Cultural Negotiation and "What It Means to be an American"

DPs newspaper article, "They Find a Haven in America"

In these documents, we see the authors struggle to define “American-ness”, during an era of American history when conceptions of what it meant to be an American were rapidly changing in the estimation of many different groups within society. World War II itself served as a catalyst that helped to transform people’s ideas on inclusiveness, and on who should be admitted to “mainstream” society. Men from minority groups within American society, such as African-Americans, Catholics, and Jews, often fought alongside white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants during the war and achieved a new sense of belonging. Whatever their differences, Americans of all stripes were unified by their opposition to Nazism. While World War II, of course, did not immediately result in a perfectly integrated American society, events during the war paved the way for later steps forward in race relations. 

  • Did the situation of foreigners, such as Displaced Persons, seeking entry to the United States parallel the situation of  minorities seeking entrance into mainstream American culture, or are they separate issues?
  • Was there an “ideal” American type? If so, what did this type look like? Who had constructed this type? Who feared that Displaced Persons would have difficulty adjusting to and fitting into American culture, and why?

Even in contemporary politics, we can still observe many people invoking the qualities associated with an ideal “American-ness.” Resilience, resourcefulness, a willingness to work hard, and a spirit of optimism about the future are some of the qualities that the authors of these documents describe the refugees as possessing, in order to illustrate the refugees’ compatibility with American culture. The documents’ emphasis on the agricultural background of many refugees can also be seen as a nod to the agrarian tradition in American society. Many American thinkers and writers, from Thomas Jefferson to Wendell Berry, have perceived the rural, farming life as more pure, noble, and quintessentially American than the urban lifestyle. Of course, in reality, neither Americans nor refugees were a homogenous group; wide variations in religion, ethnicity, education and region of origin could be found among both.

  • How do these documents seek to integrate refugees and DPs into the agrarian tradition?
  • In these documents, do the authors portray refugees and DPs in the same way all the time, or do they tailor their descriptions of DPs to appeal to the particular group within American society they are addressing at the moment?
  • Do you think that the experience of caring for refugees and DPs also helped to transform American citizens’ own definitions of “what it means to be an American”?
  • Is inclusivity itself also praised in these documents as part of the American ideal? Why or why not? Is this inclusivity absolute, or does it have exceptions?

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