LinkedIn tracking pixel

American Nationalism

The best book on American nationalism was written by a foreigner. This is not unusual but typical.

Hans Kohn (d. 1971) was born in 1891 inside the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in what is now The Czech Republic (Prague). He is widely known as the “architect” of nationalism, having devoted his life to the subject; he wrote about twenty books, including the definitive The Idea of Nationalism (1944).

His country, Austria-Hungary, was an empire that was eventually crippled by the several nationalities that lived within, including Serbians, Croats, Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, Slovaks, Bosnians, Romanians, plus their own languages and religions (Kohn was Jewish). Sarajevo, a city in the Empire, was the site of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1914), an event that caused World War I that, in turn, begot the many nationalistic wars since, beginning with Hitler, now with Putin. Also: with “no end in sight.”

Small wonder that Kohn studied nationalism: he was born into it! His book, American Nationalism (1957), is, without doubt, the definitive (maybe “only”) study of the term applied to America from a theoretical, philosophical perspective. It is certainly the only book with that precise title.

First in order, definitions. To start, nationalism is without a morality, neither good nor bad. Like other definitions, the subject is “neutral” with regard to benevolence vs. harm, violence vs. pacifism, agree vs. disagree. Nor does it conform to the phrase “my country right or wrong.” An authentic nationalist can either praise what his country does or condemn it. “Constructive” criticism can be equally nationalistic as unquestioning acceptance. Thus, war resisters, to choose a common symbol, can be as nationalistic as soldiers in the field. It just depends on “perspective.”

Definitions of nationalism vary but, essentially, the term connotes an “attachment,” a “solidarity” between those who share in the several components that can (roughly) be described as “community.” Prominent among these are race, ethnicity, geography, religion, language, dress, cuisine, recreation, labor, etc. But regardless of whether or not all of these traits are shared equally, the lasting definition of the term still stands: those who share in a common history and together share in a similar future.

Thus, the lasting definition of nationalism is not necessarily physical but “cultural.” The dictionary definition of the word agrees: “a shared sense of consciousness” (Merriam-Webster). Probably the classic application of the term came during World War II when (the battle of the Bulge) the Germans used certain soldiers who were proficient in English and dressed in U.S. uniforms to confuse Americans. To solve this problem, U.S. officers asked these individuals questions such as “who plays third for the Dodgers?” If he didn’t know, he was brought in for “questioning.”

Nor is nationalism necessarily “patriotism,” which is associated with deep emotion, love, hate (of others), anger, intensity, etc. Nor with “jingoism,” which is aggressive, expansive, or militaristic. An American nationalist can be both: a James K. Polk and Teddy Roosevelt or a Calvin Coolidge and Robert Taft, isolationist or interventionist.

Thus, nationalism is a shared culture, supported by physical “indicators,” as opposed to a “policy,” or what the nation is doing at any given time. In general terms, without distorting definitions, nationalism can be separated by two main qualities: the physical and the cultural/intellectual. The first is usually assigned to continental Europe and adopts a “family” identification. The German “Fatherland” vs. the Russian “Motherland” suffice to describe both of these, known principally for their aggressive or “jingoist” behaviors.

As opposed to these, and as defined by Hans Kohn, American nationalism cannot be “physical,” since the country is composed as a “melting pot,” or, as President Kennedy described it, as a Nation of Immigrants (1958). In his first sentence, Kohn defines American nationalism as fundamentally different from the nationalisms of the rest of the world. “Nationalism in the United States,” he begins in American Nationalism, “differs in many ways from the usual pattern of national movements. … They established themselves as a nation without the support of any of those elements that are generally supposed to constitute a separate nation.”

In early America, and as it developed through the ensuing centuries, nationalism in the “New World” was always “intellectual.” “In its very origins as a nation,” Kohn relates, “the United States was the embodiment of an idea, not an ideology but to be one. The ideology was a supra-national ideology, the philosophy of the eighteenth century. … Only by accepting and maintaining the English idea of constitutional liberty, and by thus remaining Anglo-American, could the English colonies in North America continue and solidify their political existence; only by transcending the English heritage and broadening it beyond the confines of historical-territorial limitation could they establish their distinctive political existence” (p. 13).

Yet this heritage contained dangers within itself of which Kohn was fully aware. Writing in 1957, he was able to acknowledge that “American liberty, rooted in English liberty, has been able to withstand the temptation of abstract millenarianism. … throughout the history of the United States voices have been raised against the dangers of corruption and demagogy, allegedly inherent in mass democracy.” He concluded this observation with a warning, “If we fall, we fall by our folly, not our faith (p. 19).

In the political culture of twenty-first century America, the only quarrel with Kohn’s prescription might be the word “allegedly.” Try “conclusively.” As with the death of the great English Queen, Elizabeth, it would be fair to note also that the political virtues she possessed over seventy years have also died, in the same time period, with the idea of “American Nationalism.”