Swans Commentary » swans.com July 26, 2010  



William Appleman Williams Versus Reinhold Niebuhr
U.S. Foreign Policy and Two Theologies


by Paul Buhle





Author's Note: The Society for the History of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) held its annual conference June 24-26, 2010. This year it happened to be in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the "Wisconsin School" of history (remembered for its opposition to Empire) and in particular, the key historian of American empire, William Appleman Williams. As a sometime student in his classes, I coauthored a biography of Williams, with the late Edward Rice-Maximin. Lately, with the crises in US foreign policies, namely failed invasions and occupations, Williams's work and name have returned to prominence -- largely thanks to Andrew Bacevich, who like Williams is a decorated military veteran (Williams, a graduate of the Naval Academy, fought in the Pacific, and was shortly pursued by the FBI, became a sort of Christian Marxist, and became a professor). Reinhold Niebuhr has been cited by Obama as an influence.


(Swans - July 26, 2010)   In 1952, UW history graduate student Warren Susman, so erudite that he was reputed to have been born with an issue of the American Historical Review in his mouth, met regularly with other history graduate students in the "Smoking Room" of what was then called the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The room is still there, at the west corner of the first floor closest to the Memorial Union. No one has smoked there since the 1950s but I still have a feeling when I peer into the room that some friendly ghosts are on hand, and that the mural image of Robert M. LaFollette is also looking down from the stairwell of the fourth floor.

These were Fighting Bob's heirs in many ways, especially in their political sympathies, shared to a considerable extent with some of their professors, notably Merle Curti, but also in the methodological approach closest to the shared mentality of LaFolletteism and progressive history. No one yet talked of "thick" history, but they were all about digging into primary sources, and skeptical about East Coast historians a few years older and a lot better connected who were to write intellectual histories-of-history, Richard Hofstadter (Curti's former student) most notably among them. By contrast to assorted Cold War liberals, led by Schlesinger, Jr., who determinedly bashed Charles Beard and Parrington, these youngsters were respectful to the progressives, deeply related to them, even while disagreeing on many points. (A recent review of a Magna Carta exhibit by New York Times neocon-in-residence Edward Rothstein says in passing that only in recent generations did American historians doubt the virtues of the Founding Fathers; thus effectively erasing Beard and the dominant attitude in the profession from the 1910s through the middle 1940s).

Curti, himself a Swiss immigrant, perhaps heralded a major change in US history scholarship. That the young generation in Madison contained a generous handful of immigrants and children of immigrants, believing strongly that the WASP history as written was woefully inadequate, counted heavily for young Herbert Gutman, for future immigrant history archive creator Rudy Vecoli, and for another professor of mine, the Finnish-American A. William Hoglund. But they were also a new generation of scholars in the making in other ways because they had to be. Future cultural historian Susman, close in spirit to these children of immigrants, best captured their uneasiness about the emerging liberal scholarship and their determination to find what we might call a dialectical use of the progressive tradition. He began his paper,

"A spectre is haunting American intellectuals -- the spectre of Communism. All the powers of the intellectual order have entered into a holy alliance to exorcize this specter: businessman and bureaucrat, Allan Nevins and Reinhold Niebuhr, uninvited liberals and revisited conservatives."

The historian, he says, is now, most remarkably, "acknowledged by important forces in American society to be a vital assistant in our Cold War," and because of that, it is high time that historians "take stock of the main currents in American historiography that appear central in the period 1945 to 1952."

Susman keenly notes how Schlesinger, bolstered by Niebuhr, had been highly successful in only a few years, throwing out the legacy of Turner, Beard, and Parrington, espousers all of non-imperial visions of democracy, of a decentralized society with limited government seeking no monsters abroad to destroy. Nevins, for his part, had rehabilitated the businessman-as-hero, material growth as our collective triumph, and resistance to the gods of materialism and power as "too feminine" to be taken seriously. (Schlesinger had signaled a similar belief in people in the vicinity of the Popular Front, non-anti-Communists, as being feminine and crypto-homosexual, not real men like Cold Warriors of the virile, Truman type).

