The Two Americas in 1918, 1945, and Today

There are many reminders today of the deeply divided nature of American society, but these should be reminders, not news. The rift in our culture is an historic one. It has been a source of divisiveness but sometimes also of energy and of change. America is the most cosmopolitan of countries, founded on the ideas of the Enlightenment, open to foreign ideas and people as few others.  America is also a deeply provincial place, a country of towns and neighborhoods, of strong identification with region, religion, and race. The divide is neither merely north-south, nor urban-rural, nor upper and lower, although these distinctions are part of the picture. It isn’t simply a matter of bad provincialism versus good cosmopolitanism (nor the reverse). American provincialism is at the heart of much of our patriotism and community life, it fuels our egalitarian spirit, an American impatience with pretension and artificiality. It has a darker side, in the insularity, the anti-intellectualism, nativism and racism that are also part of our historical legacy. The cosmopolitan side is the spirit of founders like Jefferson and Franklin. It is the part of us that likes foreign food and travel, that values many cultures. Its less attractive aspects include elitism and arrogance, the “ugly American” presumption of knowing what is best for everyone, everywhere.

Some of our greatest leaders and moments in history have seen fusions of the two halves. Lincoln stands out, as do both presidents Roosevelt. Two very significant passages in American history show the ways in which the two strains interact, and they shed light on some of the history that we are living though today. World War I and World War II are both cases of America being thrust into the world stage in ways for which it was unprepared. The American reaction to these developments was very different, with consequences that have shaped the lives of Americans and others ever since.

World War I

America entered World War I with considerable reluctance. The fighting had gone on for nearly three years before America declared war, and it would be another year before American forces would see major combat. Active American involvement on the decisive western front lasted only about six months. U.S. divisions were fed into the fighting with heavy equipment that was mostly of foreign design and manufacture. They fought the same war as the allies, adopting the tactics that had been developed by the French and British. For the Americans, there were no great naval battles, no landings on hostile foreign shores, not even sweeping movements on land. It was a war of rivers, roads, and towns, not of continents and oceans. With the war over, the ailing U.S. president thought that the terrible example of the Great War clearly showed the need for international arbitration based on respect for human rights and self-determinism, for a League of Nations. No other inspirational leaders came forward to preach this message, and the American people would not agree. The war had not gone on for long enough, been global or inspiring enough to point out this lesson. Post-war pacifism had an influence on the desire to avoid foreign entanglements, but mostly the provincial America was not ready to join an international community.

World War II

World War II was a very different experience, and the post-war reaction at home was also very different. The war had begun in a spirit of national outrage. It had spread across the world. U.S. involvement had lasted for over three years. Great battles had been fought on land and sea, and in the air. New breeds of warriors had been born who jumped from the sky, crossed long distances to strike in the enemy homeland. Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave a sobering picture of what the future might be like. Perhaps most important, the war had brought visionary leaders into prominence. FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, George C. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, all combined American provincialism and cosmopolitanism, but the experience of the war had been enough to convince them of the importance of America to the rest of the world, and of the importance of the world to America. In the end, this was a vision they shared with an American people chastened and instructed, a lesson in geography and in survival, by war.

A Leadership Challenge

We face a similar challenge today. The world has shrunk so that the oceans no longer guarantee protection, nor our enormous resources and productivity ensure prosperity. America was once is own chief and best trading partner. This can no longer be the case. Security it not a matter of oceans, nor even of military might, but of partnerships, knowledge and understanding. A seeming resurgence in American provincialism seems to have come at just the wrong time, when we need a reconsideration of the other, cosmopolitan strain of thought that has shaped our history.

Our greatest need and deficit may be in the area of leadership. As an older military veteran, I look to some or the younger vets of the past 15 years, men and women who have seen a world outside while most of their countrymen stayed home. Some are already in the congress or leading in their communities. Others, diplomats, aid workers, and journalists, have also sallied forth. Perhaps from some of them will come the vision that being an American can combine a sense of place and attachment with citizenship of the world.


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