“Editorial Notes,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
May 26, 1947

It is one of the tragic aspects of our modern world that even nations, closely related to one another, persistently misunderstand each other. Thus for instance there is a growing impression in Britain that America is spoiling for a conflict with Russia, a false view which Mr. Wallace’s recent visit to Britain did much to give a false show of plausibility. Actually America is still tottering on the brink of isolationism and a large part of the business community, which is supposedly contriving a war against Russia, not only regrets the expenditures which our present commitments involve, but has a terrible fear of the possible cost of further commitments. We have not yet defeated the temptation of isolationism and irresponsibility. We will have to face that temptation again and again in coming years. Let Europe note that Mr. McCormick is saying the same things in the Chicago Tribune which the Daily Worker is saying for the communists, if it wants to know what the real situation is in America. We may misuse our power; but there is still a greater danger that we will tire of the responsibilities of power.


It must be admitted on the other hand that some of our journalists have encouraged the impression that America is engulfed by an hysteria of fear and hatred against Russia. Necessary as it is to prevent the Russian tide from inundating the power-political vacuum of Europe, it is also important to prevent hysteria. Russia is weak; and there is no prospect of her gaining the strength to challenge us in a war if we maintain our health and show a reasonable amount of wisdom in helping the Western world to regain economic and political health. The danger lies in our possible weakness and not in Russian strength. Some of this hysteria actually proceeds from a lack of confidence in ourselves. The same business community, which publicly proclaims its confidence in “the American way of life” privately speculates about the possibility and the imminence of a depression. It doesn’t believe what it says, honestly enough to proceed with its tasks soberly and wisely. If we move toward disaster, our inner spiritual and moral insecurity (of which this hysteria is a symptom) will contribute more to it than anything which Russia may do.

“American Power and European Health,” by Reinhold Niebuhr
June 9, 1947

American power is so dominant in the Western world that every problem of European destiny must wait for its solution upon some American decision. We may make a right decision on one level of policy and still wreck the European future because we fail to carry through with other necessary decisions. So far we have made one right decision; but it is not yet certain whether we will make the others.

The one right decision we have made is our evident intention to stay in Europe and prevent the Russian power from inundating the European continent. We may or may not agree with the specific policy taken in Greece and Turkey; but Europe was, on the whole, right in appreciating primarily the symbolic significance of that action. It was a symbol of our determination to remain in Europe, though there might well have been a more adequate token of this determination than what was actually done in Greece and Turkey.

It is significant however that even now Europe is still apprehensive about our future policy. It is afraid that an economic depression at home might tempt us to withdraw from our commitments. That is why Barbara Ward, the foreign editor of The Economist, after a recent tour of America, rightly came to the conclusion that the future of Europe will be largely determined by the health of the American economy. Here an element in human history above or below the level of conscious decision is revealed. No matter what we want to do or what we say we will do, we will not do it if we lose our power. An American depression will be, not merely a social catastrophe for us, but a calamity for the world. It may be worth noting that the Russians are speculating daily on the possibility and the imminence of this depression. Their stubbornness on many issues is partly prompted by the hope that, if they are patient enough, we will in time pull out of Europe so that they can move in.

But even if our will and our power to remain in Europe should remain unyielding, we must make another decision on a higher level of policy. We must, as Under Secretary Acheson recently insisted, offer Europe, including Great Britain, much more economic support than hitherto contemplated. Mr. Acheson suggested a peacetime lease-lend arrangement of five billion dollars annually. Such a decision will require a very high measure of political imagination. Our treatment of Britain in the British loan negotiations does not encourage too much confidence in our ability to rise to such a level of political wisdom. The whole of western Europe is sinking in an economic morass. If there is no economic convalescence in Europe there can be no restored political health. The economic aid which is required could not be a matter of pure generosity. Nations as nations are incapable of such generosity. We could rise to such a policy only if we were wise enough to understand that generous, interest-free loans would not merely save the economy of western Europe but would also insure our own economic health. We have only begun to realize the difficulties of relating the economy of a very wealthy nation to that of a very impoverished world.

But even such economic farsightedness will not avail if we do not implement our policy by one further step. We must restore the economic health of Europe without trying to dictate the political organization of European nations. Europe seeks desperately to avoid totalitarianism; but both Britain and the continent are much too impoverished to regard our uncritical identification of free enterprise with democracy as anything but an irrelevance at best and as a peril at worst. It is not easy for a nation to exercise its power without using it to enforce its prejudices. Our excessively libertarian interpretations of democracy are a prejudice as far as Europe is concerned. If we insist upon them Europe may be wrecked even though we meet all other tests.

One final and necessary element in our policy is not so much a matter of conscious decision as of the temper and mood in which our conscious decisions are made. We cannot afford the hysteria to which those are tempted who understand the perils of our day, any more than we can afford the complacency of those who are blind to our perils. Hysterical talk about the inevitability of a third world war and the necessity of preparing for it is just as irresponsible as the policy of yielding to tyranny in order to avoid war. We are fated to live for a long while in a world in which no stable peace can be guaranteed; but it does not follow that a war is either inevitable or desirable. We can do our duty in this kind of world only if we are as sober as we are firm. It is worth observing that the whole of modern culture, with its promise of quick and sure results for the right action has not prepared us for this kind of moral experience. This nation must draw upon the resources of the Christian faith if we would do our duty each day without too many fearful apprehensions and too many unjustified hopes about tomorrow. “Sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof.” That can only be said from the standpoint of a faith which understands the eternal depth in every moment of time, and the intrinsic meaning of every duty undertaken under God.