Susman comes to Reinhold Niebuhr at a critical point in this seminar paper. Niebuhr, he says, "has advanced a Christian interpretation of history and support for the current narrow view of the crisis that well serves the conservative realists. Ignoring as childish the optimism of the eighteen century Enlightenment, likewise attacking the scientific rationalism of the nineteenth century and dismissing as 'pretentious' the work of twentieth century social studies," Niebuhr returns mankind to a world where reality must be measured in a single conflict, the struggle against Communism, aka the "demonic" faith, and a world that thus enfolds the intellectual in pessimistic, deterministic Christianity. "No great problems can be solved for the foreseeable future," wrote Niebuhr, at least not in our lifetimes. Not only people but nations are born in original sin. "If the study of history has been optimistic, one of people meeting challenges and overcoming to collective benefit, then the study of history has been wrong, dead wrong."

This, says Susman, means the negation of history, of any real or redeeming value of history. Historical study is replaced by static Christianity.

Thus, crucially, the "new historiography," by which Susman means consensus history and Schlesingerian versions of progress formatted in imperial terms, has renounced the purpose that progressive historians brought to the field. Susman admits that the progressive historiography had many faults, was too schematic in many ways, yet he insists that it remains a foundation of work and life for the history scholar and teacher. He adds that "unless we are able to overcome the pitfalls and pessimism of the current historiography, we shall find ourselves isolated and unread...mumbling to each other, building yet greater stacks of notes and gaily laying with our footnotes as the world...passes us by." Instead, we must work to help humanity shift from current reality to "an even more meaningful reality."

I am convinced that Susman spoke not only for himself and for his cohorts like Herb Gutman, but also for William Appleman Williams, who had left Madison a couple of years earlier, and was at this moment just beginning a teaching career that would take him from Ohio State to the University of Oregon, and thence to UW, his destiny. Over the following decade Williams would write some of his most important books, all of them (notwithstanding his general lack of admission on this point) based in what we can call Christian Socialism. Niebuhr, a champion of Christian Socialism before 1940, was meanwhile backpedaling furiously away, into Cold War liberalism, with some occasional side pedaling to cover or at least rationalize the drama of his redirection.

Neither of these two thinkers had willingly chosen the Third World as a central concern. Niebuhr, a moderate liberal pastor in a fairly conservative denomination, had embraced Woodrow Wilson and the global crusade of the First World War...and then changed his mind by the early 1920s, along with so many other Americans disillusioned with war, clergy included. His leftward drift increased with the Depression and his return to pacifism. His companions in the Christian Socialist Left of the time were more ardently anti-colonialist, especially those around the magazine The World Tomorrow, including Kirby Page, Sherwood Eddy, and Norman Thomas. They supported liberation campaigns (for the independence of India, for Latin American, and other Asian rebels from US and European domination, etc.) and gave credence to anti-imperialism, as they did for the forces fighting Fascism in Spain. More openly and courageously than the often cautious socialist Niebuhr, they supplied a clerical voice for the oppressed.

Then, as the Second World War came closer, he began a great transition. In 1940, he abandoned the Socialist Party and renounced pacifism, enrolling himself in the war effort intellectually, as a warrior against Fascism. As the Cold War was about to unfold, and Harry Truman hurled atomic weapons at Japan only months before the Soviet Union was to fulfill its obligation by invading that country, Niebuhr joined others in an expression of horror.

And then Niebuhr's transition completed itself, not so differently from many other liberal intellectuals who had never been in the Popular Front camp sympathetic toward Communist causes, but unusual in its theological overtones (Will Herberg, a convert from Judaism to Catholicism, would be his major counterpart). By 1950, Niebuhr had become the theologian of a reasoned, non-evangelical but most definitely Protestant Pax Americana. The various caveats still admired by many intellectuals (Williams booster Andrew Bacevich among them), calling for a certain restraint upon American messianism, modified but did not change the basic thrust: it was a Pax Americana nonetheless.

The crucial matter was American innocence. Neither slavery nor removal or extermination of Native Americans, nor the spoliation of so much nature for easy profits, had made a dent in that innocence. "From the earliest days of its history to the present moment," Niebuhr wrote in 1952, "there is a deep layer of messianic consciousness in the mind of America. We never dreamed that we would have as much political power as we possess today; nor for that matter did we anticipate that the most powerful nation on earth would suffer such an ironic refutation of its dreams of mastering history."

Or as Schlesinger was to put it decades after Niebuhr's death and close to his own, "Niebuhr's concept of original sin solved certain problems for my generation...

