America In The World

By John Dewey

[From an address delivered at Smith College on Washington's Birthday.]

[The Nation; March 14, 1918]

There seems to be a little irony in the fact that upon Washington's Birthday the topic most apt for discussion is connected with the participation of America in a world war. Instead of a little strip of territory sparsely populated, able to maintain its own with the great nations of the world chiefly because of the advantage of remoteness, we are now a continental state, able to confer with the nations of the world on equal terms. While once there was enough to do in conquering a wilderness, we have now come to the end of the pioneer period, and have a margin of energy to draw upon.

The change has, of course, been brought about by that same development of industry and commerce which has annihilated distance, drawn all peoples into closer relations, and made the affairs and interests of one nation the concern of all, for weal or for woe. The fact that the interdependence which the new industry and the new methods of transportation and intercommunication have brought about should first reveal itself in strains and alignments for conflict does not alter the essential fact that the world for the first time now finds itself a round world, politically and economically as well as astronomically. That nations from every continent on the globe are engaged in the war is the outer sign of the new world struggling to be delivered.

It is a commonplace that whatever else the war means, it signifies for our own country the end of its period of isolation. Whether for better or for worse, America is no longer a people unto itself. America is now in the world. Unless this change of position is to mean that we are to be affected by the jealousies, the intrigues, and hostilities which have marked other nations longer in the world, we must see to it that those other nations accept and are influenced by the American idea rather than ourselves by the European idea. Of late we have been afflicted with national bashfulness, with a shy self-consciousness as to noting even that there is an American idea, lest we be guilty of spread-eagleism. We have assumed a self-depreciatory, almost apologetic, attitude towards the rest of the world. But unless our contribution to the present world struggle is to be confined to military and economic force, it must be that we have an idea to contribute, an idea to be taken into account in the world reconstruction after the war. What are the important aspects of this idea?

Politically, federation; e pluribus unum, where the unity does not destroy the many, but maintains each constituent factor in full vigor. It is not accident that the conceptions of a world federation, a concert of nations, a supreme tribunal, a league of nations to enforce peace, are peculiarly American contributions. They are conceptions which spring directly out of our own experience, which we have already worked out and tested on a smaller scale in our own political life. Leaders of other nations may regard them as iridescent dreams; we know better, for we have actually tried them.

One of the greatest problems which is troubling the old world is that of the rights of nationalities which are included within larger political units—the Poles, the Irish, the Bohemians, the Jugo-Slavs, the Jews. Here, too, the American contribution is radical. We have solved the problem by a complete separation of nationality from citizenship. Not only have we separated the church from the state, but we have separated language, cultural traditions, all that is called race, from the state—that is, from problems of political organization and power. To us language, literature, creed, group ways, national culture, are .social rather than political, human rather than national, interests. Let this idea fly abroad; it bears healing in its wings.

Federation, and release of cultural interests from political dictation and control, are the two great positive achievements of America. From them spring the other qualities which give distinction and inspiration to the American idea. We are truly interracial and international in our own internal constitution. The very peoples and races who are taught in the old world that they have an instinctive and ineradicable antipathy to one another live here side by side, in comity, often in hearty amity. We have become a peace-loving nation both because there are no strong Powers close to our borders and because the diversified elements of our people have meant hope, opportunity, release of virile powers from subjection to dread, for use in companionship and unconstrained rivalries. Our uncoerced life has been at liberty to direct itself into channels of toleration, a general spirit of live and let live. Since our minds have not been constantly impressed with the idea that the growth of another power means the decay of our own, we have been emancipated to enjoy sharing in the struggles which exist wherever there is life, and to take its incidental defeats in good humor.

In working out to realization the ideas of federation and of the liberation of human interests from political domination we have been, as it were, a laboratory set aside from the rest of the world in which to make, for its benefit, a great social experiment. The war, the removal of the curtain of isolation, means that this period of experimentation is over. We are now called to declare to all the world the nature and fruits of this experiment, to declare it not by words or books, but by exhibiting the two primary conditions under which the world may achieve the happiness of a peace which is not the mere absence of war, but which is fruit-bearing concord. That we should have lost something of our spirit of boasting about our material greatness is a fine thing. But we need to recover something of the militant faith of our forefathers that America is a great idea, and add to it am ardent faith in our capacity to lead the world to see what: this idea means as a model for its own future well-being.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury