Is American Identity Rooted in Xenophobia?

Just before World War II, a prominent Atlantic author tried to explain the unique brand of patriotism in the United States.


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Just six months before the start of World War II, Raoul de Roussy de Sales attempted to define the spirit of American nationalism. It was, he believed, a patriotism like no other.

"America," the author asserts in the March 1939 issue of The Atlantic, "is a permanent protest against the rest of the world." This young country produced a specific self-image, one shaped more by antagonism than cooperation.

Why did this particular type of nationalism -- which, when described by the author, sounds oddly similar to xenophobia -- arise? De Sales gives several reasons:

Most Americans believe to-day 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 the 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.

As de Sales saw it, American patriotism was born out of a forceful break with Europe's "tyrannies." It was this sense of superiority -- as the world's most authentic democracy -- that carried into the 20th century and made people feel like true Americans, far more than a tie "to a definite spot on the planet." At the time this article was published, America's tendency to set itself above the rest of the world had led to a policy of isolationism. Europe was not to be trusted; it was a danger to the identity and the integrity of America's much more moral society. (It should be noted that although de Sales applauded this view, he was, somewhat ironically, a French journalist.)

In retrospect, de Sales's article seems a bit short-sighted. He predicted that America's "protest against the rest of the world" would continue throughout the generations: "All those who are coming to-day and those who will come to-morrow are required first of all to accept a certain outlook on life and certain moral and political principles which will make them American." But despite initial attempts to remain neutral, America would soon join Allied forces in World War II. Isolationism would be sacrificed for engagement in a common cause.

Even so, de Sales' article leaves us with important questions: Do we still consider ourselves the world's only true democracy? And is our sense of superiority still one of the most fundamental things that makes us American?

Read the "What Makes an American?" in the March 1939 issue of The Atlantic.