The Unity of America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the United States neared the first anniversary of its entry into World War I, many were assessing the impact that the war had upon the country. The Nation, a weekly, was no exception. However, unlike many others, the editors of The Nation did not believe that there had been a great change in the underlying attitude of Americans. The editors asserted that there had always been unity within the nation. From their perspective, unity did not mean total agreement on every issue or a uniform lifestyle. They believed that what made Americans special was the willingness to join together in spite of the great differences among the citizens of the United States. Thus, the editors of The Nation believed that the unity that was visible in the war effort was the same unity that had always existed, even when there had been debates on policies and the direction in which the country should move.

Summary Overview

As the United States neared the first anniversary of its entry into World War I, many were assessing the impact that the war had upon the country. The Nation, a weekly, was no exception. However, unlike many others, the editors of The Nation did not believe that there had been a great change in the underlying attitude of Americans. The editors asserted that there had always been unity within the nation. From their perspective, unity did not mean total agreement on every issue or a uniform lifestyle. They believed that what made Americans special was the willingness to join together in spite of the great differences among the citizens of the United States. Thus, the editors of The Nation believed that the unity that was visible in the war effort was the same unity that had always existed, even when there had been debates on policies and the direction in which the country should move.

Defining Moment

The entry of the United States into World War I transformed the country. The isolationist policy, favored by most of the citizens, was temporarily overturned. It had been more than fifty years since the policy of drafting men into the Army had ended with the cessation of hostilities in the Civil War. Unlike recent conflicts, the need for soldiers and sailors surpassed the number of volunteers. Small government, favored by both political parties, was becoming large government as the war effort geared up. The United States was a much different country than it had been in the 1860s, the last time such an effort had been made. Immigration, industrialization, and the expansion of the country to forty-eight states had created a nation with a variety of economic, regional, racial, and ethnic differences. As the twentieth century had opened, there were many who had questioned whether the United States truly was a nation. The unified effort put into World War I answered that question for many, affirming that the United States was indeed a nation, a people, and not just a place.

The Nation had traditionally seen a unity within the United States, even with the great diversity among its citizens. While recognizing that not all groups had had equal opportunity in many social areas, in the view of The Nation’s editors, there had always been a unity in the goals that the general population sought to achieve. For the editors, the challenge of achieving the things necessary to successfully win the war was only a newly visible manifestation of the unity that had always been part of America. Although Henry Villard had made the magazine into a supplement for the New York Post, his son, Oswald Villard, was in the process of converting it back into an independent magazine dealing with a wide range of current affairs. Total separation, however, had not yet occurred, which means that this issue of The Nation had a broad readership, especially in the New York area. Because of that, this editorial assisted in the continued development of an inclusive society through the national goal of supporting the American effort in the First World War.

Author Biography

The Nation was (and is) a liberal weekly publication, having been published since 1865. Its founding was based upon the idea that it was appropriate to ask serious questions about all aspects of society and politics. In 1881, the magazine was purchased by Henry Villard to be published in conjunction with his newspaper, the then liberal New York Evening Post. His son, Oswald Garrison Villard, born while his parents were in Germany, inherited these publications in 1900 and ran the magazine until 1935. In 1918, the magazine’s editorial stance and Villard’s personal views were virtually identical. Villard, and the magazine, had been leaders in pressing for racial equality, as well as being strongly against the United States becoming entangled in foreign affairs, or imposing its views on other countries. They had been advocates of staying out of the war prior to April 1917, and once the United States was in the war, some readers thought Villard was too sympathetic to the Germans. However, he did support the war effort.

Document Analysis

As might be expected, the editorial opened with the basic assertion that the war “has revealed American unity,” not that unity in American society did not exist prior to the war. For The Nation, unity did not mean uniformity within a society. Villard, having helped found the NAACP, among other activities, had always supported diversity, and the right to question the status quo. And so, in this editorial, as in previous statements, he and the editorial board rejected the idea that to be an American meant to be the same as everyone else. As later asserted in the editorial, they did accept the idea that, while during the war there were temporary measures that needed to be taken, they were against trying to “compel us all to be alike.” Thus the forceful statements against those who advocated uniformity.

Villard, and others at The Nation, went on to describe events since April 1917, when President Wilson asked for, and received, a declaration of war against Germany. They praised the average citizen for supporting this effort, even though Villard recognized that there had not been strong agitation for the war prior to that time among most citizens. He then asserted that any dissention within the country was being caused by people who saw themselves as the social and intellectual leaders; the very ones who had previously called the immigrants and others un-American. In a great piece of composition, the editorial moved to describe and praise the masses in the United States, using the same list of adjectives that had been used to denigrate them earlier, by those who previously had wanted to “Americanize” them. He then used a list of professions, which the intellectuals would look down upon, to represent average Americans, asserting that while they may not be pro-war, they were willing to make the required economic and personal contributions, even “to die” in battle for America and its allies.

Villard, and the others, then returned to the thesis that the unity of purpose–i.e., the aim to win the war–was only a reflection of the unity that had always existed, to support America and to make it a better place for all. Villard et al. believed that this meant that after the war, the diversity, the questioning, the many differences would resurface, all for the betterment of the country. What they saw as the ideal was “an America not of uniformity but of unity.” This, they asserted, had come about, and would continue to develop, from the dream (or ideal) that was America. If this were not the case, the editorial asked, why would so many people from all parts of the world come to the United States? The editorial closes with an affirmation that it was true that there was unity in the diverse population of America, and that in this type of unity was found the key to peace in the midst of adversity. This form of unity, The Nation hoped, would be accepted by the world as it joined together in the League of Nations, which is what the editorial meant by invoking Wilson, the “American statesman,” and the idea of overcoming the “blackness” that was afflicting the global community.

Essential Themes

This editorial printed in The Nation was an attempt to challenge the thinking by conservatives, and others, who believed that the diverse population in the United States had resulted in a divided country. Using terms that the conservative press had used, The Nation presented the claim that while people may have looked different and come from different backgrounds, as the United States moved into the twentieth century, the citizens were united. In addition, while the war was a necessary response to the German actions directed against the United States, the magazine asserted that the unity of the nation went far beyond activities related to the war. To Villard and others on the editorial staff, what may have seemed like division prior to the war was actually the great strength of the country. To them, this was the “mysterious unity” that was the United States of America.

The early twentieth century was a time, in the United States, when there was a hardening of positions on many sides of social issues. This was partially a result of changes that had been occurring within society. Large numbers of immigrants had come into the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many from areas that previously had not had large numbers come to the United States. The editors of The Nation supported most of the changes and celebrated the social and intellectual diversity that the new population brought to the country. In this editorial, they affirmed the classic liberal position, that to be different is not necessarily a bad thing, and that to ask questions regarding various aspects of society is beneficial. This position, which continues to exist on the political compass today, was that in normal circumstances this diversity was not disunity. While being realistic and recognizing that certain circumstances, such as a world war, may create the need for greater uniformity, this was not the norm, nor was it desirable. Unity in spirit and in long-term aspirations for America was the true unity, according to Villard and the others, not the forced uniformity in our day-to-day actions.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Villard, Oswald Garrison. Fighting Years: Memoirs of a Liberal Editor. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1939. Print.
  • __________ and Anthony Gronowicz. Oswald Garrison Villard, the Dilemmas of the Absolute Pacifist in Two World Wars. New York: Garland Pub., 1983.
  • Wreszin, Michael. Oswald Garrison Villard: Pacifist at War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965. Print.
  • Zieger, Robert H. America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. Print.
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