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The Fighting South

ISSUE:  Winter 1942

Week after week since 1939, the South has been first on the Gallup poll’s regional list in unstinting friendliness for the British cause in the present war and first too in its disregard of violent consequences. There has been Senator Reynolds, of course, but the North Carolinian is looked upon now as a specialty rather than a popular expression and unless war’s end and sharp reaction come quickly he is bound for private life. The expression of the South which is reflected in the polls can be found in the attitudes of Carter Glass, of Virginia, and Claude Pepper, of Florida, two gentlemen whose total disagreement on a now ancient New Deal advertises the more their harmony against Hitler and their willingness to accept not only a shooting war but that rare and ultimate thing in modern usage, a declared war. When anything hits the South hard enough to make New Dealers and anti-New Dealers forget each other for a while, that is hard hitting. And this war has done that to a lot of Southerners. Not to all of them. There are New Dealers in the South, as elsewhere, who believe that the defense effort creates both an opportunity and a need for pushing the New Deal further on all fronts. There are anti-New Dealers in high estate whose hate of Hitler is only a secondary affair with them; they are sure that Mr. Roosevelt has already killed American democracy and is about to kill the capitalist system in America, and they wonder what all the shooting is about.

But the South, as the South, is for putting Hitler down. And the South is for war if that is the only way to save England. The Gallup poll of early October, 1941, asked this question: “Which of these two things do you think is the more important, that this country keep out of war or that Germany be defeated?” Seventy per cent of the American people as a whole, according to the cross section questioned in the poll, thought beating Germany was more important. Eighty-eight per cent of Southerners thought so. This was typical of all the Gallup polls that had gone before and of polls taken by other organizations. It bears out the observation of Southern editors and politicians. It is reflected in the higher “morale” of Southern selectees in training camps. It recalls the strikingly larger proportion of voluntary enlistments by Southerners before the draft was organized, and the comment of Alabama’s Congressman Luther Patrick, that “they had to start selective service to keep our Southern boys from filling up the army.”

What is the explanation of this greater belligerency of the South? Dorothy Thompson says it is poverty, that Southerners have less to lose and are therefore readier to take a chance. Erskine Caldwell, professional discoverer of the worst, told an America’s Town Meeting of the Air audience last winter that Southern ignorance is the explanation. Mr. Henry L. Mencken, when I asked him, came alive with olden-time invective against the “Sahara of the Bozart.” He even rephrased my question: “The unusual susceptibility of the South to English propaganda,” he put it, “is in part, I suppose, an inheritance from Civil War days, and in part simply one more proof of the high voltage of Southern credulity.” He continued:

The English, to be sure, deserted the Confederacy when the going became dangerous, as they desert all their clients in like case, but they gave it some useful help so long as the business was safe and profitable. This set up an Anglomania in the South that still survives more or less. . . . But the main reason is probably the marked and almost pathological Southern capacity for believing in bogus messiahs. It was in the South, not in the North, that the Ku Klux buffoonery flourished most prosperously after the last war to save democracy, and in the South that the Anti-Saloon League collared the largest battalions of true believers. It is in the South today that the evangelical clergy maintain their only remaining hold on American public opinion, and it is the South that has always been easiest for such frauds as Bryan. The relative poverty of the region is largely a function of that insatiate will to believe. There is nothing more expensive on this earth than believing in the palpably not true. Contrariwise, poverty has an undoubted effect on credulity. The poor man is always easier to fool than the fellow who is well heeled. Skepticism is the brat of security. It is a surplus value.

The wonderful time Mr. Mencken had making this answer hurrahs between its lines. Nevertheless, believing in things, especially in a better world, while it may have sinful results, is hardly a sin. In fact, it may be the virtue which will give the democracies the 61an they will need to survive this war and its aftermath.

Jonathan Daniels likes the poverty theory too, but is nicer about it and more sociological. “ ‘Have-not’ people are all more inclined to belligerency than ‘have’ people,” he wrote. “This war shows that. The comfortable in possession don’t want to fight. This present belligerency in the South in terms of the European war may indicate a belligerency which is not limited to that. People in other regions in America may find that the young South as a ‘have-not’ region will have a belligerent push in it beyond this war. It may mean that we’ve got to put more meaning in democracy throughout America if that belligerency is to help us and not hurt us.”

