U.S.A.-THE GIANT WITH A SECRET SOUL
When the European is urged to adopt the American way of life he’s baffled. Just what is it? Even the Yanks can’t tell him
I HAD not been in the United States very long before I began to realize that, however else they might conflict in their opinions, the majority of Americans were absolutely convinced that their way of life was the best way, the only way; any foreign nation which was offered a chance of taking a share of the American way of life, of embracing American policy as well as American dollars, could not possibly hesitate. To be an American citizen was the zenith.
For a visitor from England like me the difficult thing was to discover just, what was the American way of life. Where had ¡I come from and where was it going? As correspondent for a London newspaper, 1 tried to find out. 1 set out solemnly from New York by car, heading south through Washington, and my object was to avoid the governors and the political bosses, the big businessmen and the journalists. The idea was to meet ordinary people and see how t hey were living and hear what they had to say. What made the American people behave the way t hey did?
By the t ime I got to New Orleans I was puzzled, in Texas and California I was like Othello, “perplexed in the extreme,” in Chicago I gave up. I do not think that t he speed of the journey had anything to do with it; you might take three years along that route, I fancy, and not come out with anything more definite.
1 met farmers in the South who denounced the Communists and then it turned out they had never met a Communist and had no notion of what Communism was. Others revealed to me that a Communist was a Negro-lover, a Republican, one of t hese labor organizers from the Nort h, anyone, in fact, in the opposite political camp.
I met cotton growers who denounced government controls and yet their lives de[>ended on the Government fixing their prices for them. I met businessmen who roundly declared that private enterprise was the basis of American life and that government interference in business was death to all things; and yet they were worried about the possibility of another depression and they felt that precautions ought to be taken against it. Others again assured me in Houston and San Antonio that a depression might be a good thing, since it would arrest the rising spiral of prices and wages.
I talked to labor men who wanted no dealings with experiments like Socialism in England, men who had voted against Marshall Aid. And there were guilds and unions where a new member had to pay a huge admission fee—and indeed their object seemed to be to safeguard those members who were already in and keep new members out. I found some of the hardest drinking in the dry states, some of the greatest religious fervor in towns committed to gambling and an outright faith in the power and glory of the dollar. I found in my hotel bedrooms a Bible on the bedside table and a corkscrew behind the bathroom door.
Land of Paradox
IN EUROPE we know who a man is when he says he is a conservative or a socialist or a liberal or a communist. Here in the United States I was unable to discover even the broad differences between a Democrat and a Republican. I was assured that candidates like General Eisenhower might accept the Democratic or the Republican nomination, or both. Conceive Winston Churchill standing for Labor or Franco mining the Socialists!
So here 1 was, surrounded by superstitious atheists, cosmopolitan isolationists, romantic materialists, hardheaded visionaries and democratic republicans. In the sunny South I was almost washed away in a cloudburst, in Texas I discovered that the cowboys ride jeeps and a rodeo is an event not for making wild horses tame but tame horses wild. And the most serious hard-working community I found anywhere was scattered around the hills and valleys of Hollywood.
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Ü.S.A.—The Giant With a Secret Soul
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Now you might argue that I met the wrong people and that such a superficial tour was a waste of time. And yet, now the journey is over and I am back in Europe again, I find certain definite things did come out of it, that I am now rather less bewildered, and I Put these things down as a purely personal reaction.
First, and most important, I did not find many Americans who wanted to compromise with Russia. The majority were convinced Russia was wrong and that was that. Russia would have to come over to the American way of thinking eventually or else.
The appeasement era which had ueen running through many a hopeless conference since 1945 was ended. In Washington, New York — even in Chicago—the fall of Czechoslovakia had brought the country round to support a very definite line of power politics, a policy which i Ight he crudely stated this way:
1. The Soviets are a gang, just as the Nazis were a gang, and will listen only to force.
2. Since the object of the Soviets is
nothing less than the conquest of the world, they must be stopped by force and a line must be drawn across Europe, a line that leaves the following countries on the western, democratic side: Scandinavia, the
Low Countries, Switzerland, France, Western Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey.
3. The U. S. A. must be strong enough to say that she will resist if Russia crosses that line by force.
4. This will guarantee the world five to 10 years of peace and in that time anything can happen to improve the situation.
