America at Mid-Century, by Andre Siegfried
by Oscar Handlin
America at Mid-Century. By Andre Siegfried. Harcourt, Brace. 357 pp. $5.75.
Professor at the Collège de France and member of the French Academy, André Siegfried has been awarded all the academic distinctions his own country has to offer. As an editor of the Paris daily Figaro, he also expresses himself frequently on public questions. His views on America have a wide influence in France, where he is regarded as an interpreter and friend of the United States.
But in this connection I am reminded of the old phrase, “With such a friend, who needs an enemy?” The volume before us shows clearly the pernicious character of Siegfried’s influence, especially as it concerns the image of the United States held by many Europeans.
An analysis of Siegfried’s views can begin with the following sentence, which concerns the immigration of refugees to America since 1933: “It is, however, true that crypto-Communists and spies also appear to have crept in, and that the Jewish problem, which has never been solved, has become more acute.” There is not a shred of evidence to support this. Siegfried surely must know it is false, for the truth was pointed out to him before the publication of the French edition of this work, and reviews of the book in France reiterated the facts. Yet our historian clings to the falsehood. Why?
The errors that besmirch every chapter of this book result from the effort to square an archaic conception of nationality with the actual circumstances of American life, which in crucial respects run counter to it. For a half-century Siegfried has been repeating the argument that a nation must be culturally and socially homogeneous, share a common racial descent, traditions, religion, literature, and even such traits as intellectuality, common sense, and critical spirit. Nations Have Souls is the title of another of his recent books.
This conception, if applied with any sort of rigor, will not even fit France. It is certainly ludicrously incongruous with the realities of American nationality. And since 1911 Siegfried has been frantically trying to justify his notion of nationality by explaining away the case of the United States.
In Siegfried’s view, two elements account for the American peculiarities. First, the genuine (Anglo-Saxon) Americans permitted the invasion of a mélange of other races which have since formed into indigestible minorities. “There can scarcely be any racial unity in a nation that has been formed in this way.” In some respects the situation is hopeless. For the Negro question, “no solution appears satisfactory or even possible.” “The Jewish community remains a group apart in the United States probably more than anywhere else. . . . When the old-established, traditional elements of the nation come into contact with this Biblical flame, with this bitter, insatiable intelligence, ever restless and dissatisfied, so unlike the Anglo-Saxon in its sharp outbursts, they take fright . . . and it is from them that the deepest American anti-Semitic feeling springs.”
Furthermore, America as a civilization is different from the nations of Western Europe “not only in dimensions but in quality.” The United States has stifled the spirit of critical individualism. A “fanatical respect for method” (inherited from Germany, although modified by “Anglo-Saxon common sense”) has made efficiency the central cultural value of American society, so that the individual is “required to classify himself” in a “planned framework.” Public opinion demands conformity and creates a nation of mass men, working and living at the command of automatons.
These outmoded clichés would, standing alone, hardly command the respect even of Europeans totally unacquainted with the United States. But knotted in with the generalizations are statements of presumed fact that conform to the prejudices of our worst enemies across the Atlantic. Thus, the Marshall Plan and UNRRA were simply expedients to stimulate falling American exports—that disposes of the altruism in the American effort to rehabilitate Europe and develop the economies of Asia and Africa. Or again, the United States entered the war of 1941, as of 1917, only out of a concern for its own security, and at that only after it had been attacked—that takes care of the slogans about democracy, liberation from totalitarianism, and the four freedoms. And Americans would rather have a new world war than face another depression—that indicates where the real danger to Europe lies!
What is a Frenchman to think who reads these statements from the pen of one who is publicly identified as a friend of America? There is no notice in this book of subjects touched on by earlier French travelers: democratic institutions, voluntary associations, philanthropy, and the dignity of the common man. Apparently these features of American life have either disappeared or ceased to be important. How then does the United States differ from the Soviet Union? Well, Professor Siegfried informs us, “The conditions of efficient production are on the whole the same in the United States as in Russia, in a society based on free enterprise as under a Communist regime.” Confronting these two powers, the civilizations of which are different from his own, can the European be other than neutral?
The tragic misapprehension of the nature of American democracy deprives us of our most valuable potential allies in Europe. Fear of Communism, for the moment, has made such “moderates” as Siegfried our friends, not from any love of our way of life but rather from a sterile resistance to change of any kind. As long as they remain our only interpreters, we shall have difficulty in drawing to our side more vigorous forces, discontented with the civilization Siegfried defends and anxious for changes for which our experience—did they but understand it—offers a model.