Did Americans Have a National Character?
Since so much of the early morale work identified vulnerabilities in national character as the key to defeating the enemy, it did not take long before some experts were gingerly asking whether the concept of national character offered any insight into Americans themselves. Did they have an irrational national personality, as Germans and Japanese did, or was there something in U.S. history or institutions that immunized Americans against such culturewide emotional hazards? Was morale at home an asset or a liability?
Because they were convinced that the ugliness of enemy national
character could be traced, at least in part, to apparently uniform aspects of human psychology—especially the propensity for behavior to express emotion rather than reason—psychological experts harbored private anxieties throughout the war about the manipulability of the characteristic U.S personality. Their public stance, however, was resolutely optimistic. Democratic traditions and institutions, they claimed, produced a morale far superior to that of autocratic regimes, and democratic morale could not be undermined easily. Margaret Mead reassured a nervous public as follows: "Democratic procedures are not something that people have, like automobiles or hot-dog stands or a way of building roads. Democracy is not something which can be added or subtracted. . . . The way in which people behave is all of a piece, their virtues and their sins, the way they slap the baby, handle their court cases, and bury their dead. . . . We are our culture." U.S. national character was consequently not a military soft spot but rather "the psychological equipment with which we can win the war."
Margaret Mead was certain that "we are the stuff with which this war is being fought," and she was among the first to apply insights about domestic national character for practical war-related purposes. Mead was already very well known before the war for her Coming of Age in Samoa (1925) and other studies of "primitive" cultures. She had earned bachelors and masters degrees in psychology at Barnard and Columbia before going on to study anthropology with Franz Boas at the doctoral level. Her psychological orientation was visible in her lifelong interest in patterns of child socialization and gender identity, her use of psychological testing in fieldwork, and her openness to psychoanalytic interpretations of culture. "I left psychology to live, in many ways, always within its precincts, working with psychologists and concerning myself with psychological problems," she recalled.
Mead did not wait for the United States to enter the war to throw herself into public service. When she and Gregory Bateson arrived in the United States in 1939, after conducting field research in the South Seas, "we had realized that Hitler presented a terrible threat to everything we valued in the world." Mead immediately wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, "as a professional anthropologist," urging that policy-makers pay serious attention to the understanding "psychiatrists and political scientists" had of the "role of Hitler's peculiar psychological make-up in European affairs." But Mead's primary concern was domestic morale. In 1941 she formulated ideas for a national morale program based on her analysis of U.S. personality strengths. She stressed
that policy-makers would do well to capitalize on citizens' typical anti-authoritarianism, competitiveness, and fiercely local (as opposed to national) loyalties.
Published in expanded form in 1942 as And Keep Your Powder Dry, Mead's popular primer on morale instructed citizens about the best ways to transform their national character into a military asset and expressed an almost boundless faith in the ability of rational experts to engineer peace, freedom, national unity, orderly political participation, and a plethora of other liberal goals, including racial tolerance, which clearly contradicted the tight institutional hold that segregation had on the South. "We must see this war," Mead concluded, "as a prelude to a greater job—the restructuring of the culture of the world—which we will want to do, and for which, because we are also a practical people, we must realize there are already tools half forged."
The tools she referred to were the social sciences, and Mead herself was a model of social expertise mobilized in public service. In early 1942 she became the executive secretary of the NRC's Committee on Food Habits, a post she treated as "a base from which I would coordinate various kinds of anthropological input into federal programs." While there, she conducted a number of studies (with the assistance of Kurt Lewin) to determine how the government could prevent hoarding, make rationing work, and feed the Allies during and after the war by enlisting characteristic U.S. personality traits.
Gordon Allport was another major figure in the wartime debate on morale, and he made it his particular business to explore and promote the concept of democratic morale. He explained what it was and made it into a manageable entity by suggesting that personality theories which had evolved in order to understand individuals could and should be applied to society at large during the wartime emergency. "Morale is a condition of physical and emotional well-being residing in the individual citizen. . . . National problems . . . are nothing but personal problems shared by all citizens." The hypothesis that national morale was merely individual morale multiplied by a factor of millions was very convenient. It made systematic measurement and monitoring possible through an index comprising markers like suicide and crime rates, levels of industrial strife, and patterns of mental illness and disturbance. As a scientist, Allport believed empirical data of this sort to be of the utmost importance. As a democratic idealist, he was positive that a vast chasm separated the "integral" morale of Americans (based on the total personality, which included a capacity for thinking as well as feeling) from
the "segmented" morale produced by fascistic regimes (based only on explosive and easily exploited emotionalism). One of the defining features of a democratic personality was the successful internalization of authority and control. In Allport's words, "the ideal of democracy calls for people to carry their backbone inside their personalities."
Even as committed a champion of democracy as Allport, however, understood that U.S. morale was volatile enough to need firm management outside of public view. Even while he was busy encouraging colleagues to write speeches and articles on the topic for popular distribution in print and broadcast media (something he also frequently did himself), Allport was communicating with Washington, recommending personnel and ideas for the conduct of secret programs to measure morale and control the public psyche. Throughout the war years, Allport played a mediating role between secret agencies, such as the OWI and the OSS, and professional psychologists.