The policy, in fact, of peace through strength.
For the European visiting the U. S. A. at this time his first reaction could only be one of bewilderment. It was the speed and bluntness of the American advance that was the surprising thing.
We had been accustomed to thinking of the United States as a slow mover in foreign policy, especially where Europe was concerned. Now, suddenly, she was not only moving at an unprecedented pace, hut she was taking a lead which most of the western world w¿is bound to follow whether it liked it or not.
What else did I find in America? I believe I saw that in a curious way socialism is running in a sort of countercurrent under tire capitalist system in America— you might even argue that it is the most socialist country in the world. Where else does the wage earner buy such good cheap food and drinks, or possess a car, or acquire so easily amenities like the telephone, good plumbing and cheap mass entertainments like the movies, the radio, the ball game? Where else such a flow of good magazines to read, such good clothes, so great a sense of well-being? The lower-income groups might be harassed for money (and most people 1 met talked a good deal about the rising prices), but it seemed to me they were getting much more for their wages than most: other people on earth. And because so many things are standardized in the United States, because huge businesses cover the whole continent with their goods and their advertising, there is a certain sameness in life in America now. Whether I was in Alabama or San Francisco I found myself eating the same sort of food at the same sort of prices, seeing the same cars on the road, reading the same news services, listening to the same radio programs, attending identical movies. In brief, the very prosperity of America was drawing people together, making them more and more like one another (whereas in Europe poverty is flinging them apart).
Then the other things that prosperity brings-......the things We have half forgot-
ten about in Europe: the kindness and directness of people, their extraordinary good manners, the way they keep looking forward to what they shall do tomorrow (while we in Europe keep looking back, trying to regain what we have lost). Before 1 had been in America a month 1 began to say to myself with astonishment, “Why yes. It’s possible to live life carelessly. 1 had forgotten; it really is not a matter of life or death whether 1 catch this bus. Another one will he along in a minute.”
Nomads in Their Own Land
Finally, something more subtle. It seemed to me there was a curious spiritual restlessness, especially in the larger cities—that uneasy feeling which resolves itself into a question: “What am I doing here? What is the object of my life?’ When the day’s work was done, when the business deal had been made and the radio turned off for the night, it appeared to me that many people, especially young people, had a vague sense of frustration and emptiness, a need for something to believe in.
Quite clearly this sort of thesis can be exaggerated and yet as a visitor I felt it strongly and all about me everywhere. In Europe the people by and large are bound to a certain cycle of ideas and traditional habits which come not from themselves but from outside. Perhaps it is the soil which a family has tilled for generations, an old house, a network of relatives and friends who have lived for a long time in the same place. Perhaps it is an intuitive response to a religion, a trade, a local dialect, the recurrence of the ancient festivalsat all events it is a sense of knowing where you are in life and who you are (however much you may dislike it).
Now this thing does not exist to nearly the same extent in America. Constantly one meets men who have changed their trade four or five times, people who have just arrived in town to try their luck at this or that, people who have spontaneously uprooted themselves to start life anew. For the farmer it is not so much the love of that particular piece of ground but what can I get out of it? And if the land (or the gas station, or the job, or the drugstore or whatever it is) does not yield satisfactorily he passes on. The Americans, one might argue, live like nomads in their own country; always there is tomorrow, always a new and brighter place to go to. In the unending gamble of their prosperous lives they have found no real roots just yet, and so this restlessness, this spiritual ennui supervenes at times. It leaves the American feeling lonely and so he has a fear of isolation. He likes to congregate in crowds, he has no wish for privacy. There are no fences round the suburban houses. At a rough guess I would say that very many Americans have a vague hunger for tradition, the last thing left to Europe-—tradition or education, which is much the same thing.
The Good Old Ways
And yet, paradoxically, the distress of Europe has been a great breeding ground for experiment while the prosperity of the United States has been weighted on the side of keeping things as they were before the war.