Other Southerners and observers of the South have offered other theories. These have to do with the Anglo-Saxon blood and tradition of the South, the surviving psychologies of the Confederate War, the memory of England’s sympathy in that war, the Southern climate and what it does to tempers and imaginations, the Woodrow Wilson influence, Southern loyalty to the Democratic party and the New Deal, the business of being agricultural, the long business of selling cotton to British mills, British money invested in some parts of the South after 1865, and, what most impresses me, a general psychology of danger and defense created in the South by all of its experiences, military, economic, and social. And in offset to the uncomplimentary theories of Mr. Mencken is the one that the South’s feeling results from sheer virtue. “My notion,” wrote Senator Carter Glass, “is that the attitude of the South is due both to superior character and to exceptional [understanding] of the problem involved.”

Virginius Dabney, editor of The Richmond Times-Dispatch, names “the South’s predominant Anglo-Saxon origins, its martial tradition, its dependence upon foreign markets for its cotton and tobacco, and its realization of what it means to be conquered.” Editor Douglas Freeman, of The Richmond News-Leader, offers “first, our English stock; second, our martial tradition; and third, our knowledge that some things are worse than war.” Mark Ethridge, of The Louisville Courier-Journal, thinks a reason is “that we know better than anybody else that war settles questions. . . . Another is that our heroes in the South have always been military. . . . I feel, too, that climate has something to do with temper. We have never been a stolid people. . . . Perhaps deeper than anything else is the homogeneity of the Southern people. They come from pretty much a common source, their traditions are the same, including the traditions of fighting against political and religious oppression, and they understand that it is necessary to fight to preserve anything that is precious,” Major Clark Howell, of The Atlanta Constitution, names “gratitude” and suggests, also, that “we of the South have once been a defeated and invaded country and we have learned just what this means. . . . Our friends in the West have never had the invader set his foot upon their soil and possibly this is why there is not the unanimity among them to defeat Hitler on the other side of the Atlantic rather than wait for him to come over here.” D. Hiden Ramsey, general manager of The Asheville Citizen, writes that “blood is thicker than ersatz.” Also, that “Wood-row Wilson is still the major political prophet of the South,” and “the South has never been fond of Germany or the German people. . . . Southerners are spirited folks . . . most of the great generals were of Southern birth . . . isn’t it also true that the less urban a people are, the more willing they are to fight for their country? . . . The Anglo-Saxon tradition comes nearer than anything else to explaining.” Governor Frank Dixon, of Alabama, James E. Chappell, of The Birmingham Age-Herald, and Commander James G. Stahl-man, of The Nashville Banner, stressed the same tradition.

The belief that Southerners are, for one reason or another, closer than others to American fundamentals, gets stronger emphasis in other replies to my inquiry. “The people of the South,” wrote George Fort Milton of Tennessee, historian of the Confederate War and its aftermath, “probably have the closest contact with the true fundamentals of democracy of any portion of our national citizenship. We have had fewer lush days to lead us into forgetfulness of the early faiths.” Burnet R. Maybank, South Carolina’s governor-turned-senator, agrees. “An instinctive patriotism,” he calls it, “an immutable determination vigorously to defend the security of their country and their sovereign rights against unjust and unwarranted inroads from any quarter. . . . These characteristics are not engendered by any adverse material or educational conditions.” Senator Lister Hill, of Alabama, makes a similar point after mentioning the English stock and tradition and the “imprint of the War Between the States.” He thinks “Southerners are more belligerent not just about this war but about everything that pertains to their rights and their country . . . not merely because they are a people quick to action once their emotions are aroused but because they are willing to make a great sacrifice in this struggle for democracy just as their forebears risked their lives. . . . Southerners are belligerent not as Southerners but as American citizens who feel deeply that their country and their rights are threatened. . . .” Chancellor Oliver Cromwell Carmichael of Vanderbilt University believes that “The greater belligerence of the South towards this war is due to its greater abhorrence of dictatorship and greater love of liberty and freedom. . . . The spirit of Andrew Jackson and of Robert E. Lee is still reflected in the background and thinking of the mass of Southern peoples and expresses itself in the vitality of its opposition to tyrannical systems.”

Margaret Mitchell, who is so modestly afraid of being expected to write another epochal novel that she dodges all participation in debates about the South or things Southern, writes that she “honestly doesn’t have the slightest idea why this [greater Southern belligerency] is true.” But Stark Young, author of the South’s other best-seller, “So Red the Rose,” suggests “the traditional connection between the Southern conceptions and the English, the relation of our typical past to that of the landed class in the British Isles. With this is directly connected the tradition, not entirely dead yet, of a leading class from which other classes took the lead, as illustrated during the War Between the States by the way farmers and modest people without slaves or anything to lose or to gain by secession or war yet followed, partly by habit, the lead of the landed class. There is the remembrance that in that war the ruling class in England sided with the Southern cause, though in the end their advocacy was neutralized by other elements. . . .” Mr. Young mentions, also, the theory that present-day German methods of invasion and destruction have derived from ones used against the South in the Confederate War. “Many a Southerner, reading the news of the German war over England, has by inheritance a certain added perception of its impact.” He quotes James Truslow Adams’s “America’s Tragedy”:

