WHAT DOES UNCLE SAM WANT?
The world wants to know: Is U.S. might a boon or a threat? In our neighbor’s back yard a Canadian sought the answer
THE entire world is asking itself what the United States, faced by the greatest challenge history has offered any nation, is going to do. The questions are simple and brutally urgent.
Is the United States still isolationist at heart? Is she going to he the first world citizen, a new species of international leader? Or is she going to put her ultimate faith in her technical and military nkili and join t he large company of imperial failures who have conceived it their duty to impost their ideas on everyone else by economic or military force?
None of these questions can bo answered by reading the newspapers or by talking to politicians in Washington. If they could he, the rest of us would know where we stand. If they could be, I would have been far less eager than I was last autumn at the prospect of crossing the United States by car and I would have learned far less than I did on the journey.
lake everyone else, I have made my share of generalizations about the United States and, like everyone else on the outside, I have tended to consider only a part of the country, mainly the eastern seaboard and t he Middle West, the sections where I have lived for months at a time and at two periods in my life for a matter of several years. It was nearly nine years since I had been through the hinterland. Though I firmly believed, and still do, that the final meaning of American life reveals itself most clearly and in greatest variety in the cities of the East, I still remembered that Americans put an almost superstitious faith in the vigor and purifying breezes which sweep across the grass roots.
It was the first week in December when Dorothy and I left Montreal. We reached California three weeks later and have been here ever since. During that time I have acquired an assorted kind of information which would sound impressive if 1 could quote what this or that important man in this or that key state told me. But 1 know few importent men west of Philadelphia and the majority of the people I talked to were the sort Henry Wallace believes he compliments when he calls them common men. I have also studied with some care a variety of local newspapers from Rochester, N.Y., to
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Phoenix, Ariz. I have made a habit of listening to a great many radio programs we never hear in Canada. So my fact-finding equipment has consisted of nothing but two eyes and a pair of ears and that indefinable sense of other people, highly personal and often unreliable, which all novelists learn to depend on in their work. My conclusions are therefore personal, necessarily colored by my own interests and temperament.
We have seldom set out on a trip in a more peaceful state of mind. Dorothy had been exceedingly ill and months ago she had been ordered to a warm climate this winter by her doctor. In the language of the Foreign Exchange Control Board, “one consort” was given permission to accompany her out of the country and that took care of me.
We drove through northern New York, rounded the grey and dirty bend in the lakes to Cleveland, and the third day sliced off the northern part of Ohio and Indiana on the road to Chicago.
On the North Shore of Chicago we know a lot of people, for it was there that we were married. I remember Chicago best in the splendid days of prohibition when Chicagoans justified their indifference to the local gang shootings on grounds of economy: it saved police expense to let the gangsters wipe each other out. I remember it in the winter of 1932 when the unemployed slept wrapped in newspapers under conduits and on the ledges above the urinals in men’s lavatories in railroad stations. Now Chicago is on top again and you can smell its prosperity in the factory smoke which lies like a brownish-grey roof over Whiting, Calumet, East Chicago, Gary, Hammond and the South Side.
Fortress of the Middle Class
AT THIS point I enter dangerous ground. The Middle West is a subject which outsiders approach at their peril.
If this section of the United States is not the brain of the country, it is certainly its heart and the great muscle by which the vitality of that heart is generally measured is Chicago, together with its contingent muscle known as the North Shore. The heart is not a particularly complex organ. Unless it is diseased one lives for years without being conscious of it. It is less sensitive than the eye or the ear, it is far less mysterious than the brain. But since it is the one organ without which none of the others can live, even the jokes we make about it are tinged with a certain grim seriousness.
This peculiar importance of the Middle West cannot be overemphasized. Because it is the heart of the United States, the Middle West comes close to being the heart of western civilization. That is why Sinclair Lewis, after spending a profitable lifetime lampooning it, still seems to consider it the only part of the earth’s surface which really matters. That is also why the Chicago Tribune, even if it is not the world’s greatest newspaper as it claims to be, shares with Pravda the distinction of being the world’s most important newspaper. As Pravda is the trumpet of Russian nationalism, so the Tribune is the trumpet of American nationalism. As Pravda claims to speak for the proletariat, so the Tribune claims to speak for the middle classes.
