Historians say which books Obama should read

Historians in the News


Barack Obama has identified Reinhold Niebuhr as "one of my favorite philosophers" and is familiar with the great Protestant theologian’s various writings. Yet as Obama assumes the mantle of Most Powerful Man in the World, Niebuhr’s Irony of American History is one volume that deserves a careful second reading.

Published in 1952, when the Cold War was at its frostiest and Americans were still coming to terms with what it meant to exercise global leadership, Irony called attention to a series of illusions to which Niebuhr believed his countrymen and their political leaders were peculiarly susceptible. To persist in those illusions, he warned, was to court political and moral catastrophe. History, he wrote, "is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management." To imagine that history can be coerced toward some predetermined destination represents the height of folly.

With the end of the Cold War in 1989, those very same illusions—now expressed through self-congratulatory claims that the end of history had elevated the United States to the status of indispensable nation called upon to exercise benign global hegemony—gained a rebirth. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush embraced those illusions and made them the foundation of his global war on terror. The catastrophes that ensued testify eloquently to the enduring relevance of the warnings that Niebuhr had issued a half century earlier.

To correct the errors of the Bush era will require that Obama repudiate the illusions that gave rise to those errors in the first place. In that regard, Irony should serve as an essential text. A first rule of statecraft, Niebuhr writes, is to nurture a "modest awareness of the limits of our own knowledge and power." Modesty doesn’t imply passivity. It does mean curbing the inclination to portray our adversaries as evil incarnate while insisting that we ourselves are innocent and our purposes altruistic.

Niebuhr observed that "the pretensions of virtue are as offensive to God as the pretensions of power." After eight years that gave us Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and waterboarding, our pretensions of virtue look a bit worse for wear. The imperative of the moment is to manifest "a sense of contrition about the human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our own vanities."

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches at Boston University. His most recent book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.


I recommend that the new president read William James’s The Will to Believe and George Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States. Both books serve a useful purpose to anyone trying to understand America in an overarching sense. They are products of two of our best minds and tell us something of our national character and preferences.

Jacques Barzun is a cultural historian and the author of thirty-seven books, including From Dawn to Decadence.
Read entire article at Excerpted from the Washington Monthly

comments powered by Disqus