America the Smug

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.

America’s Wealth Gap

America's Wealth Gap

Will 2012 go down in history as the year money took over politics? Both parties will have spent more than a billion dollars electing the next president. More and more of that money comes from a handful of the wealthiest Americans and the corporations they run. On the Democratic side, Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks, telecommunications pioneer Irwin Mark Jacobs, and hedge fund manager James Simons have donated millions to re-elect the president, but the amount of money the Democrats have received from deep-pocketed supporters pales in comparison to what Republicans have received. A single billionaire, business magnate Sheldon Adelson, had by August spent more than $41 million and promised to spend up to $100 million defeating President Obama and other Democrats. All told, the top .07 percent of donors give more money than the bottom 86 percent. And it pays off. Candidates spend ever more time courting the super rich and then, once in office, try to keep them happy. This summer, for example, Mitt Romney held two fundraisers at which he raised almost $10 million from the oil and gas industry and then announced that as president he would end more than 100 years of federal restraint of oil and gas drilling on public lands. Things like that happen on both sides. How did we get into such a situation? What is to be done about it? Is it threatening our democracy? And doesn’t it go against everything the founding fathers stood for?

Those are big questions. The last one is the easiest to answer. Control of government by the richest wouldn’t have bothered the founders at all. It was just what they believed in. John Jay, the first Chief Justice, put it most directly: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”

Many of the founders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were themselves among the wealthiest people in the country. They felt their prosperity made them obliged to serve their nation at the highest level. Yes, they declared independence and fought a Revolution to escape the tyranny of English monarchy and might, but they expected to replace aristocracy of birth with aristocracy of accomplishment, rule by elites who had created their wealth and influence, not inherited it. That was why they wrote a Constitution that stated the president was to be elected not by the people but by an elite Electoral College, and the Senate was to be chosen not by the people but by state legislatures. And that was why in most states only men who had money and property were allowed to vote at all.

It didn’t take long for the 99 percent of the day to rebel against that status quo. The notion of true democracy, rule by ordinary people, grew popular in the early 19th century. It was spearheaded by President Andrew Jackson, who hated bankers and banks, especially the national bank that had been founded by Alexander Hamilton. He destroyed the bank, partly to counter the power of the richest Americans. At the same time, a new generation of wealthiest Americans emerged, and they were a breed that had never existed in Europe—industrious, self-made men of humble origins, such as John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant who began working in a menial job for a fur merchant but came to dominate the trade in furs from the West, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who rose from ferryboat captain to steamboat owner and then railroad baron. In 19th century America, the wealthiest really did have something in common with the common man.

Or at least that was true in the American North. The elite of the South were a breed apart. They grew fantastically rich and powerful from growing rice and cotton with all the hardest labor done by slaves. Seven of the first 12 presidents were from Virginia, the most prosperous part of the South. When the Civil War came, it was a fight not only over slavery but between the power of new Northern industry and urban wealth and the spoils of the Southern slave economy as well.

As extreme as the power of the wealthiest is today, it pales before that of the rich in the pre-Civil War South, for they could own human beings who had no rights whatsoever. Slave owners had such full support of the law that the Constitution originally counted each slave as three-fifths of a man for voting purposes, not so that slaves themselves could vote, but to add to the headcounts on which Congressional districts were based, giving their owners even more political and electoral power than anyone who didn’t keep slaves. Slavery was by far the highest point of the tyranny of the wealthiest in the United States.

But the kind of abuse of power that’s more familiar to us today took off after the Civil War, when four years of bloodshed costing more than a million lives left the South crippled and the North as a new industrial world power. That power corrupted, as it always does. The Gilded Age—which lasted from the end of the Civil War to 1900—was a festival of power grabs among the wealthiest. For instance, to build the Transcontinental Railroad, the owners of the Union Pacific Railroad set up a construction firm called Credit Mobilier to wildly overcharge for the work it did, just so they could bleed their own company and bondholders. Then, to make sure Congress didn’t complain, they gave assorted Congressmen both cash bribes and stock that paid huge dividends. The scam got exposed in 1872. It was estimated to have stolen $42 million in government and bondholder money, and it led to the disgrace of public figures as high up as the vice president, Schuyler Colfax.

By the 1880s the Senate was dominated by millionaires. And by 1892, wealth-fed scandal had become so commonplace that opposition to it gave rise to a new political party, the Populists, whose platform announced, “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. … The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few. … From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, he ushered in the Progressive Era­­, one of two major periods in U.S. history when the political tide turned strongly away from the wealthiest—the other was during the presidency of his distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt railed against what he called “malefactors of great wealth” and the “criminal rich,” and he pushed through reforms like strengthened railroad regulations and the creation of the Department of Labor. A decade later, President Woodrow Wilson cemented Roosevelt’s accomplishments by establishing the federal income tax and the direct election of senators.

We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Though none of that prevented the wild financial bubble fed by coziness between the wealthy and the government in the 1920s. So in the wake of the Great Crash that followed, Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 as a rich New Yorker determined to look out for the common man. He wrote to a friend, “The real truth of the matter is, as you and I know, that a financial element in the larger centers has owned the Government since the days of Andrew Jackson. … The country is going through a repetition of Jackson’s fight with the Bank of the United States—only on a far bigger and broader basis.” He raised taxes on the rich and used much of the money that came in to put the unemployed poor back to work. In 1936 he wrote: “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. … I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it, the forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”