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American Character and the New World

ISSUE:  Winter 1945

Foreign Policy Begins at Home. By James P. Warburg. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. The American Character. By D. W. Brogan. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. The Wilson Bra: Years of Peace. By Josephus Daniels. University of North Carolina Press. $4.00.

Where is the United States going in this decade of war and chaos which brings to an end the first half of the twentieth century? The question is uppermost in the minds of all Americans who take the time to reflect on tomorrow. D. W. Brogan, loyal subject of George VI, makes it his central theme in “The American Character”; James P. Warburg, born in Hamburg, Germany, and brought as a child to America by his immigrant parents, is convinced in “Foreign Policy Begins at Home” that on the answer hangs the destiny of the world. Josephus Daniels, writing his memoirs in the quiet of his North Carolina study, has no purpose of self-aggrandizement, his goal in the current volume, “The Wilson Era: Years of Peace” is rather to give some illumination for the problems of today by considering the issues and decisions of yesterday when the nation moved from peace to war. I Brogan writes mainly for Englishmen; Warburg and Daniels primarily for Americans. Each has a contribution to make.

Warburg is alarmed. A sense of urgency runs through his pages. He was an international banker from 1919 to 1935. For a time after 1933 he opposed the monetary policies of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Munich brought him actively into the group of Americans who urged that the United States announce its support of those nations which would resist further aggression. In the summer of 1941 he became one of the principal organizers of American propaganda warfare and until February, 1944, was Deputy Director for Propaganda Policy in the OWL He organized the London office of this agency. His alarm derives in part from the perspective he acquired in his overseas assignment. He sees the present war as primarily a fight against fascism and he declares that in the United States in the year 1944 that fight “begins at home.”

Warburg starts his argument with a pessimistic view of traditional American economy. His premises are two. “Capitalism,” he says in presenting his first point, “began to break down as a satisfactory social and economic system when it failed to find a way widely to distribute the wealth it created—when it failed to provide consumer purchasing power equivalent to its productive capacity.” The thesis is an old one; it was the starting point of Lawrence Dennis’s cynical argument in 1940 that, if the United States followed the Warburgs and became involved in the war, fascism in America would be inevitable. Warburg’s second premise avers that “runaway capitalism” leads to fascism. “The runaway greed of the powerful few reflects the potential runaway greed of the many. That is where fascism finds popular support—by appealing to the cannibalism of human nature—by holding out the hope of special privilege and power to each—rather than the hope of equal opportunity to all.” But fascism is more than merely a matter of economics; it breeds in the ground of social, racial, and religious cleavages. The cleavages, particularly in American economic life, have led to a “sad condition of Congress” so that our National Legislature “represents the unresolved conflict between the ideal of democracy and the reality of our semi-cannibalistic economic behaviour.”

What is Mr. Warburg’s way out? His proposals cannot be summarized in a sentence or two. It seems just to say, however, that his program advances three points. The American people must end the menace of fascism within their borders by “undertaking the necessary reforms of our domestic economic order” to maintain full employment. This means national planning and the freeing of the channels of world trade. The second point is that our Lend-Lease agreements must be liquidated in such a manner as to effect the betterment of world-wide economic relations. This principle means that the old practices of economic nationalism as expressed in high tariffs and imperial preferences must be abandoned. We must aid the economic development of backward regions because our economic well-being depends upon the improvement of the economic life of the whole world. The third point is that Britain and the United States must stop appeasing fascism in so-called neutral countries and must abandon the reactionary regimes they have hitherto supported in such countries as Greece and Poland.

Mr. Warburg speaks earnestly and cogently, as one who is convinced that the United States and the world are near

to making the present disaster irreparable. He should be read by all who are trying to formulate their convictions in the present confusion. But it may be useful to read him with Brogan’s book at one’s elbow. Brogan, professor of Political Science in Cambridge University, not only has an extraordinary knowledge of American history; he is acquainted from long first-hand observation with the complexities of the contemporary American scene. He is, perhaps, not another Bryce, but the comparison is not farfetched. “To have created,” he asserts in making his central point, “a free government, over a continental area, without making a sacrifice of adequate efficiency or of liberty is the American achievement. It is a unique achievement in history.” “The scale,” he adds, “accounts for a great deal, including the apparent justification at some periods and in some departments of American life for pessimism about the present or the future of America. In the past, the pessimists have always been wrong. I think they are still wrong.”

Brogan as well as Warburg is aware of the cleavages in American life. The British commentator sets forth with illuminating detail the differences within the nation that spring from immigration, from race, from religion, and from economics. He reminds his British reader that they are not new. He emphasizes three aspects of the American tradition that make for unity. The first is the American system of two national political parties and the perennial task of the practicing politician, whether in a state legislature or in Congress, of reconciling divergent interests. Brogan recalls to his reader that the United States divided in war in the nineteenth century almost immediately after the second of what had been two national parties fell apart. The second force for unity is the public school where boys and girls of all groups learn at an early age to adjust their lives to one another. The third force, in Brogan’s opinion, is a certain audacious idealism. “The Americans expect from their own leaders—and from the leaders of other countries —a regard for the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God; they also expect ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’—publicly manifested in reasons given and discussed with what may seem excessive freedom and candor of comment.” It is this aspect of American tradition which tends, in Brogan’s opinion, not only to hold so vast a nation together but to confound ultimately the pessimists that arise in each succeeding generation.

To this last thesis of Brogan’s little book the present volume of Daniels’ memoirs gives impressive confirmation. The greater part of the book deals with the triumphs and defeats of the “tar heel editor” in his administrative work as Secretary of the Navy before the entrance of the United States into the first World War. There are, in addition, useful personal sketches that help to fill in the portraits of national figures. And there are equally useful episodes, such as the one explaining the turning of a crucial vote in the Senate committee considering the nomination of Bran-deis for the Supreme Court, that illuminate obscure corners in our political history. But the parts do not describe the book. As a whole the volume is a simple narrative of the public activities of an honest and friendly man who devoted his energies to carrying forward in the national administration those principles of democracy that had persisted in an unbroken tradition from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to Wilson’s New Freedom. It is a heartening and a very American book. It recalls to mind one of Brogan’s sentences: “The American people can contribute to the world community only as Americans. As Americans they have much to give, materially and spiritually.”


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