What is America?

Here are some thoughts from an unnamed author in the Information and Education Division of the US Army in 1945 entitled WHAT IS AMERICA? I did not write this, I lay no authorship claim to it… I just want to share it with you on this 2014 Independence Day weekend:

George Papashvily came to the United States in 1919. He spoke four languages — Russian, Georgian, Turkish and Persian — but practically no English. Twenty-five years later he wrote a book. It tells a story of what happened to him one Sunday afternoon while walking with friends in a New York City park. The friends began to tear branches of blossoms from a dogwood tree. George watched and protested. One of the party saw an approaching policeman, handed his flowers to George saying, “Here, hold my bouquet a minute. I’ll be back.”

This is the rest of the story as George tells it:

“Awright, awright,” said the policeman. “Defacing public property. What’s your name, buddy?”

I explained the best I can, “I’m not picking, I’m only holding for the other fellow.” But he doesn’t believe me.

“Don’t argue or I’ll run you in right now.”

My friends tell me to plead guilty. The fine is only two dollars. “Look,” I said, “I didn’t pick flowers. So I’m not gonna say I did. Hang me in chains but nobody can make me say I did do what I didn’t do.” So next morning I went to court. My name was called. I couldn’t understand a word they asked me. I was nervous. My English was running out of my head like sand through a sieve. How they told me to call a judge? Your Honorable ? No. Your Highness ? No, that’s Russian. Your…? They were asking me something I had to answer. I took my courage in my two hands and spoke out, “Not guilty, Your Honesty.”

Courtroom went wild. Laughing and laughing. Laughing like hyenas. The Judge pounded with the hammer. Bang! Bang! Bang! His face was red like a turkey’s. What I done? I was sure I was going in Sing Sing and be thrown in the deepest-down dungeon. But the judge was giving the audience hell first. “Word honesty — applied by this — cause such mirth — contempt of court.” He turned to me, “Young man, address the Court as Sir.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Did I understand you to plead not guilty?”

“Yes, sir. Not guilty.”

“This officer says you were violating an ordinance, destroying a tree. Breaking the limbs. Have you any proof that you weren’t?”

“No sir. Friends were with me, but they can’t come today. They all pleaded guilty; sent you a fine. Cheaper than to lose a day’s pay.”

“Why didn’t you do that?”

“Because if I’m guilty I admit it, but if I’m not guilty, no man gonna make me say I am. Just as much a lie to say you guilty when you not as to say you innocent if you did wrong.”

“Yes, that’s correct. How long are you in the United States?”

“Six months.”

“In court here before?”

“No, sir.”

“Ever in trouble at home? Assault or kill a man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How many?”

“Hundreds. After first year, I never counted them any more.”

“Where was this?”

“In the war. I am a sniper. It’s my job to shoot all the Germans I see.”

“I see, I mean in civil life. When you were not a soldier in the army. Ever hurt or strike anybody?”

“Yes, sir, once. Knocked a man’s teeth out. Few.”


“Catched him giving poisoned meat to my dog to eat.”

“Understandable. Only time?”

“Yes, sir.”


“Yes, sir.”

“Did you actually see this man,” His Honesty asked the policeman, “breaking the tree?”

“No, sir. Not exactly, but all the others admitted guilt and he was with them, holding a bunch of flowers.”

“I believe he’s a truthful man, Officer, and this time you were probably mistaken. Case dismissed.”

And then His Honesty, big American judge, leaned over. And what do you think he said to me, ignorant, no speaking language, six months off a boat, greenhorn foreigner? “Young man, I like to shake hands with you.” And in front of that whole court room, he did.

Could the incident happen anywhere but in the United States? Perhaps. But in few countries are the chances that it will happen any greater than in America. The opportunity exists for justice regardless of nationality, education, amount of wealth or manner of speech. It is this aspect of America that Hitler’s spies and Fifth Columnists failed to discover about the United States. They collected more information about the American soldier’s home town than the American soldier himself knew. But the Germans and Japs were poor judges of America. They thought the United States would not go to war. They probably will never know why the same doughboy who frequently says, “I wanna go home” continues to fight. They never found the answer to the $64 question, “What is America?”

The people in the United States sometimes sing a song, “America the Beautiful!” America is beautiful. Ask any man about his State and his eyes will light up. Where, he will ask, are there lakes that compare with our lakes? Where are there forests greater than our forests? Where are the fruit trees more beautiful or fields richer in grain? Where can one lift his eyes to more beautiful mountains or look down into more fertile valleys? America is beautiful, but it’s not beauty alone that makes men love America.

