Psychological differences among nations, long disregarded in favor of the more impersonal factors of economics and military power, have in recent years become the object of intensive study by social scientists; to mention only one example of this new interest, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, believing that psychological differences play a large role in causing the tensions that in turn cause wars, has been actively encouraging research on “national character” and related subjects. Morroe Bergbr here reviews the recent literature on the problem of national character.
As the scale of international wars has grown, styles in the analysis of their causes have shifted. In the era before World War I, wars were said to have been caused by rival governments protecting private investors in “backward” areas. Between the two world wars the munitions makers were blamed, along with the nations we used to call the “have-nots,” who were envious of the “haves.” More recently, corresponding to the efflorescence of the “cultural” sciences of sociology, anthropology, and social psychology, wars are ascribed to the “misunderstandings” between peoples, to the “tensions” that arise because of differences in “national character.”
When war, as it does in our day, calls upon all of a nation’s technological and human resources, and when ideological differences appear irrational and irreconcilable, “national character,” however definfed, takes on a special significance. In the current renewal of interest in the study of national character, the anthropologists and psychologists have produced most of the work and have been the most ardent proponents of the attempt to build peace by promoting “understanding” among peoples. Anthropology’s credentials are its traditional handling of whole cultures, first applied to primitive societies and lately to highly differentiated communities and nations of the West. Psychology’s credentials are its “practical” accomplishments in the field of aptitude testing and employer-employee relations. Hadley Cantril, a prominent Princeton University psychologist who was formerly director of UNESCO’s international “tensions project,” has written in his introduction to the recently published UNESCO symposium, Tensions That Cause Wars (University of Illinois Press, 1950): “The creation and support of the Tensions Project by representatives of many nations is of historic significance when viewed in the light of man’s long evolutionary development. For this is apparently the first time in world history when the people of many lands have officially turned to the social scientist to seek his aid in man’s quest for enduring peace.”
Spurred by the unprecedented opportunities they had during World War II for advising American policy makers, the practitioners of the “cultural” sciences have jumped into the political pot with both feet, making broad claims about the need for the social scientist’s “skills” in the political process. Many of the cultural scientists have become active in the social science division of UNESCO, which was established in 1945 as a specialized agency under the United Nations. According to Article I of its constitution, UNESCO’s purpose “is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture . . . .” The preamble to the constitution declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed . . . .” It adds that lack of understanding of one another’s ways of life has caused national differences which “have all too often broken into war,” and that a durable peace must be founded “upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.”
In its annual conferences UNESCO has adopted so many plans for study and action that its own delegates and consultants, if not its secretariat, have been hopelessly confused and snowed under. In the last two years, however, some self-restraint has been exercised, with the result that UNESCO’s program is becoming comprehensible and has a fighting chance of being executed some day. The director-general, in his report to the annual conference last spring, summarized UNESCO’s program under seven headings, one of which is the social sciences. Under this heading, besides the project on international cooperation and collaboration, work has been started on two major projects:
- An examination of tensions affecting international understanding: to promote studies of (1) national character, culture, ideals, and legal systems; (2) images nations have of themselves and others; (3) modern methods for changing attitudes; (4) influences making for international understanding and aggressive nationalism; (5) population problems affecting international understanding, including assimilation of immigrants; (6) influence of modern technology on attitudes and relations among peoples.
- An examination of racial questions: to collect data on race, disseminate reliable information, promote educational campaigns based upon this information, and to report on this work to the next UNESCO general conference.
Until now the “tensions project” has progressed further than any other social science venture sponsored by UNESCO. Descriptions of seven different national “ways of life” have been prepared and are scheduled for publication this year. A research survey by Otto Klineberg, a Columbia University social psychologist who is now director of the “tensions project,” was published during the last year by the Social Science Research Council under the title Tensions Affecting International Understanding. Also published last year is the UNESCO symposium already referred to, Tensions That Cause Wars, edited by Hadley Cantril.
Since the latter volume is far less important than the one by Klineberg, we shall consider it first, and rather briefly. Cantril brought together eight scholars to discuss “aggressive nationalism.” Meeting for two weeks in Paris in 1948, the eight scholars agreed on a short statement on war and peace, and each prepared a longer statement of his own views. In Tensions That Cause Wars, Cantril presents the common and the individual statements, each of the latter interspersed with comments by other participants. The participants were Gordon Allport, a psychologist at Harvard; Gilberto Freyre, Brazilian sociologist; Georges Gurvitch, French sociologist; Max Horkheimer, German sociologist who came to this country in the 1930’s; Arne Naess, philosopher at the University of Oslo; John Rickman, British medical psychologist; the late Harry Stack Sullivan, American psychiatrist; and Alexander Szalai, Hungarian Marxist sociologist and political scientist. As Cantril remarks in the introduction, “These contributions may also be viewed as reflections of the present state of the social sciences”—“a condition,” he hastily adds, and wisely, “which all social scientists, certainly all the participants in our conference, hope will be rapidly improved . . . .”