The Middle West is the last great fortress of the middle class. In spite of the growth of labor unions, the tone, style, thought and values of the heart of America is stilly determined by the middle class. And broadly speaking, because the prosperous middle classes of the Northern United States stem directly out of the puritan movement, this means the dominating point of view in the Middle West is puritanism. Whether midwesterners go to church on Sundays or stay at home to read the comics in steam-heated apartments makes no difference, for puritanism is a state of mind no more fundamental to religion than a coat of barnacles is fundamental to the keel of a ship. Their manners may be easier than those of their ancestors, their prosperity may be Roman by comparison. The old morality based on sex may have yielded to the new morality based on what they call The American Way of Life, but its dynamics remain the same.
The middle classes of
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this part of the United States have the strengths and weaknesses of puritans everywhere. They are tremendously industrious, competent, hard-headed, practical and courageous. On the other hand, they understand internal combustion engines better than they understand themselves and they trust efficient organization more than they trust human nature. Nothing mysterious appeals to them or seems important. That is why they have no sense of history, which is a very mysterious process. Though they may pity weakness in others, they can never respect it. Though they dread failure, they tend to feel it is self-deserved. Though they are quick to criticize others, they have usually been so sharply handled in youth that they lose judgment when they are criticized in turn. Puritans everywhere find it necessary to maintain their sense of balance by active hostility to any morality which differs from their own. This is a statement which needs no enlargement in Canada, for the historical attitude of Ontario to Quebec is a living proof of its truth.
Practically every aspect of the attitude and behavior of the Middle
West in our century becomes crystalclear the moment one realizes that it is the attitude of a puritan to what he considers a wicked world. Implicit in their conversation nowadays is the belief that if Europeans had modeled themselves on the Middle West, instead of giving themselves over to cussedness, they could have been prosperous too.
The Tribune’s Their Bible
America’s crisis, and therefore the crisis of the rest of us, consists in this: Puritanism has conditioned its members to act rather than to think, to deal with means rather than with ends, to press forward with ever-increasing speed and efficiency toward a material goal. Today, after having advanced further into a materialistic paradise than any other people, Americans find themselves staring over the edge of a precipice, unable to make up their minds where to go.
We met old friends in and around Chicago and no people could have been more charming or friendly than they were. Perhaps because I was a Canadian, more probably because they were kindly individuals, all of them at one time or another contrived to apologize for the Tribune, which in two issues that week end contained an offensive article on England and a passing sneer at Canada. Yet, :n spite of these
apologies, the course of conversation through several evenings taught me the truth of one thing Dorothy has always insisted I should remember when I consider the Middle West. Most of the political ideas uttered in this area are not original with the people who express them. They can nearly always be traced, however indirectly, to the Chicago Tribune.
One man I met favored giving aid to western Germany at the expense of Britain and France because—so he believed—the British were Socialists and the French were Communists. Because German settlers in the United States had always worked hard, he drew the conclusion that the Germans in the Reich were a sound people. He insisted that the British were far less hungry than the Government in Washington said they were and even if they were hungry he considered it to be their own fault because the British, as a people, were lazy. The French, he said, were corrupt.
They Blame Roosevelt
Another man (and these were all university graduates, most of them trained in professions) admitted that he held no brief for the Nazis; the Nazis were as bad as anyone could possibly be. But he felt no inclination to hold the German people responsible for Hitler. “Look at us,” he said. “We had a dictator in our own country from 1932 to 1945. Hitler may have started the war in Europe, but we’d never have gone to war with Japan if it hadn’t been for Roosevelt.”
Once upon a time I would have become enraged by such statements. Now I realize that when puritans talk like this they are merely relieving an accumulation of pressures within themselves. Foreigners are wrong if they believe such remarks prove these people to be men of ill will.