America is rich. Over one-third of all the minerals in the world are in the United States. Its developed water resources and water power have no rivals. It produces nearly two-thirds of the world’s oil and almost 40% of the world’s fuel and power. The United States has over 600,000,000 acres of forests and woodlands and nearly 900,000,000 acres of fertile farm land. No doubt Hitler’s agents have seen great American power plants producing electricity for the American people. They know its automobile factories and shipyards turn out cars and ships. The Japs are aware that the face of America is crossed with 234,000 miles of railroads and 700,000 miles of highways. America is full of the promises of worldly goods. But it is not for its great wealth alone that Americans risk their lives in this war.

America is a land of culture. It prints more books, has more symphony orchestras, more movies and stage production, more newspapers and magazines, more art galleries, more libraries, more colleges and universities than any other nation. There is culture aplenty for those who want it. Or the American way of life will allow one to be a bum on his own terms if he prefers.

It has far-famed cities. New York is known the world over. Chicago is a word that means something in the farthest corner of the earth. Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., San Francisco. A song can be written with the names of United States cities. It would tell of good food, lovely women, romance, great churches, movie stars, beer, iron ranges, lumber mills, baseball, great opportunities.

The United States is more than great cities, culture, wealth and beauty. America is also people and ideas.

America is People and Ideas

No one can tell an American by the color of his skin because almost 13,000,000 Americans are Negroes; 332,000 are Indians ; 127,000 are Nisei (Japanese extraction); 75,000 are Chinese; 45,000 are Filipinos — all are colored Americans. An American can’t be identified by his religion because he may be a Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Jew, Greek orthodox or any other of more than 40 religions. You can’t tell an American by the country in which he was born because eleven and a half million United States citizens weren’t born in the United States. No one, can pick out an American by the country from which his ancestors came, because they came from everywhere.

Migration to America started long ago, but after 1620 people came to America like bees to a clover field. The United States began with two small groups of people fighting a wilderness — one at Jamestown, Virginia, one at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Those who went to Virginia were adventurers. They came looking for gold and quick profits, as many men have come to many lands. But they were not just adventurers. They were sent out from England to build houses and roads and churches, to find out what the land was like and how Englishmen could live in it. These English people had come to a land as new to them as the craters and mountains of the moon would be to us today. Everything was strange — the birds, the beasts, the flowers, the Indians, the heat of the summer, the very taste of the water.

Further North — several hundred miles north — the Pilgrims landed on a harsher and colder coast. Most of them had come to America for another reason. They came because they wished to worship God in their own way. They were family men for the most part. They brought their wives and children with them.

For a hundred and fifty years men came to America. By 1770 there were thirteen different little countries not yet unified in heart. There were rich and poor. But few of the rich had been rich for many generations and most of the poor did not intend to stay poor. It didn’t matter much what a man had been; it mattered what he could prove himself to be. That was the American lesson — seeing what would happen to a man once he was treated as a man. Irishmen, Frenchmen, Norwegians, Mexicans, Germans, Russians, Italians, Poles, Latin Americans, Armenians, Syrians. People continued to come from all corners of the earth to help build America and share in its ideas. For America is more than people; it is ideas.


Liberty is a strong word. It got into men’s blood. It started as a puff of wind and became a tornado. It blew through the crooked streets of Boston and the farmlands of Pennsylvania and the rolling hills of Virginia. On 4 July 1776, the Declaration of Independence announced the birth of a new nation.

The ideas in the Declaration of Independence weren’t brand new. The Declaration said “all men are created equal.” That idea had been growing from the time of Buddha and Jesus, but the new nation wanted to give it practical application.

To say that all men are “created equal,” Thomas Jefferson had to shut his eyes to a number of facts. Human beings all have legs, arms, eyes, and stomachs that need food. If one looked at a ditch digger and a Justice of the Supreme Court at “physical inspection”, it would be hard to tell which was which. But beyond a rough physical likeness, human beings differ in many ways. Some are tall, some short; some smart, some dumb; some are light, others are dark. The idea that “all men are created equal” means to Americans that men are equal in rights; that they ought to have equal privileges and opportunities; that, just by the fact of being born into this world, every man is entitled to an equal chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

America’s enemies have been quick to point out that people in the United States don’t always practice what they preach. German and Japanese propagandists flooded the United States with millions of words and pictures to stir up prejudice and friction among Americans of different races, beliefs and backgrounds. Hitler raved, “Nothing will be easier than to produce a bloody revolution in America. No other country has so many social and racial tensions.” The Japanese propaganda barrage claims: “In the United States colored and yellow people are not wanted. They are only hewers of wood and drawers of water for their white masters.”

Americans, too, know that the United States is not perfect. Equal treatment may not always be the American deed, but it is the American creed.

