Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
History As a Way of Learning: On the Death of the American Historian William A. Williams
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Reinhold Niebuhr.
Reinhold Niebuhr.
Image courtesy of the Australian National University.

For Niebuhr, it was an already democratic and capitalist America whose hand had been forced by Germany and Japan. But this only after a prolonged resistance by those who believed naively in the co-existence of the two worlds - the one democratic and peace-loving, the other authoritarian and war-like. Eventually, however, America undertook responsibility for the creation of a single world community. It would be one in which all could live in pluralistic freedom, yet protected from both armed attacks and attempts to impose rigid uniformity by individual powers.

Niebuhr's image of America's domestic political tradition was no longer that of an unblemished democracy, but rather one tempered by pragmatic realism. This was a tradition that, beginning with the founding fathers, had on the one hand recognized pluralism and democracy, but, on the other, did not disdain force and was comfortable with its use - to be sure, always subject to the controls of a system defined by a constitution that provided complicated checks and balances. In his opinion, it was now time to apply this domestic tradition of a pragmatic realism to the field of foreign policy and to exercise power - responsibly, of course, and in harmony with pluralistic and democratic goals. This Niebuhrean paradigm of a resisting, power-political realism, which had as its aim the defensive containment of the unjust power of others - all the while not hanging back from the employment of its own (also military) power - quickly became, under the heading "a world power against its will," the official version for the founding and direction of an American policy of expansion and, following the war, of a strenuous anti-communist global strategy.