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WHAT is the Middle West? Does it look abroad at all? What, if anything, differentiates its attitudes from those of other regions? Are there any perceptible trends in its attitudes? If so, are the forces that bring them into being deep or shallow? Are they therefore likely to continue and can we look for permanence in the trend?
We generally mean by Middle West the whole great region which begins with the Pennsylvania border and, extending westward, includes all the area north of the Ohio to the Mississippi, at least the northern half of Missouri, all of Kansas and Nebraska, and follows more or less the western boundary of the Dakotas to the Canadian border. It includes about 38,000,000 people, roughly 30 percent of our population. It includes great metropolitan concentrations -- more of them than any other region except the Northeast. It includes much of the nation's agricultural land and most of the best of it. It is regarded as basically an agricultural region.
Actually it is a region of balance between country and city. It contains great mineral resources -- most of the country's iron, for instance. In it appear all the divergent outlooks that characterize diverse city industries. Even on the agricultural side there is no simple pattern, nothing comparable, for instance, to the cotton zones of the South. True, the great central part of the region, from Ohio to mid-Nebraska, from southern Minnesota to southern Missouri and the lower tip of Illinois, significantly comprises the Triple-A's "commercial corn belt." But there are differences even here. So huge is this region, so complex its economic bases, that to generalize about its attitudes is difficult indeed.
In this region as well as on the Pacific Coast, about which Chester Rowell has reported,[i] concepts of economic interest are probably the chief long-run determinants of major attitudes. But these concepts swirl. Some of them seem to change.
Apart from the economic, there are factors of history (which means habit), of racial composition, of cultural particularities flowing out of people's experience. The whole region is "new" relative to the East. The farther west in the region one looks, the closer appears the "frontier." In Iowa there are octogenarians who remember Indian fighting. The equalitarianism and individualism of the frontier are not yet dissipated.
Settlement of the Middle West began from the Northeast and the Old South. The Puritan and the Cavalier both contributed, but the Puritan most. From abroad came the "early immigration," almost exclusively from North Europe. German and Scandinavian hosts came in, chiefly to settle upon the land. Also Bohemians and Dutch. Between a quarter and a third of Iowa's population is foreign born or composed of first-generation descendants of at least one foreign-born parent. There is also, in many districts, a "later immigration." Poles and South Europeans are heavily spotted through the eastern half of the region. The "later immigration" went largely to the cities.
But, broadly speaking, the melting pot has melted in the Middle West better than elsewhere. Even in the midst of a war abroad there is no conspicuous general "hyphenism" in the region as a whole. In the western half, if not also the eastern, relatively recent foreign ancestry has tended to become not a brand of inferiority but almost a badge of distinction. The notion that Germans are among "our best citizens" and that Scandinavians particularly represent nations which know how to solve problems has been partly responsible for this result.
Finally, there is political traditionalism. In some important phases, even as bearing upon foreign policy, the expanding and developing West became hooked to the industrial and financial East even before the Civil War. The East got its protectionism; the new West got internal improvements and land for the asking. The war between the states clinched the alliance for two generations. The Middle West was Republican both when Republicanism meant expansion and imperialism (plunging into world affairs) and when it came to mean somewhat equivocal isolationism. It was Republican as to protectionism, the essence of international economic policy. The dogmas ran deep.
This in a sense is an empire. Within it, more or less in clash, is the city mind and the country mind. Down to even the small towns, in the most thoroughly agricultural areas, the dogmas of the industrial East have been almost impervious to the impact of rural thinking and therefore of the deeper regional economic interest. This has been more manifest with respect to domestic issues, but has been by no means unrelated to policies of world import.
In agricultural circles the attitudes one finds toward international things vary with the type of farming. Generally speaking, a one-crop area -- be it dairying, or sugar beet, or cattle, or wool -- thinks more narrowly, with less comprehension of even regional interdependence, and certainly with less comprehension that there is such a thing as international interdependence, than is the case in an area where farming types are diverse and intermingled or where the principal farm production is of the highly efficient, surplus-producing type which recognizes some degree of dependence upon exports. Naturally, there are differences of attitude within the great farm organizations, and the pronouncements at their annual conventions either are compromises that grant some deference to minority opinion or at the most represent a majority, not a unanimous, view.