The heart of man is obviously not O.K. Niebuhr's analysis of human nature and history came as a vast illumination. His argument had the double merit of accounting for Hitler and Stalin and for the necessity of standing up to them. Niebuhr himself had been a pacifist, but he was a realist."

No one except a Nazi had ever thought that Hitler was an idealist. But "Stalin," for Niebuhr and Schlesinger, was less personality than stand-in for the entirety of Communist and/or nationalist resistance against American global domination, and no less so after the dictator's death. For Schlesinger, Empire was not an important factor in American history or American policy, except in opposing the real empires of the European past, and the purported Russian empire of the present. If there were an American empire and wars fought for expansion, in 1848, for instance, or against the Filipinos in 1898, or power-grabs as in Hawaii, these were empires by accident, perhaps even benevolent gestures (as in control of Latin America in the Monroe Doctrine fashion) to protect the inhabitants from others doubtless less benign. Perhaps Gunboat Diplomacy was a bit unfair, perhaps trade relations a bit unbalanced, but here was the decisive issue: America became the bastion, the protector, of world freedom and it needed bits of empire, and something that looked very much like an economic and political imperialism, as badly as it had needed slavery in the run-up to economic expansion and the Industrial Revolution. Niebuhr's post-1940 "realism" led him back to a Wilsonianism in which "empire" was defined as extra-territorial influence and not especially in relation to the developing world. Empires were as inevitable as sin, and arguably necessary forces of order in a sin-laden world.

In practical terms, this difference between the two men was not especially important. Defense of American actions, CIA to the Marines, was then mandatory even if the actions themselves were sometimes off course (Schlesinger liked the phrase "cock-up," for confusion, naturally the cause of most mistakes, human rights violations, etc., with Company involvement) and even when supporting repressive dictators, not really the fault of the State Department but because such dictators had pressured the U.S., as defenders of the American side in the Cold War, to give them carte blanche. Under that rubric, almost anything was possible, acceptable, sometimes quietly laudable. Order had to be restored, sources of raw materials of the American economy -- "our vital interests" -- maintained, and a vigorous application of force (with hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousand killed, or millions deprived of decency) was mandatory.

Occasionally Niebuhr was to express misgivings and more often disappointments, and not always, by any means, because he criticized the government from the liberal side. The purported naïve liberalism that prevented American forces from meeting the Egyptians by force during 1956, arousing Niebuhr's ire, was to be matched by his portrayal a few years later of a worthy South Vietnamese government that needed to be aided against the Communist onslaught. (He recognized by the late 1960s that the war was a failure, but could not accept US withdrawal -- that would mean victory of a demonic opponent.) Eisenhower seemed to have been too liberal; Kennedy perhaps a more worthy warrior for American values -- a natural enough judgment for a Democrat of Cold War bent.

In theological terms, for Cold War Niebuhr, "perfectability" had become the chief sin of modern society and modern man. This was, as Susman suggested, not merely a rejection of any future cooperative commonwealth but also a rejection of the governing assumptions so vivid in the New Deal years and so much shared by a younger Niebuhr. To continue to expect an upward climb, reducing and moving toward eliminating great wrongs, poverty, racism, and so on, had become a sort of lure that inspired the naïve into anti-American feelings and sentiments. Freedom, much hailed as ever, was a freedom within sharp limitations. A self-avowed liberal, Niebuhr could hardly oppose the civil rights movement, but he warned always of caution and of expecting too much equality too soon: there was the danger. The scent of Pan Africanism must have been especially nerve-racking, because it hinted of another kind of internationalism whose participants and followers wanted too much, not only independence from the old colonial powers (as Niebuhr, in general, continued to support) but freedom from economic controls, and a redivision of global wealth. That is: yet another troubling version of socialism.

Perhaps we should add a personal footnote here: the Congress for Cultural Freedom, created at the instigation of Schlesinger and others as a cover for CIA activities worldwide, had Niebuhr as its co-chair. Could he have been deceived about the sources of funding and influence? Not really.