In their common statement the eight scholars made the following main points: (1) Wars are not the necessary consequences of human nature. (2) To secure peace we must keep “group and national tensions and aggressions within manageable proportions” and guide them into “personally and socially constructive” channels “so that man will no longer seek to exploit man.” To achieve this goal we must make “fundamental changes in social organization and in our way of thinking-” (3) “Economic inequalities, insecurities, and frustrations create group and national conflicts. All this is an important source of tensions . . . .” (4) “Modern wars between nations and groups of nations are fostered by many of the myths, traditions, and symbols of national pride handed down from one generation to another.” (5) “ . . . neither colonial exploitation nor oppression of minorities within a nation is in the long run compatible with world peace.”
These assertions are, of course, not startlingly new, but such unanimity by eight scholars of eminence will seem a genuine achievement to anyone who has tried to draft a statement for a committee of intellectuals. What else the common statement represents is hard to say. As editor of the volume, Cantril points out that “if those responsible for high policy could and would act on the combined advice of these eight social scientists as contained in their common statement, there is little doubt in my mind that the tensions now being experienced by people all over the world would be decreased with considerably more speed and surety than seems now to be the case.” Cantril is probably right, but if the “high policy” makers were willing and able to use good advice they would surely not have had to wait for these eight scholars to come together in a two-week conference. There has been plenty of good advice available for years—the question is how to get it used by the right people at the right time. This emphasis on the need for “further data,” about national character, for example, blocks frank recognition of our failure to put existing knowledge to better use.
The individual contributions to Tensions That Cause Wars, not especially distinguished by their novelty or perception, do not warrant lengthy treatment. It might have been more interesting, exciting, and relevant to international understanding if Cantril had published, instead of these essays, the stenographic record of the final hours of the conference, during which the participants discussed “quite bluntly and frankly the tensions we had felt during our two weeks together: the things we had wanted to say but didn’t for fear of offending someone, the irritations we had experienced from another’s remark, the inadequacies of our discussion.”
Some of this tension does come through anyway in the sedate essays of the volume. All of the contributors except Szalai, the Hungarian Marxist, give some indication that they have certain doubts about their views, need further confirmation of some hunches, and seem willing to consider the possibility that someone else may be right once in a while, too. Szalai, of course, has no doubts about anything, except, upon reflecting after seeing the written contributions of his colleagues, about the wisdom of his having taken part in the sessions. This conference is a pocket-sized version of the difficulties inherent in the peacethrough-understanding approach to world affairs. The chairman had taken many precautions to prevent misunderstandings among the scholars and it appears that the conferences were friendly. Away from the conference table, however, as Szalai remarks in a postscript to his own article which he wrote after having read the others in manuscript, “the political and socio-economic determination of the ‘home surroundings’ began to act.” And, of course, they acted with special force upon Szalai, the intellectual Marxist writing in Communist-dominated, Soviet-controlled Hungary. He accuses the other contributors (especially Naess) of making “Communism the bogey” by being “unable to write down the word ‘fascism’ without adding and Communism.’” In “the friendly international atmosphere” of the conference, Szalai claims, “everybody regarded fascism as a sort of massive criminality, and Communism, even when opposed to it, as a great social movement.” Through the “influence of warmongers and reactionaries who form an important part” of the environment of the other contributors, Szalai continues, they felt it necessary to link fascism and Communism. In a familiar vein he goes on to point `out parenthetically that had such a linking “been made in the conference room without a heavy rebuke from the chairman,” he (Szalai) would have been “forced . . . to interrupt violently, or even to walk out of the conference room.”
It is clear, then, that the “friendly” atmosphere of the conference was maintained by the participants’ solicitude for their Marxist colleague’s sensibilities, which were of a nature irrelevant to the purpose of the meeting: the scientific analysis of aggressive nationalism. In this relatively minor case of international tension there seems to be little that can be traced to lack of “understanding”—as is often the case in international disputes, there was considerable understanding on all sides. The scholars from the West, living in free societies, could in conference and at home intellectually assent to certain notions usually associated with some wing of Marxism, and they did not have to insult their Communist colleague in order to demonstrate conformity to their own national environments. The Marxist Szalai, however, living in a police state, found it necessary in the conference to reject all notions except those congenial to the rulers of his own country; and at home he found it necessary, upon cool reflection, to insult his former colleagues in the same way that Soviet and satellite diplomats insult others in international political bodies.1 Now, the seven Western scholars appear to have perfectly understood Szalai’s delicate position as an intellectual in a police state; but no amount of such understanding will bring Szalai closer to them in public statements if he wants to remain in Hungary as it is now politically organized.
This conference, then, reveals some of the difficulties in UNESCO’s approach to peace. These difficulties, however, and the value in the UNESCO approach, we leave for later consideration. We turn now to the question of national character and its relation to international understanding and peace, which is the major subject of the most important result to come out of UNESCO’s “tensions project,” that is, Otto Klineberg’s survey of research studies, Tensions Affecting International Understanding.
