WITHOUT wishing to add to the voluminous literature on the causes, consequences and cures of Indo-American misunderstanding, I feel it worth while to analyze some characteristics and attitudes of the people in the United States, as also its governmental processes; for these are not fully understood in countries like India and are responsible in a large measure for misinterpretations of the policies of governments and trends of public opinion on both sides.

In India, as in other countries in the East, there is the understandable though erroneous tendency to regard the United States and its people as a somewhat bigger and heartier, if rather immature, version of Britain and Britishers. We should remember that direct contacts between Indians and Americans began in appreciable measure only during the Second World War and have been enlarged in diverse ways and in many spheres only since the attainment of Indian independence 11 years ago. And it is only recently that a large number of Indians--students, delegations, exchange visitors, businessmen, politicians and officials--have been visiting the United States. In other words, the American is not yet sufficiently known to the average Indian. In evaluating informed opinion we need not pause to consider the image of America frequently distorted by Hollywood films or by ultra-extrovert tourists. It is the psychological processes, prevailing conditions and historic developments which mold attitudes and underlie the formulation of policies.

What the United States has achieved and what it is today are due primarily to the spirit of adventure of its immigrant population in conquering new frontiers; its political system which emphasizes individual rights and liberty; its economic system built up largely on the enterprise and initiative of individuals; and its technological developments due to the inventiveness and skill of the people. Now, to recognize the importance of these factors in American development is neither to approve of all the ways by which the country was conquered or has been developed, nor ignore the deficiencies, failures and inequities of political or economic processes. Indeed, the systems themselves are continuously changing through the pressure of social forces. But we should recognize that the factors which I have mentioned are fundamental to American outlook and action. Optimism, confidence, a belief that international questions are capable of solution given enough power and wealth; a tendency to disapprove anything that goes contrary to American wishes; an impatience with dilatoriness and a continuous emphasis on action; a reliance on economic incentives as a motive for social progress (an ironic obverse of the Marxist doctrine)--all these and their concomitant characteristics are the products of American historic development and economic growth. They have to be properly understood and assessed --not necessarily accepted--if we are to comprehend American attitudes and policies.

Because of their outstanding success in building up a new country from a wilderness, their high standards of living and their preeminence in the technological sphere, Americans believe that their constitution, their economic system and what they call their "way of life" are the best possible in the world. Many find it difficult to reconcile themselves to other ways and means of living and working. For instance, they cannot understand why Britain with her traditions of laissez-faire and her imperial responsibilities should prefer anything approximating "socialism" or why India resorts to state-planning instead of giving free scope to private enterprise. And it came as a shock to most people in the United States that the Communist system in Soviet Russia could excel their own technological achievements, as with the sputnik and the intercontinental ballistic missile. Their bewilderment and disappointment at this achievement were proportionate to their unbounded confidence in the capitalist order's capacity to yield scientific no less than financial dividends.

It is, however, the American people's realization of the fact that for the first time in their history their country has become vulnerable which is ultimately responsible for the trends of American foreign policy, its ups and downs, during the postwar years. For nearly two centuries the American economy was developed and American power was built up without serious challenge or danger from Europe or the Far East. Two oceans surrounded the great continent and enabled its inhabitants to feel themselves secure in their haven and unconcerned with the troubles and squabbles of people abroad. These conditions, which prevailed more or less until the First World War, provided the framework for a policy of neutrality and non-alignment. Moreover, the American economy itself has been in many respects so self-sufficient and viable that dependence on other countries for its effective functioning was not essential. But air communications and air power have changed all this. No longer is the United States capable of living in splendid isolation, no longer can it remain physically or politically aloof from the rest of the world. What is more, with the advent of nuclear power, initially developed and used by the United States itself, all frontiers have broken down; and with the realization that the country may have been surpassed in the destructive powers of some weapons and in the range and speed of the means of delivering them, the fear of an "atomic Pearl Harbor" has spread in the nation.

Not merely has the confidence in America's technical supremacy and military prowess been undermined; the very foundations of the American "way of life" seem to have been shaken. We cannot appreciate American attitudes since the Second World War if we do not take account of the deep-rooted distrust, suspicion and fear of Soviet Russia permeating the people. Whether these feelings are wholly justified or whether the Western alliance must not share some responsibility for this murky atmosphere, the fact remains that Americans believe that not only their vital interests but also democratic values all over the world are menaced by Marxist ideology and "Communist imperialism." These feelings-- perhaps in part a rationalization of some emotions and interests --constitute the background of American policies.

