“As Others See Us,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
December 9, 1946

“We have,” said an exuberant campaign orator in the recent campaign, “the moral leadership of the world. The whole world trusts in our devotion to freedom and expects us to save mankind from totalitarianism.” That is how we see ourselves, at least in our more complacent moods.

Boy Scouts Henry King, Bill Trimby, and Bob Linsay with a flag in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on June 26, 1946. Wikimedia Commons.

The world does not see us as we see ourselves. Thus Tom Driberg, a member of a dissenting British Labor Party group, declared in the House of Commons on Nov. 14th, “I must warn the foreign secretary that however much he may strive for peace, if he finds himself inexorably and irrevocably driven into a new war situation, the people of this country will certainly not follow him into war now or five years from now against the Soviet Union in partnership with the barbaric thugs from Detroit or the narrow imperialists of Washington and Wall Street.” This particular stricture need not to be taken too seriously. The members of the left in Britain, who love Russia more than anything else, picture America in the most lurid colors, just as our own left which loves Russia, tries to picture Britain as the center of a corrupt colonialism and imperialism, for the sake of which we must not get into war with Russia. It is significant that in each case Russia is regarded as the fixed point of virtue, and the home country of the critics is thought of as having some virtue which could be improved if it got closer to Russia and more distant from either Britain or America. Our own pro-Russians profess to abhor British colonialism, and the British pro-Russians profess to abhor American economic imperialism.

If we had to deal with only such critics who cancel each other out we would not have to take the criticisms too seriously. But evidence multiplies that in the whole of Europe, we are not thought of as highly as we think of ourselves. “America,” writes one American correspondent in high official position on the continent, “is ideologically unpopular in the whole of Europe. If the criticisms were confined to the fellow travellers it would be of no moment. It comes just as frequently from those who would like to save Europe from communism and believe that the uncertainty of American foreign policy, together with America’s inability to understand the struggle for democracy upon the continent, will play into Russia’s hands.”

“The United States,” declares a French critic, “will lose moral prestige so long as there is fear that it may use atomic warfare to enforce its will upon Europe.” “The future of Europe,” declares a German refugee in Britain, “will be decided by the way America deals with her next depression. The inevitability of that depression is taken for granted in Europe from the right to the left; and there is a strong implied criticism in the very fact that it is assumed in Europe that the richest nation on earth lacks the moral and political skill to avoid the depression. But the more important question is how America will deal with it. If it should result in considerable social confusion, and if the effort is made to overcome the confusion by restricting democratic rights and passing restrictive and oppressive legislation, the moral prestige of the West will deteriorate on the continent and the prestige of Russia will correspondingly rise.”

These are just a few critical voices from Europe. They can be multiplied ad infinitum by any careful reader of the European press. We might reply in self-defense that we are probably unpopular because we are powerful. Envy and resentment of our power partly prompt these not wholly objective criticisms. But even this defense contains an important admission. Power and moral leadership are not wholly compatible. The very fact that we are the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth makes it the more difficult to commend whatever moral content there may be in our much vaunted “American way of life.” Those who are under the compulsion of our economic power will naturally be the more critical of our professed moral and political ideals. The British, for instance, can hardly be expected to be morally convinced of the superiority of our conception of international free trade, so long as they had to accept our conception under the pressure of our superior economic power.

But it is not merely envy and resentment of our power which prompts the critical attitude toward America in Europe. The primary cause of the difficulty between ourselves and Europe lies in the fact that we seem to have made the maximum freedom of the economic process from political control the sine qua non of democracy. Europe, on the other hand, is convinced that there is no way of avoiding totalitarianism if the ideal of political democracy becomes inexorably associated with economic insecurity. One can speak of “Europe” in this instance in pretty general terms. All the Scandinavian governments, Britain and the western continental nations are seeking a middle way between too much planning and a too unregulated freedom, with the resultant economic insecurity. One must consider in this connection not merely that the socialist movements of the continent, which American conservatives equate with communism, are looking for this middle way. One must consider that the Tory party of Britain and all the so-called “Christian” parties of the continent, assume the necessity of wider political control of economic life than we do in America.

There is, for instance, an organization called “Spiritual Mobilization” in this nation which uncritically equates even the mildest forms of governmental control with “pagan statism.” If its standards are accepted, every nation beside our own is already caught in this paganism. Said a British Tory, not a British socialist, visitor to this country who had been given a leaflet of this organization: “The uncritical identification of ‘Christian liberty’ with a laisses faire economic program would not be possible in any modem nation except your own. I assume, of course, that the program has plausibility only among your politically illiterate parsons. But even so, there is no other nation, in which even such illiterates would accept such a program.”