In this valuable book, Klineberg summarizes studies of national character, stereotypes of nations, attitudes and the methods suggested for their modification, and influences making for aggression. The chapter on national character, the largest of all, summarizes various approaches: the older impressionistic and unsystematic accounts by various kinds of observers; the anthropological ventures in this field; use of statistics on birth rate, suicide, and mental disorder; psychiatric and psychoanalytic interpretations; analyses of the content of plays, novels, and other literature; community studies; public opinion and attitude studies; national differences in performance in intelligence and personality tests; semantic issues; and child training and education. In addition to summarizing research already completed, Klineberg offers brief critical comments on each approach. He does not, however, pause to examine seriously the validity of the concept of national character itself. In concluding his observations on the subject, he points out that even if one allows for such cross-national influences as economic status, degree of industrialization and urbanization, and age distribution, “certain differences will still emerge in the behavior and attitudes of people of different nations.” His emphasis, therefore, is on methodology: how best to find out what these differences are.
Rather than offer merely some comments on Klineberg’s comments on national character, we shall consider the concept itself, its recent revival, the ways in which national character is currently studied, and the validity of the concept.
The concept of national character implies that the members of a nation, despite admitted dififerences among them, resemble one another in certain basic patterns of behavior and belief (these may be defined in different ways) more than they resemble the members of other nations. All of us are familiar with statements of national dififerences in novels, travel books, and studies of society. We ourselves are easily induced to make sweeping generalizations about one nation or another. Just after World War I there was a spurt in the output of books attempting to explain the behavior of nations on the basis of the existence of a “group mind” or of a cultural whole “greater than the sum of its parts.” The unexpected savagery of the war stimulated a search for causes to explain the behavior of entire nations seemingly “gone wild.”
For a generation after World War I the idea of group (national or racial) character was virtually banished from respectable social science. We were taught that groups are really no more than agglomerations of individuals with distinctive traits of their own. No group, the anthropologists and sociologists often asserted, is inferior to any other in native capacity. This somehow got translated into the notion that people the world over are “basically” the same. And there were few studies of national character until the next war again set scholars and ordinary citizens to thinking about why some national states seemed to want war, or why some nations could defend themselves better than others apparently stronger. By this time the cultural sciences had accumulated and tested a number of new hypotheses on, and methods of study of, social behavior that could easily, as part of the “war effort,” and especially in the United States, be applied to the study of nations and to the development of “psychological warfare.” As Margaret Mead observes in And Keep Your Powder Dry (Morrow, 1942): “So in wartime people began to think again in terms which had fallen into disrepute in the last quarter of a century, in terms of national character.”
There was this difference, however. Many of the earlier national character theorists traced national differences to “instincts” or immutable racial traits—that is, they ultimately rested on biology. Current national character studies rest heavily upon Freudian concepts of personality and child rearing, and upon the “culture” concept, stressing that national differences are rooted not in physical or biological distinctions but in varying cultures and systems of value not themselves reducible to instinct, race, or biology.
As klineberg shows, there is a variety of ways to study national character. The best known of these methods is what he calls “descriptions and interpretations by anthropologists,” for example, Margaret Mead’s And Keep Your Powder Dry (and in parts of her more recent Male and Female, Morrow, 1949), Geoffrey Gorer’s The American People (Norton, 1948) and The People of Great Russia (Chanticleer Press, 1950), and the late Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Houghton Mifflin, 1946). These are attempts to comprehend the whole of a nation’s “character” in the way an anthropologist reports the totality of a primitive culture.2 In his study of the Great Russians, Gorer sets down the fundamental assumptions which underlie his own analyses and which are broadly applicable to others of this group as well. Human behavior, he asserts, is “predominantly learned,” that is, individuals act as they see others acting in the same cultural milieu. Despite its variety, human behavior can be “understood.” Since the “habits established early in the life of the individual influence all subsequent learning . . . the experiences of childhood are of predominant importance.” Further, since in most societies parents punish and reward children, the attitudes of the child toward his parents (and to a lesser degree toward his brothers and sisters) become the “prototypes” of his attitudes toward all the people he subsequently meets.
How does Gorer analyze national character? He seeks the basic traits in child-rearing methods, and then tries to show how these traits are reflected in a wide variety of other kinds of behavior. In his study of Americans, for example, one of his main points is that we reject our fathers, authority in general, and our European cultural heritage; and this is explained by certain similarities in American child rearing. Gorer draws from many sources to illustrate this characteristic: an order of the day by General Patron before his troops invaded Sicily in 1943, our grading of occupations, language habits, fantasies, mass media, family structure and roles, and mass culture.
Less Well known but more numerous than this group are the analysts who concentrate on specific cultural manifestations of national character, for example, newspapers, comic strips, novels, plays, and magazine fiction. A particularly impressive contribution of this kind is a recent book by Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Movies: A Psychological Study (The Free Press, Glencoe, III., 1950) in which the authors analyze American films and compare them with French and English films “to see what are the recurrent daydreams which enter into the consciousness of millions of movie-goers”; and what the themes of movies indicate as to American character, its “deeper and less conscious emotional tendencies.”
Still another group of scholars, exhibiting a more sociological bent, seek to relate socioeconomic to psychological traits in the study of national character. The most substantial contribution of this kind is Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (Farrar and Rinehart, 1941), which convincingly explains the Germans’ receptivity to Nazism by bringing together evidence from their economic and political history and their religious traditions, all interpreted within the framework of a modified Freudian theory of character structure.
