They Find Us Hard to Believe (Dec, 1951)

|<<
<< Previous
1 of 5
|<<
<< Previous
1 of 5

They Find Us Hard to Believe

By BEVERLY SMITH

Washington Editor of The Saturday Evening Post

The Frenchman’s eyes popped at American laborers driving expensive cars. The Britisher concluded that the U.S. production secret was our wives’ greed. The Italian went mad over supermarkets. Here’s how we look to Europeans sent here by ECA.

Columbus sailed the ocean blue In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-two.

THAT was Europe’s first discovery of America. The second discovery is now under way, as an unforeseen by-product of the Marshall Plan. The Europeans are at last trying to understand what one Britisher described to me as “your vast and incomprehensible country.” They want to know what makes America tick — and click. They are coming over here by the thousands, not as tourists, but as teams of earnest investigators bent on finding out how Americans live and work, in their homes and offices, their farms and factories. These are the so-called “Technical Assistance Teams.” They go back to Europe to spread a strange new gospel known in French as productivité, in German as Productivity, in Italian as produttività, and in Dutch as productivite it. What surprises them most about this mysterious productivity, by which Americans outproduce their European counterparts by sometimes as much as two or three to one, is that it resides only partly in our fancy machinery and mass-production methods. More importantly, they find, it grows out of the entire attitude and spirit of the American people.

As a Norwegian engineer observed to me, “The strength of America is not in the turn of a lathe, but in a turn of mind.” And he marveled that this turn of mind is not confined to production experts, but pervades the entire population, whether corporate executives, machine tenders, farmers or housewives. As Lord McGowan, the British industrialist, said, after studying the reports of dozens of returning British teams, “Americans seem to have a fervent belief —one might almost call it a religion — that the discovery of faster, cheaper ways of doing a job and making better products for the service of man is everybody’s business.” We hope his lordship is right, though we can think offhand of a couple of million exceptions.

Even more revolutionary, perhaps, is the discovery by Europeans that Americans are comparatively normal human beings. I asked a foreman from Brussels, a member of a machine-tool team, what had impressed him most in his study of America. Was it the skyscrapers? The millions of cars? The humming assembly lines? He shook his head.

“Le home” he said. Seeing that this puzzled me, he went on to explain. He was astonished, he said, to find that most Americans have happy and affectionate home lives, just like people in Belgium. But yes, he had been invited into many such homes; he had seen them with his own eyes. Hitherto he had judged America by the occasional Hollywood films he had seen. These films were very exciting, very dramatic, but he had not found in them anything he could recognize as family life. He remembered one picture, years ago, in which William Powell and Myrna Loy had seemed happily married, but since Monsieur Powell was a detective, there had been much drinking, shooting and higlif— not like a home. I started to point out that even our detectives do not live like M. Powell and Mile. Loy, but decided to let that illusion ride.

Many of the visitors comment on this fact of American home life, until now apparently concealed from Europeans. As one French team revealed in their report: “Nous pénétrons enfin dans le secret de la vie américaine —le home.” They also noted with interest, after having read for years about the marital antics of our playboys, heiresses and movie stars, that not all Americans vacation in Reno.

These misconceptions are natural enough. While millions of Americans of all classes have roamed over Europe, in or out of uniform, the reverse traffic has been a trickle. For Europeans of moderate means the costs of a transatlantic tour make the U.S.A. as remote as the moon. The relative few who visit America have been mainly of the wealthier classes, traveling a New York-Florida-California plush-carpet route, and glimpsing the rest of the country through the windows of a plane or streamliner.

Consequently 99.9 per cent of the Europeans must pick up such secondhand impressions of America as they can. The movies display the glittering dream world of Hollywood. The newsreels, on the other hand, picture Americans as plagued by floods, hurricanes, riots, auto-race smash-ups, beauty contests and female wrestlers. The popular European press specializes in our strikes, gang killings and debauchery de luxe. To add to the confusion there is the steady short-wave drumfire from behind the Iron Curtain, asserting that millions of Americans are starving in the streets, while other millions slave under the lash of the Wall Street warmongers, taking time out only for lynching parties. The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe strive to counteract this, but some of the communist propaganda sinks in by sheer repetitive suggestion.

