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Contrarian View: America the Smug

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The views expressed here do not represent the opinions of The Saturday Evening Post.

Dear Reader: In an election year, one hears many disparate views. But no politician would dare challenge the most sacred tenet of our belief system, namely that American is the greatest nation on Earth. For that, you need to go back to outspoken midcentury theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, best known for having the Serenity Prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. The following is his essay published in the Post on November 16, 1963:

America the Smug

By Reinhold Niebuhr

Perhaps our gravest fault as a nation is our exalted sense of American virtue. We see the United States as something unique in the world, a nation whose concerns soar above petty national ambitions, whose generosity and goodwill are unequaled. God, we assume, is invariably on our side, thanks to a special covenant with the Almighty.

In one of his books, Sen. Barry Goldwater ^v e voice to this feeling. “We are the bearers of Western civilization, the most noble product of the heart and mind of man. . . .” he said. “Providence has imposed upon us the task of leading the free world’s fight to stay free.” The Republican presidential contender was expressing not merely his own patriotism but also a notion deeply rooted in our history and national character.

This sense of special virtue—with its dear implication that disagreement with us is tantamount to godlessness—offends our allies and affronts the weaker peoples of the world. It tends to obscure the fact that we are actually a normal country, normally seeking our own interests. And it greatly impedes our legitimate and worthwhile endeavors as the world’s most powerful nation.

The news of the day illustrates our moral pretensions and their consequences. When India, for example, asked our help in building a desperately needed steel mill, strong opposition arose in Congress. The mill, congressmen complained, was to be owned by the Indian government, and our aid. therefore, would serve to encourage socialism. The congressmen gave no weight to the Indian feeling that a measure of socialism is beneficial, given India’s problems. In effect, the congressmen were saying that no matter how desperate the need, the Indians would have to follow the American economic pattern or do without its aid. The Indians chose to do without. Tactfully they withdrew their request. And the future prosperity of the Indian economy which is important to the free world, was correspondingly impaired.

Or consider our relations with the new Europe. In the years following World War II the United States stood as the sole protector of Western Europe against the Soviet threat. The Europeans then were weak and could not defend themselves. Today, thanks in part to U.S. assistance. Western Europe is strong and vigorous. It not only is able to assume a larger share of its own defense costs but wants to make its own defense decisions. To the United States, the idea is unthinkable. We have grown so accustomed to dominance in European affairs that we cannot bear to relinquish the role. We fume at our “uncooperative” allies. We paint General de Gaulle, who embodies the new European spirit of independence, as something close to sinister. To a large degree our reaction stems simply from violated self esteem.

We were born with a sense of having a virtuous mission. Thomas Jefferson expressed it succinctly and admirably: “We exist and are quoted as standing proofs that a government, modeled to rest continually on the whole of society, is a practical government. As members of the universal society of mankind, and as standing high in our responsibility to them, it is our sacred duty not to blast the confidence that a government based in reason is better than one of force.” These sentiments, a typical expression of 18thcentury liberal idealism, claimed more democratic uniqueness for our Government than it possessed. For the nations of Western Europe—including Britain, whose government we had mistakenly defined as an absolute monarchy—were slowly developing democratic institutions and changing into constitutional monarchies. Certainly this exaggeration was excusable in Jefferson’s day. America was a weak infant, and to keep its self-esteem in a world of old and powerful empires, it had to believe that it was new, different and better than any other country ever founded. Jefferson the idealist was enough of a realist, however, to see the potential national domain in the wide open spaces of our virtually uninhabited continent. He engineered the purchase of the Louisiana territory from Napoleon and prompted the Lewis and Clark exploration of the northwest. Nor did Jefferson’s idealism in any way cloud his practical sense of power. “We must marry ourselves,” he said, “to the British fleet and nation.” Already self-interest and virtue were thoroughly entangled in our national character.

The normal expansive impulses of a young nation and the land hunger of our pioneers began to press against all the vestigial European sovereignties on this continent. We risked war with Britain for the sake of Oregon and had a war with Mexico for the sake of Texas. Significantly, we veiled this expansive impulse under the concept of “Manifest Destiny.” “It is our Manifest Destiny,” said the diplomat John Louis O’Sullivan in 1845, “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Our sense of virtue, in short, was both a spur and a veil for our sense of expanding power. Thus early in the 19th century we laid the foundation for a confusion about the relation of our power to our virtue. We have never quite overcome that confusion. It still troubles us in the days of our great power, and lies at the base of what the English scholar Denis Brogan has denned as “the illusion of American omnipotence.”

The real conflict between our sense of virtue, power and responsibilities on the one hand, and our normal concern for the national interest on the other, did not begin until the First World War. The war was our first encounter with the forces which were to lead us to the pinnacle of global responsibility. The encounter, fittingly, occurred under the last of our Jeffersonian idealists, Woodrow Wilson, who thought that America was “the most unselfish of the nations,” and was elected for a second term with the slogan “He kept us out of the war.” Idealism, however, had little to do with our entry into the war. Rather, it was in our national interest that Britain keep her influence in Europe; our peace depended on the power of the British navy. The nation was only dimly conscious of this fact, and Wilson never explicitly acknowledged it. Once embarked on the war, he defined it idealistically as a war “to make the world safe for democracy.” His most cherished object was the League of Nations.