There are thousands of important things which I could say about the reservoir of good in the Middle West, but my purpose here is to try to understand how this area will affect the role of the United States in the future and that question must override my desire to paint the other side of the picture. There is much that is beautiful in the Middle West, but it is not the dominant factor in the thinking of the people who live there, fcr they consider usefulness a higher virtue than beauty. It is a view with which most Canadians would agree.
Harold Stassen says that the Middle West is no longer isolationist and very possibly the young men returned from the war have made it less so than it was in 1940. But it was my impression that it would take a violent shock to awaken the people here to any real sense of the jeopardy in which the world stands, or to the part which they themselves are going to be called upon to play in the future, whether they want to or not.
Into a Land of Fear
It was cold as we drove south, though we were well out of the range of snow. It was still cold as far south as Mississippi. The sky was heavily overcast and a wind that had started in the vicinity of Hudson Bay felt like the pressure of a cold hand fretting naked skin. Among brown cotton fields, in shanties without heat and without water, Negroes were living with their chickens and half-starved mules. There were no dark-skinned mammies with heads tied in red bandannas picking cotton, but otherwise it was like every book ever written about this state. Southerners tell us one must live and grow up there to understand the rea-
sons for its poverty, for Jim Crew and all the rest of it. They may be right. For us, merely driving through it was a major experience. Even seen, one finds it difficult to believe.
We stopped for lunch at the best hotel in a medium-sized town somewhere in the middle of the state. There was nothing wrong with the town except the expressions on the faces of everyone in the place. We were depressed by the sights of the day, but they seemed depressed by their whole lives.
In the afternoon we stopped at a crossroads country store. Freshly slaughtered hogs were being carried into a shed at the back. Around a cracked stove in the middle of the one room sat six or seven pitch-black elderly Negroes, huddled together for comfort as much as for warmth. The two or three white men in the store were behind the counters, all with pinched, lean faces. When they talked to one another or to us they spoke in slow, courteous voices. And all over the room there was the smell of fear; but fear of a different kind from the mental chimeras which plague the dreams of the puritans to the north. Here it was real. It was a part of the landscape, part of the rib-showing cattle grazing on brown earth, part of the knowledge that every man in the room—every man in that part of the country-—was economically the enemy of every other man. To be sure, Mississippi is only a portion of the south. Having seen it, one can know there is nothing worse in the United States. But one can also know why hatreds and fears in this particular state leave no room for consideration of the wider issues of foreign affairs.
We dropped farther south and it was still cold. We passed through Vicksburg and Natchez with its wonderfully beautiful, cold and useless mansions and down the Natchez Trace to Baton Rouge, where we spent a night.
The Lesson of Defeat
If I turn this into a travelogue I will be getting away from my point, but I learned long ago when I was traveling in Russia that without some feeling of the country where you find them, ideas seldom mean much. As an example, I can describe how we drove from Baton Rouge to New Orleans along a modern concrete road that had been built high over swamps which are a jungle of twisted, half-dead trees, water hyacinths and Spanish moss, passing every now and then shacks built on stilts over the swamp, shacks lived in by people who earn their living there. Every mile or so we saw a drowned steer floating upside down in the swamps beside the road. They were apparently animals that had been let out to graze on the Governmentkept parkway beside the road, had wandered into what looked like another green lawn and had sunk down into the ooze beneath the carpet of water hyacinths. In the summer these swamps are infested with moccasins and malaria-carrying mosquitces and they steam in the heat. How many people find the will to drive miles in order to vote on a hot day in a country like this? How can any of these people, themselves desperately poor, be concerned with what happens to the poor in Europe?
And yet for all its bad name, the South as a whole has a wisdom the North has never learned. During the past year I have been in every state in the South with the exception of Alabama, and I have reached a conclusion which is a paradox only on the surface. In one sense, the South is the least isolationist part of the United
States. I have heard half a dozen men in different states, poor men who worked with their hands, speak more intelligently about America’s part in the world today than any of their counterparts in the Middle West. From their own poverty they have learned how people act when they are hungry. From their own sins they have learned what hatred—the kind that lets blood —will cause men to do. From their defeat in the Civil War they know what an invading army on the soil of its native land will do to a people’s soul.
The South does not want to be defeated again. It has been solid behind all Army appropriations. The southerner knows that a poor man has value and in his eyes the materialistic panacea of the puritans in the North is without prestige. Naturally, his poverty being what it is, his local politics resemble a quagmire and some of his politicians, such as the láte Senator Bilbo, behave in public like denizens of the swamp. Yet I think it no accident that Woodrow Wilson came from North Carolina and Virginia, that Cordell Hull is a native of Tennessee, and that James Byrnes, General Marshall and that eminently influential figure in current American foreign policy— Bernard Baruch—are all southerners.
Such considerations aside, the delta country of Louisiana looked ominous and we found it a relief to head west into Texas after three days in New Orleans.
Texas, the Muted Giant
All the small towns of Texas appear to have happened recently and none of them seems to expect to stay as it now is for long. In places like Luling, Hondo and Uvalde the streets are laid out wider than the widest boulevards in Montreal and over them all there is an endless stretch of deep-blue sky. Texans have always thought of themselves as a unique race of men, as they are when the qualification rests upon the place in which they live. Besides the ranges and the cattle on them, there is the oil and besides the oil there are huge sectional farms. From the mammoth storage tanks and chemical plants of Texas City across the bay from Galveston, to Randolph Field which trains fliers, to the King Ranch which raises cattle and race horses, there is nothing anywhere else in the world comparable for size. Imagination is stunted merely by looking at the imponderable dimensions of them. Even the men in Texas are, on the average, the biggest I have ever seen. They are big all over, with muscular faces, wide features, large powerful behinds and big hands. They walk and talk with a superb confidence and a charming courtesy and what can be more ingratiating than a huge, tough-looking man who speaks with
a smile and a soft, southern accent?
This is a state that one would naturally look to as an active force for American leadership in the world, as a seedbed for the creative ideas people are so desperately asking of the United States. Yet Texas must be counted out, unless you can give me a few names I’ve overlooked. One of its senators is Tom Connolly, an old-line party politician. The other is Pappy O’Daniel, perhaps the most completely irresponsible man in American public life. Only a week ago I heard him say over the radio that Washington is a gambling hell, that Europe has plenty of money to buy food in the “good old American way” and that the Marshall Plan is a deliberate plot formed by New Dealers to ruin the economy of the United States.
Why does a state as fine as Texas send a man like Pappy O’Daniel to Washington to represent its people? I don’t know, unless the majority of the voters are too busy out there on the ranges, living in their marvelous climate, thinking about millions of head of cattle and new oil wells coming in every day, to give a damn about politics. They are still expanding a frontier and it appears to consume all the time and energy they have.
After a thousand miles of driving across Texas we crossed into New Mexico and southern Arizona, a world where nature has gone surrealistic. Mountains rise blue on the horizon above a yellow and copper-colored desert, not only in ranges but also in single lumpy forms that resemble parts of the human body and everywhere colors are wild and glorious. The warm sun beats down steadily and only the strange organ-pipe cactus casts a thin line of shadow that could hardly be called shade. There are copper and silver mining towns like Globe and Miami, reached through canyons whose convoluted walls vary from mustardyellow to rich red, and there are fiat towns like modern caravansaries, each with its sun-baked motel.
Young Versus Old
No one you meet in New Mexico or Arizona seems to belong there; everyone has come from some other part of the country to sit in the sun. Yet it was New Mexico that gave the soldiers of the American Army its two finest spokesmen. Ernie Pyle was killed in the Pacific, but Bill Mauldin came home to record the life of a young man during the last two years in America with more wisdom, wit and fundamental intelligence than anyone else who writes books today. Everything that Mauldin does is good and when he is wrong—as he seldom is—he not only finds his way out of his confusion but knows how to enlighten others in explaining his own growth.