Why don’t the Europeans turn to American literature for enlightenment? Some do, but this also can have befoozling results. Writers such as Steinbeck, Mailer, Caldwell and Jones present a view of America as quaint as that of the movies, and more misleading to the stranger. One elderly Hollander, an industrial designer, prepared conscientiously for his technical-assistance trip to the U.S.A. He had heard about America’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist, so he inquired about Mr. Faulkner’s most famous book, and obtained a copy of Sanctuary to read on the ship coming over.

Later, to one of his American hosts, he confided his bewilderment. “I studied very hard to understand this book,” he said, “and finally when no one was looking I dropped it overboard. In case of accident—you know —I did not wish my family to find it among my effects. Of course,” he added, “I have read other things, pleasanter things about America. But reading is no good, pictures are no good, wireless is no good for understanding the United States. I had no concept of what it is like until the last few weeks, when I have seen how Americans really live and work. I still do not fully grasp your complex country, but I have some idea, some appreciation of it, and I will try hard to convey it to my friends and colleagues in Europe.”

When Congress passed the law setting up the Marshall Plan, in April of 1948, one of its main objects was to increase the productivity of Western Europe, so that that area could eventually stand on its own feet. Therefore the law provided for technical assistance to friendly countries.

One obvious way to do this is to send American production experts to Europe to explain our methods and techniques, and a good deal of this has been done. In the summer of 1948 a new idea appeared. It grew out of a conversation between Paul Hoffman, administrator of the Marshall Plan, and Sir Stafford Cripps, who, as Britain’s leading patent lawyer, appreciated America’s technical achievements. Cripps said that lectures, formulas, charts and statistics were all very well. “But one look is worth a lot of advice and description. I wish our people could see how you do it, right in your own factories and farms.” Hoffman, a successful automobile manufacturer, understands both production and salesmanship. He caught up Cripps’ idea at once and expanded it. Why not send teams of Europeans to study American production on the spot? And, since productivity means everybody pulling together, why limit the study tours to eminent engineers and experts? Send a cross section on each team — workers, foremen, technicians, managers, owners.

To develop the idea in England, the Anglo-American Council on Productivity was set up, consisting of industrial and union leaders in each of the two countries. The head of the American section was Philip Reed, chairman of the board of the General Electric Company. As the plan worked out, the expenses of the teams are paid in part by Marshall Plan funds, in part by contributions of the British Government, industry and trade-unions. In general this pattern of payments is followed by other European teams, though the contributions vary somewhat from country to country. From the point of view of the American taxpayer, the costs of the European Technical Assistance (TA) teams are relatively small. Although many observers feel that these teams have become one of the most valuable features of the Marshall Plan, they have absorbed less than one tenth of 1 per cent of EC A appropriations. Recently Congress created the Mutual Security Agency (MSA) to take over the work of EC A and shift the emphasis from economic to military aid, but technical assistance will be continued and intensified, since higher productivity is essential in bearing the burdens of rearmament.

American monetary aid, indeed, has been less important to the teams than the voluntary efforts of thousands of Americans, who vie with one another in their amiable efforts to instruct and entertain the visitors. Chambers of commerce, the CIO, the AFL, and the National Association of Manufacturers co-operate in advising on the tours and making them a success. Businessmen throw open their factories, often at a sacrifice of working schedules, and drop other duties to serve as personal guides. Workers patiently repeat their operations or perform them in slow motion, to be sure the visitors understand. Engineers go to infinite trouble, working through the interpreters who accompany the non-English-speaking teams, to make clear the fine points of technique. In the evening the company may “throw a feed” for the team or the individual members may be invited to the homes of workers or managers.

Of course there are exceptions. Some American companies decline to receive the teams or brush them off with a quick trot through the plant. The great majority of Americans, however, at all levels, will rim themselves — and the visitors—ragged to make the visits worth while.

This produces a lasting impression upon the Europeans. They have heard of the generosity of the Marshall Plan, with its billions for foreign aid. But those billions are somewhere up in the stratosphere of “politics.” The friendly helpfulness of the average nonpolitical American is something the visitor can see and feel. He responds to it and does not forget it.

