To see ourselves as others see us is a rare and valuable gift, without a doubt. But in international relations what is still rarer and far more useful is to see others as they see themselves. The two talents, the double giftie, would, if generalized, abort many preconceptions that delay or obstruct agreement, and would also reduce that sterile indignation on which the newspaper-nurtured peoples feed. It is indeed extraordinary how little the power to spread news and opinion around the globe in a few seconds affects the judgments that one nation passes on another which is accessible and "well-known." Travel itself, which is now so frequent as to seem a childish indulgence without excuse, leaves the casual and the trained observers equally at fault. Everybody responds as if involved in a social encounter. Thus de Gaulle remains puzzling or is deemed perverse because his foreign critics do not see the French as they happen to see themselves today-rehashing the causes of defeat and loss of empire and needing to stiffen their morale with an exacting ideal of greatness in a period of relaxing prosperity. Again, the American experts visiting Britain in hopes of aiding the increase of her industrial output do not see that the resistance to modernizing springs from the intuition that the new methods must destroy the quiet restraint and wordless adjustment between persons and classes which the English know to be their strength as a people.

Foreign views of the United States are just as blind, and in their dull repetition we detect also the universal reasons for preferring not to understand, the domestic motive for self-blinding. It may be the need to feel superior, to fight a local fight, to froth at the mouth. Consider the jubilant parodies of our desegregation efforts, or the reception of the Warren Commission's report on the assassination of President Kennedy. As all foreigners know, violence is an American monopoly, and conspiracy is a congenial idea that explains all; in Europe it is a tradition, and so is the concealment of conspiracy by the state. Suddenly, therefore, all that has been said ad nauseam about the immaturity and carelessness of American life is forgotten in the attempt to make rational and sinister the blunders and incoherencies of Dallas.

Of what use, then, the clichés about the all-explaining national character? They shift and return, go out of date and are replaced at random. The character itself is a will-o'-the-wisp, a perpetual mystery. The bearers of it themselves do not know what it is or how it works. Are we sure it exists? For we know that even a few thousand people-any small town-will present the full range of human temperament, and it is only in the governess type of history that the Such-and-Such are a "crafty people" and their neighbors across the river a "frank and manly nation." But something floating above their respective heads-a symbol, a tradition, a manner, an intricate set of signals and responses-brings out of the diversity of individual temperaments a phantasm which now and again impresses its uniqueness on the stranger and makes the native live up to its specifications. The native conforms especially when challenged or disoriented. Though reasonably civilized at home, abroad he reverts to the feral state; that is, acts like a tourist and confirms the prejudices of the world.

This representative figure, in a pinch, serves both the spectator and the projector to accomplish certain collective ends. For comfort the Russians need their caricatures of the American capitalist and warmonger, just as for the stilling of vague disquiet the American reactionary needs the ubiquitous Soviet foe. Nor does this image-making always seek a symbol of evil. To C.P. Snow the American colleges and universities show a perfection hidden from closer observers; he obviously sees qualities he would like to graft upon English higher education. Who shall say that he is wrong? And more generally, what is American and what is not? The answer can be what you will, provided it is plausible and fits a felt need. In other words, the domain of national character is a cloudy province of the ideal. The archetype is not opinion or error, reality or fancy: it is all of these; and analyzed or swallowed whole it defies empirical tests. Yet it issues in hard realities at last; for out of the interplay of men and interests with these ghostly presences the relations of one people with another are made. It is only in this mixture that we find them when we study their public shape and irrational consequences.


As a nation whose citizens seek popularity more than any other kind of success, it is galling (and inexplicable) that we, the United States, are so extensively unpopular. We periodically send out envoys of various plumage to find the cause of this failure, and the little doves come back with a surprised look and no olive branch, even when they have been personally well received. Perhaps the reason for the surprise is a clue to the failure and can tell us something about our national character-or rather, about its present complexion as seen from within and without.

The determining fact, I suspect, is that we are the most powerful industrial nation since nineteenth-century England, and the most pacific. We lack, for reasons I shall suggest, the self-conceit of power and the tradition of aggressive war. We are not in truth a nation, forged by centuries of armed expansion and forced retreat, but a people spread out over a convenient island of huge extent. Our state is for practical purposes neighborless, and save in rare fits of excitement, barren of imperial ideas. What masquerades as our imperialism is the love of business, which no doubt we do not sufficiently recognize as a form of aggression. Nor do we remember that in foreign eyes business is a peculiarly hateful form of power, because it breeds envious resentment instead of respectful fear. In nations with a monarchical past the ability to conquer and command still seems nobler than the ability to produce and sell. Hence we do not make ourselves more welcome by our repeated acts of economic aid. For as many have pointed out, help breeds ingratitude in the normal course. At best, generosity only initiates liking; it takes other gestures than kind ones to engender admiration and respect. And soon the largesse of those who can well afford it appears as the product of a dull habit or a foolish nature.

