The experience of the past fifteen years has made the question of nationalism a crucial one for all the peoples of the world, and for Jews in particular. In “Nationalism is the Enemy,” published in the August 1946 COMMENTARY, Ernest Munz suggested that nationalism in any form could no longer be divorced from fascism and racism, and that it was consequently the duty of all freedom-loving people—and of Jews especially, within Jewish organized life, as well as generally—to fight it uncompromisingly. Carl Dreher here offers the view that certain types of nationalism may, on the contrary, serve as bulwarks against fascism and racism.
Is the time not far distant when Jews must decide to “fight political nationalism uncompromisingly and on principle, inside Jewish life, as well as outside”? Ernest Munz, who posed the question in his article “Nationalism is the Enemy” (COMMENTARY, August 1946), gives an emphatic answer. Jews, he suggests, are the natural protagonists in the fight against nationalism, which in its fascist phase singled them out for destruction and will assuredly repeat the performance wherever it assumes active and militant form. Doctor Munz has little confidence that it will be possible to “cleanse nationalism of the taint of fascism”—so little, that in effect he equates nationalism and fascism through most of his argument. Only towards the end does he betray any uncertainty on this crucial point, when he concedes that in the Western democracies “the question of nationalism is still very much undecided. . . .”
Very likely a majority of American Jews are sympathetic, as they should be, with the supra-national world-state political orientation in which Doctor Munz sees their only hope of survival. But one would question whether, as a group, the Jews could or should espouse this cause formally. For one thing, their enemies would not be slow in seeing to it that their adherence to a supranational ideology was construed as nothing less than national treason—which was precisely the Nazi propaganda line.
In my opinion, the outcome of the war has created a new and more complex relationship between nationalism and racism. Before we begin to make up our minds, we had better examine the postwar racist situation more closely, particularly as it affects the United States, in which over half of the world’s Jews now live. We must try to gauge the magnitude and direction of the racist and anti-racist forces operating in this country and to follow their variations as events unfold. In short, we must, as in military operations, try to get a clear intelligence picture at the outset, and by successive modifications keep it in conformity with the facts.
First, let us consider those factors which in general support the idea, implicit in Doctor Munz’s position, that nothing in the American situation precludes a fascist-racist development more or less paralleling that which occurred in Central European nationalism.
On superficial inspection, our country’s protective barriers seem rather formidable. The dominant American tradition has been one of unity in diversity—what Doctor Munz calls the “amalgamating American conception,” contrasted with the “separatist European notion of nationality.” The Bilbo-Rankin version of Americanism is not the generally accepted American ideal. Even in areas where color racism is endemic, a certain number of the acquiescent whites view the activities of the more violent racists with distaste and, by some indications, with increasing civic uneasiness.
Moreover, America’s multiformity of religious belief, ancestry, and other associations tends to expose the flanks of any group that sets out to persecute others or to aggrandize itself at their expense. Both as a practical matter, therefore, and because it would involve a break with a widely accepted tradition, it would be considerably more difficult to racialize society in America than it was in Germany.
But this is all that can be said, and a critical survey reveals serious weaknesses in our defenses. Much depends on the temper of the people who verbally subscribe to American traditions. One cannot be confident that what we may loosely call the American character presents any insurmountable obstacle to a catastrophic upsurge of political racism.
On one side we find a small group of racist activists, on the other a group of antiracist activists of about the same proportions. The great bulk of the people lies in between, not greatly concerned, as yet, one way or the other. It may be that this seeming indifference masks a latent idealism that will rise to crush the racists should they become a serious threat to democratic institutions. If so, it is very effectively hidden. It is more likely that what looks like apathy is exactly that, and apathy is no protection.
Moreover, while the South may be more uneasy than in the past about its treatment of the Negroes, there are indications that in the country in general anti-racist sentiment in relation to the Jews is on the wane. Certainly America is not responding impressively to what has happened and is happening to the Jews abroad. In the first decade of this century more horror was aroused in non-Jewish America by a single Russian pogrom in which a few score Jews perished than can apparently now be aroused by the massacre of millions. For this there are obvious psychological reasons, but it remains true that there is no ground for any assurance that, under readily conceivable conditions of economic frustration and blind popular resentment, the Jew-baiters now practicing in a modest way would not be able to gain their end. If they should content themselves with mass expropriation and imprisonment of Jews, progressives, and similar quarry, they might even expect to be acclaimed as humanitarians by contrast with their German prototypes.