The conflict between the United States and Soviet Russia which has thus become basic is partly ideological and partly a reflection of power politics. In any case, distrust and fear of the Soviet Union (now accentuated by Soviet technical achievements) are at the root of American strategy and tactics. It is these feelings which make the Government give the first priority to building up an alliance against Soviet and Communist Powers in both military and economic spheres. It is the cleavage which makes them think in terms of "bipolarization" of the world. And from this top priority given to making the world safe from the Communist menace arise many of the difficulties of American foreign policy.

The tendency to divide the world into "free world sheep" and "totalitarian goats" is due in part to an oversimplified interpretation of international developments and to a rigidity of attitude resulting from sincere convictions and from past experiences of dealing with Soviet Russia. But it is also the product of an implicit belief that if all countries which value individual freedom, the rule of law and democratic processes do not coöperate in resisting the grave danger involved in Communist expansionism, the free countries will be overwhelmed one by one. Responsible opinion in the United States increasingly recognizes that there is also "a non-Communist world" (separate from the Communist and anti-Communist blocs) which might not be aligned in a military sense to either side and refuses to accept the dichotomy of the world in terms of cold war. Informed American opinion also acknowledges the fact that the "free world" is not all free and has many blemishes which it should cure--whether they be dictatorships, colonialism, racial discrimination or gross social and economic evils.

But here arises one of the baffling dilemmas of American foreign policy--the need to maintain the grand alliance with Powers which have different kinds of colonial territories and imperial possessions while sympathizing with and supporting countries striving for national independence. While American opinion realizes that delay in the settlement of "colonial" issues might cause some national movement to slide into the Communist fold, it fears at the same time that through a premature transfer of power a vacuum might be created where the Communists would swiftly walk in. These difficulties arise in no small measure from the divisive nature of power politics and the tensions of the cold war. Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling that there is too much of a tendency in the United States to analyze and interpret international friction in terms of cold war and a readiness to trace nearly all conflicts to Communism. Many of the troubles and disputes in the world today are not due to Soviet Russia--whether it be Algeria or Cyprus, Kashmir or Goa or West Irian, apartheid in South Africa or revolutions in Latin America. To attribute these and several other conflicts and problems to Communist conspiracy is to oversimplify many complex issues and contradictory forces in operation. The collapse of parliamentary government in France, for instance, was due in no small measure to the inability of successive French governments to solve the "colonial" problem of Algeria and provide a stable administration in France itself, and not to Communist intrigue. Again, in regard to the rebellion in Indonesia or the formation of the United Arab Republic, the instinctive reaction that the one should be approved and the other disapproved because it might weaken or strengthen the Communist bloc is not merely superficial but might well be detrimental to American interests and the democratic cause. True, the Communist bloc is capable of taking advantage of these difficulties of Western Powers, but so can and do other countries; these are unavoidable risks of international politics. To oppose the West, however deplorable or obstinate or shortsighted it might be at times, need not necessarily be castigated as "pro-Communist." Poverty, disease, illiteracy, unemployment, wide disparities of wealth and income, absentee landlordism, caste system--these and other social and economic evils exist irrespective of the Bolshevik Revolution or Mao Tse-tung. The ghosts of Karl Marx and Lenin need not perpetually haunt the lobbies of the Congress and the corridors of the State Department. But the fact is that they do and it is necessary for others to remember it.

What has been termed "frontier psychology" combined with technical achievements and enormous wealth have made the United States optimistic and confident in facing domestic problems. "The difficult we do today, the impossible we postpone till tomorrow," is an expression of this attitude of hope and self-assurance. The same outlook is reflected in world affairs. There is no denying the fact that the two world wars in this century were won for more civilized ways of living by America's massive production and vast resources. Europe's recovery after the second war and economic development in Asia and elsewhere owe much to the aid and generosity of the United States. The collapse of the Western Powers and the devastation caused by the last war imposed heavy responsibilities upon it, transforming it from an isolated continent into a world Power. All this created what D. W. Brogan has called "an illusion of omnipotence" among many sections of the American people. As a result, Americans blame one another for developments for which they in fact have no primary responsibility: Truman, Acheson and Marshall were accused of "losing China;" the Eisenhower Administration is blamed day after day for the weakening of NATO and the Western alliance by French action and inaction in Algeria and North Africa. If a revolt fails in Indonesia or the Communists win elections in Laos, the State Department is held responsible. It seems as though many people fervently believe that America can set right whatever is wrong in the world and that it is her duty to do so. The charge is made day in and day out that American foreign policy has failed because something has gone wrong somewhere and developments are not in consonance with the wishes or ambitions or interests of the American people.

