History, Department of


Date of this Version

April 2006


Paper delivered at the 1st Annual James A. Rawley Graduate Conference in the Humanities, Lincoln, NE. April 8, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Andy Ulrich.


From the moment Reinhold Niebuhr heard of the events at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he immediately began imagining American involvement in the peace that would follow Allied victory over the Axis powers. Arguably the most prominent Protestant theologian in the twentieth century, Niebuhr developed an intriguing view of the international system in the 1940s. Niebuhr believed it was America’s responsibility to champion a world order or community that would defend and promote justice in the face of tyranny. For justice to exist, order was necessary and democracy was the best way to promote world order, but not the only way. He also realized that “power” in the international system also aff ected global order. To him, the world could not solve global problems through an ideal system of international law, nor did he think that the possibility of world organization was purely a question of the manipulation of power. By understanding that a balance between a democratic world order and one based upon preponderant power was necessary, Niebuhr identified with both realist and idealist. The 1940s was the testing ground that would continue to shape and affect his views of the international system. How did Reinhold Niebuhr believe the world could make the transition from war to peace in the 1940s? This pivotal decade for the United States in the twentieth century was indeed central to Niebuhr’s evolving world view that a global order, balancing the use of or willingness to use power (whether political, economic, or military) with a democratic based system, would bring about a just peace.

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