America reacted to this first venture in world politics in almost neurotic proportions. The idealists were naturally affronted with the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles. The nationalists scorned the peace and the League because our national interests were not sufficiently protected. The period between the two world wars proved only to be a long armistice; and in the long “interventionist” debate our nation tried desperately to escape its obvious role in the world and to crawl back into the now impossible continental security. The nationalists and the idealists formed a coalition against involvement so strong that we might not have made the plunge into World War II had the Japanese not made the decision for us by attacking Pearl Harbor.

During the interventionist debate í was a member of a committee advocating an affirmative responsibility toward the war in Europe, The very name of the committee was an indication of our moral ambivalence. It was the ‘Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.’ The very name of the committee would have outraged Woodrow Wilson; but it was shrewdly designed to avoid his too consistent idealism. Many Americans were not willing to admit that the Nazis had to be defeated at whatever cost, because both the national interest and a human value were at stake.

The Second World War raised the old tension in our national soul—between our senses of virtue, power and responsibility—to a global dimension. For we emerged from the war the strongest democratic nation. The war had increased our productive capacity and had impoverished Europe. We were cured of our old nostalgia for innocence at the price of irresponsibility; the very degree of our power made our responsibilities all too clear. In 1946, American mothers were pleading to “bring the boys home by Christmas,” a sentiment that resulted in our leaving our potential foes, the Russians, in possession of much of a defeated and devastated Europe. But by 1948 we were engaged in the Marshall Plan, and our wealth and power were turned to European reconstruction. We had learned our lesson. A powerful and wealthy nation must assume responsibilities commensurate with its power and wealth.

But the old problem of virtue and power assailed us in a new way. We claimed a unique virtue for a policy which actually was an act of wise self-interest. We almost spoiled the virtue of our prudence by remarks such as that of the politician who crowed, “The Marshall Plan was the most generous act ever undertaken by any nation.” That claim prompted derision even among our allies and friends in Europe. The Marshall Plan was not generous but prudent. It saved the European continent for democracy, when all of its wealth, skills and talents were imperiled, and when their loss would have meant our isolation.

The fact is that a nation with a sense of virtuous mission finds it difficult to understand that the moral norm for nations, as distinct from individuals, is not generosity but a wise self-interest— a self-interest that lies somewhere between the parochial and the general interest. Since the Marshall Plan we have wisely sought to help the nations of Africa and Asia up the steep path to modern industrialism and consequent freedom from age old poverty. Our foreign aid program does not exceed one percent of our gross national product and is only a tenth of our total defense budget. Yet it is an unpopular part of our budget, perhaps because there is no bloc of voters to defend it. We constantly worry that we may have become “too generous,” letting the designing nations of Europe and the world take advantage of our pure hearts. However, we are dealing here with moral realities, and moral realities do not fit neatly into the usual moral categories of “unselfishness” and “generosity.” Foreign aid involves relations in which our interests are inextricably intertwined in a whole web of mutual interests.

Many circumstances, in fact, make it difficult for us to view our responsibilities soberly, without undue pretensions of unique virtue. Our living standards, for example, arc twice those of the more advanced nations of Europe and are beyond the dreams of avarice of the Asian and African continents. Further complicating the problem of keeping our national self-esteem in sober bounds is our outrage over the “ingratitude” of widespread anti-Americanism. Some of this anti-Americanism is prompted by envy. Some of it, as in the case of Gaullist France, may be prompted by aspirations to national glory. Some of it is also due to the fact that no human agent is ever as wise or as disinterested as he thinks he is. Criticisms will be directed at us because of our errors and because of our achievements.

Since we are bound to occupy the eminence of world hegemony for a long time (if the uneasy peace of a “balance of terror” does not make an end of us and our civilization in a nuclear catastrophe). We must be prepared to exercise our power with more soberness than our original sense of virtue inclines us to. We have become one of the two “super nations” in the modem world; and the only one of the two which must deal with the great and small allies in the spirit of free accommodation of competing interests. We must be prepared to be unpopular, even if our decisions in crucial issues are right, and to accept unpopularity because our decisions may be wrong. For we are not as omniscient as we seem to be in the day of our seeming omnipotence, and certainly not as virtuous as our whole tradition has persuaded us that we are.

An end to arrogance

One of our chief problems will be to avoid what has been called the “unconscious arrogance of conscious power” as we deal particularly with our great allies, many of them in Europe. Their greatness cannot be diminished by the new magnitudes of modern “super nations,” and their memories of past glories and experience of present frustrations are bound to lead to jealousies.

The moral problems of our national life are so complex that they cannot be understood by the simple categories of good and evil—of “selfishness” and “unselfishness”—which individuals recognize. It is ironic, in view of our early passion for displaying the purity of our virtue, that today the responsibilities of our role should include the mounting of a nuclear deterrent, thus involving us in the proleptic guilt of a nuclear catastrophe. The moral ambiguity of the political order, which we have desperately tried to veil or to ignore, has been raised to the nth degree in our experience of power and responsibility.

Our best chance of avoiding the moral pretension that besets us is to analyze the circumstances that have brought us to this perilous condition. Two points are especially significant. First, it is our power, not our unselfish virtue, that makes the survival of Western civilization depend upon our own survival. Second, the degree of our power is not the fruit of the virtue of our own generation—the generation that wields the power. We are strong because many “gifts of Providence” have contributed to our power. Among them are a hemisphere richly stored with natural resources; the fact that the expansion of our nation coincided with the industrial revolution, enabling us to unify a whole continental economy; and, of course, the fact that the Civil War preserved our national unity.

By steadfastly keeping these two points in mind, we can prevent such virtue as we possess from exuding the sweat of self-righteousness.

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