Our Slump in Foreign Pets (August 1933)

This is a portion of Ralph Townsend’s article “Our Slump in Foreign Pets” which was originally published in The North American Review in August 1933. We sense in this piece Townsend’s frustration with the self-flagellating universalism of liberals and Christians, which he believed made Americans prone to exploitation by cynical out-groups. His frustration with the way who was or was not the “underdog” du jour impinged upon American foreign policy, is exhibited in his later writings.


Our Slump in Foreign Pets

By Ralph Townsend 

The North American Review

August 1933

When we stop showering unappreciated favors on the Chinese, our market should be saturated.

Ralph Townsend (1900-1976)
Ralph Townsend (1900-1976)

There are signs that we are soon to be without a foreign pet—without any journalistically chosen foreign country or distant people upon whom our sensation-stirring writers and plaintive orators may loose eulogies to wring extravagant sympathy out of average Americans. China, our last and longest foreign pet, seems about to pass from the roster as more and more intelligent opinion filters back to correct misinformation here. There is no successor in sight.

A review of our record in the matter of foreign pets is timely now. It provides some interesting trial-and-error data for future reference, should we be tempted again. First of all it is pertinent to note what circumstances operated to make certain racial groups or countries acceptable as pets, and what conditions proved ripe for a choice. We see as a primary requirement that the selection had to be made from a racial group or country that the average newspaper reader knew little about. Until recent years, before we acquired our present abundance of experience, this requirement was easy. As a second requirement, the pet had to be of supposedly inferior strength in conflict with a determined adversary. It helped, too, if the inferior contestant, the pet-to-be, possessed an ancient history, with which the average reader would be likewise unacquainted.

If these two main requirements were fulfilled, the pet’s plight could be reliably calculated to strike a responsive chord in our national temperament. In our curious system of ethical values, that characterizing what we call the man in the street, there are unbalanced and constantly shifting influences of Puritan traditions, Fourth of July speeches, chivalry as it is fictionalized, the British rugger code, Lafayette, Horatio Alger and rural back-yard dog fights. Important issues of this conglomeration include a readiness of genuine sympathy that is admirable and a speediness of reckless generosity that is dangerous. That guilt lies upon one side and innocence upon the other is taken for granted. We are expected to draw the inference, also, as spectators of any international or internecine strife, that one side (the weaker) is fighting for liberty and the other for tyranny.

The liberty interpretation comes as a natural analogy to our school book traditions of 1776, by which we tend to ascribe to any low-odds struggling group the motives that actuated us in our own crisis. If our record in the matter of foreign pets over the past forty years is examined, the uniformity of national sentiment in favor of the weaker or supposedly weaker is amazing. And it is illuminating today to check the number of these judgments which we have rightly or wrongly later reversed. There is not one of our former pets for whom we feel enthusiastic esteem today. What is equally significant, there is not one of them that exhibits any marked esteem for us.

Take Japan as an example. In 1904 Japan was a foremost American pet. That was when the allegedly formidable Russian armies were getting ready to annihilate the frail but righteous little Japanese over territory in Manchuria. American current opinion of the period is in astounding contrast to American retrospective regard of the same facts today. Thirty years ago leading editors, travelers, pulpit orators and missionaries dwelt enthusiastically upon Japan’s “mission” on the continent of Asia, a mission of carrying the light of advanced civilization to hordes who would otherwise remain indefinitely benighted. The clergy and pious lay thinkers referred to initial Japanese successes as nothing less than a testimony of the benign hand of God.

In 1933 the Japanese efforts of 1904 are seen as the greedy aggression of a bold and ruthless people. The Japanese victory that Americans awaited with such eagerness that they prayed for it became shortly after its realization, without a single alternation in the originally accepted facts, alarming evidence that a new foe of righteousness had arisen in the Far East. The Japanese were probably the most astonished people of modern times when they found that their claims which had been so applauded at the outset of the war were opposed, after victory, by a suddenly jealous world whose admiration had changed to alarm. They were newcomers on the diplomatic carpet at the time and anxious to meet the best standards of an unfamiliar international etiquette. After the Treaty of Portsmouth their statesmen sucked in their breath and took the verdict with a row of bows, though it lopped off much of what they had won. Japanese statesmen have made progress in international etiquette since then.

