Chapter 14 - Our American Allies

Posted in The Forgotten People

It is very natural that, when we find ourselves in alliance with a great nation like the United States of America, we should get to know something about its people.

When you consider the modern speed of travel and communications, the easy flow of literature, the almost ubiquitous character of the moving picture, it is astonishing how little we know accurately of people who live only a few thousand miles away from us.

We know very little about the Americans, and, if I may aspire to be Irish for a moment, a great deal of what we do know about them is not knowledge at all. Only a few Australians have ever been in America, and consequently the impressions of most of us are derived from materials which are much more frequently picturesque rather than correct.

I wonder if it would be useful for me to take a few minutes in just stating, and if possible correcting, a few of the most current misapprehensions?

The first is that the United States is an Anglo-Saxon country, full of our cousins, and that because of this intimate family relationship Americans must either automatically be with us in any world dispute or seem a little queer and uncousinly. This is a fundamental error. It has been calculated that if the Mayflower held all the ancestors who reputedly crossed to America in it, it must have been considerably bigger than the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth.

True, up to the closing quarter of the nineteenth century it might accurately have been said that the United States was substantially and ultimately of British stock. But the subsequent vast movements of migration altered all that. Many millions of United States citizens have their family origin in Germany, Italy, Russia, Poland, the Scandinavian countries. We cannot automatically think of the United States any longer as an Anglo-Saxon community, but we can and do think of it with great pride and satisfaction as a community in which the language, the literature, the institutions and the ideals of the British people have taken root and flowered.

The second matter is to be found in the old allegation that Americans are intensely commercial, and that their actions are dominated by the "almighty dollar". When I hear people in Australia saying that, I am always tempted to say, "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone." Can we honestly say that we are superior to the pursuit of the dollar? We in Australia have our absurd aristocracies of money. We do not yet adequately understand that making money, though some people have elevated it to a science, is as a rule the lowest of all the arts.

I wonder if we realize that, allowing for the difference of population, proportionately more people read seriously, think seriously and go out for higher education in the United States than in Australia? The ordinary honest citizen with just one wife and a family for whom he has ambitions and for whom he is prepared to make sacrifices, provides no copy for the moving picture scenario-writer or for the sensational newspaper and so, when he is an American, we do not hear much about him in Australia. But I assure you there are many millions of him.

The whole atmosphere of the United States is most stimulating to anybody who really believes that there is more in life than dollars and that the development of the mind is one of the real foundations of progress.

Again, what of the American Press? Almost every time I see a film I am informed that American newspapermen wear villainous hats, pulled down in front, and keep them on while they chew cigars, invade private houses, clutch a telephone with each hand and put innocent citizens through the third degree. It is very picturesque, and perhaps it is true of crime reporters - with whom my acquaintance is, oddly enough, limited - but in point of fact the newspapermen by whom I have been cross-examined in the United States are conspicuously the best-informed, the quickest and the shrewdest that I have encountered anywhere in the world.

Then there is the American judiciary. If one were to go by our current sources of information, one would have the impression that American courts deal exclusively with divorce and that their proceedings are conducted with a strange and hilarious mixture of sentiment, comedy and melodrama. But in fact the best judges and other lawyers in the United States are great lawyers by any measurement - just in the same way as American surgery occupies a high place in the medical world, and American architecture at its best is "a thing of beauty and a joy for ever", and none the less a joy because its plumbing has been attended to by real experts!

The last example I shall deal with is the current belief that Americans are not as realistic as we are: that they have a vein of idealism and even of sentimentality not found in the hard-headed Australian. Well, I would be the last to condemn idealism, because it is the ultimate motive force in human development. But when it comes to realism, it is necessary to point out that, a year before this war began for the United States, it had introduced conscription, though it was a neutral country and was and is a democratic country. When we remember how many entirely sentimental objections we have to practical and frequently necessary policies, it is not for us to be the critics.

Let me turn away from this brief sketch of some of our misapprehensions to say something positive about the Americans.