There are differences of attitude between age levels; between the better educated leadership in city and country and the more numerous "common man;" and within the political parties.
But there are elements of unity also in the Middle Western picture.
Some of these, rooted in history, have already been suggested. In addition, there is the fact that the Middle West is not so acutely conscious of being a "region" as some other sections are. Our states have little of the sentimental traditionalism of the original thirteen -- they were carved and added, never were really sovereign. Centralization comes easier here. Geographical isolation from "the world" still exists, but communications have worked to make it only slightly greater than the geographical isolation of the nation as a whole. And any study of the enlightening polls on issues of foreign policy, taken by the American Institute of Public Opinion (Gallup) and by Fortune magazine, supplemented by various lesser polls in relatively restricted areas, shows clearly that the "die-hard isolationism" attributed to the Middle West is largely an illusion.
With minor and fluctuating variations, most of which tend to cancel out, the Middle West, according to the reports of these authorities, appears to ride along steadily close to the "national norm." Both Gallup and Fortune split the Middle West into two regions, differing little in make-up. Their polls on questions of foreign policy, from war and neutrality to the trade agreements program, ordinarily do not indicate sufficient divergence from the national in either half of this region to warrant making a breakdown in the published tabulation. When such breakdowns are made, they rarely show anything striking. These scientific testings, by the modern techniques, justify the verdict of Odum and Moore in "American Regionalism" that this hybrid rural-urban region is "the most American of them all."
Keeping in mind this tendency of the region to represent not extreme particularism but something close to a national average, what can we say are the principal Middle Western attitudes at present toward problems of "abroad"? The answers, based on personal judgments checked against the national polls, seem to be these:
1. The Middle West is not so peculiarly isolationist as it is generally assumed to be.
Among leaders in major groups, including the farm, there is an increasing tendency to accept the concept that our problems spring largely from roots that are world-wide. There is a general and genuine response to appeals to contribute to "peace," be it in the Rotary clubs of the larger cities or in any gathering of farmers. All the big farm organizations, nationally and regionally, reflect this interest. But, precisely as in the rest of the country, along with this goes fear of the untried; a powerful hang-over of the mind-habits of rugged individualism with regard to the nation as a whole, even though the same mind-habits are breaking down rapidly on the citizen level; an inevitable lag of the masses behind the degree of comprehension acquired by the leaders; and a marked disposition of politicos not to lead in forming opinions but to exploit those which already exist.
In short, the Middle West, with perhaps a trifle more of idealism and a trifle less of clearly conceived economic motivation, longs for a righteous and stable peace. It is "for" an American contribution to that, but with many an "if" and "but." It has the sort of attitude that favors a Kellogg Pact but would shy off from implementing it. Because of the retrospective propaganda there has been about the World War, because of that queer thing called "disillusionment" since now there is war in Europe again, isolationism has been somewhat heightened. But it is a regretful and defeatist heightening. The permanence or impermanence of this shift remains for events to illuminate -- perhaps to determine. In any case it is not clearly greater in this region than in others.
2. As to the wars that are now going on abroad, the main reaction is that we want to keep out of the fighting.
Sympathies are substantially as strongly for the "democracies" here as elsewhere in the country. The opinion polls show that Middle Westerners rate Germans along with Scandinavians as their own best citizens; but the polls have likewise shown that the British are the most popular foreign people and the Germans (Nazis) the most unpopular. Today the Russians might top the Nazis for that special distinction. Along with the wish to stay out of the fighting goes a deep pessimism as to the practicability of doing so if the war is prolonged and if it should appear that the Allies are losing. There is a vague but powerful feeling that victory for the totalitarians would create a danger for us. To face a world without the Pax Britannica would alarm the Middle West. For economic, humane and moral reasons peace is deeply wanted. But a peace of capitulation by the democracies would be even more deeply resented.