And if, among the generality of Americans, anti-racism still predominates, it is in a form too diffuse to be relied on under crisis conditions. It is a comfortable acquiescence in what is conceived to be the right thing, rather than a fighting creed, and it is not supported by a clear understanding of racism as a subversive force. It is aptly expressed by the term most commonly used: “tolerance.” But tolerance of Jews might become tolerance of fascists—as has actually happened to a disquieting extent among our occupation forces in Germany.
Nor do we find anything in recent trends in American history to refute the above conclusions. Those who base their hopes on such American traditions as that of the melting pot must avert their eyes from the domestic developments of the past twenty years, which are rather more to the point than inscriptions on statues or the precepts of civics courses. Immigration was welcome (although immigrants were subject to a certain degree of discrimination) as long as the country had the feeling of illimitable growth and the swings of the business cycle were superimposed on a consistently rising curve. Though the tradition of American hospitality to all peoples survives, since the turn of the century immigration has been progressively curtailed. Indeed, the 1924 law, which froze quotas on the basis of the number of natives of European countries residing in the United States in 1890, has unmistakable racist overtones, if not a basically racist philosophy. It is no accident that this statute was passed at the zenith of the Ku Klux Klan agitation incidentally with the support of a major segment of organized labor. The Klan itself is less of a factor in American politics than it was, but its ideas remain.
Nor are racist and xenophobic tendencies confined to frustrated backwoodsmen. During the 1944 campaign a vice-presidential candidate, whose political ambitions still flourish, inquired whether the Oswego group of refugees, largely composed, he said, of “intellectuals,” had been “cleared with Sidney.” Today, despite the sincere, if not entirely disinterested, efforts of political leaders like President Truman, Governor Dewey, and Mayor O’Dwyer, this nation of 141,000,000 shows no willingness to open its arms to a hundred thousand victims of fascist and neo-fascist persecution who happen to be Jews. The fire under the melting pot has cooled, only insignificant amounts of new material are being admitted, and the whole mass, imperfectly fused as it is, shows signs of solidifying.
Nor can we discover among the currently active institutions and institutionalized faiths any that could provide strong defenses against fascist racism. Free enterprise, and its supposed correlate, respect for the individual? These are catchwords rather than a way of life faithfully practiced. The big business interests that preach free enterprise the loudest have no stomach for the rigors of competition—those are for the small fry. And in how many of the corporations they control has a Jew or a Negro been offered an equal chance? The churches? The evangelical creeds spawned the Ku Klux Klan, Catholicism too has its racist wing, and the Protestant churches by and large give little more than verbal loyalty to movements of racial equalitarianism. The degree of infection varies, but none shows much readiness for a life-and-death stand on this or any other crucial moral issue. Organized labor was steam-rollered in Germany and Italy; in the United States it is viewed with a jaundiced eye by the middle class and the farmers, and its strategy is likely to become increasingly defensive. Moreover, American labor has its own racist cleavages in the AFL, the railroad brotherhoods, and even in the CIO.
Thus the broad picture does not rule out an extension of active American racism to take in Jews as well as colored minorities. It is true that this could come only as an accompaniment of fascism, and the preconditions of fascism exist, as yet, only in incipient form. But protracted economic depression, international tension, and mass anxiety could bring them to full development, and little is being done in the way of social and economic adjustment to forestall this. As for the hope still lingering in some quarters that an American fascism might not be racist, or at least not anti-Semitic, that hardly requires discussion. The advantages that anti-Semitism offers to fascist movements are such that one cannot conceive of an American fascism desiring, or being able, to get along without them.
For all its conjectural elements, the foregoing makes out a good case for Doctor Munz’s theory. But it does not follow that what every thinking man fears may happen, must happen. There is still to be considered an institutional complex which offers a more hopeful possibility of exerting decisive counter-racist force, and that is precisely the one on which Doctor Munz bases his argument: nationalism.
What nationalism? Obviously not that of America First, the Gerald L. K. Smiths, and the gutter press. They have been sitting on the edge of the fascist whore’s bed for some time now and for them racism is one of her greatest attractions. But they are not yet all of America, and may never be. Wendell Willkie was a nationalist too. So were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt. So is Bernard Baruch. So is every American who loves his country, however inarticulately. All that is required is that he learn the lesson of recent history. It is a pretty obvious lesson.
What the last war demonstrated—and perhaps this will turn out to be the chief return for all the bloodshed and destruction—is that nationalism and racism are in conflict. Morally this is self-evident. But the matter does not have to be argued only on the plane of morality and idealism. The case is equally strong when it is examined on the simple basis of self-interest.