Founded on the principle of equality, the United States is moving — even if slowly — in the direction of more completely practicing what it preaches. For example, despite many restrictions placed upon them, Negroes have gradually won a greater share in American life. In the face of poverty, discrimination and prejudice, the progress of Negroes in the 76 years since Lincoln freed the slaves is one of the most encouraging milestones of modern times. They have made great contributions to their country — our country — in agricultural and industrial labor, in the arts of music, dancing, literature, in science and in the military service of their country.

The United States proved that all men are created equal. Can her enemies look at this brief roll of “fame” and doubt that men of different “race” and nationality have the opportunity to contribute to America’s greatness?

Great Americans in INDUSTRY

Andrew Carnegie (Steel), Ancestry: Scottish.
Samuel Gompers (Labor), Ancestry: English.
William Knudsen (Automobiles), Ancestry: Danish.
John D. Rockefeller (Oil), Ancestry: German.
David Sarnoff (Radio), Ancestry: Russian.
Cornelius Vanderbilt (Transportation), Ancestry: Dutch.

Great -Americans in SCIENCE

George Washington Carver (Chemist), Ancestry: Negro.
Arthur Compton (X-Ray), Ancestry: English.
Thomas Edison (Inventor), Ancestry: Dutch-Scottish.
Albert Einstein (Physicist), Ancestry: German-Jewish.
The Mayo Brothers (Physicians), Ancestry: Irish.
Hideyo Noguchi (Yellow Fever), Ancestry: Japanese.

Great Americans in THE ARTS

Marian Anderson (Singer), Ancestry: Negro.
Gutzen Borglum (Sculptor). Ancestry: Danish.
George Gershwin (Composer), Ancestry: Russian-Jewish.
John Philip Sousa (Composer), Ancestry: Portuguese.
Arturo Toscannini (Conductor), Ancestry: Italian.
Greta Garbo (Actress), Ancestry: Swedish.

Great Americans in LITERATURE

John Dos Passos, Ancestry: Spanish.
James Weldon Johnson, Ancestry: Negro.
Carl Sandburg, Ancestry: Swedish.
William Saroyan, Ancestry: Armenian.
John Steinbeck, Ancestry: German.
Sinclair Lewis, Ancestry: English.

The People Rule

Equality is just one of the many ideas which make America. Another is illustrated by the story of a ten year old boy who recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg address on a certain patriotic occasion. At the conclusion of the ceremonies, an old Civil War veteran came up to the lad. “Son, you did a right fine job giving Mr. Lincoln’s speech. I hear Mr. Lincoln give it and you made just one mistake. He didn’t say, —government of the people, by the people and for the people. Son, what Mr. Lincoln said was —government of the people, by the people and for the people !”

The people are the government in a Democracy and they rule themselves by voting — a right not won overnight. In England, for example, for 300 years less than 3% of the people had the right to cast a ballot. The great mass of farmers, laborers and craftsmen were not represented in either house of Parliament. Slowly but surely everyone won the right to vote and today all adult men and women in England may cast a ballot.

The march of American voters toward representation tells the same story. Under the Constitution, States have the most to say about who shall or shall not vote. Until long after the Revolutionary War, only men owning 50 acres of land or able to pay a tax of ten shillings were allowed to vote. But the new frontier States, settled by sturdy pioneers, set no property qualifications for voters and by the time of the Civil War, all the States gave the ballot to all adult white males.

The victory of the North in a war fought largely over slavery led to the passage of three amendments to the Constitution, one of which (the Fifteenth) provides that the ballot shall not be denied to any citizen “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Many brave women like Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony worked for most of a century to win voting rights for their sex. It was not until the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920 that women secured national suffrage.

Freedom is another idea, a part of America which men have died to achieve. When the States were still colonies, the soldiers of the king could come to a house and demand entrance. The head of the family could be marched away and his whereabouts kept secret from his own family. His crime could be as serious as killing a fellow citizen or as small as speaking against a new tax. His trial could be quick with no chance for him to have witnesses to prove his innocence, or he might be thrown into jail and allowed to remain there for months without ever knowing the reason for his imprisonment.

Americans fought a war to be certain such practices did not find root with them. Following that war, the American Revolution, they sat down, took stock, and decided what sort of government they meant to have. They argued and debated many points. Finally the Constitution was adopted. But even then men were not satisfied. A government had been established. But what were the rights of the average citizen under that government?

The first Congress of the United States, meeting in New York in the fall of 1789, passed ten amendments to the original constitution known as the “Bill of Rights.” And again mankind stepped ahead. Citizens shall be free to think and speak as they please so long as they do not attempt to seize control by force; free to get together in public meetings for protest or discussion; free to publish newspapers and books stating their views; and free to belong to any church they choose.