According to Klineberg, the “merit of Fromm’s study seems . . . to lie in the combination of approaches, all directed toward the solution of the same problem.” In a contribution to a recent symposium, Culture and Personality, edited by Sargent and Smith (The Viking Fund, 1949), Fromm states that his notion of “social character” refers to the “nucleus of character structure” which most members of a given culture share, as distinct from their differing individual characters. This social character is shaped by a society’s social structure. Such a structure is usually relatively fixed and requires that individuals act in a certain way. “It is the function of the social character,” Fromm continues, “to shape the energies of the members of the society in such a way that their behavior is not left to conscious decisions whether or not to follow the social pattern but that people want to act as they have to act and at the same time find gratification in acting according to the requirements of the culture.”
Some younger sociologists and social psychologists have adopted the Fromm position, impressed by its astute combination of sociology and psychoanalytic concepts. Thus far these younger scholars have not produced studies of specific nations, but it is expected that in a few years their work will be appearing. Their position is well summarized by Alex Inkeles, of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, who wrote last year in the Antioch Review. “The burden of the available work in the scholarly disciplines concerned with social relations indicates that there are distinctive patterns of reaction to given situations which may be used to distinguish the peoples of particular national states. These patterned responses, along with . . . symbols and value systems . . . are not independent of political and economic institutions; indeed they are intimately interwoven with them. But they may exercise an independent influence on the selective apprehension of experience, and have a profound effect on the opportunities for success of new institutional forms in the political and economic realm.” If this new generation of scholars can translate their theoretical sophistication into substantive studies of national cultures, we may see the growth of a formidable science of national character.
It may be helpful to draw together in more detailed fashion the data that support one interpretation of American character that has been given by some of these scholars. In so doing we will illustrate the way in which the evidence for a trait as a national characteristic is accumulated and interpreted, as well as some of the problems involved in the procedure.
Several years ago, Nathan Leites and Ernst Kris, in seeking an explanation for what they considered significant differences between the propaganda of World War I and that of World War II, elaborated the concept of “privatization” (“Trends in Twentieth Century Propaganda,” in Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences, Vol. I, International Universities Press, 1947). Today, according to Leites and Kris, we are more intimately affected by public affairs than were people of bygone eras, yet we feel less and less able to understand or to influence the events which shape our lives; hence political facts take on the aura of natural events, like the weather, having no connection with the individual’s beliefs or moral values—these latter are given scope only in personal affairs.
Other observers have given “privatization” a more strictly American application. Thus Gabriel A. Almond, in a recent impressive study of our foreign policy as it reflects the American character (The American People and Foreign Policy, Harcourt, Brace, 1950), states that our concern with private affairs excludes attention to public affairs. “The characteristic response to questions of foreign policy,” he adds, “is one of indifference.” The alternating involvement (forced by outside events) in, and withdrawal from, foreign affairs, Almond continues, gives rise to the danger of “over-reactions” to threats to American security as well as to the temporary periods of stabilization. He then presents five more characteristics of American foreign policy which follow from American national character. For example: “Mood-Simplification” is the tendency to rely on easy solutions to subtle problems, as revealed in the unconditional surrender policy in World War II and “non-fraternization” in the occupation of Germany. “Optimism-Pessimism,” is an excessive reaction to situations insufficiently analyzed. Thus Americans tended, during the war, to be over-optimistic about the possibility of “getting along” with Russia, whereas since the frustrations beginning in 1946 they have been overly pessimistic. Published before America’s reaction to the invasion of South Korea, this book reads as though based at least in part upon these later developments.
Another source of evidence of “privatization” has been advanced in analyses of the themes of American films and plays as contrasted with those of other nations. In the Wolfenstein Leites volume already mentioned, Movies: A Psychological Study, the authors conclude that the “major plot configuration” in British films shows conflict to be internal, shows that the “danger lies in ourselves, especially in our impulses of destructiveness.” In French films the danger is external, but it is rooted in the “nature of life itself,” the conflict being between man and a natural order which always defeats him. In the American films, however, the hazards are not within ourselves, as in the British films; further, while external, “they are not rooted in the nature of life itself,” as in the French films. Rather, the American films show the danger to be from another person or a situation which the hero sets out to master in a direct, personal struggle from which he always emerges the winner. Along the lines of this investigation is another by Donald V. McGranahan and Ivor Wayne, who examined the themes and several other aspects of the forty-five most popular plays of 1927 in Germany and the United States (“German and American Traits Reflected in Popular Drama,” Human Relations, 1948, Vol. I, pp. 429-55). Among their conclusions are the assertions that (1) the German dramas are more ideological, philosophical, and historical than the American plays, of which the great majority deal with personal, private problems; (2) where the hero is a rebel against society, in the American plays he rebels on personal grounds and for personal happiness, whereas in the German plays he rebels in the name of an ideal that is beyond personal concerns.
Still more evidence of “privatization” in American life appeared almost daily in the early months of the fighting in Korea, when news dispatches frequently pointed out the personal comforts which have to be provided for American soldiers at the front and the bare minimum with which the Koreans managed. In the army studies of adjustment to military life (The American Soldier, Vol. I, Princeton University Press, 1949), the authors conclude that Americans in uniform were “preoccupied with minimizing their discomforts, acquiring higher rank or pay, securing jobs which would offer training useful in civilian life, displaying aggressions against the Army in many different ways, and in getting out of the Army as fast as possible . . . .”
