The Inscrutability of the Yankee



A DESCRIPTION of Americans as a subtle, devious, Machiavellian race would move the average American to derision, but hardly to wrath. The idea would seem to him too fantastic to merit the serious consideration that anger implies; nor is he likely to believe that anyone entertains it.

Yet it may be argued plausibly that the intricacy and deceptive appearance of American character have played a large part in trapping two powerful nations and plunging them into ruin. Why are we at war? Obviously, because the Axis powers thought they could defeat us. But why did they think so? The Germans and the Japanese are intelligent people. It is unimaginable that the calculations of intelligent people could be altogether wrong. Then at what point did the error in their judgments creep in?

It was not in their estimate of our material resources, for the facts were known to all the world. We had never concealed our industrial and economic strength, after the Russian fashion. It was not on the point of our military and naval strength, for that, too, we had published in detail and accurately. It was not on the point of our manpower, for the census of the United States is open to everyone. Then if they knew all about our steel production, our food production, our chemical industry, our aviation and motor vehicle plant capacity, and our manpower, where did they slip? Slip they did, and disastrously. The High Command in each country knows it now, the German population suspects it, and the Japanese population will know it all too well by the end of next summer.

If the miscalculation did not occur in the enemy estimates of our physical strength, then there is only one other place where it could have occurred — in the realm of the intangible, in the estimates of American national character.

It is fairly clear now that the Japanese accomplished more, rather than less, than they hoped to achieve at Pearl Harbor. It is probable that they have accomplished as much as they hoped to accomplish in the South Pacific. There is reason to believe that they thought lighter blows than they actually delivered would be enough to dispose of us. Why did they think so? Obviously, because they believed that two swift kicks would be enough to send us howling and running for cover. They counted upon a psychological collapse that would throw our councils into confusion and paralyze our effort. There is no other explanation of their assumption that a blow struck 2400 miles from our shores would bring us to our knees.

But what made them look for any such contemptible surrender? To echo Mr. Churchill, what kind of people do they think we are?

Without a doubt, they think we are the kind of people that the Germans think we are. Ribbentrop betrayed the real sentiments of the Germans when he heard of the passage of the Lend-Lease bill. “I knew they would sell munitions to the British,” he confessed, “but I never imagined they would give them away!”

That explains it. He assumed that we are the sort of people who will grab a dollar no matter what its source, and who will never release our clutch on one, no matter what happens. He assumed that we were so blinded by greed as not to be able to see that when liberty is in danger, money doesn’t count.

He was wrong; and that very error is destined to be the ruin of Nazi Germany. But why was he wrong? How did we contrive to deceive both the Germans and the Japanese so completely?

Hitler at his most bombastic never claimed to be prepared for a long war of attrition. It was to be a lightning war. Yet he must have known that if Britain was to be supplied from this country regardless of money, it must be a long, hard war. He thought she would be supplied only as long as her money lasted; and he was able to figure almost to the day how long that would be. What upset his calculations was the Lend-Lease bill, and he hadn’t figured on that because he regarded it as something completely out of character for the Americans. He never expected the Americans to exhibit disregard for money.


In large measure, or perhaps primarily, because of these misconceptions, we are now attacked on two sides and engaged in a desperate war. Therefore the way in which these misconceptions arose is certainly of importance to us.

An examination of the origin of their errors has no bearing on the moral quality of either Hitler or Hirohito. The fact that a man is bad is no guarantee that he is stupid. On the contrary, the wicked have a disconcerting habit of being particularly shrewd. The question is not what made Hitler and Hirohito act like Satan, but what made them act like Simple Simon?

Any unbiased inquiry into this matter will show that it was in part their fault; but it will also show that it was in part our fault. In the beginning of the First World War, George Bernard Shaw irritated the British by reminding them that they could not pose for generations as boys of the bulldog breed and then expect to be accepted as gazelles. Perhaps it may be equally irritating to Americans, but it is equally apposite, to suggest to them that they cannot pose for twenty years as yellow curs and then expect to be accepted as boys of the bulldog breed, even if that is, in fact, what they are.