But surely even the most powerful country cannot control world social and economic forces, many of which are imponderable and unpredictable; no governmental policy can mold "movements in the minds of men" in other countries which are in various degrees free and independent, especially if that freedom has to be respected. Human motives are not simple and constant and do not operate automatically like pressure of steam in a boiler. No simple explanation or ready-made solution can avail where conditions and traditions differ. We cannot accept the principle, "When in doubt, act!" National pride, suspicion born of past experience, inadequate knowledge, the ambitions or prejudices of those in power, fears of neighbors--a hundred factors, rational and otherwise, play their part in determining the attitudes of people and the policies of governments. Unhappily, in world affairs we are confronted with fluid situations rather than set problems, and while such situations can be bettered or worsened to some extent by governmental decisions or actions, they cannot be solved like $64,000 questions.

This is not an excuse for helplessness, passivity and paralysis; it is a plea for a suspended judgment, patience and calmness when the forces are complex or the conditions dynamic. Totalitarian countries, it is true, have a tactical advantage in this respect because once their rulers make up their minds they can impose their will on their own people or on others whom they dominate or want to dominate. But short of surrendering democratic ideals (and to avoid this is the principal reason for opposition to totalitarianism), powerful countries have to recognize the serious obstacles to their ability to influence events abroad and shape their future. Differences between countries--their conditions no less than their aspirations--set a limit to the capacity of the most powerful countries to shape the destiny of the world. "Leadership" today is a burden which can be borne only in so far as it is shared.

In the economic sphere, "free enterprise" is still a sacred cow for most people in the United States. It is no denial of the material success of the American economy and its considerable achievement of equalitarianism to say that this economy itself has been changing since the great depression. "Capitalism" in the United States has altered in many essentials during the last 30 years; the national economy retains several of its former characteristics but it can no longer be sustained without governmental support and intervention at many points, nor without planning, control and regulation in many spheres. Legislation regarding trusts, cartels and monopolies, farm price supports, tariffs, subsidies to shipping and ship-building and more recently to railroads, the Buy American Act, policies to prevent recession from deteriorating into depression and for combating inflation, measures for providing employment through state expenditure--all these are evidence of practical limitations to the operation of unfettered private enterprise; they are a recognition of the social obligations of the state and attributes of positive functioning of government in national economy. Responsible persons in the United States also recognize that countries in Asia with entirely different conditions and urgent problems have to follow different paths for social and economic development. But though enterprise and initiative are undoubtedly needed for economic development, individual efforts have to be reconciled with social conceptions and international standards. There is more than one way towards achieving harmony between economic development and social justice.

The Constitution of the United States is in many ways an enigma to foreigners. The processes by which policy is formulated, the public debate and exposition, the execution of policies and the subsequent examination of its performance--all are different from those obtaining in a parliamentary democracy. It is not possible within the compass of this article to deal adequately with the structure and functioning of the Administration and Congress, which are not properly understood elsewhere. The rigid separation of powers under which the executive, the legislature and judiciary are coequal parts of the government, each in its own sphere; the enormous authority and prestige of the executive office of the President elected by the whole country; the existence of a cabinet appointed by and responsible to the President (subject to approval by the Senate), whose members do not sit in the legislature but have to appear and testify before various committees of Congress which are powerful; the constitutional power vested in the Senate for ratification of treaties, which limits the authority of the executive and, in fact, led to disastrous consequences through rejection of the Treaty of Versailles recommended by the late President Wilson and to the country's abstention from the League of Nations; absence of rigid party discipline as in a parliament, with the result that on many issues the division of opinion cuts across party lines and one sees Republicans and Democrats voting together and against their own party members and an Administration of their own complexion--all these and related processes and procedures puzzle people abroad.

Foreigners cannot understand, for instance, why the President cannot carry through a program in Congress or why a senator belonging to the President's own party can criticize him publicly and vote against him. These procedures, however, render it necessary for the Administration to proceed on important matters of policy, and especially foreign policy, only insofar as it feels assured of broad Congressional support. Congress on its part is sensitive and responsive to public opinion and to local pressures and constituencies. An important reason for this is the frequency of elections--a Presidential election every four years and the election of the whole of the House of Representatives and of one-third of the Senate every two years. Because of the more frequent election of the House, it tends to be more conservative, more subject to local pressures, more economy-minded and less oriented to international affairs than the Senate. The relationship between Congress on one side and the Administration and the White House on the other is a complex one depending not merely on constitutional forms and conventions but on the personality of the President, his relations and contacts with leaders of his own party and on the nature of the problems concerned.