This evidence from army life indicates that “privatization” is in part shaped by the possible personal satisfactions provided by our relatively high standard of living. But “privatization” is also a response to urban life with its intolerable mass of personal contacts; if each of these contacts required a positive, personal reaction, then, in Simmel’s words, “one would be completely atomized internally and come to an unimaginable psychic state.” (The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. by Kurt H. Wolff, The Free Press, 1950.) A third determinant of “privatization” is the specialization of contemporary life: there are the authorities for all manner of functions, even for the most “personal” acts of charity. The homely virtues have become institutionalized; it is now less necessary for individuals to perform acts of charity, which are the recognized province of specialized agencies for care of the aged, the indigent, the homeless, and the lonely. Evidence of urban unconcern with stark terrors, which in simpler societies evoke direct personal aid, appears in the daily press. Thus in 1948 the New York Herald Tribune, in reporting the robbery of a liquor store, told how the owner pursued the thieves in the crowded streets for seven blocks, shouting “Stop, thief!” without being able to enlist anyone’s help. “No one looked around,” he was quoted as saying. “You could carve somebody up on the sidewalk there, and they’d think it was a radio stunt.” Finally, he called the specialists, police in a radio car, and they found the thieves. Another example: in 1948 a Chicago housewife, according to the New York Times, was trapped on a second-story window sill while cleaning her windows. Several men to whom she appealed only laughed. Someone called the specialists, firemen with a ladder, and they rescued her after she had been trapped for more than half an hour. Several years ago a Life magazine photographer took pictures of a man sleeping on the stairway of a New York subway entrance. Hundreds of persons went by, over and around him, but no one stopped to see whether he was hurt or dead or just asleep. Two specialists with limited functions in such a situation, subway employees, moved him off the stairway, and another specialist, a policeman, awoke the sleeper and sent him away.
In questions of peace and war, too, “privatization” and specialization reign. We have “experts” to handle these problems, and so we feel quite free to ignore them. Under the impact of frequent wars and continuing threats of war, however, “privatization” tends to be overcome and, as Almond has shown, involvement tends to become more habitual and stable.
Thus far the writers on national character have had the field to themselves. They have written many books and articles in a relatively short period of time, but there have been few evaluations of their work except in brief, hasty book reviews, occasional articles in the scholarly journals, and in papers read at meetings of the professional societies. The advocates of national character studies have been quick to defend themselves and to move on to new positions in the academic struggle.
More than a decade ago a prominent British Labor party writer, Hamilton Fyfe, published a book called The Illusion of National Character (Watts, London, 1940) in which he attacked the validity of the concept of national character itself. “A nation,” he wrote, “is not a natural unit, like a herd of buffalo or a pack of wolves. It is largely an accidental unit.” The differences within nations are so great, he concluded, as to preclude the possibility of defining a truly national character. Such a character, according to Fyfe, is simply what a nation’s rulers want it to look like to others.
Because of the great differentiation among ethnic groups in American urban society some writers insist that there can be no over-riding national character. Thus, in Anti-Semitism and Emotional Disorder (Harper, 1950) Nathan Ackerman and Marie Jahoda suggest that we need more knowledge of the distribution of certain traits among nations. The national character concept, they continue, is especially difficult to apply to Jews. If character is transmitted through child rearing, the Jews cannot be said to have a national character at all because their patterns of child rearing usually follow those of the nation (and social class, we might add) to which they belong. Yet, Ackerman and Jahoda rightly point out, Jews themselves insist that they have a certain common character.
Cutting across national character is a character of still another kind, that common to the members of the same occupation or profession or social class. David Hume centuries ago pointed to the differences between priest and soldier which prevail in all nations. And Marx and Engels proclaimed in their Communist Manifesto over a hundred years ago that “modern industrial labor, modern subjection to capital, the same in England as in France, in America as in Germany, has stripped him [the proletarian] of every trace of national character.”
Another criticism of the national character concept emphasizes that stereotypes of various nations have changed much more rapidly than national character itself could have changed. Klineberg, for example, reports a summary by Pryns Hopkins of a large number of studies of the Japanese. Hopkins found “practical unanimity,” according to Klineberg, on cleanliness, order, obedience, traditionalism, and nationalism. Earlier writers, however, usually mentioned a strong sense of honor and scrupulous keeping of promises, while later writers (especially during World War II) mentioned treachery and deceit. Such changes in stereotype, of course, reflect changing political relations, but it is important to note the large area of agreement between the earlier and later comments. Klineberg also reports the preliminary results of a study, conducted at the New School for Social Research, of Russian estimates of American national character. Before 1917 Russians emphasized the democratic features of American society, tendencies toward social reform, and willingness to change. Soviet Russian writings, however, praise American technology, efficiency, and standards of living, but attack American conceptions of democracy. These changes, of course, suggest the influence of changing political relations and of the ruling groups in a police state.