Not only Britain (where the Socialist Party is still entrenched) but very large liberal and left-wing groups in Italy and F rance and the Low Countries have now for a long time accepted the idea of government controls; and this is a scheme of living which is anathema to free enterprise as it is practiced in America. These Europeans really believe in socialism, just as much as they hate communism; they accept Marshall Aid because they are desperate and not because they believe in the American way of life and it is only fair that this should be made clear to America. Given the fearful alternative of going over to the Russian side they unhesitatingly chose America because she is much nearer to everything they regard as fair and free in life. But they would like their own way better stillif t hey could have it.
So, then, what was the American way of life, what made it? My American friends thought it had come from their excellent democratic constitution, their freedom and independence of mind. ¡I, personally, thought a good deal of it came from the abounding natural resources of their country, a country virtually untouched and made prosperous through war, while most of the rest of the world was in ruins.
And when the party was over, when the boom subsided, what then? The answer they gave me was that with good management the boom would never subside. There was no reason why this prosperity should ever end. provided only Russia could be held off’.
Beyond this general determination to go on enjoying and protecting their prosperity it seemed to me that very few Americans had any passionate beliefs. Outside their own personal affairs they were intensely liberal and open-minded almost to the point of anarchy. Very few of them possessed an absolute belief in the capitalist system, in the conduct of the present government, in religion or in anything else. In the South they might be passionately convinced about the color question, but upon the general principles of life and politics they were either vague or quickly reduced to a state of boredom.
This, presumably, is the fundamental difference between the American and the European; the European, through poverty and distress and through the menace of Russia, has been forced to think about the principles governing life. At the extreme he is a communist believing passionately and absolutely in a way no capitalist ever does. He has a faith which is controlled equality: a church which is the state and a God who is Stalin. Now you cannot remove these things with a little money. In his heart the European is a little jealous of America. He thinks she has bee* lucky. He cannot discover in America the sort of faith which communists find in Russia. And so, perforce, in hjs weakness, he becomes a fatalist.
I must confess that the longer 1 stayed in America the more I grew lulled to that prosperity and less aware of the agitations of Europe. It is the little things of life that calm the bedeviled mind of the European visitor: the feeling that life is here and now, a thing to be enjoyed carelessly, even haphazardly. One begins to take oneself less seriously. One catches oneself smiling at three times the old rate.
I was appalled at the amount of hard drinking among the professional classes, appalled at the fantastic waste in food, in labor, in the marketing and advertising of goods. I was astonished at how far mass production had claimed and subdued the habits of the people) America to my tourist mind was the home of the most frightful neckties in the world, of absurd spawning religions) of a movie and radio industry that! worked under the most crushing censorship, of business and political deals in smoke-filled rooms, of magnificent universities and poor education, of monstrosities like the negro slums of Chicago, of mammoth unread newspapers and unread best sellers such as the Kinsey Report, Inside U. S. A., Information Please Almanacand Toynbee’s History.
There are so many things the smug tourist can pick on.
Trip to a Carnival
But then, in the end, as I say, 1 found I was wrong about nearly every one of them; all my fine theses were denied sooner or later, no example made a principle, every abuse was counteracted sooner or later, and in the midst of all that apparent sameness amazing differences of mind and behavior sprang up. The tourist from Europe is left at the end with the trite and maddening impression that he has passed through a fair ground where nearly everything that is allowed to the human mind, good, bad and average, is on display, and he emerges at last in the bewildered and excited condition of the country child on its first visit to the city. There is something here, he feels, large and terrifying; but what does it mean and where is it headed? What is the spiritual basis of it all? And the American replies: “All right. You
But the European cannot tell him because the European is poor and the American is rich, and there never was, 1 hazard, much real understanding between the poor and the rich—except in a crisis. It is hard for the European to take up the role of poor relation, the worst role in the world. It is no doubt just as hard for the American to have patience with the wilful squabbles oí the people they believe they are trying to help. The Europeans are bound to envy and the Americans are bound to despise.
Apparently the only way to compose these differences and get some sort of harmony this side of heaven is to reveal to human beings the nature oí hell— such a hell for exarpple as the next atomic war would bring. Perhaps we needed this crisis. Perhaps the nevAmerican foreign policy can both establish a principle behind the American way of life and lead at last to 2 compromise with Russia, a true interlocking of the two systems. Perhaps this is the beginning of peace at last At least the hope is there. ★