The Europeans recognize that there is an element of pride —or even vanity—in the American’s eagerness to explain his methods. As one American said, “Sure, we like to strut our stuff.” (That was a tough one for the interpreter.) What surprises the visitors is that this pride extends up and down, from the workbench to the top office. An Italian engineer visited six American motor plants. In each, the workers assured him that their motor was the best on the market, and told him why. A British visitor talked with a striker on the picket line. The worker spoke freely of the canine ancestry of the company’s president. “He’s a stubborn old-,” he said. ” But you got to admit he runs the best company in the business. If you want to learn about production, why don’t you talk to him?”

A French earth-moving team was inspecting the tunnel being driven through the Continental Divide at the Big Thompson Project, to divert the waters of the Colorado River to the Big Thompson River. The work was being pushed in three shifts. The visitors noticed that each shift would mark how far they had driven the tunnel.

“The shift that goes farther gets more pay?” one Frenchman inquired. No, he was told, that does not affect the pay. Then why, he asked, should the shift mark up its record? The American foreman scratched his head over that.

” Well,” he said, “it’s kind of a game, I guess. Each shift wants to prove it can outdig the other guys. And besides, the faster we cut, the faster we all get out of this hole.”

The Frenchmen took copious notes on this novel bit of American philosophy, and were later heard debating it hotly among themselves. Even more fascinating to the Frenchmen, and, in fact, to all the European teams, is the American “big-pie” idea. This is expressed in several ways, one of which is: “The bigger we make the pie, the more there is for all, and the easier it is to divide it up without squawks.” As soon as they get off the boat the visitors begin to hear about this big pie —”the more efficiently we all produce, the better we all live.” They hear it from employers, labor leaders, economists, farmers and workers.

At first they are skeptical. As they go from factory to factory, from one state to another, checking on the weekly wages, pricing articles in shops and stores, sharply observing the general standard of living, they conclude that the pie is not in the sky. They embrace the idea of the big pie — sometimes with curious results. A Danish team inspected a new plastic-materials plant in the Midwest. The company’s president himself proudly showed them around, pointing out the excellence of his equipment and his product. Afterward the Danish team leader made a little speech of thanks.

“Sir,” he said, in careful English, “in this establishment you are creating an admirable, a superb, a magnificent pie”

“Good heavens,” wailed the plastics manufacturer, “does he think we are making pies? ” It took a little while to clarify the situation and soothe the ruffled industrialist.

One of the first things that strike the visitors is the friendly freedom with which Americans open up their plants and show their techniques. Every member of the European teams, by the way, is given a security check before he leaves home, by his own government and by American Intelligence representatives. Among the workers, for example, only members of anticommunist unions are acceptable. These workers believe that if some of their acquaintances in the communist-dominated unions could be brought over here and given an eyewitness view of American pay and working conditions—no need to let them see any war-production plants —it would do more than anything else to break the communist grip on European labor in such countries as France and Italy. Sounds reasonable, but EC A officials are afraid of the idea — Congress might blow a gasket.

An even more radical suggestion was made by a British foundry worker at the end of his American tour.

“Take old Stalin,” he said. “Disguise him so no one would take a shot at him, bring him over here to the States, show him what you have shown us, and he would give up forever any idea of making war on the U.S.A.”

As I say, the Europeans are at first startled, almost shocked, at the freedom with which Americans disclose their methods. “But we may compete with you,” said one Dutch visitor frankly to an American manufacturer. “How can you afford to show us these things? A Dutch manufacturer will not even show his rival the road to Rotterdam.”

“We don’t see it that way,” said the American. “We show our competitors through the plant any old day. By the time they can imitate a new process, we are two more jumps ahead. And they do the same for us. Look at our annual convention. We all go there, order up the drinks, brag about what we are doing and compare notes. That doesn’t mean we don’t compete—we do, and how! It just means the whole industry moves ahead twice as fast.”