Freedom is not unlimited in America. Freedom of speech does not mean that one has the right to go into a crowded theater and shout “fire” when there is no fire. No one has the right to get dead drunk and drive down the road at 50 miles an hour. Such complete freedom for any man might endanger the safety of other men. A man’s freedom extends only to the point where another man’s freedom begins. In the late 1800’s when high railroad rates threatened the freedom of farmers to sell their products, and endangered the freedom of wage-earners to eat, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act. It provided that the people’s representatives hereafter would have something to say about railroad rates. In 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act which made illegal large monopolies attempting to restrain trade. Still later, to enable the working man to present his case for unproved working conditions to his employer, collective bargaining between unions and management was established as the national labor policy.

Freedom and Security

Democratic nations, including the United States, watched as men in some countries gave up their freedom for the promise of economic security… gave up freedom of speech for bread. Hitler came into power in Germany, screaming: “Surrender to me your minds and wills and I will make you rich and powerful.” For the promise of prosperity, many Germans willingly surrendered freedom.

Increasingly, Democratic people everywhere say that to maintain freedom, all citizens must have the opportunity for economic security. In the United States, “social legislation” ceased to be a party issue and the overwhelming majority of the people supported laws providing for old age insurance, health insurance, laws regulating the conditions, hours and wages of labor. Freedom from want is as basically a part of the American idea as freedom of speech and worship.

The America we know is dangerous to Hitler and Hirohito, not only because of its fighting men and great ability to produce the machines of war; but because America is living proof that our enemies’ ideas are wrong. The American way of life is one which allows for the dignity of human understanding; the right to live where we please as we please so long as we abide by the essential laws of decency which we have set up for ourselves. Americans have proved that equality is not only a great ideal but that it can be a fact. America has shown that free men can rule themselves. Hitler wasn’t kidding when he shouted on 10 December 1940, “We can never be reconciled with the Democratic world. There are two worlds — one of them must crack up.”

It is no accident that Germany and Japan war against the United States, and it is no accident that America fights this war with 44 nations at her side. Our Allies are not all Democracies, as we know the meaning of the word. Not all have progressed in the same manner toward the goal of more power for the people. Not all are using the same methods. But the Axis powers and the United Nations move in opposite directions. Britain and France? For decades theirs has been the story of the growth of freedom for the individual. The Soviet Union? It must be recognized as a fact that the purpose of the Soviets’ economy is that all the people should benefit from the common ownership of the wealth of the country. China? That nation is not a democracy by American standards, but 21 centuries ago China abolished feudalism and put a system of civil service in their government. Nothing important in the literature or philosophy which they produced in the last 4,000 years glorifies war or the idea of the master race. German and Jap literature is full of the “glory of war” and supermen. The governments of the United Nations are not all the same — not by any stretch of the imagination — but the Americans are proud to have at their side all men and women who hate Fascist tyranny and oppression.

There is a story that has been told many times. It is neither true nor funny. The story relates that just before the war, an American and a German were on a liner pulling into New York’s harbor. Both men stood on the deck attempting to peer through the heavy fog for a glimpse of the city’s famous skyline. Suddenly the sun broke through the mist and shone directly on the Statue of Liberty. The American, overcome with awe, whispered, “There — there stands a statue to American Democracy!”

The German smiled and answered quietly, “In my country, we too erect statues to our dead.”

The wrong answer again to the $64 question. Democracy in America is not dead, nor dying — but growing. Of course America has not solved all its problems. Not every citizen is well-paid, well-housed, well-fed. And there are scores of other problems. Everyone does not agree on the best way to solve the problems which still exist. But all agree that they must be solved. The “Square Deal” of Theodore Roosevelt, the “New Freedom” of Woodrow Wilson, the “Return to Normalcy” of Warren G. Harding, the “New Deal” of Franklin D. Roosevelt — all play their part in the struggle to solve America’s problems. It is partly the struggle that goes on in any free nation — the struggle between people who think things ought to stay pretty much as they are and the people who want changes. It is the struggle of a nation still striving, still learning, still trying to find out what works best for all men, still moving toward the complete achievement of such ideas as equality, the rule of the people, and freedom.

Behind us lie three hundred years of history — three hundred years of belief in liberty and the rights of men. That belief is no idle dream — it has made us great among the nations.

What is America? This, Hitler and Hirohito, is the answer to the $64 question: Beauty — wealth — culture. Ideas. Equality. Freedom.

— That’s America!

About Troy Boylan

Ecoculture Village Founder & President; Anthropology BA, Interdisciplinary Studies: Ethnobotany BS. Two things I think are worth anything at all... all things wilderness and ecoculture. Find me on , LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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