But the American power based on industry and spread by the unlovely ways of business begets resentment for an even deeper reason: it is felt as the irresistible force making for a uniform world. Actually "Americanization" is a misnomer. Modernizing is the word for the fact that industry, democracy, automation, mass media, urbanism and artificial longevity have now their roots everywhere. And everywhere in proportion to their number and strength they produce identical results. The helpless rage against this cultural transformation readily takes the form of political animus. The foreigner is a scapegoat for our sins, as one can see in works as diverse as Gheorghiu's "Twenty-Fifth Hour" and Etiemble's "Parlez-vous Franglais?" The second is one long exploitation of this anti-historical view: all its sound and witty objections against the mongrelizing of the French language take it for granted that recent "Anglo-Saxon" imperialism, chiefly "Yankee," is the efficient cause. That the French people willingly and eagerly adopt what they think are glamorous American expressions is not once admitted in the indictment. Nor does the author seem aware that the disease he laments was already well developed after the First World War, when France was victorious and dominant and American power diffident and isolationist. In cold-sober fact, the headlong anglicizing of French dates back to the turn of the century and the Entente Cordiale.

When we speak of the old-world hostility to the modern world, we refer of course to the articulate minority. The masses obviously like Coca-Cola, Hollywood movies, and the Reader's Digest in Patagonian. Their tastes matter more and more, yet in the conduct of international affairs the opinions of the educated retain their greater influence. So we must continue to ask ourselves why the falsely called Americanization feeds hatreds so strong that they often neutralize self-interest. One could propose as an answer: "the fear of stylelessness," if it did not seem at first sight too abstract and remote. A moment's thought will show that the abstract words point to a potent emotion. Style is the collective form of individuality. Style distinguishes one tradition, one time, one region from another. Style gives edge and strength to life and character, as it does to the handmade object. All this seems threatened by the machine product, physical and spiritual. In a word, the culture, the nation, the good and right life are in mortal peril. Modernization is seen (and rightly) as a kind of conquest, a bloodless deprivation of former liberties. Any civilization except the very primitive is bound to resist.

Similarly, when our European critics assail what they call "American pragmatism," they do not mean pragmatism at all; they have no notion of what it means. But they know very well the part of modernization that they hate: they mean the diminished role of principle and theory, of barriers and distinctions; the increasing role of coöperation and good fellowship; the unpolitical, businesslike view of things; the substitution of the burdensome morality of good intention for the protecting morality of forms, of etiquette. The rejection of this new way of life is both instinctive and reasoned out. It is instinct when the profusion of identical things and the personality that goes with them, bland and mediocre, arouse distaste. It is reasoning when the corresponding wooliness of doctrine in religion and politics repels an active mind and makes him adopt the harsh theologies of Communism or Reaction. In both cases it seems as if men acting from the depths of their being were pleading for the preservation of the hardness of life; as if modernity were the descending path of least resistance, the road to an irreversible unmanning of Man. Which is doubtless why our artists also contrive by preference myths of the violent and the outré, to save us-save us from the good life in the great society.


Our foreign friends, moreover, are understandably confused by the American character in its double aspect of violence and easy-goingness. They do not know how to assess the part each plays in our national life or individual character. This is because they do not know what I might call our present origins. Some think of us as seventeenth-century Puritans, others as eighteenth-century rationalists, still others as nineteenth-century robber barons. The fact is that we-meaning our habits and beliefs-are no longer in touch with any of these; we are descended from the last tidal wave of immigration that began in 1880. A shorthand term for our ideal collective self might be the Prosperous Poor. Without special effort, thanks to our latest tradition, we live the democratic ideal par excellence. We are by birthright the unassuming, unclassified, miscellaneous, non-inheriting people which the whole world is fast becoming. Non-inheritance is the overarching principle which covers material, intellectual and spiritual goods, not to their neglect, but so that they may be remade fresh with each generation. This ensures the flexibility indispensable to progress and perpetual change. Habits and traditions are elements of resistance or delay that are incompatible with technological movement.

From the European poor, the disinherited, have come also the familiar traits that still startle the old world-a diffused amiability, an indifference to marks of caste-in clothes, speech, manners and even in expectations from life; a readiness to pitch in and help and also to accept help; a restraint in social intercourse which excludes bristling prejudgments, self-assertiveness and the desire to shine and score off-an inbred recognition, as it were, that we must live together in cramped quarters and had best make ourselves pleasant to one another.

This historical preparation of the social character could not fit better the conditions of an overpopulated democratic world. For the first time in history, perhaps, poverty and group discrimination persist in a society largely because no one knows how to remove them more quickly, and not because the poverty of the poor furnishes the tables of the rich and exclusivism flatters them. By the prevailing ethos, the rich feel only half proud; they are half ashamed, call their fortunes a public trust, and atone for their wealth by dispersing it nervously in good works.