Do you ask when we ever gave the Japanese cause to believe that we are yellow, or the Germans cause to believe that we are blinded with greed?

Well, now, think that question over, calmly and fairly, remembering that you are examining it from the standpoint of a German or a Japanese — which is to say, from the standpoint of a man prejudiced against, or certainly not in favor of, the United States and the democratic theory.

Suppose we approach the question indirectly by first considering the British, who are in the same boat with us. We can always perceive the faults of the British with the utmost clarity. Perhaps by studying their attitude we may find it easier to see what is wrong with our own.

What made Mr. Churchill ask plaintively, “ What kind of people do they think we are?” He had discovered, to his amazement, that the Germans had discovered, to their amazement, that there are some things the British will not sell, no, not even for thirty pieces of silver.

There is no real reason to doubt that Rudolph Hess believed absolutely that the British government consisted of a set of purchasable scoundrels who would certainly be amenable to a skillful combination of bribery and blackmail. Possibly he excepted the Prime Minister himself, for they have a towering respect for Churchill even in Germany; but Hess was sure that he could collect enough villains in British public life to gang up on Churchill and throw him out the window.

The evidence that Hess really believed this is the simple fact that he risked his life, his job, his reputation, and everything he had on the theory. When he found that it wasn’t so, but that, on the contrary, the whole British government is composed of men who are at least reasonably honest, Hess was the most astonished man in Europe.

When Churchill, in turn, discovered that Hess was astonished, he was equally astonished. “What kind of people do they think we are?” he asked of the world at large, expecting no answer.

But there is an answer. Hitler might have replied, “I thought you were the kind of people who came to Munich once and did a good stroke of business there.”


All this is plain as a pikestaff to Americans. But it is by no means as easy for us to understand why Ribbentrop assumed as a matter of course that he could mesmerize us with a nickel as easily as one mesmerizes a rooster with a chalk line drawn from his beak, or why the Japanese assumed that a couple of kicks would drive us out of the war. What is there in our record on which any rational foreign statesman might base such inferences?

Well, did you ever hear of the Neutrality Resolution? Did you ever hear of the NonIntervention Committee? Did you ever hear of sanctions against Italian aggression in Ethiopia? Long before that, did you ever hear of the Johnson Act? And have you heard yet that any one of these has ever been repudiated and repealed?

As Americans acquainted with the American political game, we know that all these measures had their origin in the exigencies of domestic politics. Like the representative who gained immortality by informing his colleagues that they might as well leave the chamber during his address because he was only “speaking for Buncombe,” his home county in North Carolina, the advocates of these measures intended them strictly for home consumption. Unfortunately, though, they didn’t all go back to Buncombe. They were exported and it is largely in exchange for them that we have imported war.

Think it over, not as an American but, if you can, as a foreigner not too friendly toward America. Go all the way back to April 13, 1934, remembering that at that time Hitler had already published Mein Kampf, announcing in gruesome detail his aims and purposes regarding the democracies and had been for more than a year Chancellor of the German Reich — which is to say, in command of a considerable army and of a tremendously powerful industrial machine. This being the situation in Europe, on that day the United States put into force the Johnson Act, making it unlawful for any American citizen to lend money to or sell the bonds of any country then in default on its debts to the United States.

Everyone, in Germany as in this country, knew that this act was aimed principally at England. Everyone, including the Germans, also knew that it would be of no practical effect until the next war, for Great Britain was unlikely to wish to borrow in the United States except in the event of war. How, then, could a rational German see it as anything except a formal notice to all the world that in the event of war we would not support Great Britain with so much as a loan, not to mention troops?

The event proved that we didn’t mean it for a moment, but how was the German to guess that? The Johnson Act was tantamount to an invitation to Hitler to make war on the British, by giving him what seemed to be an assurance that they would get no help from us.