The point of note here is that at the beginning of the fray Japan’s status as the supposed under dog was exactly one to call forth American sympathy, and this was of more effect than the historical evidence that Russia had offered considerable provocation. Sympathy was translated into a devout credo of Japanese righteousness. When the Japanese won they forfeited our sympathy and along with it went our belief in the worthiness of their casus belli. Our display of the pet tendency in this instance served no purpose except to puzzle the Japanese with our inexplicable inconsistency.

A few years previous, however, this ever-ready surplus of sympathy did not let us off so lightly. It involved us in a war with Spain which by all evidence might easily have been avoided. Before the Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor, Madrid had shown a willingness to make wide concessions in the direction of self-government to the insurrectionist Cubans, whose pitiable plight had for months been spotting American newspapers with the tears of sympathetic citizens from coast to coast. Spain’s offer to the Cubans of a home-rule government similar to that of Canada might not have brought prosperity and bliss out of a situation that was justly an international scandal, but it would have provided a certain autonomy of distress, which is what turbulent subject peoples usually aim at when they talk about freedom and liberty. This announced concession on the part of Spain removed the provocation held by an increasing section of American opinion to justify intervention, since it assured cessation of oppression on the part of Spain.

As to the immediate provocation of hostilities, the sinking of the Maine, it was not established at the time, nor ever subsequently, that the vessel was sunk by the Spanish. As a matter of reasoned inference, it seems unlikely that the Spanish Government, already harassed by Cuban insurrectionists, would so deliberately invite defeat by a procedure which without offering any substantial military advantage would tend to ally with the revolutionaries a formidable foreign power. In any event the United States, if it so desired, had recourse to arbitration, which Spain offered. But swept by the tide of maudlin emotionalism which took the more complimentary label of patriotic indignation, President McKinley was cold to overtures. With a remedy in sight for the oppressions upon Cuba and an adjustment reasonably possible for the sinking of the Maine, war was declared upon the decrepit Madrid Government anxious to avoid it. The momentum of sympathy for our new pet was too strong.

The national indignation that led to the war with Spain was merely a varied guise of the fanatical, super-righteous emotionalism that had been progressively stirred up during months previous by newspaper owners who found that it paid in circulation returns. Led by Hearst, sensationalism in the press was at the time gaining a new technique of stronger potency. The powder and beef manufacturers who chimed in on the sympathy for Cuba clamor got credit for being good humanitarians. Thousands of itchy-footed adventurers, provided by editorial talent with a motive acceptable to the home folks, enlisted in the ranks. There they had their hearts swelled with orator-revealed patriotism which surprised them, and shortly had their ranks thinned by ptomaine poison from the beef, which surprised them even more. All this grand fiasco seems upon cool review rather remarkable, in view of the consideration that the plight of the Cubans in 1897-98 was not impressively worse than that of many Latin Americans before or since, and was probably not vastly worse than that of many others at that very time.

Our cash register return on the pet-made war with Spain has not as yet been very gratifying. It is worth mentioning, from the sentiment angle, that in both Cuba and Philippines today we are pretty cordially disliked.

During the first decade of the present century our passion for foreign pets remained fairly well within the bounds of prudence. The fervor for the Japanese, as much as anything else a sporting admiration with a touch of piety from the clergy, never approached our true possibilities of sentimentality. The embattled South Africans gained some sympathy, and so did the pogromized Jews in Russia. But it was not of the grab-a-gun and give-till-it-hurts variety. It was tepid and actionless. A critic of the period might have supposed we were gaining immunity to sob journalism, or had acquired what is termed in medical parlance a tolerance. But our emotionalism was merely quiescent, germinating for precedent-smashing frenzies ahead.

During the Balkan fracas preceding the World War, the Balkan states inspired a fair amount of sentimental twaddle. They were the chosen pet in conflict with the Turks, to whom clung a reputation of popular odium dating back to the Middle Ages, a reputation that has been somewhat renovated for the better by Americans visiting Turkey in recent years. In any event, an earnest hope for a Turkish defeat gripped broad-thinking Americans. The Servians, as they were then called, were found to possess an ancient and glamorous past, with all sorts of unsuspected virtues lurking under their honest bronzed skin. The Greeks merely awaited throwing off the Turkish “yoke” in certain allegedly Greek territory to show what they could contribute in the march of civilization. We discovered the Bulgarians, Montenegrans and Rumanians, all of whom revealed to the exploring eyes of war topic writers amazing potentialities of character and resources. Women’s dress designers, catching the fancy, contrived a “Balkan blouse” that was a great success. The idea of the Balkan allies, each with a staggering inheritance of virtue and culture, ready to bound forward to a new world destiny as soon as the Turks were defeated, captured the country.

