What Makes an American?

"To become an American is a process which resembles a conversion. It is not so much a new country that one adopts as a new creed."

It is strange that the only common denominator accepted by all people today should be the one which most assuredly prevents them from living in peace with one another. That denominator is nationalism, the strongest single motive which inspires the action of modern men.

To define precisely what nationalism means to each individual would fill a volume. A Frenchman once said that nationalism is a certain number of illusions shared by a group of men and women concerning their origin, combined with a common hatred for any other group of men and women sharing another set of illusions. To most people, however, it is something much more noble than that because it represents an extension of the natural love of man for the country where he was born. It implies devotion, duties, and sacrifices under the general assumption that there is some sort of sacred link between each man and a definite spot on the planet.

The question whether nationalism, patriotism, the love of the homeland, is beneficial either to the individual or to the human race as a whole is open to discussion. It might be a much better world if this instinct were eradicated. On the other hand, it might be worse. The fact is that the instinct exists, and that, far from losing its grip on us, on all of us, it is becoming constantly more intense, more exacting, more all-embracing.

I have a definite impression that during my own lifetime the French have shown a tendency to become more French, the Germans more German, the Americans more American. Or, to put it another way, there seems to be an increasing desire on the part of all people to assert more strongly what makes them different and even antagonistic to one another. And it does not matter at all that—owing to the shortening of distances and the facilities of communications—they are in fact getting closer and more alike in all the visible manifestations of their existence.

It may be that modern nationalism is an instinctive defense against a greater peril—a deadly and overwhelming uniformity. It may also be that in one or two hundred years historians will study this manifestation as one of the most extraordinary examples of mass neuroses that the world has known. Nationalism as we know it may pass, but for the moment it is more powerful than any other idea or even than any religion.

There are, of course, many variations of nationalism, and some think that it is dangerous only in its excessive forms, such as those practised by the Germans, the Italians, and the Japanese with their "blood and soil" mysticism, their imperialism, and their racial exclusions. But everywhere we see the same tendency, the same urge to counteract nationalism in one place by more nationalism in another.


To a European, no country is more interesting from this point of view than America, and in the seven years I have lived here none has interested me and puzzled me more.

To begin with, it took me some time to formulate to myself an answer to the very simple questions: "What makes an American? How does it feel to belong to this nation?"

These questions will naturally sound absurd to an American, and he might retort, "Well, how does it feel to be a Frenchman?" But that is just the point—most Frenchmen can tell you quite clearly what makes them conscious of being French, but I have found it very difficult to obtain from my American friends or from my reading a comprehensive definition of the American nationality.

First of all, it is obvious that the sense of nationality is not less developed in Americans than in any other people. It is quite as real and quite as visible in all its manifestations. But the fact that such expressions as "Americanism," the "American way," the "American outlook," and so forth, have had to be coined seems to indicate that Americans are the first to feel the need of qualifying themselves when they say, "I am an American." More than that, the American consciousness gives an impression of growth. It is not static, and one feels that it still contains tremendous possibilities of expression.

For the moment, however, there is a very important trait in the make-up of the American nationality which does not exist, I believe, in any other. And that is the fact that America is a permanent protest against the rest of the world, and particularly against Europe.

This attitude has both historical and psychological reasons. Most Americans believe today the following facts concerning their nation: (1) that this continent was peopled by men who rebelled against the tyrannies of Europe; (2) that these men dedicated themselves, from the very beginning, to the purposeful establishment of a kind of freedom that should endure forever; (3) that they succeeded, by a "revolution" in breaking away forever from the oppressive domination and the cupidity of European imperialisms; (4) that in establishing a democratic government they determined forever the course of political perfection, and that whoever followed another course was on the road to damnation; (5) that although European nations were becoming progressively harmless in relation to the increasing power and resources of the ever-growing America, they remained a potential danger to the integrity of this great nation on account of their deplorable habit of wandering away from the true path of civilization, which is democracy, the pursuit of material comfort and more happiness for everybody on this earth as soon as possible.

An Englishman may have doubts regarding the British Empire, a Frenchman may be discouraged concerning the future of France. There are Germans who are not sure that they represent a superior race. All of them, however, remain thoroughly English, French, or German in spite of everything. The type of American who does not accept America as it is and has misgivings about it—such as Henry James, Edith Wharton, T. S. Eliot, and some others—belongs to a past generation. Today one seldom meets an American skeptic, for the reason that nothing is more assuredly unAmerican than to entertain any doubt concerning the fact that somehow or other this country will come out all right.

There are many who will find such a statement too sweeping, and say, for instance, that President Roosevelt is destroying the national ideal, that he is leading the country to ruin, decadence, anarchy, and so forth. But even those objectors are not skeptical about the future of their country. Even they feel that faith in America is what makes them Americans. All their irritation would be assuaged if Mr. Roosevelt were removed, all their confidence restored. This kind of skepticism is skin-deep. It does not affect the soul of Americanism.

This faith, like all faiths, does not engender a passive attitude towards the rest of the world. Americans are tolerant to all creeds and to all convictions, but few people express their distrust and indignation with more vigor whenever some of their beliefs are offended. Few people are more conscious that ideas may be more destructive than guns. And rightly so, because if any unorthodox creed really implanted itself in America—if the day came when an American citizen could really feel that his country was not following the right course and that a change was due—the political disunion thus produced would have unforetold consequences. The one serious crisis of this kind that America has known, the Civil War, showed the frightful results of a real political conflict. It nearly made two nations out of one. But this experiment in dissension seems to have served as a lasting lesson. It is difficult to believe that it would be repeated. Unity on the fundamental principles of politics is indispensable to the life of this country. The presence of even a small minority who would question the validity of Americanism would attack at the very core the concept of American nationality itself.


The crisis that shook Europe in September 1938 once more brought out the fact that 99 percent of Americans distrust Europe as a whole, and that they must distrust it to retain the feeling that they are Americans.

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