In 1937 came the Neutrality Resolution, which repeated and extended the invitation. Having promised in 1934 that we would give Britain no help in the event of war, in 1937 we assured Hitler that we would get out of his way so that he would not risk the embarrassment of hitting us even by accident. We made it unlawful, in case the Führer went to war, for any American ship to approach England, for any American citizen to travel on an English ship, for any American to sell arms or munitions to England, and for any American merchant ship to be armed. If the Johnson Act was an invitation to make war, from the standpoint of a German, the Neutrality Resolution must have seemed to him an urgent plea to do so.

In this country we knew that this resolution was passed mainly in the hope of hushing the squalls of a lot of hysterical old women, male and female, who were stuffed with the romantic delusion that Me und Gott had been merely instruments in the hands of Basil Zaharoff back in 1914. But how could the German observer know it? He didn’t — not until the arrival of a real crisis proved that the Neutrality Resolution was a slice of the same green cheese as the Johnson Act.

As for the Non-Intervention agreement regarding Spain, the blame for that lies squarely upon the shoulders of the President of the United States and his Secretary of State. It was not a policy of non-intervention, but exactly the reverse — it was intervention in behalf of Franco by cutting off all supplies from the Spanish republican government, which was the only Spanish government that we recognized. True, Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Hull did not originate the policy, but they allowed themselves to be inveigled into supporting it by the same set of men that made the later bargain at Munich.

With Congress, the President, and the Secretary of State all apparently assuring Hitler that they would not think of interfering with his little scheme to murder liberty, why should it occur to the German that the American people, nevertheless, are decent? The people? Who were the people? Why, Big Bill Thompson, Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Charles A. Lindbergh, each the leader of an idolatrous following. If there were some other people in the country, who cared? Nobody heard from them.

Indeed, the basis of German contempt for American moral and intellectual integrity was laid long before the Johnson Act. For twenty years we have postured before the world as the humane and liberal people who were so shocked by the villainy of the Treaty of Versailles that we would have nothing to do with it. The Treaty of Versailles did have certain palliatives, certain clauses providing means of modifying the worst features if they proved too onerous; but that did not satisfy us. We wanted no part of it.

Well, now, how many Americans know what is actually in the Treaty of Berlin of August 25, 1921 — the treaty whereby we made a separate peace with Germany? It contains only three articles, and as one of them merely prescribes the means of ratification and so on, there are really only two. Do you know what they are? Probably not, but you may rest assured that the Germans know.

The first of these articles repudiates, on our part, every single palliative clause in the Treaty of Versailles. The second article ratifies, on our part, every rascally clause. The United States to this day is formally pledged to support the war-guilt clause, the reparations clauses, the occupation clauses, the partitions of territory — in short, every clause for which liberals have since denounced the Treaty of Versailles. The United States has formally repudiated every clause which liberals are compelled to admit was, or might have been made, wise and just.

In short, by word and act for twenty years we have been assuring the Germans and the Japanese that our national character is a merger of Shylock, Iscariot, Tartuffe, and Uriah Heep, retaining the worst features of each. And now we are astonished to find that they regard us with contempt!


Yet when all due acknowledgment has been made of our folly in permitting every sort of political horse-doctor, circus clown, and hellroaring evangelist to speak in the name of the American people, not all the blame for German and Japanese misconceptions rests upon us. Early in October the President of the University of Tokyo in a broadcast to the Japanese people admitted that it was a great surprise to the Japanese to learn that Americans will fight. True, for twenty years we have been assuring the Japanese over and over that we will not fight; but military men ought not to rest their judgments on verbal assurances only. For twenty years we have been assuring Hitler that we will cheerfully sell out our friends, our liberty, our honor, and our God; but realistic statesmen ought not to rest their judgments on verbal assurances only.

At least since the days of Plato, Europeans have been specializing in political science and they usually regard themselves as having carried it further than it has been carried anywhere else in the world. Yet there is a good deal of evidence to support the belief that they have never given really serious attention to the political experiment represented by the United States and, to a lesser extent, by Great Britain.