Now let us turn to Williams and his approach to Empire and to theology. At first, as graduate student and war veteran, Williams was more interested by far in Russian-American relations, the subject of his MA thesis. Young professor Williams got ever further in Third World concerns as he studied diplomatic documents, preparing the two-volume work for publication but also simply for use in his classes at Oregon (small personal note: these two volumes, as taught by a realist historian at Illinois, were my introduction to Williams). As he had suspected since his service in the Navy, the use of atomic weapons was a fundamental gesture at total world control. Christian Socialism was important because Williams did not much believe in the class struggle or a heroic proletarian revolution anywhere ahead. But the restraint and introspection that he urged, in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, was very nearly the opposite of the Niebuhr/Schlesinger view, and so was his evolving view of US history.

What of the Empire? Williams could accept one aspect of supposed innocence, in the sense that American democracy had been predicated upon expansionism, which was thereby naturalized, so to speak. But no one who read diplomatic discussions from the 1870s onward could believe that the planners of Empire, geographical and economic, were innocent. Quite the contrary. And no one could believe either that anti-Communism after 1917 was greatly different from competition with other empires before...or as it turns out, after. Empire had, in any case, defined American life and was the source of the crisis at ever level that needed to be met frankly, no doubt spiritually.

Here, in the Cuban crises and the run up to Vietnam, Williams was the voice of Third World self-determination more than any radical historian who comes to mind, more than Howard Zinn (who was aiming at issues of domestic racism, and deeply involved in civil rights struggles), also more effectively than Marxist scholars of the Communist or Trotskyist variety who denounced imperialism on a regular basis.

How did it happen that Tragedy of American Diplomacy, published in 1959, would in a decade become the book (along with Marcuse's One Dimensional Man) most cribbed by campus antiwar orators? How did it happen that the theological Pax Americana of Niebuhr lost its aura, alongside the sharp decline of the New York Intellectuals, his cerebral counterparts and prestigious supporters?

In 1952, Communism could be denounced from many an American pulpit as the devil's work, and when Niebuhr himself pronounced it "demonic," suggesting an insane, amoral false religion, this sophisticated view characterized threats to US domination of the global order as all the more dangerous because Communist faith was shared so widely among self-educated working people and peasants in practically every part of the globe.

Williams's own Christianity was never a central factor in his appeal to the antiwar movement of the 1960s, and yet it cannot be dismissed as a premise or even a backbone of his work. Not that he was a regular churchgoer, after his childhood and until his third marriage (and life in small-town Oregon). But a closer reading of Contours of American History than I made as a graduate student in 1966 with the wondrous new discovery of a way to look at US history afresh, finds religious conviction at several crucial points.

As he probed the precursors of American history, Williams turned to British Mercantilism and to Lord Shaftsbury most especially. Here, in the original model of what Williams was to call "Syndicalism," could be found the notion of a balance between public good and commercial expansion. Lacking faith in the rising of the lower classes and as a scholar of ruling-class ideology, Williams rooted this Mercantilism in the pervasive Christianity of society before the Industrial Revolution. Here, in the "central insight that corporate responsibility is the key to a meaningful as well as a wealthy life" was what had slipped away with the expansionism of dedicated democrats like Jefferson and Madison, and had left little behind to restrain the brutal laissez faire of Andrew Jackson, the slave-owner and Indian killer whose embrace of the newly active voting mass had popularized the notion that all restraints were harmful as well as unnecessary.

Thus, if for Niebuhr capitalism had opened up society to humanity's best instincts, those liberal values threatened on the right and the left, then for Williams, capitalism, through the elaboration of empire on the modern model, unrestrained, had opened up society for its worst instincts.

Williams sought to clarify and expand upon this notion in The Great Evasion, where he argued,

"The central utility of Karl Marx for Americans in the middle of the twentieth century is that he is a heretic who hoes us by bringing our capitalistic ego into a confrontation with our capitalist reality."

This was not one of his successful books, doubtless because "restraint" was not destined to be a popular topic for the rebellious sixties and because he stumbled around conceptually, unable to frame his ideas in a more meaningful fashion. Empire As A Way of Life, with no more open religion, was nevertheless a great success in its own way as a book of ethics, as well as a boiled-down version of everything else that he wrote. By this time, near the end of his life, he had become a regionalist who could come to terms with what had been almost but not quite entirely lost in the devastation of Native American communities and other pre-existing cultures met, conquered, and nearly exterminated. He had achieved a positive vision, a spiritual vision, of a better American life, one without empire.


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About the Author

Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. Buhle is working on his ninth comic book.   (back)


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Published July 26, 2010