The Defense of American Influence


By RICHARD H. HEINDEL, Faculty, of Modern European History of University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Delivered in Philadelphia, January 13, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 307-308.

HISTORY will show the discovery of America to I have been little less than a calamity." This from Ferrero, the Italian historian, partly because it is nonsense, partly because it is brutal, suggests, even by its mistaken negativism, that the United States from its origin to this very minute has influenced the course of world history.

With insatiable curiosity, the United States has gathered unto itself the experience of the whole world and is consolidating and adding to that experience as a civilizing and cultural force. It is necessary for us and other nations to realize the role played by the United States in world life and opinion, and for us to act so that the contributions and international position which are worthy of a greater America are secured.

A certain blindness and national self-satisfaction have charmed us into unconcern in this matter, or our own process of assimilation, rapid growth, and assumed adolescence have made us interested only superficially in what we mean to the rest of the world—unless we over-rate the national itch, which Emerson abhorred, to know what foreign celebrities think about us.

A broad summary, not proof, of a few claims made for the repercussions of the New World, of which we are themost vigorous part, is instructive. From its discovery some historians date what is called Modern Times. It upset the European balance more than once, changed the trade routes, and put England on the main sea road. Men thought about the New World rather than the Other World. It stimulated humanitarianism beyond mere national or confessional interest, toleration, scientific curiosity, and cosmopolitanism. It put into being forces which shattered medieval forms of politics, economics, industry, and society. It acted as a safety valve for Europe's restless and disillusioned masses. Some persons would even say it laid the basis for European power and wealth.

Thus, the influence has been more than the flowers such as the dog-tooth violet, or shrubs, or trees such as the balm-of-Gilead fir which improved the Old World garden art of the eighteenth century, or tobacco, or the "Irish potato," or Addison's quip: "We repair our bodies by the drugs from America."

But speaking solely of the corporate life of the United States, what has been the nature of our influence? It has been good, bad, and indifferent. It has been diverse, as is our national life, in all fields from diplomacy to missionaries, from dentistry to movies.

At certain periods, we were revolutionary and foreignersregarded Americans as a sort of "fifth column" against caste and privilege. Karl Marx declared: ". . . In the eighteenth century, the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle-class . . . in the nineteenth century, the American Civil War sounded it for the European working-class." We can bring Marx's observation of 1867 partly up-to-date by quoting Hitler's Mein Kampf. He had not forgotten the World War in which American participation enabled the victors to dictate a peace; consequently he concluded that England differed from any other state in Europe if only because of her linguistic and cultural communion with us.

Having preserved a more ancient dress, the envoys of the American colonies took with them to Paris during and after the American Revolution what came to be the nineteenth century top-hat. This headgear, out of enthusiasm for the Americans, had become fashionable among European liberals. This bourgeois headgear fluctuated as a symbol of ultra-revolutionariness, then ultra-respectability. In the same way, our national influence has run the gamut of effects and qualities. Perhaps now, since we are the only nation which has escaped a serious revolution in the last seventy-five years, we are in the best and most correct sense of the word a truly conservative nation. This conditions our influence and the techniques for defending it.

Turner gave a clue to American history by his "frontier thesis" whereby the influence of the frontier on American life was elevated to a strong position. He and his followers did not care to examine the extension of this interpretation to include the United States as a "frontier" of Europe, thus missing a fertile exercise of historical interpretation. A European analyst described the dissolving force of the American idea of progress—quantity over quality—as one of the few ideas to sink into the European masses in the last fifty years. This is a customary definition for what we would prefer to call the internationalizing of freedom and comfort.

Nor do we know fully what those ten millions—about one-quarter of the total—of emigrants took with them when they returned to Europe after a sojourn here. Nor is there any doubt about the strength and variety of American influence on all continents. The enactment of a high tariff did not end in the champagne parties of a victorious lobby—it altered the daily life of remote European and Asiatic villages. Communist Russia wished to establish American conditions. Only with the diverting advent of Hitler did the American influence on Germany, as noticeable in the rationalization ofindustry and the like, take a secondary position. The "American peril" has been a chief cause for the steps toward the federation of Europe, whether in 1902, or with Briand's plan in 1929, or still dimly, with Hitler's diabolical schemes.

What are the factors influencing the spread of American influence? There are obstacles: First of all, the absence of a perspective large enough to comprehend the duties and obligations imposed by the fact that what America thinks or does can have international significance. In a small way, this provinciality of our mind is illustrated by a harsh, blanket judgment on all of our expatriates, because we can never understand why with the vast opportunities in the United States anyone would make his career abroad. Our expatriates include more than the title-marrying heiress, or the robber-baron catering to vices which are international. There are faulty channels of communications and contacts with foreign nations: through misguided charity, unrepresentative tourists, and shabby movies.

But now the drive of opposing philosophies, of a different concept of civilization, has become a new threat as an aspect of total war. America has faced anti-American drives before —as reflected in the anti-emigration literature in Europe in the nineteenth century, in European propaganda in Latin America before Hitler, from our allies when we were spreading unpleasant ideas in neutral countries in 1917-1918. This threat is new only in the sense that the drive is more intense, more subtle, and geared to a long-term mechanism.

The means for defending our influence, even apart from war, have changed radically since 1940, and we must be fully aware of the threats to our influence and the components of our prestige, as well as realistic about the means of getting the full force of American life before the world.

There will be agreement no doubt as to the destructive power of propaganda and fifth columns. But propaganda, like international influence, to be constructively effective must be based on positive domestic values, in business, politics, and culture. The Statue of Liberty will remain a beacon to the world, lighted up not by oily words or synthetic patriotism but by a spontaneous combustion of freedom and achievement. It was no California booster who asserted: "Westward the course of empire takes its way." To the national effort to win victory in this war must be added the intelligence, constructive good will, and energy to win the peace and a high degree of domestic and cultural achievement.