To the claim that differences within nations preclude the possibility of a science of national character, the defenders reply that, while these differences must be considered, there is nevertheless an underlying unity which warrants the use of the concept of national character. This unity they have tried many times to indicate in their books and articles on specific nations. To the claim that nations change, the answer is made that national character studies can take account of such changes, and that the changes do not rule out the possibility of some kind of equilibrium at any given moment in the history of a nation. National character scholars, further, admit class, occupational, and religious differences are influential, but insist that a national character emerges that transcends as well as comprehends these intra-national distinctions.
One of the more interesting defenses of the concept has been advanced by Gregory Bateson in his contribution to a symposium edited by Goodwin Watson for the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (Civilian Morale, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942). Bateson argues that the very differences within nations are related to one another in a system of bi-polar traits such as dominance-submission, succoringdependence, and spectatorship-exhibitionism. National character is expressed in the special way these bi-polarities are combined. Bateson makes no claim that it is possible at present to estimate differences in degree of the development of a given bi-polarity in two or more nations; but he does insist that very large qualitative differences can now be verified. He offers one such great difference in an example which has often been quoted. At meals, Bateson says, English children are spectators of their parents’ exhibitionism; the child listens to the parents, who dominate the proceedings. In America the roles are reversed. Here the child performs for the parents and dominates the proceedings. This difference, Bateson goes on, probably explains why Englishmen appear “arrogant” (dominant) to the American, who appears “boastful” (exhibiting, seeking approbation) to the Englishman. In cases of such extraordinary differences among the members of a nation that it would be impossible to arrive at a common character, Bateson says, the scholar must take a “short cut” and “treat heterogeneity as a positive characteristic of the common environment.” On this hypothesis, he adds, the scholar will look for common “tendencies towards glorying in heterogeneity for its own sake (as in the Robinson-Latouche ‘Ballad for Americans’) and towards regarding the world as made up of an infinity of disconnected quiz-bits (like Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not’).”
Probably the main criticism of particular studies of national character is the almost complete absence of data by which to compare other nations with the one under study. Of what value is it to say that Americans are attached to “private” values, that they like to make money to spend it, or love to acquire gadgets, if We are not shown conclusively that these traits are not merely American but exclusively so, or at least more so than they are French, English, or Russian? The studies of specific manifestations of national culture, such as those of Leites-Wolfenstein on the movies and McGranahan-Wayne on the drama, often present comparative data, but the general essayistic treatments, such as Gorer’s, Mead’s, and other less ambitious ventures, give the reader no basis upon which to decide for himself that certain traits really differentiate one nation from the others.
Further, what some writers call characteristics of Western society as a whole other writers call specifically American. Karl Mannheim in Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (Harcourt, Brace, 1940) and Leites and Kris in the propaganda article mentioned above speak of “privatization” as characteristic of the entire West, but this quality has been said by others to be peculiarly American. Almost every writer on American national character claims Americans are competitive, that they overvalue love, are overstimulated to consume goods and services, are oriented toward material values, and feel a need for success. These traits, however, are precisely the ones which Karen Homey, in The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (Norton, 1937), attributes to Western man in general. Are the students of American national character reducing a Western trait to a specifically American trait, or is Homey (in the company of others) generalizing an American trait into a Western trait?
A simple criticism has been that the anthropologists who study contemporary complex societies are not familiar enough with the facts. If true, this charge would not be surprising, since Gorer, Mead, and Benedict, for example, have studied Japanese character without going to Japan. John Embree, a scholar who has been in Japan, recently pointed out (World Politics, April 1950) that these three anthropologists in particular, while they rest much of their analysis of Japanese character upon patterns of child rearing and home life there, are simply in error as to the facts.
Other critics have doubted the validity of deriving national character from child-rearing patterns, or have asked whether these patterns are themselves not secondary to other social, economic, and especially historical processes.3 Klineberg, in a contribution to the aforementioned symposium, Culture and Personality, remarks that Benedict points out that teasing in the early life of the Japanese makes him fear ridicule later on. Klineberg then asks whether one could not “argue that exposure to considerable teasing in childhood might, on a purely logical basis, make one relatively immune” to it later on. This touches a most important question which still seeks an answer. Assuming that childhood has a major causal effect upon character, how do we know just what the effect is? A bullying older brother, for example, may make one child ruthless in his demand for affection and may instil in another child a deep respect for the rights of others.
The unnecessary lengths to which the emphasis upon child rearing is pushed can be best appreciated in Gorer’s The People of Great Russia, in which the practice of tightly swaddling infants is advanced as one explanation among several (which remain unmentioned) for many aspects of Russian political behavior. The swaddled infant, says Gorer, experiences his weakness as absolute, and the only alternative to this absolute subordination in the swaddled condition is complete freedom when temporarily unswaddled from time to time. This may explain, Gorer continues, the fact that Great Russians do not see intermediate positions, only the extremes of dominance and submission. This inability to see positions between the two extremes is apparent, Gorer points out, in Soviet foreign policy—for example, in Russia’s insistence that national contributions to a United Nations armed force should, be absolutely equal rather than on some proportionate basis, and Russia’s inability to envisage a modicum of independence for her satellites. However, it may be pointed out that the Kremlin is perfectly able to see an “intermediate position” between extremes in the levying of national contributions to the UN treasury and for other specific funds if not to its proposed armed force—and this for obvious political reasons. Seeing “intermediate positions” means sharing power, something which dictatorships try to avoid on political grounds. Further, not only cannot the Russian Communists see intermediate positions, but neither can Communists born and reared in the United States, Japan, France, Germany, or anywhere else, where they probably were not swaddled as the Russian Communist leaders were (if indeed the latter do not come from middle-class and upper-class homes where swaddling, according to Gorer, was not usual).