Of course American industry has some trade secrets, but the area of secrecy is small compared with traditional European practice. This openness is hard for the Europeans to accept, especially the older men. By the time they have finished their six weeks’ tour, however, and have seen the impetus which exchange of information gives to productivity, the idea begins to sink in. Here is a quote from a report on members of a Dutch team after it returned to Holland: ” Mr. W. H. Braskamp, of Voorburg, manufacturer of electrical machinery, said that for the first time in his life he had received a competitor in his plant, showing him the shop and having a frank talk about their mutual problems. * Well,’ he said, ‘if I had not been in America I never would have come to that.’ This last observation may not appear very important to Americans, but it is to a man living with European prejudices.”

Further, the report continues: “Some leading factory engineers of well-known machine works (are now) meeting every two months … to discuss their mutual difficulties and to find together the way out.”

The Europeans are impressed by the general lack of servility in America; by the cheerfulness and outspokenness of workers of all grades; by the “decentralization of decision” in the plants; by the number of executives who have come up through the ranks; by the frequent use of first names between employer and employee, and sometimes — most strange! — between the head of the company and the head of the union. “And often we use stronger names,” explained one company president. “You can’t battle a guy through a week of day-and-night negotiations in a stuffy hotel room, and try to stand on formiity.”

We Americans think of ourselves as irresponsible in many respects. The visitors give us unexpectedly high marks for responsibility, at least so far as our jobs are concerned; they say we share it more widely than in Europe, and live up to it well; the employee will often go beyond his required duties. The teams frequently travel out to factories by chartered bus. The driver does not merely drive the bus; usually he constitutes himself guide, counselor and friend to the visitors; he will work overtime to show them the wonders of his home town. A French team was enchanted to see a small white-belted schoolboy stop a huge stream of traffic so his schoolmates could cross the street.

“You see,” exclaimed one of the Frenchmen. “Le sens des responsabilités! It begins even in the school.”

The next time your own youngster uses your electric razor on the cat, or tests his new flying tackle on grandma, just remind him of his high “sens des responsabilités.”

A French team of machine-tool builders was staying at the Hotel Alms in Cincinnati. They had been tramping through factories and watching machine operations until they were footsore, eye-weary and perhaps a bit depressed by the roaring volume of production they were expected to emulate. They were sympathetically observed by Alonzo McAllister, the Negro doorman of the hotel. He is an intelligent man, and a student of music. A musical evening, he thought, would be just the thing for these tired visitors. He spoke of it to his friend Thor Johnson, who is a regular guest at the Hotel Alms, and who happens to be the distinguished conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Johnson was delighted with the idea, and said he would see what he could do.

And so, a couple of evenings later, the members of the French team were guests of honor of the Symphony Orchestra at a spirited program of French music. The homesick visitors were touched and happy to the point of tears.

“It was the high point of our trip,” said a team member later. “And to think it was Monsieur McAllister, he who helped with our baggages when we arrived, who had the kindness and imagination to initiate this beautiful gesture. After that, even your mighty American machinery took on for us an amiable aspect.”

From all the foregoing, it is apparent that these teams, originally set up to study production techniques, have come incidentally to serve a far wider purpose. Hardly any of these visitors have ever seen America before. They represent a cross section of the vast majority of Europeans who have hitherto been much in the dark about our ways. It is fair to say that these trips are voyages of discovery. When they get home the explorers spread the word of their findings. They write painstaking reports, which are circulated through their industries and professions, and quoted in the press. They give talks to their trade-unions, their employers’ associations, their engineering societies. They tell their friends.

They don’t all love us, by any means. They find much to criticize in our vaunted “American way of life.” Certain of our customs amuse or exasperate them. They work on an exhausting schedule. I have seen some of the visitors so tired that the very sight of American energy must give them a headache.

On balance, however, they like the actual America better than the country they had imagined. After living among us they regard us with less awe and more sympathy; with less envy and more respect; with less apprehension and more affection. They express this variously. A Luxembourger said, “We see that Americans, also, have troubles. Here, too, there are women who weep and men who are heavy-burdened. Somehow that had not occurred to us. We see that your high standard of living is not luck —not something that drops from the sky. It comes from toil and hard thinking, from good will, from amazing teamwork.”

One French electrical engineer was glum and skeptical on his arrival here. After a few days he chirped up and began to enjoy himself. One day he wrote an air-mail post card to his wife, and the American accompanying the team — the project manager—posted it for him. He glanced at the card. It said: “My dear: You have no idea of how attractive the Americans are when they are not tourists. In their own milieu they are a different species.”

