“Our Chances for Peace,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
February 17, 1947
In recent weeks when we put the future of our journal into the hands of our readers and were heartened by an overwhelming and generous response, asking us to continue the journal, we noted that a small minority of dissidents were critical of our editorial policy chiefly on the ground that we were too intransigent toward Russia. They felt that Mr. Wallace was right and that we were wrong about Russia.
This criticism deserves some consideration because it frequently, though not always, springs from a Christian spirit of self-examination, which recognizes how quickly and how easily nations become self-righteous in dealing with competitor or foe and how necessary it is to remind them of the beam that is in their own eye. It is indeed true that America is much too sure of its own virtues, much too confident that the characteristic institutions and accents of our democracy are universally applicable all over the world and much too blind to the peril of American power in the world community. We must continue to remind ourselves that some of the best democratic spirits in the world regard us with apprehension, fearing that American power is irresponsible and incalculable because we have no powerful tradition to guide us in its use, no strong conviction about our continuing responsibility to the world community, and no certainty of avoiding a domestic economic disaster.
We must not forget the legitimacy or plausibility of these criticisms. They must help us in our necessary task of self-criticism. But political life requires not merely honest self-examination but the most objective possible analysis of the forces and factors which surround us. Before the war there were honest Christians who felt that Hitler could not be as bad as he seemed because we were not as good as we pretended. Religious self-criticism must be supplemented or it becomes a source of confusion in assessing our social responsibilities. America is no shining light of democratic justice. But that still does not change the fact that the generous nineteenth century Marxist dream of a universal classless society has changed into a nightmare of Russian tyranny, and that the free peoples of the world hope that they can count on our support in avoiding a new enslavement. We may not be good enough to accept this responsibility; but men and nations are never good enough for the responsibilities they face. That is, however, no reason for avoiding them. Here we face the same problem of the relation between religious self-criticism and political judgments which we faced in the Nazi crisis.
There is, however, another similarity between our situation then and now, of more pragmatic import. We are told that a policy of firmness must inevitably lead to war, while conciliation could guarantee peace.
In the Nazi days this was called appeasement. We may remember how honestly Mr. Chamberlain and others believed in it. The policy actually led to war because it gave the Nazi tyranny the strategic advantages without which it could not have waged war. Whatever may be the differences between Russia and Germany they are certainly similar on two points. They were, or are, ruled by dictatorships which are insecure and which must persuade their subjects that it is the nation and not the dictatorship which is insecure. Secondly, they are strategically inferior to the forces opposed to them unless they can, by the threat of war, gain the advantages which make war possible.
The Nuremberg trials have made it quite clear that Nazism would never have been strong enough to challenge the world, had the world not yielded the strategic points, one after the other, which enabled the Nazis finally to risk a war. This lesson ought not to be lost on us in the present situation though we must not press the analogy so far as to assume that the Russian dictatorship is plotting world conquest. It is, however, a dictatorship and, as such, insecure. It is furthermore informed by a revolutionary faith, which envisages the redemption of the world through its power. The insecurity compounded with the illusion makes its future course in history unpredictable. It would certainly like to increase its power and is obviously using the Communist parties in the Western world as instruments of its policy. If it is less cynical than the Nazis, it is certainly not less fanatical, nor less tyrannical for that matter.
Under these circumstances a policy of yielding would run the risk of resulting in the same consequences which flowed from Mr. Chamberlain’s ill-fated diplomacy. But it must be emphasized that patience is as necessary as firmness. We must continue to bargain with the Russians. Recent developments in the United Nations and the Atomic Authority prove that a combination of firmness and patience brings results. We may even achieve the unification of Germany if we continue to strive for it, though we must refuse to pay the exorbitant price for unification which the Russians are demanding, which is 25% of all German production for reparations.
The Scriptural injunction is that Christians should, in times of great strain, “watch and be sober,” though the “children of the night” spend their time in “sleep and drunkenness.” Sleep is a symbol of complacency and drunkenness is a symbol of hysteria. If we avoid both complacency and hysteria and seek, as a nation, to cultivate the habits of watchfulness and soberness, we still have an excellent chance of averting world conflict and of laying the foundations of a stable world community.