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Diagnosing Uncle Sam

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

Where Freedom Falters. By the author of “The Pomp of Power.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $4.00.

America Comes of Age. By Andre Siegfried. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company. $3.00.

Understanding America. By Langdon Mitchell. New York: George H. Doran Company. $3.00.

As a result of the world war, Uncle Sam became suddenly the greatest of the Great Powers, a factor that could no longer be overlooked in the settling of any international question. With all the world’s spotlights thus focused on him, he turned as suddenly into something else . . . a world riddle. All saw him as through magnifying lenses, but of what they saw they could make little or nothing. No one could understand him. Was he whole devil or half god? On account of his undeniable strength, most foreign observers inclined to the former alternative. In the meantime Uncle Sam himself seemed perfectly at ease under that scrutiny, and if he showed any dissatisfaction, it was not with himself. Yet a few who knew him better than the rest thought that, from time to time, a puzzled look crept into his eyes, while his face showed slight nervous twitchings as if he were suffering from some inner pain. Some of those who saw this much began to think that, perhaps, Uncle Sam might understand himself as little as did the others.

It is no wonder, under such circumstances, that the number of books dealing with this world-arresting riddle has increased enormously of late. It is a new game, almost as alluring as a cross-word puzzle. Everybody has taken a hand in it. No day has been complete in recent years without a new analysis, diagnosis, guess, or caricature. Out of the ruck of books produced under this impetus, a very few have risen to a level of study and thought entitling them to be taken seriously. Among these few are the three volumes now under discussion. All three aim at the same thing: the understanding of Uncle Sam. Considered together, they are the more interesting because one is written by an Englishman, another by a Frenchman of probable German descent, and the third by an American with a line of equally American ancestors back of him.

Different as these volumes are . . . in point of approach, in method of procedure, and, to some extent, in merit . . . they have more in common than their aim. Strange as it may sound, they arrive at conclusions not hopelessly conflicting. And even the least noteworthy among them is characterized by. a degree of open-minded study and clear-minded thinking far above what we are accustomed to expect. Thus they are so many mirrors into which our nation may look with confidence and with profit, if not always with undiluted pleasure. They are books that should be read by every thinking American who loves his people in spite of any faults they may have, but who would prefer to see his nation excel culturally and spiritually, as well as materially. For this reason it would pay to consider them in greater detail than can be done here, and with constant comparisons between their respective viewpoints. Here, however, we must be satisfied with a brief characterization of each volume and an equally brief summary of their most striking conclusions.

“Where Freedom Falters,” though far from negligible, is, for several reasons, the least important and impressive. On the title page, its author remains anonymous as on that of his earlier work, “The Pomp of Power.” But we know now that his name is Laurance Lyon, that for a time he was a member of the British Parliament, and that, during the war, he was in near contact with the Asquith and Lloyd George cabinets without being a member of either. He has evidently seen a great deal of our country at close quarters and he has given it a good deal of study from afar as well. With considerable accuracy and acumen, he discusses our leading personalities, our institutions, our internal and external policies, our customs and characteristics. He has seen and now tells in a vivid, entertaining manner of many American incidents, habits and traits that cannot fail to puzzle and amuse outsiders, and of which we need only too well to be reminded. But what he tells is nothing new to us. Hundreds of American writers have already pointed to the same shortcomings and incongruities in our national existence. The main trouble with the book, however, is that its author deals too much with superficial appearances, and too little with the causes producing them. And in so far as he seeks for such causes, he is either unable or unwilling to grasp the true character and trend of the forces back of them. He is too British in his outlook, and too much of a politician. Our public men . . . Mr. Coolidge, for instance . . . may be as small as he pictures them. What he cannot see is that, on account of the very restrictions that make them so typical of the people at large, they may be keeping the national ship much closer to its destined course than would men of far greater intellectual gifts. Many of his strictures, though hardly ever quite unwarranted and never ill-natured, are prompted by our increasing departure from his own British norm. He is often hopelessly one-sided, as in his judgment of Jefferson, and always a little too cocksure . . . as becomes a gentleman accustomed to confidential chats with cabinet ministers. And so one reader at least smiled a little maliciously when he found Mr. Lyon referring to Mussolini’s recent occupation of . . . Crete!