When I. was in England in 1932 the dead hands of Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were gripping the country and I heard the young men of Britain say that the next decade was going to be a race between themselves and the old men who ran it still. It was not wild talk. As history proved, it turned out to be an accurate prophecy, though the young men needed then, as they do now, a man of experience like Churchill to lead them. When I think of Bill Mauldin and millions of other young Americans like him, I can believe that the experience of the young men of England is repeating itself. In Britain the cleavage between the older and younger generation now seems to be healed. In Canada it is less apparent than it was 10 years ago. But in the United States it has widened to a chasm and no appraisal of America’s
part in the future has any validity unless this cleavage is taken into account. Young men all over the country are as much disgusted with the two older political parties as Mauldin is. It is a tragedy that so many of them, lacking his perceptions, have found no better alternative than Henry Wallace.
Four hundred miles of driving remained for us between Phoenix and the Pacific coast. We found our way down into the Imperial Valley by a passage which must have been terrible even as recently as 40 years ago, for most of the valley is below sea level and the mountains that frame it on both sides have been scorched almost bare of vegetation. In summer the noontide heat tops 120 degrees in the shade and during this winter the valley has been suffering night temperatures of 12 degrees of frost.
At Indio we passed through miles of date orchards that reminded me of old-fashioned pictures from the Bible and then the citrus gi-oves began, miles and miles of oranges and grapefruit and lemons shining in the sun.
Where the Sun Shines
There are few parts of the world better calculated to give one renewed faith in mankind than this part of southern California, for it is a country w.hich man, not God, has rendered habitable. As you pass through little towns which had no existence 10 years ago, white-walled and tile-roofed, you hear the whisper of sprayers on the lawns and see flaming branches of bougainvillaea dripping over trellises and flowers which are nameless in your own vocabulary blooming in dooryards and everything seems supremely right and good, for most of this development is a product of the giant dam at Boulder, hundreds of miles away. And you know that besides the dam at Boulder there are the dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Shasta Dam and all the others. At once sublimely simple in their conception and infinitely complex in their detail, these dams are probably the only perfect and blameless instruments created by human beings in this villainous century.
We came to southern California to find the sun which would make Dorothy strong and better able to endure future winters in Canada and we have found it. This is a season of drought in southern California and we are sorry for everyone who longs for rain, but for us the weather has been wonderful—warm enough to go without, coats or sweaters during the day, cool enough to sleep under blankets at night. Having paid your respects to the weather, anything else you can think of saying about southern California is likely to be true.
It is the home of Frank Sinatra and Thomas Mann, it is filled with topranking athletes and old men with bad hearts, it is the voting place of crackpots and some of the most genuinely kind and simple people you can find anywhere. Aside from Hollywood, the towns are gracious, without the ugliness of the last century and the general vulgarity of the present one. Yet vulgarity of mind is not lacking in southern California, as anyone who gets around can tell you, though it shows up out here with greater vividness in religious life even than it does in the productions of Hollywood. An entire page of the Los Angeles Times is given over each Saturday to advertisements for divine service. Many of the churches advertise motion pictures in place of a sermon. Last Sunday the minister of a church in Los Angeles advertised as his morning text, “Hometown Boy Makes Good” (the home
town presumably being Nazareth). In the evening his text was, “Girls! Have You the New Look?”
Living out here for a space of time, one is conscious of the fact that California is inhabited by people from all over the United States and from half the countries of the world. In its point of view on world affairs, California is a suburb of New York. There is little jingoism here on the top layers of thought and there is much good nature. Politics in California are notably clean. The present governor, Earl Warren, stands more than a passable chance of being the next president of the United States as a compromise choice.
The Importance of the East
So our trip across the continent has ended on a bluff overlooking the ponderous, blue Pacific. While our days on the road gave me no positive information about the role of the United States in the future, they did convince me that the views of congressmen and senators, as expressed in Washington, reflect—if not a thorough distillation of the views and prejudices of the districts which elect them—a certain clue to the character of their constituents. This trip has also reinforced my conviction that the East is still the most important and hopeful area of the United States. More brains and experience, more germinating ideas and a sharper sense of the realities of our century can be found in the old, settled areas near the Atlantic than in the rest of the country put together. The time lag which exists between the eastern cities and the hinterland > is rendered even greater by the fact that the most brilliant men of the hinter-
land tend to move East to make their careers.