Where in all this is the place of violence? Two years ago, the federal director of prisons told the Senate: "I think it is fair to say that we are a frontier country and we have certain elements in our background and culture that incline us to the use of weapons more than some other countries in the world."[i] This explanation holds a portion of the truth, a small portion. The frontiersman has faded out of American life as urbanization conquered, and he lives only in the make-believe of hunting and fishing during the three weeks' vacation. Violence with us is highly specialized: it springs from the pathology of city life (the addict, the delinquent, the rebel, the rapist) or from the big business of supplying prohibited pleasures. And for this second group the models and often the leaders are imported from Europe. What permits and almost encourages violence and crime is another thing-the lax good nature, the old street tie, the passion for coöperating and helping out, which John Jay Chapman was already observing in city politics 70 years ago.

The confirmation of these views may be seen in the extraordinary spectacle of our race conflicts in which, by world standards, violence has so far been almost nonexistent. To say this is not to condone the riots and bombings and murders that have taken place, but to point out that in other countries old and new the death rate in political and social struggles-and sometimes in the excitement of sports-exceeds in an hour or two that which we have barely attained in a decade. Our moderation-and this is the important point-has not come so much from respect for the law, a respect which the frontier was not likely to develop; it has come from the anti- aristocratic manners I have described, the influence of the unassuming ego. This is evident again in the new forms of protest now commonly accepted as part of the mores-the pickets, the sit-in, the boycott-new expressions of the power of the weak, democratic substitutes for the barricades.


As long as men are men, individual temperament will be discerned under the national character and friendships will form. Indeed, the qualities of the national character itself will bear similar fruit under favoring circumstances; and it is clear that despite the massive dislike of "the" American, the American without quotation marks generally receives his due even if he is typical. For one thing, he has a deep-rooted impulse to help, and even more important he knows how to organize help. Two world wars demonstrated this on the large scale; innumerable private and public efforts abroad, including the Peace Corps, have shown our zest for tackling difficulties, emergencies, impossibilities. It is paradoxically our lack of doctrine, theory, ancestral experience, that makes us possibilists. We are not diffident, hierarchical or kid-gloved, and these freedoms are prerequisite to giving prompt and effective aid of the material kind to which other human beings do not remain insensible.

With this practical help Americans tend also to furnish the cheerfulness, the encouragement, the enthusiasm that can make the disaster temporary and the relief given seem a mere incident which does not define a permanent relation between the parties. The appeal of the American outlook lies in the freshness and ebullience of the free. Not long ago, a young American girl who was studying to be a lawyer decided to take her vacation in Asia Minor, where her hobby of archeology suggested that she would find rewarding sights. After a dip into Turkish grammar and a few calls on persons to whom she had letters of introduction, she set out into the alien territory. In one town her visit brought out nearly the entire male population, at first suspicious, then derisive and finally won over, after an English-speaking resident had explained the relevant details of this strange safari. Lively conversation ensued for the whole afternoon. There was then nothing but admiration amounting to awe for the simple courage, dignity, resourcefulness, intellectual strength and disarming confidence of the student from afar. It proved so striking that ever since she has been receiving, by way of the interpreter, the questions and the friendly regards of her hosts.

Few foreigners are unmoved by the fearlessness and voluble ease of the genuine American who, like Howells' Lady of the Aroostook, simply "wants to know." What is so winning is not energy alone-in some ways the energy of Europeans being more hemmed in is greater-it is a freedom even from concentration: it is the absence of weariness, the absence of restraint, the absence of system. The reflection of this natural insouciance may be seen in the way our schools have evolved during the past 50 years. The school, once a lesser prison, became with us a lesser paradise: "Do what thou wilt." The principle was to release the talents together with the peccant humors. Democratic individualism said: "Be thyself, but not by thyself." In short, everything is possible with the consent of the group. Only persuade it, coax it, lead it along the desired path and, once again, everything is possible.

In this near-utopia there is clearly no ordered fate, no nemesis or even memory to avenge error. Tragedy is not recognized, which undoubtedly makes for a less vivid life, weaker pleasures. Instead there is romance, which unlike the tragic life can always be begun afresh; which brings out the eager interest and diffuses it over a multitude of objects and persons; and which as it were socializes, turns into public property, the inner resources of each self. Half a century ago, William James remarked with some dismay upon the American people's "too intense responsiveness and good will, . . . [their] inner panting and expectancy . . . [and] absence of repose." For our own good, he felt, we should not "wear too much expression on our faces;" we should combat "those absurd feelings of hurry and having no time" which lead to "that breathlessness and tension, that anxiety of feature, and that solicitude for results . . . by which with us the work is so apt to be accompanied, and from which a European who should do the same work would nine times out of ten be free."[ii] James's advice was excellent but it may no longer be applicable. The multiplication of contacts and of the demands and duties that follow is compelling not only the American but every citizen of the emerging world to live the life of responsive good will and solicitude for results. And this too is modernization.