In the fall of 1948 a group of Norwegian workers and labor leaders was permitted to visit Russia. Soon afterward a similar Norwegian labor team visited the United States. Returning to Norway, each team wrote up a careful report.

The report on Russia was politely phrased — after all, little Norway has a strip of common frontier with the Soviet Union —but this politeness seemed to make more damning the dry recital of what the team had observed. They had found comforts and even luxuries among the small communist elite. For the vast majority of the population, living standards were pitifully low: frightful housing, shabby clothing, a monotonous diet of bread, potatoes and vegetables. “The general average wage is only sufficient for purchasing the absolute necessities for maintenance of life.” The homes of the workers? Unfortunately, the Norwegians noted, the law makes it a crime for a Russian to receive foreigners in his home. There was much secrecy everywhere; statistics were “not available”; the team was permitted to visit the two largest cities “but did not see any part of the countryside at all.” The report concluded with the charitable hope that the Soviet Union “will gradually pass into a happier stage of development.”

The team which visited America reported that it found no secrecy. “Everything we required . . . was immediately placed at our disposal.” They moved about freely and talked with whom they pleased. They noted, despite occasional strikes, a friendly and cooperative feeling between labor and management —a feeling of “we are in the same boat.” Their chief criticism was that we lack an adequate system of health insurance. They concluded, after citing facts and figures, that: “The American worker is the best paid in the world. The purchasing power of his income places him in a class by himself.”

The reports by the two Norwegian labor teams, the one on Russia and the one on America, were published side by side in the same pamphlet, which was widely read. The impact of the contrast did much to destroy the influence of communism in Norway.

The specific task of the teams is still to study American techniques and productivity. To go into their technical findings would take a book for each team, and the reports they write are, in fact, of book length. The report of the British Steel Founding Team runs to 108 pages; that of the Dutch Metal Industry Team to 160 pages; that of the Inter-European Pulp and Paper Industry Team to 378 pages.

Certain comments recur throughout the reports. Generally the Europeans are not so much impressed by our machines—they have read about them in their technical magazines. They are impressed rather by how well the machines are placed, the planning of the factory layout, the smooth flow of materials. The worker does not have to lift, pull and haul; the material comes to him at the right time and place; conveyors do the carrying, or the swift little fork-lift trucks. They find our factories—usually — ugly on the outside, attractive and well-lighted on the inside. They note the importance we give to personnel policies, to job evaluation, to cost accounting, to time and motion studies. One Britisher says we apply time-motion studies to everything but eating.

“Each American engineer tells me about time-motion studies,” he said. “Then we go to dinner. He holds the fork in his left hand, his knife in his right. He cuts his meat. He lays down knife, transfers fork to right hand, conveys food to mouth. He retransfers fork to left hand, picks up knife, cuts another piece of meat, and so on. Shockingly inefficient, reahlly!”

He even spoofed one of his American friends into trying to eat in the English fashion, with a considerable spillage of gravy. Since American efficiency is drummed into the visitors from morning to night for weeks on end, they enjoy noting —not without a tinge of amiable malice —the occasional lapses in our performance. “We flew into St. Louis at 350 miles an hour. Marvelous. Great saving of time. Then we stood around for forty-two minutes waiting for our bags to be unloaded!” They are pleased by our cafeterias, but find the service slow in the restaurants. They wonder why we tolerate such long lines at the railroad ticket windows. They love our sleeping-car roomettes, but are disturbed, in the usual curtained sleeper, by the lack of privacy and the adjacent symphony of snores. ” In-croyable!” As for the upper berths: “When one wishes to go to the W. C., one must sound the alarm bell, wait for help, and then scramble half-clad down a ladder—as though one’s house were on fire.”

The Europeans are overwhelmed by the size and number of our automobiles, and their widespread ownership. A French team, at the Hill Acme foundry in Cleveland, watched sympathetically the heavy labors of trois noirs — three Negro steel puddlers. “What was our surprise then, at quitting time, to see the three blacks drive nonchalantly away in a luxurious new car (une luxueuse voiture du tout dernier modele J.” A thrifty Dane stared incredulously at a factory parking area containing 6000 cars. “But they will never be able to pay for them —never,” he asserted.