Americans are afraid today with an honorable fear, for on the whole they are more afraid of themselves than of any possible war. They are asking how their traditional democracy can survive in a world in which their power has become so great that each of their acts sends waves of repercussions around the world. They are bewildered and some of them are angry, because their domestic policy can no longer be separated from their foreign policy. They dislike the idea of an increasing self-restraint. Worst of all, their almost mystical belief in the wisdom of democratic voters is being shaken.
A world dominated by scientific experts is far too complicated for the ordinary voter to understand no matter where he lives. Foreign affairs are complex and finely balanced. It follows, therefore, that American policy cannot be made by the people in the sense that it could once be made. While the people can, and should, curb the ambitions of politicians, there is little doubt that policy will more and more be created by small groups of brilliant men who control public opinion and the political machinery in Washington. And few of these men will be elected to office by the people.
In spite of the fact that this situation has always existed to some extent, it is resented in the United States more than it would be in Canada because it cuts directly across a myth in which Americans have been encouraged to believe from their childhood, namely, that the ordinary citizen, the Mr. Smith who goes to Washington devoid even of the qualifications required to govern a village, will be so fortified by the spirit of democracy that somehow
or other he will stump the experts. As a result, a disproportionate number of politicians are tempted to pretend to being more stupid than they are and politics and politicians have become more cynical than they would in an atmosphere where the voters frankly face the fact that while God may have created all men equal, he did not create all men with equal abilities.
Whose Way of Life?
Whether or not the United States can become the first world citizen instead of the first world power will depend, in my opinion, on the success of American leaders in pointing out the difference between ends and means, between civilization itself and the productive methods which feed and clothe it. Can America integrate the exhausted remnants of Christian civilization and set them on the road to a new advance under her spiritual and political leadership? At the moment, far too much thinking in Washington has committed itself to the assumption that peoples like the Greeks and the Italians will become better at politics if they are taught American methods of production.
Mass production has made the United States the most powerful country in history. It has made its citizens the wealthiest. It has proved that poverty can be abolished from the face of the earth. But in feeding the body it has starved the spirit; by its very success it has persuaded millions of people, Socialists and Communists as well as capitalists, that the production, acquisition and distribution of material goods is the final purpose of human life.
As a result, Henry Ford is closer today than Thomas Jefferson to the lives of most Americans and though they talk with pride of their freedom, they tend to assume that their advanced status in civilization is due as much to their productive and business methods as to the great human vision of their Founding Fathers. When the National Association of Manufacturers speaks of “The American Way of Life,” it is Ford’s way it has in mind.
The logical human product of the worship of mass production as an end in itself is Babbitt. The logical human product of the ideas of the Founding Fathers is Abraham Lincoln and Bill Mauldin. Jefferson and Franklin knew perfectly well that the ancient European culture was a priceless heritage, for they were a part of it. They knew that it reached its greatest height in the balance of science and art which was Leonardo da Vinci and its greatest loveliness in the refined fusion of thought and feeling still to be heard in the music of Mozart. Babbitt would neither know nor care that the price of mass production, of the puritan conception that what a man does can be separated from what a man is, has been the final extinction of the spirit which made the music of Mozart possible.
Because the future of the whole world, whether we live or die, depends I to a large extent on what happens j within the United States, the time has j come when non-Americans—and Canaj I dians in particular—must assume the j right to speak candidly of conditions j within the United States. I know that many Americans will consider this point of view a presumption. Yet the world would be both safer and happier if they would realize that when foreigners criticize Americans they are not implying the possession of more wisdom and virtue in themselves. They are merely asserting the obvious. They, too, have a vital interest in the future of America. They are assuming that the United States is the most important country in the world, it