The Middle West is a little more skeptical than other regions about the need for vast armament programs and such; but not strongly so. In face of an evident challenge to our free institutions, of any kind of menace to Canada, of any real threat to the Monroe Doctrine (though the line might be drawn at the Amazon rather than at Cape Horn) the Middle West would fight. The "slow motion" character of the war up to now has expanded our hope of the country's being able to maintain neutrality; but we have our fingers crossed. The Finnish situation hits our weak side. We are rather disturbed about it.
3. Toward the "other war," the one in East Asia, the Middle West shares the country's general sympathy for China, its acquiescence in cuffs at Japan like the abrogation of the commercial treaty, its belief that nevertheless nothing in Asia warrants risking a war, and the general feeling of uncertainty and relative disinterest. Habitually the Middle West turns its eyes toward Europe. The Far East today is a side show, as it always has been. The complete contradiction between our theoretical non-interventionism in the affairs of Europe and our practical playing of the balance-of-power game beyond seven thousand miles of Pacific Ocean has disturbed the Middle West not at all. If the Government chose to pull out of China and even the Philippines, bag and baggage, the Middle West would tend to applaud. But the Middle West does not at present insist. It would recoil vigorously if it suddenly appeared that diplomatic steps had brought us to the point of war. But because it prevailingly is uninformed and chronically disinterested (characteristic by no means alone of this region), it gives the Government a relatively free hand about the diplomatic steps to be taken, and a responsibility which is correspondingly grave. So far the Middle West has approved the Administration's course.
4. Pan-Americanism is too thin a thing, as yet, to be considered of great consequence. However, there is general applause for "good neighborliness," some interest in questions of strategic and in a lesser degree ideological common defense, and some response to propaganda by protectionists against competitive imports.
5. The question of international economic policy demands fuller analysis, for it is here that both turmoil and trend are most marked. The greater significance in the long run, both as to domestic politics and in connection with "looking abroad," probably lies here.
While, as has been emphasized, all the divergencies of interest and attitude toward trade restrictionism which exist in other regions exist also in the Middle West, two things which have happened there work toward effecting a sea change. The first (though the less important) is the development of efficient industries, such as the automotive, which have broken the solid front of tariff traditionalism in conservative urban ranks. Second, and more important, is the revolt in agriculture.
Because of these things chiefly, the Republican Party, despite its habitual domination by "the East," is itself shaken and uncertain about its future tariff policy. While strident declarations by ambitious leaders may give the impression today that there is unanimity, and while for 1940 they may even succeed in establishing a "party line" which the many dissenters will feel unable to disavow, the dissent is nevertheless there. And it may be significant that Colonel Knox, of the Middle West now though of past New England conditioning, is fighting openly for a complete overhaul of the Republican tariff position. It may be significant that Governor Landon, who is of the Middle West, is not joining in the cry for going back to tariff traditionalism. It may be significant that William Allen White is sounding warnings, and smilingly suggesting that if they are disregarded now they will be remembered soon hereafter. The Gallup polls have twice in two years indicated that the Middle West, in common with other regions, leans strongly away from a policy of extreme restriction and toward the Hull program at least in principle. The polls show that these leanings exist in the Republican Party, too.
Innumerable specific indicators of the shift could be cited -- the Middle Western Committees on Foreign Relations, the Detroit Board of Commerce which declares "sled length" for the Hull policies, the venerable Prairie Club in Des Moines (conservative and Republican) which has today only a small residue of high-tariff sloganizers, a typical farm forum in Iowa's Dallas County where "The American market for the American farmer!" is met by the question, "Does that mean only the American market?"
The declarations of the great farm organizations -- regional and state as well as national declarations -- cannot be laughed off. The National Grange on the whole opposes the continuation of the trade agreement system, though less so in certain states than in others. The American Farm Bureau, very strong in this region, is for the Hull program. The legislative committee and the board of the National Farmers Union unanimously approved the statement that it "supports the philosophy of reciprocal trade treaties as the most likely to bring international coöperation and peace," while insisting on safeguarding "parity prices for domestic agricultural products efficiently produced." Its statement read further: "We are opposed to logrolling tariff legislation which has historically betrayed agriculture."