But the sorry revelations of vicious treachery among the victors, plus a few other uncomplimentary disclosures, completely sobered public enthusiasm. Like previous pets, the Balkans faded out.

With the World War came Belgium. It was not sufficient that a considerable number of Belgians were destitute and in need of generous assistance. By their misfortunes they became to editors, clergymen and Red Cross speakers a sacrosanct species, torch-holders toward a spiritual stratosphere that the rest of us could only admire in distant murmured awe. All kinds of hysteria were loosed upon the arrival in the United States of the first batches of Belgian refugees. Public and private utterances approaching a maudlin insanity were heard everywhere. Even Julius Caesar’s references to the Belgians provided editorial themes, with up to date expansions on their virtues. So great was the magic of the name Belgium that fourteen years afterwards we elected to the Presidency a man who coaxed the hungrier ones into taking a little nourishment. And allowing that he stumbled upon the task by accident, certainly no American of the time would have picked any surer road to immortality than making himself chief steward of their condensed milk and biscuits.

A little later it was the French. Posters of the French mothers, babes in arms, bore a revealing likeness to the classic madonna. There was something unescapably holy about them. And legions of poilus, who after burying their gold under the plum tree had been drafted off to the front, became impassioned volunteers dying for the world’s liberties, each a sort of two-burdened Prometheus salvaging civilization’s culture in one hand and its freedom in the other. That they had something to fight for, and were making a splendid showing, was not a sufficient label upon their activities. We canonized the French as a pet second only to the Belgians. A crescendo of maddened sympathy swept the country. Dimes, quarters and millions of dollars poured across to them, which was on our part decently generous, and meanwhile school teachers, preachers and editors outdid one another in frenzied accolades upon them as the specially anointed custodian of mankind’s honor, which was shamefully ridiculous. The pet business was on with a vengeance.

With America in such a mood, with its emotionalism of sympathy for the afflicted shifting, as in 1898, to indignation against the alleged aggressor, our almost whole-hearted support given the pro-war group by April of 1917 is not astonishing. We went in to defend the right of shipping munitions to belligerents able to receive them, and declared war upon Germany for sinking the vessels daring to carry them. We have since, however, maintained the right of firing upon and sinking foreign vessels attempting to land liquor on our shores in time of peace. We recently endorsed an embargo on arms to belligerents in the Far East, in contrast to fighting a war fifteen years ago to defend the right of supplying them. The point of consistency under international principles is not raised here—the contrasting procedures are cited merely to illustrate the deflections of the national mind, with ethics, law and everything else bent into accommodation, once the pet fever gets well under way, and the sob cohorts have been thoroughly mobilized by the generalissimos of the circulation desk.

As a minor pet of the War period, every one well remembers the Armenians. Like the Belgians they were discovered to have an ancient and honorable culture dating back to zero and before. Cheerful, lovable, earnest, to a considerable extent Christian, they merely awaited throwing off the Turkish yoke to take a high place in the future family of nations. It was not long after the Armenian Relief workers returned to tell us first hand about the Armenians, however, that the Armenian pet frenzy fizzled out. The fact was that the A. R. workers liked the unspeakable Turk vastly more than they liked the Armenians, just as many of our soldiers, after representative experience, preferred the Germans to the French. The bated-breath plans for an Armenian Republic, to be instituted after everything was settled, are practically forgotten now. By the time everything was “settled” we couldn’t find enough Armenians. The Turks had got there first.

The Chinese, last on the pet list, are about to pass from the receiving end of our surplus sympathy exports for good reasons. The trickle of reliable information from China brings a good many facts correcting our traditional estimate. Our coddling endeavors have been more absurd in respect to the Chinese, if possible, than in any other direction.

No well-informed person expects our Government to withdraw its staunch support of what we call our Open Door policy, a policy which if defined by its evident workings exists as a sort of vaporous ideal, without the historical consistency of our Monroe Doctrine. Also, no well-informed person expects or desires a complete withdrawal of our now huge network of philanthropy in China.