Perhaps the most striking bit of evidence of this sort that has been presented recently is afforded by the two last books of Professor Guglielmo Ferrero, most famous of contemporary Italian historians. Those two books are devoted to exposition of what Ferrero — a sincere man, if ever there was one — regarded as a novel and highly significant discovery in the theory of government. He called it “the principle of legitimacy.” And what is it? When all the scientific verbiage is unwound, it comes down to the principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Does that sound vaguely familiar to you? If you are an American, it probably does, since it happens to be a phrase from the American Declaration of Independence, which was promulgated a hundred and sixty-six years ago.

It is beyond belief that as learned a man as Professor Ferrero had never read the Declaration of Independence; but it is equally beyond belief that he admitted for one moment that the principles embodied in that document are embedded, not merely in the thinking, but in the emotions of a nation of 130,000,000 people, or he would have known that the “principle of legitimacy,” far from being a discovery, is a commonplace in the two most powerful nations on earth, the United States and the British Empire.

There are exceptions of course — de Tocqueville and Lord Bryce come to mind at once — but as a rule the study that European scholars, and especially European historians, jurisconsults, and sociologists, have devoted to the United States has been brief and superficial. Within the past twenty years we have been studied frequently, to be sure, but hardly seriously. Such a man as Siegfried, the Frenchman, occasionally comes over and writes a shrewd, exact, and brilliant portrayal of everything in America that is purely transitory and irrelevant; and in ten years his book is as archaic as the pharmacology of Galen. Such a man as Laski, the Englishman, examines one section of our governmental machinery, the Presidency, and does it carefully and with a high degree of competence; but a study of the machinery of government has no bearing on the quality of the people. Yet nearly all the European books on America that have any worth fall into one of these two classes — brilliantly superficial sketches of the inconsequential, or studies of our governmental, economic, and social machinery, competent enough, but limited to the machinery.

Neither does much to explain how a nation of pretty decent people has contrived to gather the aspect of a collection of such fantastic scoundrels as never really existed anywhere.

Yet our visitors from abroad have been, in many cases, men of great ability, trained observers, well acquainted with the danger of being misled by surface appearances. Why have their learning and skill apparently deserted them here? Why have they so consistently found the simple, open-faced, and usually openmouthed American more difficult to read aright than the inscrutable Chinese?


Perhaps it is because they insist upon reading into us something that is not there. Some of them unquestionably insist upon regarding us as transplanted Europeans and assume, therefore, that our civilization is a transplanted European civilization.

So, indeed, it was in the beginning, but soil and climate have been working on it now for four hundred and fifty years, and have altered it in kind. The European observes, accurately enough, that American civilization does not produce certain values that are regarded as among the most desirable fruits of European civilization, from which he deduces that ours must be unsound. Rarely does he envisage the possibility that perhaps we do not seek those values with ardor enough to shape our civilization to produce them. Social stability, for example, with its attendant continuity of the environment, is rather lightly regarded by Americans; and even the phrase “the dignity of the individual” we accept with a different construction from that put upon it by Europeans.

A German, and doubtless a Japanese, must find it hard to credit a nation’s claim to respect for the dignity of the individual when he notes that this same nation has adopted the curious course of estopping the state, by a provision of the organic law, from rendering any formal, outward testimony of gratitude for services no matter how distinguished, exceptionally meritorious service by an armed man in time of war alone excepted. Not much respect for the dignity of the individual in that, says the European.

But from the American standpoint this is irrelevant. The denial of public honors for public service is a reflection of the prejudice of our forefathers. They were so disgusted by the way in which public honors under the monarchy went by favoritism and not by merit that they adopted the questionable policy of abolishing honors altogether, instead of trying to abolish favoritism in their distribution. But as the American sees it, the dignity of the individual is not at all involved in ruffles upon the drums and flourishes upon the trumpets, but hinges upon his right to determine for himself where honor is due. It is a question, not of receiving, but of rendering, salutes. A European’s dignity is attested by the people who lift their hats to him; an American’s dignity is attested by the people to whom he does not lift his hat.

