The American Temperament

A native of Greenville, Mississippi, and a graduate of Yale, DAVID L. COHN has come to judge this country by cosmopolitan standards. In the short paper which follows, he raises a vital question: Have we the right temperament to cope with the responsibilities we have assumed? Mr. Cohn's books include Picking America’s Pockets,a volume about our tariff policy; Where I Was Horn and Raised, a study of race relations; a war diary covering some 40,000 miles; and two volumes of a lighter nature, The Good Old Days and Love in America.


ALL that we are doing, or must do, in international affairs is deeply repugnant to us. Only lately come into the stream of history, we are uncertainly breasting its currents. Having much, we want little. A puppy-friendly people with warm luncheon-club hearts, we want to be loved, if not respected, by others. But we are appalled to find that we are getting little love and less respect. It is of no weight with us that nations do not loveone another in a June-moon, way; that the rich are unlikely to be loved by a poor world; or that what we are doing, provocative of love, as the Marshall Plan, is done largely for our own sake.

Above all, perhaps, we want to be let alone to enjoy our comforts. (Our predecessors in the Americas, the Aztecs, Incas, Arapahoes, had the same desire.) Yet we are not let alone, and we are dismayed that not soon shall we be able to go to Cooper’s Wells for the summer, forgetful of the world. Why, we ask in a mood akin to self-pity, should this happen to us; a kind, loving people who want merely to be loved and let alone?

Wanting little, there is much we do not want. We do not want to lead the free world with all that that entails of expenditure of blood and treasure. The role was not sought by us but thrust upon us by destiny. It infuriates us that we cannot evade destiny; that we must lead or perish. O for the good old century between Waterloo and the outbreak of the First World War! Then Britain policed the earth, we got a free ride, and could conquer the West and build America. We little reckoned that every day, at the Khyber Pass, or in some fetid jungle, an Englishman was killed, “far from the English speech and far from the English singing,” as Masefield said of his compatriots who died at Gallipoli. Yet this, however much we try to escape the reality, is the inescapable price of leadership.

It is nothing to us that for decades, with a selfrighteousness others found repulsive, we lectured the great nations upon what we took to be their moral, spiritual shortcomings. We prated of our devotion to Western civilization. Ought we not, therefore, when it is in supreme peril — unless we have been hypocrites all along — regard it as a somber privilege that destiny has made us its last great defender? On the contrary, vve look frenziedly for the devil who has brought us to this pass — a Truman, a Marshall, an Acheson; we bewail our fate, the chromium trim of the car daily growing thinner.

We do not want to face the prospect of war; still less of standing to arms indefinitely, our men away from home, our living standard threatened. (As well might the embryo struggle against being born.) But war faces us; we must stand to arms. Recently, in discussing Korea with an elderly, Virginia-born Negro woman whose son was entering the Army, she quietly expressed the melancholy truth. “Some folks,” she said, “have to die so that the rest of us can live.”

Similarly, as we do not want to lead, but do not want to follow, we find it distasteful to deal with allies. This implies consulting them, aiding them, living with them, as though bound to an uncertain marriage, in a state of antagonistic coöperation. Yet we are fearful to go it alone. Hence, for these reasons, the vulture of frustration tears at our liver.

Technically competent, we are politically incompetent. “The object of war,” says General MacArthur, “is victory.” So it is — militarily. Its object, it seems to me, is peace. We have won two wars in this generation and, twice losing the peace, now face a third world war. This is a measure, not only of our technical competence on the one hand and our political incompetence on the other, but also of our aptness for the short-term job and our ineptness for the long-term task; an endeavor at which Russia excels out of the reservoirs of her patience. Yet although we have been only fourteen months in Korea, millions of us demand of General Marshall that he show us, in black and white, how to end the conflict. Else we shall take things in our own hands by leaping before we look.

Shortsighted, emotional, impatient, physically energetic but mentally lazy, possessors of a spectrum containing only the colors ol black and white, devoted to “education” but wary of ideas and suspicious of “professors” in public life, corroded by our belief in the Easy Way and given to the pathetic illusion that complex problems will yield to a sovereign remedy, we swing, a capricious colossus, in a wide arc from pessimism to optimism, thereby bewildering our friends and enemies. Every time there is a lull in hostilities, we fall back into out nylon dreams. If we advance ten miles in Korea, Congress retreats fifty miles. If we retreat ten miles in Korea, Congress prepares to march to Peiping. This poses a problem of a kind for our military leaders.

Are we temperamentally fitted to pursue a policy of arming at home, arming our friends, aiding them economically, and fending off the Russians for years through the indeterminate future; the policy upon which we are embarked? This is a long-term policy and its successful application implies great patience on our part, willingness to stand to arms for years, the ability to deal skillfully with allies of many kinds and many minds, to pay a high price in men away from home, casualties, treasures. All this without any guarantee of how the policy will turn out. It is a common boast of ours that we can take it. But can we stand it? Is endurance coiled in our bowels? Would we not risk a world war with millions of casualties and the wreckage of our civilization rather than pay the high, if lesser, price of what may be loosely termed “containment” of our enemy; a price requiring us to restrain impetuosity on the leash of will?

We do not know. We are profoundly disconcerted and frustrated, I suggest, because we refuse to accept. the basic biological premise that the inescapable imperative of living is struggle; the primary condition of naked, night-enshrouded man forever seeking to return to the lost Eden whose gates are forever barred against him. You struggle, you adapt yourself to the changing environment, or you perish. You understand, or fail to understand at your peril, the truth of Bertrand Russell’s observation that “ ninety per cent of the people of the world would rather run the risk of being killed than be sensible,” an observation presently illuminated by our behavior. You know, or ought to know, since this is the hallmark of being adult, that while everything is for sale in the world’s bazaars, a price is attached to every item; often a high price. You realize that action for action’s sake may be merely an expression of murderous petulance or of the bankruptcy of ideas; that no nation may forever escape the consequences of its folly; that the race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong.

Unmindful of all this, however, we want — we demand — quick, decisive victory in China, and we not unnaturally turn to the man who promises it. There are others who have another point of view. These include Winston Churchill, who has seen as much of war as any man of our times and who, even intellectually, compares not unfavorably with General MacArthur. He puts it this way: —

Those who are prone . . . to seek sharp clearcut solutions of difficult . . . problems . . . . have not always been right. . . . Those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently . . . for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. . . . In a majority of instances, they may be right. . . . How many wars have been averted by patience and persisting goodwill! . . . How many wars have been precipitated by firebrands!

If, he adds, force must be forced, then one ought to use it at the most favorable moment. Have we exhausted all the alternatives to honorable peace? If there must be war, is this the most favorable moment for us?

Soviet Russia alone cannot destroy us. But neither can Pittsburgh and Detroit alone save us. Confronted by a novel enemy using novel weapons, victory over him requires that we behave in ways hitherto alien to our temperament. Time alone will tell whether we can work the transformation.