These criticisms, it is clear, deal mainly with ambitious attempts to define the character of specific nations, usually on the basis of childrearing patterns. The study of national character, however, is already beyond this oversimplifying, overly optimistic stage. The students of national character seem to be settling down to the relative dullness of producing solid, verified pieces of research of a comparative nature. But there are several problems which will plague even the strictly scientific student of national character: which features of national behavior are important in the study of character; the relative value of studies of individual behavior itself as against its manifestation in certain formal institutions like law, political organization, and so on; and the interpretation of some of these formal structures, especially law.
Particularly important is the question of how to prevent national character studies from having a politically conservative bias. Those who favor change are likely to insist that certain institutions are not rooted in national character, but are rather accidental or imposed by the ruling groups. On the other hand, persons who oppose institutional change are likely to claim that the existing institutions are so profoundly rooted that they are part of the nation’s fundamental character. Thus, Gorer points out that if his hypotheses are correct, “it would imply that it would be psychologically intolerable for Great Russia to live for any length of time without an idealized Leader, that a Leader is necessary to save them from political anarchy and personal disintegration.” He says, also, that Americans’ faith in private enterprise “is not necessarily a screen behind which personal interests and hopes for profit are defended; it is a deeply sincere, quasi-religious moral attitude.” And Mead argued during World War II: “All the shibboleths, that we are not fighting against the German people but against their Kaiser—or their Dictator, their military clique or their Nazi party—against their hierarchical and undemocratic political institutions, but not against them themselves, obscure the connections between a people and the institutions under which they have been reared, between the leader and the led, between a culture and the human beings who carry that culture.”
The real issue here is, how close is this connection in particular cases? The national character analysts have thus far assumed the connection is very close, but there is some evidence, especially on group relations in the United States, that anthropologists and sociologists may have overestimated the strength of certain cultural forms and the degree to which they govern individual behavior. Sociologists and anthropologists have been especially impressed, for example, with the solidity of Southern white sentiment for segregation in all relations except those which clearly exhibit the dominance of the white. They have often argued that this sentiment is unresponsive to so “mechanical” and “external” a force as law. In recent years, however, some of them have pointed out that custom, though influential, is not uniform; some customs or values exist alongside their contradictories, and many persons adhere to certain values not through personal conviction or out of psychological need but out of a sometimes erroneous feeling that all other “respectable” people are profoundly attached to these values. Consider one example, the rapid change in segregated education in the last few years. Up to 1948 the Southern states had successfully used various means to prevent Negroes from attending state-supported institutions for whites. Then in January of that year the United States Supreme Court held that Oklahoma must provide for Negroes an education in law equal to that provided for white residents of the state, and at the same time. Within a year several Southern universities had gone further than the decision required in admitting Negroes to classes with whites, and last June the Supreme Court felt able to go so far as virtually to outlaw any form of segregation in higher education supported by public funds. This decision, too, has already been followed by breaches in the wall of segregation which students of social relations, only two or three years ago, did not think possible in our generation. By emphasizing seemingly dominant values, the national character analysts tend to overestimate their rootedness and to underestimate the possibility of change.
National character analysts must, therefore, find methods of determining what kind of national behavior is really “basic,” or represents genuine national character, and what kind is relatively superficial and without enduring effect or meaning. Until now too much attention has been given to trivia of a kind to be found in travelogues. George Orwell, in a passing comment on national character in his little book on England, The Lion and the Unicorn (Seeker and Warburg, London, 1941), pointed to this problem. “National characteristics,” he wrote, “are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down they often turn out to be trivialities or seem to have no connection with one another. Spaniards are cruel to animals, Italians can do nothing without making a deafening noise, the Chinese are addicted to gambling. Obviously such things don’t matter in themselves. Nevertheless, nothing is causeless, and even the fact that Englishmen have bad teeth can tell one something about the realities of English life.”
The British sociologist Morris Ginsberg has suggested a way to avoid the trivia which emerge from a cataloguing of individual traits. In Reason and Unreason in Society (Harvard University Press, 1948) he claims that the “indirect method of studying national characteristics by an analysis of the psychological basis of the collective achievements of peoples has undoubtedly proved more fruitful than the direct method based on the observation of individual behavior.” He then tries to show how English law, philosophy, politics, foreign policy, and religion all exhibit a strong element of empiricism and individualism. Yet Ginsberg also warns that institutions often reflect primarily the influence of dominant groups, that analysis of a nation’s current institutions must be supplemented by historical and causal studies.
The study of institutions as evidences of national character raises the problem of interpretation too. Suppose we consider the laws against the manufacture and sale of “obscene articles”—does the existence of such laws mean that a nation is given to the use of these articles or that it is profoundly opposed to them, or that it is indifferent and the laws are merely the result of lobbying by small interested groups? Hamilton Fyfe has posed this question too: “If we say there is so much cruelty to children in England that a Society has to be kept up to prevent it, its existence is held to prove that the English are not cruel.”