The mildest criticisms of our view of democracy suggest that we are sufficiently wealthy to allow ourselves the luxury of this kind of democracy. The more rigorous criticisms suggest that we want to reduce the world economic realm to a great arena of free-for-all economic competition, because we know that we have the power to beat our competitors in that competition. In the one case it is hoped that we will not insist upon exporting a luxury which poor nations cannot afford. In the other case it is suggested that if the most powerful nation on earth insists on turning the clock back and seeks to solve the problems of war-torn continents by methods which had a certain validity in the hey-day of modern industrial expansion, we will sow the wind of economic chaos and reap the whirlwind. In this connection it might be observed that Europe is not blind to the fact that influential men in American politics, who fought the Bretton-Woods economic agreements, are now more powerful in our counsels than they were when their opposition proved fortunately futile.

The struggle for the “middle way” is the battle for democracy in Europe. To a certain degree that is also true in Asia, where our justified desire to prevent communism from encroaching further on China, seems inexorably to strengthen the more reactionary forces behind Chiang Kai-shek and to prevent a more democratic middle way from gathering strength. This struggle for the middle way is made more difficult not only by lack of American support, but also because the Vatican gives only reluctant support to, or actually opposes, the economic program of the lay Catholic parties, which have sprung up all over Europe, and which have the promise of making a genuine contribution to the democratic reorganization of Europe.

The problem of America’s “moral” leadership is thus the problem whether our nation can rise above the modes of thought and behaviour, which are characteristic of the political life of a very wealthy nation; and understand the problems of nations, as devoted as we to freedom but unable to afford the price we pay for it. This assumes, of course, that we will be able to continue to pay the price, which is an assumption we need not either challenge or defend for the moment. The history of the next decades will decide that issue. Meanwhile history in Europe cannot wait upon the answer.

It might be said in conclusion that for a devout Christian it may be more important to know what God thinks of us than what others think of us. But since it is very easy to attribute our favorite prejudices to God, it is a helpful procedure to allow the criticisms of foes and friendly critics to supply some accents which our estimate of ourselves is bound to leave out. However dangerous Russian totalitarianism may be, if we allow the world to drift into a position in which war against Russia becomes the only alternative, little of any value in Western, or any other civilization, can survive. This dread possibility cannot be avoided by dreaming up ideal constitutional schemes for world government.

In a sense the primary responsibility rests upon this nation, for creating the conditions, which will prevent totalitarianism or anarchy from spreading, or for the one to be aggravated by the spread of the other. America as the wealthiest nation, must become conscious of the fact that the highly favorable condi­tions of our life are a hazard to the formulation of democratic principles, which are universally applicable; and that the enforcement by sheer power of ideas and principles which lack the universal validity which we ascribe to them, will render them the more odious.

“Editorial Notes,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
December 23, 1946

The New British Weekly, an independent journal, expresses grave concern over the food situation in Germany and has some pointed criticisms of American policy. It writes: “This is not the place to attempt to predict the consequences of America’s change of mood, but some of them will be horrible. The most immediately threatened are the Germans of the British zone, for although the Americans lately agreed to pool food resources of their zone and ours, they are not doing so. Mr. Victor Gollancz wrote from Düsseldorf that many thousands there, and also in Hamburg, are suffering from ‘hunger oedema’ and that other deficiency diseases are also rampant. This gives an unpleasant overtone to our Food Minister’s assurance that Britain is now consuming more stable foods than before the war, and to his promise of extra Christmas rations… If our government will not even sanction the sending of food parcels by individuals to Germany, who are we to complain upon grounds of conscience and humanity of America’s ruthless lapse into laissez faire.”

The journal continues by suggesting that for America to “assume planetary guidance upon the basis of outmoded economic anarchy” would be to add to the world’s confusion. Such criticisms prove that British and European apprehensions about American policy are by no means confined to the left.

What is disturbing about this criticism, however, is that we are made the scapegoat for the British uneasiness of conscience in regard to hunger in Germany. There is too great a disposition on the part of American liberals to hold British “colonialism” responsible for all the ills of the world, and for British liberals to detect American economic imperialism in every evil.

Whatever may be the faults of American policy (and we are not disposed to deny them) the situation in Germany is not immediately caused by any peculiar or unique American policy. We do not know whether American authorities have refused to pool the food resources of the two zones. We do know that the food deficit in the British zone is only slightly higher than in ours. Neither zone is capable of feeding its population if it is not allowed to export manufactured goods to pay for food imports. The trickle of charity, which enters both zones, is bound to be inadequate in any event. Both governments are equally responsible in allowing a situation of complete economic stagnation, which will result in the direst consequences before the winter is over. We are still bargaining with the Russians, who want 25% of all German production, as the price of the economic unification of Germany. If that price is paid, export balances will not be great enough to buy the necessary food. In any event, the Western powers will have to be ready to permit German manufactured goods to come into our markets, if the food is to be bought. And there are indications that British interests are as afraid of German competition as we are.

Whatever criticisms we make of each other, let us not evade common responsibilities by these mutual recriminations. Neither one of us has done a good enough job as an occupying power to be able to afford such criticisms. We both evict German families with equal ruthlessness to make room for the families of our officers. Being wealthier than Britain, our responsibilities are greater; but neither of us has approximated a decent justice in dealing with a vanquished foe.