Hyphens and Frontiers

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DECEMBER 3, 1915

Hyphens and Frontiers

 

Much comment has appeared of late on that rift in American opinion which has been summed up as a hyphenated Americanism. It is regarded as a serious danger, a real weakness of our world power. There is no question that our dealings with the European situation have been hesitant because of our knowledge that the German-Americans here were a great political power, that although their technical loyalty was on the whole good, their spiritual loyalty was uncertain. For the purposes of the older diplomacy, we were under the weakness of not speaking as “one man.” Our sovereignty was not single, and therefore not completely sovereign. Germany undoubtedly knew this and counted upon it—knew that in regard to her we were not a homogeneously patriotic people. She was powerfully represented in our affairs. It was apparent, moreover, that we were sufficiently attached to freedom not to repress the German-Americans by force. We couldn’t do what Austria could do with her Serbs in a war with Serbia—draft them off to fight a different enemy and coerce the others with brutal force. We were prepared to pay the price of freedom, and deal with this highly organized provocative minority by democratic measures.

At the same time it has been a strange experience, unlike any that has been known in the world. This is the first period in which a conglomerate democracy has had to exist in a warring world. And the first lesson it has taught us is that it is impossible to remain a democracy and carry on diplomacy by the European model. We cannot play a part in the European world if in order to play that part we have to exhibit an undivided sovereignty If world politics is to be a game played by eight or nine great Powers consisting of entirely dependable subjects, that game is not our game. Our internal tolerance is a deplorable weakness. The very fact that we have given all nationalities a chance to live at peace on territory as large as Europe, the very fact that we have solved internally the worst inter-racial and international conflicts, unfits us for an aggressive part in the European tangle. We are too much like what Europe might be if it learned to live and let live, for any successful imitation of her diplomacy. We can be imperial only by limiting freedom within—by a policy of coercive Americanization.

We have adopted that policy on the Pacific coast towards the Orient. We have not adopted it to wards Europe in any form that provokes the sensibilities of Europeans. The result is that we have a diplomacy depending for its character on whether we look West or East. To Europe we are bound by a thousand ties of kinship and association and interest. We lie open, unorganized, not unanimous, and therefore in the old sense, “defenceless.” We want peace with Europe at almost any price, for we know that war with Europe would cost too great a price. But towards the East we have set the price f peace in very definite terms. The price is Oriental exclusion. The Pacific Ocean is to-day the only absolutely real American frontier. It is the only frontier behind which an aggressive and united nationalism can be organized. We may omit the Mexican border, because the weak Latin states are too much at the mercy of this country to arouse any deep feeling; they cannot threaten us, we can only threaten them; so while we might arouse their nationalism, they cannot really arouse ours. No war with Mexico will ever be described as defensive. American sovereignty is too undisputed for that,

Our foreign relations fall roughly into three groups. Towards the East, especially towards Japan, we have the tone and manners of a great Power. Towards the weaker Latin states we have the attributes of a great Power tempered by a deep and honorable prejudice against imperial expansion; we are not ready to behave as our own position and the European tradition would make us likely to behave. Finally, to the two leading empires of Europe with whom we have important dealings—towards Great Britain and Germany—we are so deeply related that we have no great pretensions to unlimited sovereignty. This is especially true of the British Empire, to which our ties are so intimate that we have come to regard war with it as unthinkable. We say openly that we shall not arm against Great Britain, that we shall not dispute her sea power, that we intend to solve by peaceful means all difficulties between us. The two countries are virtually disarmed against each other. About Germany we are not so certain. Her imperial policy, her diplomatic methods, her national ambitions, have not yet shown themselves equal to anything approaching a disarmed peace. But our ties with Germany are nevertheless close enough to preclude swagger on our part. We have the will to be at peace. Whether Germany has is the open question.

The United States has, in other words, no consistent foreign policy, and no consistent nationalism. The hyphen in American feeling depends upon the frontier whish is threatened. The cleavage would be non-existent in Japan, it would not be talked about at all in regard to Mexico, it would be deep against Germany, and infinitely deeper still against England. What this means is that the American people are adapted to a varied foreign policy, requiring different methods towards different Powers. They are not a homogeneous, obedient, drilled population to be wielded in any direction for any purpose. Through no intention of their own, through sheer force of circumstances, the American people are discovering the essence of practical wisdom, which is that only a fool is uniform in his conduct, but that a sensible person must be resourceful in a varied world. The raw material of an enlightened world-policy exists in the fact that our nationalism is not absolute but relative. It is at present raw material and nothing else. The fact has hardly been faced—it has never been utilized.

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