In its basic principles nationalism of the American variety is founded on the theory that the national culture evolves from the total political group. It is not racially or ethnically based. “Outsiders” may be assimilated to make their contributions to the culture: are given individual opportunity and rewards on the basis of individual capacity. In accordance with this principle, political nationalism can select new adherents and utilize those already available for the enhancement of national strength and for the defense and survival of the culture. The nation is grounded in a reality principle concerned with the here and now.
Racism, on the contrary, is concerned with ancestry, that is to say with the past. Its theory holds that certain elements are unassimilable—in fact, poisonous to the national culture. This ethnic toxicity is determined by standards that the individual is powerless to alter, and is even aggravated by any apparent merit. Racism is thus a kind of anthropological doctrine of predestination. With the current realities of national strength and international competition it has nothing to do. Its essential mysticism appears when efforts are made to find support for it in the physical world. In the blood as a liquid tissue, nothing can be found. The racist dabbles in the cephalic index, pigmentation and other physical criteria, but even though mystical concepts exploit physical measurements, the standard remains mystical and the investigators are merely chasing their own complexes as young dogs chase their tails.
Scientifically, the problem is insoluble. Politically, it can be solved—at a price. Hitler paid the price; the Germans are paying it still. His idea was to use racism to inflame nationalism. The expulsion of the Jews was to unify and strengthen Germany. Who were the Jews? Politics requires simplicity: one Jewish grandparent debarred the individual from membership in the Volk. He could have one, two, or even eight Jewish great-grandparents whose children had been Aryanized by baptism or less formal infiltration into the German community. In that case the Jewish virus had been sufficiently diluted and the Jew turned into a German.
In practice, even greater compromises were made. If the Jew could run an airline or develop a rocket bomb, he might be Aryanized on the ground of illegitimacy or by fraudulent certification of his descent. In such cases the reality principle prevailed over the mysticism of the blood. The military cost of racism was too high for the racist community to pay. Still, the policy as a whole was carried out drastically enough; and in the end the demonology of the Jews played its part in the defeat of Germany, perhaps a decisive part. What happened was that technology caught up with the racist state. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and racism did not mix. Nowadays, power rests on a technological foundation. Since the final test of national strength is war, such factors as industrial capacity, research facilities, and medical standards are vital. All these activities are managed by human beings, and the intrusion of any factor other than individual ability detracts from the power a country can ultimately bring to bear in international competition.
In no country is there enough real executive, industrial, and scientific talent to go around. When new weapons and counter weapons must be evolved on pain of defeat, no one can tell who will make a crucial discovery, or how long it will take to calculate, blueprint, and tool it into a usable device. The same applies to the utilization of knowledge already available, or the failure to utilize it. Wars are won and lost by such technological differentials, and social factors underlie the technological.
Conversely, the democracies and Russia (whose pattern of nationalism is also non-racist) possessed an advantage which may or may not have been decisive, but which at all times was operating on their side. What with Chamberlainism and the slow conversion of American industry from free enterprise to wartime semi-collectivism, Germany came close to winning the war. With atomic explosives she might have won it. A military incident, the destruction of the heavy-water plant in Norway, played a part in her failure, but heavy water was not essential to the manufacture of atom bombs, as American experience proved. By and large Germany had as good a chance to develop atomic weapons as any other nation, probably better. She had Planck, Hahn, Strassmann, Heisenberg, Geiger, and many others of formidable stature in the atomic field. Yet she failed to make the grade. She no longer had Finkelsteins, Cohens, or even Meitners, the last a part-Jewish Lutheran. Some of her key people had gone into exile; it may be that they possessed the key to the puzzle—or non-Germans like Niels Bohr, a half-Jew, who could not stomach Nazi methods and Weltanschauung.
The United States was not so handicapped. The successful development here was initiated by technological thinkers who sold the idea to the President, the scientific community, and the armed forces. This seminal group included numerous European expatriates, Jews among others. Once the idea was launched, it was carried forward by the best men available, whether Jews, Gentiles, or Hottentots. They succeeded. Americans are a practical people: they will hardly fail to get the point, and perhaps they will act on it.
This process goes on all the time and war only tallies the score. When David Sarnoff came to the United States in childhood, a penniless alien, and in due time rose to be president of the Radio Corporation of America and a brigadier general, the industrial and military potential of the United States was by that much increased. If Sarnoff had remained in Russia and Russia had remained racist, the increment of strength latent in his make-up would have been lost. In the Soviet Union he might have become head of the state radio trust and made his contribution to the national welfare, as he has done in the United States. But in Germany, even under the Hohenzollerns, his chances would have been considerably poorer, while the Nazis would have had to throw him on the scrap heap in conformity with their racist obsessions. Their predecessors murdered Rathenau, a somewhat similar figure, whose technological-administrative talents had been a factor in enabling Germany to hold out in the First World War as long as she did.