M. Siegfried is a quite different type . . . a professor of economics at the Parisian Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, but also, through his long connection with the French Foreign Office, a man of practical affairs and no little knowledge of the political game as actually played. Mainly, however, he is a student with a genuinely scientific mind and a keen desire to get at the truth without regard to its nature or possible implications. He has been in this country a number of times, and recently for a rather protracted visit, made with the exclusive object of studying us at first hand. His work is remarkably well-informed, balanced, and open-minded. It seems refreshingly free from most of the ridiculous mis judgments into which foreign writers so frequently are betrayed when contemplating our little anomalies and idiosyncrasies. In spirit at least, “America Comes of Age” may, well be compared to the late Viscount Bryce’s “American Commonwealth.” Being an economist, however, M. Siegfried deals less with political institutions, and more with social, industrial, and economic phenomena and factors. He analyses us ethnically, culturally, and spiritually. He deals astutely with the problems of immigration, mass production, prohibition, foreign policies, and religious intolerance. And he deals with these and other problems in a manner and with an impartiality that cannot help to make their meaning and their importance more clear to ourselves. After all, however, he is a Frenchman, and once in a while his own national idiosyncrasies assert themselves a little divertingly. He seems, for instance, to think and to regret that all Americans have abandoned the European suspenders for the rougher and less refined belt. In this case, evidently, he has failed to gather any statistics concerning our trade in suspenders. They, might prove a surprise to him. But any slips of which he may be guilty are of this distinctly minor nature.

Mr. Mitchell is a son of the late Dr. S. Weir Mitchell and himself a man of mature age. He knows his America thoroughly, and from many angles. He has also been abroad a good deal. And while there he seems never to have fallen into the commonest error of all: that of mistaking difference for inferiority. His book is quite distinct from the other two in plan and execution, though joining them in their spirit of friendly inquiry. Speaking as an American to other Americans, he takes the statistics and the various material data for granted. It is the mind of America he is after . . . what it is; why it is what it is; and what can be done to change it, in so far as a change may be found desirable. The outcome may be compared to the reflections and admonitions of a wise father who has noted certain doubtful traits in a beloved child and tries to discover, first, whether they be ineradicable and fatal, and secondly, how they can be modified or eliminated most effectively. It is Mr. Mitchell, naturally enough, who brings out most plainly the fact that Uncle Sam is as puzzled about himself as is the rest of the world. Characteristically, he begins by pointing out how European misapprehensions in regard to us are more than matched by our own failure to understand the peoples over there and their conditioning environments. Then he proceeds to trace the road that has led to our present state of mind and body, ending this part of his study with a keen but never one-sided analysis of that state. He is never fanatical, never impatient, but always as fearless as he is fair. If you are thin-skinned and prejudiced, you can get as many shocks out of “Understanding America” as out of the other two books together. But, as has already been suggested, there is always loving faith beneath his strictures. A book to be read and pondered and cherished, indeed. And to a craftsman, its style and its gently ironical tone are additional sources of gratification.

Such, all too briefly, are the three books dealt with in this review. Now for the conclusions, in the summary of which M. Siegfried and Mr. Mitchell play a much more impressive part than Mr. Lyon. Both of them have struck so much deeper in their effort to comprehend and chart the forces accounting for our present position and indicating our future progress. Both assert unhesitatingly that the principal fault of America to-day is the overwhelmingly material character of its civilization as well as of its ambitions . . . its rage for producing goods instead of men, as M. Siegfried puts it; our indifference to cultural values and our lack of real joy in living, as Mr. Mitchell expresses it. Both trace this condition to the loss of an earlier culture suffered by the builders of the country in their struggle with the wilderness confronting them, and to the character of the religion that was left as their only cultural stimulus and expression. It is strange, indeed, to find two writers as different as Mr. Mitchell and M. Siegfried agreeing that most of what appears particularly disagreeable in our national attitude to-day may be laid at the doors of our most aggressive Protestant sects. And both understand that the aggressiveness of these sects means something far more important and vital than the narrow religious intolerance which has so often played havoc with the world’s history. Both realize that back of this intolerance, back of the growing inclination to interfere with the right of the individual to live his own life, back of the flood of laws that often are and more often appear reactionary in spirit, lies the bitter struggle for dominance between two opposed racial stocks and two almost incompatible civilizations. On one side, and still in the majority, are the English, the Scotch, the Dutch, the Scandinavians . . . the Nordics, you might say . . . whose civilizational ideals are social and moral. Against them stand the Latins, the Slavs, and the Jews, who are predominantly individual in their outlook and ambitions. Here is the key to the puzzle. With its help, every phase of that puzzle may be solved, though at times it will take long and hard pondering to find the connection.

In spite of the bitterness of this struggle, both M. Siegfried and Mr. Mitchell look for a happy outcome. What appearance that outcome will take, neither author undertakes to foretell, and others would be rash to attempt what; they have left alone. That it must represent a compromise, lies in the nature of the case. The only alternative would be national disintegration and destruction. But even the best of compromises favors one side or the other, though it be only in a minute degree. And who will be the favored side in this world-engrossing contest for power is a question still resting unanswered on the laps of the gods. For the nature of that answer depends not only on the generation now divided within itself, but on the still unknown character of generations to come.


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