Public opinion is a force in the United States whose importance should not be under-rated. Its growth can be traced to the early history of the country. Since the territories opened up by the pioneers were far-flung, and since communications were slow and difficult, there has always been a tradition of self-reliance and an assertion of independence against "authority." This has had two consequences. Partly as a result of the reluctance to accept imposed authority and partly because of the democratic instincts of the people, there probably is a higher proportion of elected officers in the United States (such as judges and other categories of officials) than in any other country. Secondly, there is suspicion and distrust of "government" and of "officialdom;" "politics" and "politicians" are looked down upon, which is not healthy in a democratic country; officials are almost invariably called "bureaucrats," while the Federal Government in Washington is described irreverently as "Uncle Sam." There is, of course, no monolithic public opinion in the United States; various sectors of "the public" are at cross purposes and nearly all of them operate in voluntary groupings and organizations seeking to influence the State and Federal Governments through lobbying and pressure groups. And the public (or those who speak on its behalf) insist on knowing what is going on and consider it their right to tell the Administration or their elected representatives what is wrong and what should be done. Both the Administration and Congress are keen to learn the responses to their policies from the mail they receive and from other methods like public opinion polls.

The press, a powerful instrument of public opinion in the United States, functions somewhat differently than in other democratic countries. Independent papers are decreasing in number, because of prohibitive costs of printing and production, but also, I believe, owing to the control of advertising exercised by powerful interests. Like other elements in the socio-political life of the country, the press has to meet a variety of insistent demands. The consequent unwieldly size of newspapers has the disadvantage of making it difficult for busy persons to do much more than glance at headlines. Superficial and sometimes even misleading impressions are gained thereby, particularly because the headlines themselves tend to be snappy and sensational and are at times even imprecise. In the formulation of this amorphous "public opinion," the radio and television have now presumably even wider and more direct impact on ordinary men and women than the newspapers and weeklies: they are listened to and watched by countless housewives while cooking or by the family while eating, by taxicab drivers and others going about in cars, and in hotels and restaurants. Through these mass media of communication, as also through "mass circulated" illustrated weeklies and tabloid periodicals, "stereotypes" of foreign countries and personalities gain widespread acceptance.

Thus there seems to be a risk of "indoctrination" through democratic means where there is concentration of power and wealth, where size gets the better of quality and where achievement is measured principally in terms of success and remuneration. I am not suggesting that this "indoctrination" (if, indeed, it can be described as such) is deliberate or organized; nor that the alternative is governmental ownership, control or censorship. But the fact remains that the growing concentration of various means of communication is a handicap to those advocating views not acceptable to those in power or not palatable to the vast majority of the reading public. This could be a serious impediment to a calm and dispassionate appreciation of the views and attitudes of other peoples. It is necessary to add, however, that Americans have a sense of fair play and sportsmanship and are prepared, within limits, to give a fair hearing to other people's views. There is a genuine desire to know, to learn, to understand. This intellectual curiosity is in a large measure the expression of the energy and confidence of the people. In spite of the great cities and their large-scale, almost overwhelming organization, Americans always speak of the "grass roots" whence public opinion stems and grows. It is necessary, therefore, for people in other countries not only to understand and try to put their views before the Administration or Congress but also to reach the people and, in order to do this effectively, to know them with all their strengths and weaknesses.

The tasks of peace are more complex, more delicate and less easily understood than the tasks of war; working for peace, unfortunately, does not arouse the same enthusiasm and fervor as waging a war. The search for peace demands understanding, and understanding is not possible without intelligence, patience and tolerance. Understanding between free nations does not and need not mean identity of views any more than between citizens in a democratic country. Moreover, it has to be reciprocal. Often we are so eager to be understood that we do not make adequate efforts to understand. Could we but see ourselves as others see us, and make others see themselves as we do, some at least of mutual suspicion, mistrust and fear between nations might be diminished. It is in this spirit that this brief and inadequate report has been made, not as a critique but as a contribution to Indo-American understanding. It may be good for Americans to know what an Indian should know about America.

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  • G. L. MEHTA, Indian Ambassador to the United States, 1952-58; former member of the National Planning Commission and Chairman of the Tariff Commission
  • More By G. L. Mehta