But what well-informed Americans in China see, and what is increasingly recognized among the well-informed here, is that our indulgent sentimentality has badly overshot its mark. As it has operated in China it has not made the Chinese like us better. On the contrary, by the masses of Chinese it appears to be wholly misinterpreted or willfully taken advantage of, and it has encouraged them to run over us rough-shod, looting our property and outraging our citizens resident there as they would not loot and outrage the citizens of other nations. American sentimentality has extended to the Chinese a special dispensation, something on the order of the papal sale of indulgences during the Middle Ages, exempting them from penalty in offenses for which we would hold any other people strictly accountable. The reference here is not to uncontrollable outbreaks of lawlessness such as may be expected in many places under present conditions in the country. It is to a provocative attitude on the part of leading Chinese officials who genially sanction or connive at outrages against Americans, smilingly and correctly confident that our Government, committed through home sentimentality to an extreme pro-China policy, will not take action such as other governments might. For the Chinese, with their so-called Oriental disposition to edge in a mile when given an inch, the situation is a picnic. Our property holders are harassed by the Chinese to an extent absolutely astounding to persons who have not lived in China, and the Chinese officials are prevalently either a party to this pestering or else refuse to interfere in open cases of the most outrageous attempts at thievery and extortion, and this in cities where there is no excuse from the standpoint of insufficient authority.

The foregoing facts are in interesting contrast to our colossal philanthropy in China, aggregating more than that of all other countries represented there combined, with hundreds of institutions of all sorts and thousands of trained workers. The contrast is more vivid when it is emphasized that the outrages to Americans in China, from which the Chinese as our pet are leniently excused, are not perpetrated exclusively by the professionally vicious classes there nor exclusively by the illiterate. They are to a very considerable extent perpetrated by Chinese of relatively good education, and often those whose education is wholly or in part derived from American philanthropy. Incendiarism by students upon American-built school buildings is so prevalent, for example, that the missionary teachers commonly take turns patrolling the dormitories and classroom buildings all night. At that, schools are frequently burned by their Chinese students. In regard to incendiarism and other secret crimes, Chinese officials could not of course be of direct assistance. But the culpability on their part referred to is in respect to innumerable open offenses against Americans, such as attempted intimidation and seizures of property where the parties are recognized and known, without there being any protection or redress offered.

Of course much excellent work is being accomplished by our philanthropies in China, and the graduates of our mission schools include large numbers of well-disposed Chinese. They do not appear to make themselves seriously felt in rectification of the injustices mentioned, however. They do not impress us on the spot as being very seriously concerned about the matter. Why should they? It has been demonstrated that Americans will stand for nearly anything.

The true facts regarding our pet policy toward the Chinese are worth dwelling upon in brief detail, because the policy has been a more vicious boomerang there than in most other places. The true facts have not been available because there are just three classes of Americans on the scene familiar with them, and each of these is effectively muzzled. The three are the missionaries, not anxious to have the exact nature of the difficulties aired or their poor progress emphasized, and who in their reports manage to confuse what they hope for with actual results; the business group, who in prudence can not make trouble for their firms in China by openly telling the truth; and the Government officials stationed there, who are strictly forbidden to make public uncomplimentary facts while in Government service. Resident newspaper correspondents do not cable details of the situation because for one thing it is too chronic to constitute news, and also because the American pro-pet appetite is edged for news of progress to vindicate the faith propagated by totally unreliable Chinese speakers in this country and equally unreliable fund-raising missionaries blindly committed to carry on with enterprises which, if the facts were known, might not be well supported.

This explains why the China pet has persisted so long. Our consuls who sweat in helplessness to render proper assistance to Americans in China realize that our Government is guided not by reports from the field, but by misinformed home sentiment. The clamor of ignorant persons—our “leading educated group”—to the Department of State for indulgence toward the dear Chinese has been voluminous, and its magnitude has been in direct proportion to its underlying misinformation.

More dangerous than the havoc wrought upon American property in China, a second direct result of the China pet twaddle, was the anti-Japanese indignation. In defense of our pet the Chinese, who have filled their school books with matter calculated to incense students against us, who have looted our property at will for years, who have repudiated obligations right and left, who have fomented anti-foreign disorders against us, who have boycotted our goods for this or that unsubstantial fancied grievance, a considerable body of super-righteous Americans was ready last year to involve us with Japan, who in the view of foreign observers on the spot merely refused to stand for what America stood for. No sanction of the startling Japanese severity is intended here—that is another subject. It is submitted, however, that if Americans at home were acquainted with the facts familiar to Americans in China, there would have been less maudlin sympathy for the Chinese.

To access the full article contact Joshua Blakeney. 

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