This contradiction between nationalism and racism has wider application than in the field of engineering and administrative personnel and ideas. Nor is it necessary that a racial minority be persecuted with the unmitigated ferocity that characterized Nazi Germany. It is sufficient that its members suffer discrimination in educational and economic opportunities and be made to feel they do not belong. The result, in wartime, is poor morale, and the result of poor morale is poor performance.
The outstanding example is the role of the American Negro in both World Wars. Neither as fighters, nor as service troops, nor as workers in civilian industry, did the Negroes make the contribution to the war effort that they could have made if our society, before and during the war, had given them an even chance.
In the last war we were perhaps able to afford the luxury of color racism, although the net effect must have been an avoidable loss of lives. But in that war our racism appeared mild by contrast with that of the enemy, and we had on our side the one great nation which has succeeded in eliminating racism as a serious factor in its internal political structure. It is perhaps not worth speculating on the role of racism in a third world war, since such a conflict would be next door to suicide for all concerned. Nevertheless, racism might play a part in determining who would lose everything and who would retain enough to survive after a fashion. A contest between the Anglo-American powers and the Russian bloc might turn into a color war, with the pigmented races allied preponderantly with Russia.
The “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” of the Japanese was a transparent fake, but it achieved considerable success in its appeal to the emerging counter-racist movements of the East. The Russians have less flimsy ideological weapons to which they can resort in a clash with any powers infected with the racist virus and they will certainly not hesitate to use them. As matters stand the Russians practice political, non-ethnic nationalism much better than we do, and could make a stronger bid for the support of the non-white three-quarters of the world’s population.
But this is only one phase of the matter. War or no war, the nations will continue to strive for power, prestige, commercial advantage, better living standards, and ideological influence. Each will have to reckon with internal divisions that weaken its scientific, industrial, and political potential, as well as military. Among these eroding influences racism stands out. Conversely, racial equality is a powerful resource and stimulant to internal achievement, and in many situations a prime selling point in the extension of national influence abroad. These are practical truths which cannot be ignored. On the domestic front, our industrial progress and our internal economic health are powerfully influenced for good or evil by our success or lack of it in eradicating race discrimination in employment and educational opportunity. Aside from the question of national morale and inner strength, race hatred involves cost and wastage in dollar-and-cents terms which represent a heavy burden on any region which practices it—as Felix S. Cohen, among others, has so cogently demonstrated (“The People Vs. Discrimination,” March 1946 COMMENTARY). On the political side, our representatives in the United Nations are already embarrassed by the stigma of racism, and by all indications they will be increasingly handicapped in the future.
For all our productive élan and our beneficence, we are not conspicuously popular in the world’s markets and chancellories, or among the world’s people. Our armed forces did not impress the Indians or the Chinese, to cite two examples, with their brotherly sentiments, and we are confronted at the present moment with an unpleasant racial situation in the Philippines which the Information and Education Division of the War Department is trying to combat.
The fact is that in a world which judges by results, to spread the gospel of democracy one must show the will to perfect oneself in its practice—and that includes racial democracy as much as free speech and free enterprise. All these external dangers and hindrances would seem to furnish compelling reasons, on grounds of nationalistic self-interest alone, for the United States to curb its existing racist proclivities, and gradually to eradicate them.
As Doctor Munz says, the question of nationalism in the United States is undecided. The task before the American people is to decide it. They can choose, or acquiesce in, the fascist solution, such as it is. The primary factor on the side of this unhappy outcome is that it is easier to rush down a steep place into the sea than it is to climb a mountain. The alternative solution is the creation of a 20th-century nationalism—anti-racist, anti-fascist, and progressive in the sense that it will bring economic and social mores more or less into step with 20th-century technology. A nationalism of this sort would be entirely compatible with supra-nationalism; the two are complementary and could evolve together. But it will not be easy: racism is a deeply rooted force and its liquidation will require time and fundamental economic changes. We may or may not be capable of the adjustments required.
If we are not, if we hold racism and its related vices dearer than national welfare, we shall in effect be forfeiting to Russian nationalism, enlightened enough to shun racism, the opportunity to demonstrate the irreconcilability of nationalism and racism under modern conditions.