One has always had a vague feeling that in the long run the greatness of a country can be tested by its production of great men. If we apply this test to the United States, it is today surviving it magnificently. Let us take public men alone. I say "alone" because it is a fallacy to think that greatness is to be found only among those who control great political affairs.

But let us take public men. Among Americans today, we shall find Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Cordell Hull, John Gilbert Winant.

President Roosevelt has entered upon his third term of office. He is the first President in the history of the United States to have a third term. When his people voted it to him they broke a tradition that went back to Washington. No common man can be accorded such a distinction. Indeed, Roosevelt is a most uncommon man. He is singularly endowed with the graces of life. He is a man of great personal charm and magnetism. He has that quiet and smiling humour which we so readily understand. His selective command of language is remarkable. He is perhaps the most effective living politician: his knowledgeable finger is always on the pulse of public opinion.

Each of these things is a useful attribute for a great man to have, but not one of them of itself will make a man great.

Roosevelt's greatness proceeds from a combination of two things: First, his indomitable courage. No man, stricken down by infantile paralysis in his adult years, who literally rises from his bed to become three times the President of the United States is to be denied that superb attribute. No man whose political programme puts him at odds with almost everybody in his own circle, and who pushes on with it, can be denied admiration. And second, his far-reaching and sensitive understanding of the real problems of common humanity.

In 1935 when I was passing through the United States, every newspaper was attacking Roosevelt; all the people of a conservative or comfortable turn of mind were belabouring him; he appeared to have no "big" friends. Yet he has passed from triumph to triumph.

Contemporary valuations are all too frequently astray, because superficial and flashy qualities weigh too heavily in the scales of contemporary judgment. But, allowing for all this, we may surely name Franklin Delano Roosevelt among the greatest of the Presidents of the United States.

Then there is Cordell Hull. If he ever reads these words of mine he will forgive me for describing him as looking, at first sight, like an extremely prim, solemn and tucked-up New Englander. But on contact that impression weakens. He has a flash in his eye, an edge on his drawling tongue, a cutting quality in his mind, which indicate life and vigour. His personal prestige in the United States is enormous. He speaks with the authority of character. He is trusted. He is no parochialist to be concerned only with his own country. For years he has struggled with the vexed problem of world trade. Isolationism could not be part of his creed, because he not only sees men as social beings, but nations as social units in a world society.

In a decade so characterized all over the world by the crudest policies of national self-sufficiency, the existence at the State Department in Washington of a liberal and humanist like Cordell Hull has been of the first importance.

And finally there is John Gilbert Winant, the American Ambassador to London. I am most honoured to number him among my friends. Tall, rangy, with a raven lock of hair falling over his forehead, with jutting eyebrows, deep-set eyes and a long, strong jaw, he looks something like a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln. He is a rich man who has devoted his life to the service of the poor. He is a shy man - shy sometimes almost to the point of speechlessness - but he has forced himself to take an active part in public affairs in the United States, at the International Labour Office, and now at the American Embassy in Great Britain.

In speech he is not what we call a typical American at all. He does not hurl his words at you. On the contrary, they appear to float reluctantly from some remote corner of his mouth. You must listen closely to catch them all. But words are chiefly of value for what they convey; and in Winant's case they convey the product of hard and clear thinking by a mind of rare reach and flexibility.

He is an ex-soldier with a passion for peace and great dreams of social and industrial improvement, but at the same time with a rock-like determination to stamp out the Nazi spirit - a determination which was not only obvious but comforting long before America had actually entered the struggle.

Here are three men whom we can venture to describe as great men. The country which is able to place them in three key positions of public service at a time of supreme crisis is a fortunate country and makes a great contribution to the world.

Now, I am - like you - dyed-in-the-wool British, and have a firm belief that the courage, humour, tenacity and resourcefulness of our own race never shone more brightly than now. The fortunes and aspirations of Australia are linked with those of Great Britain "for better or for worse; for richer for poorer; till death do us part". But it is a great thing for us to have such allies as these Americans.

We are together now for the urgent saving of the safety of the world. When that task is over, I hope we shall remain together for the keeping of that safety for ever and ever.

23 January, 1942