Nor can the experience of the 1936 campaign be wholly ignored. At the halfway mark Republican strategists readopted high-tariffism and stumped the supposedly most susceptible states of the farm belt with the old slogans. That campaign "got nowhere."
All these things there are. Moreover, it is true that in every farm group and in most of the city groups there is now fairly general acceptance of the concept that in order to sell you must buy. And a certain relationship between trade and peace is generally sensed.
Nevertheless, there is a negative side to the argument. Just as among industrialist "free enterprise" zealots there is a tenacious devotion to mercantilism in the international field, so a contradiction exists on the farm side. There is not among the farm masses as a whole any complete comprehension of the economic values of trade. Here, too, we have mercantilist bullionism -- of course not recognized as such. To sell more and buy less seems to add up to Prosperity. The average farmer, as one leader puts it, still "thinks very provincially when foreign trade relates to his own product, though he is beginning to think in terms of international trade so far as the United States as a whole is concerned." He wants to sell his surpluses, admits the necessity of imports, but prefers or even insists that the imports be non-competitive as to what he himself produces. And, weakened though the mercantilist slogans of protectionism have become, they still have their pull. To base a policy of restriction on "differences in cost of production" seems very fair indeed, even to one who has begun to argue that because his production is "efficient" it should be enabled to move freely.
And even in those great organizations which have revolted the farthest and hardest, such as the Farm Bureau, there are specialcrop minorities which hardly go along at all; and the revolt of the group as a whole is primarily the result of a conviction that the old formulas have "let them down." For the present, and probably from now on, they are going to look at the horse's teeth. It is still a case of leadership being definitely ahead of the crowd. It is still a case in which appreciation of a broad agricultural unity of interest is only slowly gaining ground. And in certain areas, marked by the complete dominance of established organizations of special commodity groups, where even nation-wide interdependence has hardly begun to be grasped, general isolationism and specific economic embargoism are almost unchallenged. Even here, it is worth noting, there has begun to appear, though only very recently, a willingness to let "the other side" be at least heard.
These trends exist. What they will evolve into depends, I surmise, much less on any Midwestern peculiarity than upon the impact of world developments upon the whole American nation.
If the nation as a whole feels itself driven somewhat reluctantly and without full comprehension into an increasingly isolationist position, with all which that implies in economic dislocation, increased domestic regimentation and increased armament burdens, the Middle West will be part of the movement, and though perhaps a little more reluctantly than some other regions. If, either through the sheer shock of suddenly finding oneself on the edge of an abyss or through the happy appearance of some gloriously promising opportunity, the rest of the nation is persuaded to accept larger international responsibilities for the sake of establishing a more stable and decent order in the world, the Middle West, in my judgment, will not drag its heels more noticeably than other regions do.
For the present it must be conceded that, except in limited circles, the more significant changes of attitude are fundamentally negative. They represent disillusion, which may be the beginning of education. In no phase is this clearer than in that of economic policy.
Broadly speaking, the farm revolt against traditional protectionism rests primarily on a feeling that the West has been wheedled and agriculture "played for a sucker." It is distrust of the old formulas, the old shibboleths, the old humbuggery, as many see it. The mind of the mass in the Middle West still wobbles between recognition of the general interest and the coaxing appeal of the immediate special interest of this little group and that. But the very existence of this indecision and conflict is Change with a big "C." It did not just happen. Certain things made it happen. Potentially they may carry far. They all center in education. Among the important elements have been these:
In the first place, farming in most of this region, and particularly in the most productive part, has become an exacting business. There is nothing of the Gandhi practice or philosophy in twentieth century farming in the American Middle West. Farming is commercial. It is geared into the national economic machine, in some cases into the international. The farmer calls on technology, in terms of his equipment. He calls on science, in terms of his seeding, his soil care, his feeding. Increasingly he must study markets. Problems of distribution, all the way from milk combines to labor unions, from pork in storage to the British demand, begin to enter his thinking. The relationship of his "net return" to the prices he gets and the prices he pays are part of his calculation. He is under pressure to keep accounts -- costs are not something to be guessed at. While no miraculous transformation has been wrought, one important result of all this has been that an increasing proportion of the younger farmers have had contact with the land grant colleges. A good many are graduates. A growing minority have been equipped with some of the prerequisites of thinking.
A second factor has been the "extension work" of the agricultural colleges. Their educational activities thread out constantly through the counties.
Thirdly must be mentioned the farm organizations -- the Bureau, the Grange and the Union. They have their own educational programs, of varying intensity, which reach adults, men and women, and young folk, boys and girls. The federal farm programs of the last six years, with their state committees and county committees, on which really large numbers by now have served, have been both directly educational and indirectly potent in establishing habits of discussion. The press, the radio and automobile have all played a part, and in general the Middle West with its relatively favorable economic level has been more affected by these influences than other regions called agricultural.
The school systems of the region, too, both urban and rural, from the great universities to the secondary schools, have since the first World War both led and reflected an increasing interest in things that are of the planet rather than of the locality. Two decades ago it was just beginning to be debated whether courses in international affairs even belonged in our colleges. Now they are significant departments in the universities, the colleges and in many of the public schools. The level of student discussion on international affairs is dramatically higher than it was fifteen years ago.
One phenomenon, related to all this, which in its ultimate educational values may surpass all the rest, is the rise and the spread of the discussion method in some of the cities and more markedly in small towns, villages and almost wholly rural counties. Beginning in Iowa and expanding now into several other states of the region, even girls of the 4-H clubs are organizing discussion sessions. It is a revelation and an inspiration to see the eyes of these "teen" girls when a visitor from Norway, for instance, tells them in slightly accented English about the Scandinavian concept of neutrality. The women of the Farm Bureau Federation, again beginning in Iowa, have set up numerous ruralurban conferences for thorough ventilation of viewpoints, statewide and then country-wide. Iowa farm women have gone to Chicago to meet in this way with women who can speak for metropolitan labor. In Indiana and Missouri similar rural-urban meetings have been held, and the movement is afoot in additional states.
There is an avidity for conference and discussion in "the farm crowd." Two-day conferences of intensive debate, involving cross-section groups of farmers and members of the agricultural committee of the National Association of Manufacturers, have been held in the last three years in various parts of the country. These began also in the western half of the Middle West, and several have been held in this region. Forums of various types, all providing for general discussion, have grown up and are multiplying. It is not uncommon in midwinter for several hundred men and women to drive from their farms to a county-seat town once a month or every fortnight to hear an address and to put the speaker through his paces in a "question period." The National Farm Institute, optimistically projected in Des Moines four years ago, purely for objective study of the most complex and serious problems affecting agriculture, and hence all groups, has been amazingly successful in generating enthusiasm both among farmers and town dwellers.
And in the larger cities of the region old discussion clubs have tended to revive and new ones have been formed. New small committees, like those sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, have appeared. They have numbered in their membership leading persons representing a variety of interests and virtually all strata. International problems in this period naturally tend to be most avidly discussed.
While it would be absurdly optimistic to conclude that as yet this ferment has greatly affected the attitudes of our 38 million or so, there can be no question but that the ferment is here, that there is more of it, much more, than ever before in our time, that there is spontaneity rather than high pressure about its encouraging spread, and that for the long pull it may prove to be the most significant thing on which one can report today. It is the "democratic process," trying to find itself and prove itself in a world of unparalleled complexities. And the persons who are doing more in it, and more for it, than any others in our nation are those whom a New Hampshire senator a few years ago sagely identified as "sons of the wild jackass."
[i] "The Pacific Coast Looks Abroad," by Chester H. Rowell, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1940.
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