“You’re right,” said a parking attendant. “They’ll just trade them in and start paying on the next one.” This left the Dane more in the dark than ever.

Unable to envision such a profusion of cars in their own countries, the Europeans take a wry consolation in our parking troubles. One American drove his Dutch guest two miles into town and got there, fighting heavy traffic, in eleven minutes. Then he sweated ten minutes more trying to wedge his car into a narrow parking spot.

“Do you have a mess-up like this in Holland too?” he asked his guest.

“Oh, no,” said the Hollander. “My bicycle takes me nicely to the office in twelve minutes.”

The Europeans helpfully suggest that Americans would be happier and more efficient if we made our cars — which to them seem enormous —a foot or so shorter.

Back in the 1930′s there was a Charlie Chaplin movie called Modern Times. It pictured Chaplin as a worker driven to distraction by the speed and gadgets of mass production. Perhaps because of Chaplin’s popularity, it left a deep impression. It gave European workers the idea that the famous American productivity is based on a cruel and inhuman speed-up of American labor—an idea which the communists have not failed to pick up and ex- ploit to the utmost. Americans deny it, but the thought sticks —until European workers come over here and see with their own eyes. Then at last it sinks in that Americans work about the same hours as they do and generally under more comfortable conditions. They wonder at the absence of wheelbarrows, hods, shovels, sledgehammers, and are enthralled by the variety of ingenious power-driven hand tools by which the American lightens his toil. The American does not have to fuss around and hunt for things; the work “flows to his hand.”

At the same time, the Europeans note that the American, while he uses less physical energy than they do, works with more concentration. “He seems to throw himself into it,” they say. “He goes at it with a will.” One visitor pointed to a brisk, whistling operator. “See,” he said, “he works as if he were making something for himself.” ” Well, ain’t he? ” commented the foreman. “He buys our product too. (Shoes, in this case.) Best on the market.”

This habitual energy on the job, this apparently voluntary hustle is a continuing source of wonder to the Europeans—maybe we should allow a discount here for the fact that the worker knows strangers are watching. The visitors debate it among themselves. Some attribute it to our invigorating climate. Others call it a survival from strenuous pioneer days or put it down to a better diet, a stronger ambition, a keener competitive spirit. A favorite theory is that American wives put on the pressure. The Europeans view American women with admiration and a touch of awe; they endorse the slogan of our esteemed affiliate the Ladies’ Home Journal: ” Never underestimate the power of (an American) woman.”

A popular London newspaper, after interviewing a returning British team, ran a banner headline: Ooh-Buy-Me-That Wives Spur Yank Productivity. A French visitor, Pierre Ferenczi writes: “The American women forever astonish us. It is well known that in the U. S. A. they possess 75 % of the American wealth, and exert an influence proportional to their riches.” M. Ferenczi goes on to say he has at last discovered the secret of these charming ladies’ power. In rural Ohio, he says, he attended a meeting of women who were addressed by a “farm wives’ counselor.” She would give her hearers, he expected, useful tips on such matters as cooking, sewing, housekeeping. But no. First the lady lecturer explained how they should weigh each bit of their food so as not to get fat. Then she launched into the main theme of her talk: “How to guide your husband in making a proper will.” This, writes M. Ferenczi, made his hair stand on and (m’a fait dresser les cheveux sur la tete).

“And now you can see,” he concludes, “how in America productivity pervades every domain.” Thus our visitors find much to brighten the tedium of instruction.