Nevertheless — and this is an important point that escapes some Europeans — he does not object to lifting his hat. On the contrary, let someone come by whom he freely acknowledges as a Big Shot, the Real McCoy, the veritable Cat’s Whiskers, and no Oriental slave can salaam more profoundly than the American. After sixteen years the world still remembers with a certain awe the delirium with which we received Lindbergh after his flight to Paris; and not long ago there was a moment when a million small boys in America had to be restrained vi et armis from saying their prayers to General MacArthur.

Stability of the social order is another value that does not mean to an American what it does to a European. Our incessant public clamors seem to most Europeans totally inconsistent with any real stability; but the proof of the pudding is the eating thereof. This apparently unstable and incontestably uproarious country has nevertheless endured far longer than the government of any other great country on the globe. Democratic Britain dates from the Reform Bill of 1832; the Shogunate was overthrown in Japan in 1868; all other existing governments are much younger — Monaco, Nepal, and other pint-size states affording no real exception — except that of the United States, which has remained under the same form of government since 1787 and under the same type since 1776.

Government here, in Europe, and everywhere else has always consisted of a never ending battle to keep the swinish not, indeed, in order but within tolerable bounds. Thieves, as certainly as the poor, we have always with us; it is in our method of dealing with them that we differ from Europe. In Europe the method seems to be to have all things done decently and in order; even regrettable things, done in due form, give rise to no scandal and disorder. In America the method seems to be to permit the thieves to run hog-wild for about nineteen years and then in the twentieth to raid the joint. This gives rise to terrific scandal and disorder, but it cleanses the sty temporarily. There is something to be said for both methods since both work, up to a point. But there is nothing to be said for trying to assess the value of any governmental system without taking into account the method it employs in dealing with its rascals.

The American people actually rule this country when they choose to do so; but that is not often. In the intervals, they delegate authority to politicans, frequently of the shabbiest sort, and these are, in turn, the victims of blocs, pressure groups, and gangs. A European visiting the country during one of these intervals and observing the incredible cheapness, not of the men only but also of the ideas that agitate the country, has some ground for assuming that our civilization is in the throes of disintegration. But he does not understand the country until he begins to get an inkling of the fact that these puppets are indeed puppets and when they exceed the bounds of toleration — wide, but not infinite — the whole sorry show will be heaved out to the accompaniment of tremendous yelling, swearing, and thwacking.

Ordinarily, but not always, this is accomplished by due process of law at the ballot box. But sometimes when the puppets forget the strings that are attached to them and begin to think that they possess real power, the people do not even take the trouble to observe the prescribed forms. The most conspicuous instance of that kind was afforded by prohibition, which actually was inserted in the organic law but which never was in force for a moment. It was a case of government without the consent of the governed and it simply remained null and void. The gang behind this act happened to be Puritans, rather than politicians, and Puritans are far more stubborn; for fourteen years they hung on grimly to the illusion that they had power over the people, but in the end even they had to surrender.

Yet it is these widely separated occasions when the people are in action that a foreign ruler contemplating war against the United States ought to study, for it is the people in action that he will have to deal with, not the gang of politicians infesting Washington when times are easy and all is serene. Once the artillery opens, it is not the quality of the President or of the Congress that counts, but the quality of the people — along the poorer streets of the cities, in a thousand towns and villages, on farms hundreds of miles from the seat of government. The quality of these people is no mystery, for it is recorded in the history of more than a century and a half that they are neither cheap nor weak. Simple they are, and the sophisticated laugh at them for it; yet a battle-axe is simple too, but it is no laughing matter when the axe is descending upon one’s head.

The American people are strong of body, firm of purpose, and like the grasshoppers for number. These are the facts that should have engaged the attention of people contemplating incurring their active hostility. Instead those people seem to have contemplated exclusively the sinuosities and shoddiness of a political system that misrepresents the American people nineteen twentieths of the time, but which they nonchalantly toss aside whenever their interest is really aroused.

No people should act in any such fashion. It is possible that acting in this fashion has cost us the price of a terrific war, which is penalty enough, in all conscience. Nevertheless, it is the way we act, and their failure to understand our ways is going to cost our enemies even more than the price we are paying. In fact, it will cost them their existence as military powers.