Finally, we may ask what national character has to do with international understanding and what international understanding has to do with peace?4 There is no reason why national character studies should not further our understanding of human behavior. What such understanding has to do with peace, however, is more difficult to decide. Fyfe, for example, has argued that acceptance of the very principle of national character leads to distrust of one nation by another and is a “frequent source of misunderstanding, hostility, mutual dislike.”
It is true that nations exhibiting differences have warred against one another, but it would be naive to conclude from this fact that the conflicts were caused by the cultural separation. In our own day, with the passing of colonial adventures, the major wars are obviously between nations sharing the same cultural tradition, or showing a similar technological development. Nations go to war because that is a culturally accepted way of settling disputes which do not yield to diplomacy. It is unlikely that “mis-understanding” causes war or that better “understanding” in the UNESCO sense will prevent it. In one of the sanest discussions of the contribution of psychology to international understanding, Goodwin Watson suggests that in recent wars the differences among allies have been even greater than those between enemies (The American Psychologist, March 1949).
Another assumption of the UNESCO philosophy and the peace-through-understanding advocates is that increased understanding means greater friendship. This, too, is a naive approach. There is, further, an implication that the issues over which nations go to war are imaginary. There is often a curious species of Communist fellow-traveling and Progressive-party soft-headedness involved here. Nobody would argue that war with the Nazis might have been avoided had we better “understood” their “point of view.” In fact, had our leaders been blessed with such understanding a war might have been precipitated sooner than it was. Understanding does not eliminate conflict; it may even precipitate conflict sooner than would be the case if there were less or no understanding. But understanding may also prevent war precisely by bringing on conflicts of one kind while avoiding the conflict that turns into war.
We often hear the argument that the present cold war could be ended if we only “understood” Soviet Russia better than we do. Leaving aside the genuine pro-Communists to whom “understanding” in this case is synonymous with acceptance of the Soviet position, there are many others who, still believing that Communism the world over is a genuine social reform movement, honestly think that better “understanding” of Russia can reduce the danger of war. To such persons “understanding” is not the same as yielding at once to Soviet demands but requires “peaceful overtures” such as a large American loan to the USSR, somehow curbing “anti-Soviet and Red-baiting hysteria” here, a demonstration of American “good faith” by a disarmament gesture, an American disavowal of atomic warfare, and so on. In the end, of course, this type of “understanding” is no different from the kind which Communists and fellow-travelers propose.
International understanding, like any other kind, would seem to be a tool and a technique which can be used in various ways, depending on one’s purposes. If we increase our understanding of Russian national character, the nature of the Stalinist regime, and the psychology of its leaders, we shall be better able to promote peace with the Kremlin or to wage war against it. The understanding in itself, however, like all knowledge, does not automatically lead to or preclude either of these courses. It only gives one greater power to choose among several possible courses of action. To be useful in this, or any other way, such understanding must make no naive assumptions about “friendship” between peoples or between their leaders, especially where the latter, as in the Soviet Union, prevent contact between their people and the people of other nations.
It is probably fruitless to seek for the causes of all wars in all eras. There is, however, ample evidence that major wars in our own era are caused by the expansionist aims of leaders who subject whole nations to dictatorial rule, block orderly, peaceful change in political or economic structure, and prevent the free expression of opinion. The more we understand the ways in which such leaders seize and maintain power, their personal psychology and that of the nations which continue to be ruled by them, the forces that sustain and those that weaken such regimes, the better we shall understand how to build peace for the immediate and the more distant future. In the search for this kind of understanding the anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists can do much to help. But they must learn to avoid easy analogies between individual and national behavior, or between intergroup relations in the United States and international political relations in the world, and to avoid banal pro-nunciamentos which too often expose their political orientations without presenting scientific findings that tell us things we either do not know or which had not been sufficiently confirmed to be used as a basis for action. They must learn more about politics and the history and development of international relations, the nature of political leadership and to what it responds, and, what is of immediately crucial importance, the ways in which the knowledge that we already have can be applied by the persons and groups who make decisions in our world. As Watson told a meeting of psychologists last year, “We can direct our research at the power problems of society. This might cause insurance companies to reclassify the psychologist as a hazardous occupation.”
1 A hint of Szalai's motivation—and his failure—came in a frightening Jewish Telegraphic Agency dispatch of September 18, reporting that Szalai was arrested in a purge of Jewish leaders of the former Hungarian Social Democratic party.
2 See “The New Anthropology and Its Ambitions,” by Robert Endleman, COMMENTARY, September 1949.
3 See Harold Orlansky's discussion of this subject in “Destiny in the Nursery,” COMMENTARY, June 1948.
4 A detailed examination of the UNESCO theory, stated in the opening to its constitution, that “wars begin in the minds of men,” is given in Wars and the Minis of Men (Harper, 1950), by Frederick S. Dunn, director of the Yale Institute of International Studies. This book, which appeared too late for extended discussion here, views the UNESCO theory as resting upon communication techniques, and seeks to review the present state of knowledge about how people's minds can be changed in a manner that will make peace more secure.