not somehow accomplish this world-historical victory with greater nobility and constancy, less meanness and extremism. Rough justice should have been less rough.

What would Niebuhr have said about the Reagan administration? One can easily imagine that he would have been rankled by many Reagan policies and pronouncements—perhaps ridiculing Reagan as unsophisticated, complacent, and self-righteous. Yet Niebuhr always had a great capacity to distinguish between a politician’s personal imperfections and his creative historical role. (Students of Niebuhr’s thought will recall his retroactive endorsement, by 1940, of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and the repudiation of his own earlier radicalism.) It is difficult to imagine him failing to appreciate Reagan’s achievement in rallying American and Western morale and energy after a hiatus from containment during the post-Vietnam “malaise” of the seventies. The recently liberated peoples of Central and Eastern Europe certainly did not snobbily dismiss the President’s rhetoric about an “evil empire,” but, even before Communism’s final collapse, savored it as a light of truth in their darkness and an anticipation of future freedom.

Earlier this year even the liberal Christian Century, while not praising the Reagan administration for its achievements, wondered whether the Western churches need to repent for their complicity with Communist regimes and state-controlled churches, for their failure to provide witness and support to Christians behind the Iron Curtain. Is it conceivable that Niebuhr would have lagged behind left-liberal churchmen—and secular liberals for that matter—in assessing the true situation of freedom and oppression, East and West? Whatever suggestions of moral equivalence he may have fallen into at the end of his life, Niebuhr’s words, written during World War II, provide a permanent reproach to moral equivalence and neutralism:

We do not find it particularly impressive to celebrate one’s sensitive conscience by enlarging upon all the well-known evils of our Western world and equating them with the evils of the totalitarian systems. It is just as important for Christians to be discriminating in their judgments, as for them to recognize the element of sin in all human endeavors.

And while Niebuhr could pass severe judgment on American society, he had a sense of providence in which our fulfillment of high purposes did not necessarily wait upon the elimination of all our vices—self-righteousness and false innocence made all the more insufferable by gross materialism and commercialism, love of comfort, infatuation with technology, cultural shallowness and frivolity, and a tendency to national isolationism and irresponsibility. In 1955 Niebuhr wrote:

It is probably idle to hope for the reversal of so strong a cultural trend as our preoccupation with technics. The best we can hope for is that the wealth so acquired will be dedicated to the task of giving strength to the free community of nations. If we could say, “God be thanked who matched us with this hour”; if we could be thrilled with our historic opportunities and cease to regret our burdens as involving high taxes; and if we could realize that our burdens are an opportunity to make our wealth sufferable to our conscience and tolerable to our friends—then we would redeem even that part of our culture which our critics may deem least honorable.

Despite the odd intellectual turns of his final years, what Niebuhr will be remembered for, what he is vindicated in—in sum, what will be his legacy—is the insistence that in desperate circumstances even sinful men and nations “must take … morally hazardous actions.” They must be ready to “cover themselves with guilt” in order to ward off radical evils, such as Communism, because “the disavowal of the responsibilities of power can involve an individual or nation in even more grievous guilt.” Niebuhr always held that in the end it is the knowledge of God’s forgiveness that enables men to venture action at all. And he believed, finally, that great historical events, such as the defeat of Nazism and Communism, owe more to divine providence than human virtue. He knew that the agency of the free world was really the instrument of a good greater than itself.

Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things.

Photo by Alex Duffy on Unsplash. Image cropped.