In the light of these facts and impressions, is there anything unique that the American national character can offer the world, that is, something above and beyond the individual contributions of knowledge and talents? By offer, I mean convey without effort, by way of example, not by precept; spontaneously, not by growing stiff with self-consciousness. I think the answer is Yes. The tendencies that some of the rising nations could emulate with profit lie on the surface of our being and are easy to imitate without being expounded. Our simplicity, to begin with, is worth assimilating as a moral comment on our know-how about complex installations. It is remarkable that there is in fact no need of intellectual or political systems to set up power plants or get rid of malaria. Our virtues are naïve, sometimes silly; we put on no "side;" we even lack gravitas, but this immaturity does not lessen our effective concern for the next man. Better still, our regard for the individual does not rest on his specialness but on his being another fellow-we are that simple. Older cultures have met the crowding of the earth with total indifference to the dying passer-by. We cannot rise to such impassivity and do not want to. Nor are we deterred by dangers of samaritanism. The stories of Americans abroad who have found themselves in serious predicaments as a result of neighborly acts are frequent and well- attested; they are also inconceivable in the American scene. There is, in short, a leaven of the primitive gospel about us, the natural magnanimity of the poor.

Equally strange and striking, our gift for technology and organization is likewise a moral force. The atmosphere of practical knowledge-and not just the application of knowledge-makes men more confident, ready to act and move, and move now. Some critics, it is true, deplore this restlessness. Reviewing the case in a recent article, George W. Pierson asks: "Our inveterate preference for the new, our disrespect for elders, our careless disregard of traditions, may not these traits derive as much from the acceptance and habit of mobility as from any other aspect of the American condition?"[iii] I think it a sufficient answer that the restlessness not only suits the needs of the deprived and demanding, to whom things and ideas must be brought, but also substitutes that group activity for personal ambition of the old kind. To the American, "accomplishment" is reward and fulfillment. And any nation that should become thoroughly "Americanized" by unconscious example would find that the Yankee passion for building, producing and consuming was the reverse of materialistic. Compare the European, whether peasant, bourgeois or baron, and you will see the difference between, on the one hand, a cheerful, careless, wasteful use of goods as a means of enjoyment and a sign of success; and, on the other, a sleepless, accumulating greed, rendered necessary by ages of scarcity. The American lack of worry about small gains and trifling advantage maintains a healthful detachment of the will from its prey. In effect, though it may seem a paradox, only the adoption of the American character can save the world from the worst evil imputed to machine civilization, namely a swinish materialism.

The third and last free gift to be had by mere inspection from our singular character is allied to the other two: we tend to diffuse power rather than concentrate it. This is why we dislike its trappings-protocol, uniforms, the stern mien, any visible apparatus or enforcement of authority. In our preferred device, the committee, we give up victory if the margin is too narrow. By common consent, a vote of 12 to 10 only postpones a real decision which will prevent reprisals and vindictive rage. What is more, our use of power is rarely secret. Cabals are seldom attempted and schemes always leak out. As the highest authorities experience daily, the whole nation suffers from reflex candor. Full disclosure seems easiest in the end, and it is too bad that in foreign parts some of our normally relaxed ambassadors take to unfamiliar astringents. We should gain so much more by remaining ourselves, earning the credit of truthfulness and profiting from the automatic deception of the skeptical.

This last suggestion must not be thought a recipe. At the outset my major premise was that in the affairs of a troubled world no appearance or reality has any force unless it is adapted by chance or design to the receiving mind. Saunders Redding has told in a moving confession how his American heart and intellect were misunderstood and misprized in Africa.[iv] But his failure to overcome suspicion, like the United States' unpopularity, is no reason for assuming a false face. We can by taking thought correct some of our faults, individual or collective; we can by sharpening our sensibility learn how to appease or tolerate our enemies; but for any relations to yield more than a momentary benefit, each party to them must retain his identity. The devious must of of course be unmasked and the intransigent ignored or put down. But disarmament begins when one or the other perseveres in being disarming.

[i] James V. Bennett, testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, March 1963.

[ii] William James, "The Gospel of Relaxation," in "Talks to Teachers on Psychology." New York: Henry Holt, 1915, p. 199-228, passim.

[iii] George W. Pierson, "Goin' Some," The South Atlantic Quarterly, Autumn 1964, p. 568.

[iv] Saunders Redding, "Home to Africa," The American Scholar, Spring 1963, p. 183-191.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now