150 Years Of The Atlantic July/August 2006

Idealism & Practicality

This is the sixth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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Awkward Imperialists
May 1930
By Reinhold Niebuhr

Just over a decade after World War I, the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr warned of the pitfalls of America’s rapid rise to power.

Our empire was developed almost overnight. At the beginning of the World War we were still in debt to the world ... We wiped out our debt and put the world in our debt by well-nigh thirty billion dollars in little more than a decade, and we have increased our holdings in the outside world by one to two billion dollars per year ...

We are not prosperous because we are imperialists; we are imperialists because we are prosperous ...

We are a business people who know nothing about the intricacies of politics, especially international politics, and in the flush of youthful pride we make no calculations of the reactions to our attitudes in the minds of others.

Our lack of imagination is increased by the fact that we have come into our position of authority too suddenly to adjust ourselves to its responsibilities and that we are geographically too isolated from the world to come into intimate contact with the thought of others. It was only yesterday that we were a youthful nation, conscious of making an adventure in democratic government which the older nations did not quite approve, and we still imagine that it is our virtue rather than our power which the older nations envy ...

We hold ourselves aloof from international councils because we feel ourselves too powerful to be in need of counseling with others, but we are able to practise the deception of imagining that our superior political virtue rather than our superior economic strength makes such abstention possible and advisable ...

It has always been the habit of fortunate people to ascribe their luck or their fortune to their own moral qualities rather than to any inscrutability of history, and our fortune-favored nation has developed this habit with the greatest possible consistency ...

We still maintain the fiction that nothing but the love of peace actuates our foreign policy. A certain amount of hypocrisy which varies between honest self-deception and conscious dishonesty characterizes the life of every nation ...

We make simple moral judgments, remain unconscious of the self-interest which colors them, support them with an enthusiasm which derives from our waning but still influential evangelical piety, and are surprised that our contemporaries will not accept us as saviors of the world.

Volume 145, No. 5, pp. 670–675

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