In 1870, when Germany was fighting France, Sheridan had gone over as a private observer but was received by Bismarck and other high officials, both civil and military. Doctor Busch, the biographer of Bismarck, notes that at a dinner given by the Chancellor the discussion turned to the recent conduct of some of the German forces, and Councillor Abe-ken thought that war should be conducted in a more humane fashion. Sheridan denied this, says Busch, and expressed himself roughly as follows: “The proper strategy consists, in the first place in inflicting as telling blows as possible upon the enemy’s army, and then in causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force their government to demand it. The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.” The German noted in his journal: “Somewhat heartless it seems to me, but perhaps worthy of consideration.” During the World War the Bishop of London, in an address, quoted the words of the American general but attributed them to the Kaiser!


Whether it be the climate, something read or not read, or history, blood, superiority or inferiority, the fact of a greater Southern belligerence in the matter of the present war abroad remains; it is denied by no one with whom I have discussed it. The theory that climate has something to do with the case recalls the late Professor Clarence Cason of the University of Alabama, whose book, “Ninety Degrees in the Shade,” was given to proving that nearly everything good, bad, or indifferent about the South is due to the number of months Southerners spend annually in hot weather. He would have said of this question, no doubt, that when there is a war going on Southerners have ninety degree tempers and ninety degree imaginations and also that they think of themselves as a fighting people. Captain Joseph Haskell, aide to Major-General Richardson in the recent Louisiana war games, told of a conversation with an old man to whose farm he went for some local information during the maneuvers: “You think we’ll git into this war?” the old man asked. When Captain Haskell wasn’t sure, the Southerner added: “Well, if we do, I’m wondering if them Yankees is goin’ ter he’p us.”

The comparative poverty of the South, which has less of vested interest and landed estate to lose than other parts of the country, must indeed be a factor in its attitude towards the war. Yet in the Gallup polls the area which has ranked next to the South in this belligerency has been the moneyed East. And the poll of last October showed, for the country as a whole, the “upper income” people voting 76 per cent, the “middle income” 74 per cent, and the “lower income” only 65 per cent on the affirmative side of the proposition that it is more important to defeat Germany than to stay out of the war. There is the fact too, that, poor or not, Southerners are traditionally opposed to changing their ways or having their established order upset. The tenant farmers and sharecroppers may be little concerned for a status quo which has no real estate for them, but the farmers who own land and the villagers and townsmen who do their own little business feel as vested and landed about it as anyone in the world. Attend a Rotary luncheon in any small Southern town or a Farm Bureau meeting in any village school house and you will find little or none of the detachment from the sense of material establishment that is supposed to make Southerners more willing to take a chance on war.

The “Anglo-Saxon blood and tradition” theory, to my mind, explains the attitude of some of the Southern classes but not that of the masses in this matter. It explains the intellectuals, perhaps, and the romanticists and the people in whose lives history and ancestry play a big part. These add up to quite a total but they are outnumbered, I believe, by Southern masses in whom there is no sense of England for better or worse. The average Southerner doesn’t feel kin to the British through blood, experience, common tradition and institution, or service rendered. He knows more about English people than he does about Germans, but part of what he knows is what George Washington did to them at Yorktown and Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. And that King’s Mountain affair. And the Mecklenburg business. As for the sympathies and help in the War Between the States, appreciation of these is obscured if not lost by the quantity and quality of memories nearer home. The diplomatic relations of the Confederacy rank with the Confederate navy as very small parts of the story upon which the South loves to dwell. To my mind, it is not the existence of an Anglo-Saxon tradition which explains the Southern position in this war so much as it is the non-existence of a Germanic tradition. In the East and the Middle West immigrants from Germany, and second, third, and fourth generation descendants of those immigrants have stamped Germany on the face of many affairs political, social, cultural, sentimental, nomenclative, and gastronomic. It is true that the Germany they represent is not the one of Hitler or the Prussian Junkers. It is rather the home-loving, music-loving, sentimental, and intellectual Germany. But the stamp is there and it makes for bonds with the Fatherland and natural sympathies which do not exist in the South. That is why it is possible to say that the South’s greater belligerency today comes not of ties with any country across the sea but of a lack of ties.

Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic party, the New Deal —Southerners have been passionately loyal to all of these for one cause or another, and all are involved or recalled in the Roosevelt Administration whose war policy the South supports. They are factors in explanation, undoubtedly. But it wasn’t for the War of 1917 or the League of Nations that the South loved Wilson and loves him still. It was for being a Democrat and a Southerner in the White House and a great man in the world. As for the Democratic party, Southerners have learned through the politically solid years to vote for it without liking everything it does or all of the people allowed in it—Tammany, the anti-Prohibitionists, the Catholics, and such. Party loyalty might explain a Southern acceptance of the war policy but it does not explain Southern enthusiasm for that policy. Much the same can be said of the loyalties to Roosevelt and the New Deal. They are loyalties which have been compelled to ignore the New Deal championship of the Negro, which has gone much farther than the white South likes. And they are loyalties which do not exist among some of the Southerners who are most clearly all-out for the war policy—Carter Glass, for example.

The War Between the States, with its scars and memories and the introspections that come of them, contributes most of all to the Southern attitude today, it seems to me. The contribution is psychological. The psychology is one of defense and living dangerously. So many things have been taken violently away from the South in the course of time (or lost to the South) that Southerners today, as a people, have a violent aversion to losing things by violence. They may want and need better things but, more than that, they want: to keep what they have. They withhold nothing in defense, and they are ready to defend by attacking when that is indicated. And danger, whether it be physical or economic, is a thing to which they are so accustomed in their history and present way of life that, while they do not court it, they stand in no such dread of it as do more prosperous and peaceful parts of the country. The fact that the murder capital of America moves annually from one Southern city to another speaks not only of the carelessness with which Southern Negroes cut and shoot each other when occasion calls but of the comparative indifference of the South to violence. Living dangerously is not a philosophy with the average Southerner„ but it is a habit.

The psychology of defense, the habit of dangerous living —and one thing more, it seems to me. That one is the capacity for being pure of heart. There is guile in the South, and selfishness, and plain meanness, and disregard of law, and a full measure of hypocrisy and subterfuge. But when the-subject is something learned in youth, something which pos- j sesses the imagination through such words as “patriotism,”’ “religion,” “honor,” “manliness,” “love,” there is a knack of* going all-out, of standing on no consideration of self, of being one hundred per cent in pure-hearted affirmation. (That is the thing Mr. Mencken can’t stand.) All people are alike in that, more or less, but Southerners are especially given to such affirmation, perhaps by way of making up for being especially mean under other stimuli. Howard Odum, author of “Southern Regions,” has analyzed it better than I can, this compound of defense, danger, and wholeheartedness. Agreeing that there is no one explanation for the greater belligerency of the South, Dr. Odum writes:

One [explanation] is the South’s ideology of patriotism and loyalty. Southerners give the appearance of wanting to believe in something and when believing in it, to fight for it . . . . Much of our belligerency is against those who do not believe as we do. It is defense. It is also a left-over from the cultural conditioning of the Civil War and its Reconstruction. . . . There are so many things which we [Southerners] do not do that we are inclined to set up ideals and to fight for them as a substitute for doing more difficult and concrete things. The South, for instance, is sincere when it is willing to fight for Christianity and when it boasts of being the most Christian of the regions . . .. However, we fight to defend this larger faith more than we fight to see that our minority groups are given the benefit of our Christian doctrine. Hitler is anti-Christ, anti-individualistic, anti-American, and the fact that we ourselves in the South are Fascistic and dogmatic has nothing to do with the logic of our believing in the principle of Americanism and fighting for it . . . . Another elemental factor may be the continuing frontier culture of the South, not a retarded frontier as the sociologists call it but a continuing frontier of folk culture and folkways, and always, the spirit of war and fighting and defense . . .. There is another partial explanation in the fact that the South still retains the ideology of honor and a certain type of chivalry. . . . The South, with these ideologies of loyalty and defense and honor would not be consistent if it did not rise to a patriotic level.

Dr. Odum added that “the South has been invaded so often since the Civil War by thousands of reformers and accusers that it is automatically prepared to defend itself.”

Southerners don’t necessarily want to fight, but they don’t mind very much, and they do think there are things worth fighting for. They got themselves into this frame of mind and heart by having a lot of trouble and being sorry for themselves and not too sophisticated. And all under a warm sun. And living out of doors, doing manual things, mostly on the land. That sums up the Southern situation, it seems to me. I think it is a very good thing for the country and for the South that this attitude towards the war exists. It is good for the country because the country has a job on its hands with Hitler which calls for degrees of faith and fervor at home. It is good for the South because that region has been growing pathological of late in contemplation of its problems and in practice of hates to which the problems give rise. Forgetting them for a time in favor of the primary problem of the world may do something to save the South from a mess of Communism and Ku Kluxery after the war.


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