The impression the travelers get of America depends greatly upon the American project managers who accompany each team. They are usually employees of EC A (now MSA), but may be chosen from the departments of Commerce, Labor, Agriculture or private industry —on contract —to fit the special needs of the team. These men plan the tour, arrange in advance for factory visits, line up the transportation, guard against mishaps, preserve harmony and try to show their charges a fair slice of American life. They live with the teams for six weeks, and need the combined gifts of an economist, baggage smasher, diplomat and wet nurse. It is an exhausting job, modestly paid, but has attracted a variety of unusual talent. Col. Charles W. (Chuck) Kerwood has been a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, a soldier of fortune, a colonel in the Greek Air Force, a sales representative in Europe, an officer of the American Air Force and a member of MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo. He is especially effective with the French teams, and makes sure that they see the life as well as the factories of America. John Saunders is a consulting engineer with industrial experience in many states. Bradford Johnson, a mechanical engineer, came up through the ranks of the automotive industry. John H. Street is a manufacturer of tank- and plane-control instruments. Samuel Stovall, real-estate man, ex-professor of engineering, student of art, music and law, describes himself as a ” polymathist” — a man of varied learning—a useful faculty for a project manager. Albro Fowler, ex-machine gunner in the AEF, was a business management consultant before shepherding TA teams at a fraction of his former salary. All the project managers I have met grumble about their hard lot, boast about their teams and seem wrapped up in their work. They treasure sheaves of appreciative letters from their charges who have returned to Europe.

The visitors vary in their estimates of American food and drink. The French like our beer better than our wine; they are highly amused at what we call “French dressing,” and appalled by the oyster cocktail drowned in catchup. They are disappointed in our hotel and restaurant cooking; surprised at the excellence of the meals in many American homes. The British don’t like our beer, but say the Scotch whisky here is better than they can get at home. They like our banana splits. They carry their own marmalade with them, and pine for British tea and kippered herring.

On two American institutions the European teams are unanimous: they all delight in our kitchens and supermarkets. Whenever an American asks the visitors to his home, the party eventually gravitates to the kitchen, to examine the stove and the washing machine, to peer into the electric refrigerator, to study the congealed food and juices in the freezing compartment. Even the sink with its hot and cold running water, which we take so much for granted, wins high praise. An Italian chemist said he could get along without a car and television. “But if my good wife had such a kitchen, her whole existence would be happier.”

Supermarkets have become a commonplace in America. To Europeans they are as strange and exciting as a fairyland. The immense variety of products, the ease of access, the convenient way in which meat or cheese is ready-wrapped soigneusement emballe”) with its weight and price marked —all these enchant them. They love the little metal baskets on wheels — “un chariot leger a deux etages “—especially the ones which have a seat where mamma can tuck in her small child. “What love, what consideration for the little ones this shows!” exclaimed one visitor. The supermarket manager explained that it also prevents the little ones from wrecking the joint. The visitor was a bit taken aback, but conscientiously made a note of this, too —one more item for his report on this surprising land and its people.

the end

4 comments
  1. Andrew L. Ayers says: May 9, 20113:54 pm

    @Hirudinea: I have a feeling that what “happened” was – overall – religion. Somehow, rather than religion becoming a minor part of socialness (like in most of Europe and other western nations), here it went the opposite direction. It really began to get running during the whole “spiritualism” craze of the late 1800s and early 1900s in the “Burned Over” district (http://en.wikipedia.org…) of New York, which spun off a whole mess of religious and other social movements (including the Mormons!). Over time, these settled in various areas, some growing, most dying out. However, during the 1960s (hippies, free love, etc) – it all flared up again, and you had a Christian movement (of many stripes) gaining young followers, “saving” them from the sure “hell” of following the more “traditional” notion of “hippiedom” (or whatever you want to call it). There were some “mainstream” preachers and such who lasted a while during and after this time, then there were the “Jesus Freaks”, then there were the crazy cults (aka – the Mansons); all purporting salvation, etc. Now – on the more “normal” side of all this – your standard “mainstream” revivalists and some of the Jesus Freaks – they eventually (at least, I suspect – I have no “hard” evidence) hooked up with the Republican Party in the 1970s (a natural fit), then co-opted it and got Ronald Reagan elected. The rest you can probably figure out from there…

  2. Randle Patrick McMurphy says: May 9, 20116:09 pm

    What happened? Nixon’s Southern strategy, Reaganomics, faith in American exceptionalism:

    “millions of Americans are starving in the streets, while other millions slave under the lash of the Wall Street warmongers, taking time out only for lynching parties”. A caricature of Soviet propaganda then, not far from the truth now.

    Disrespect for the value of knowing how to actually make things, versus making deals:
    “he works as if he were making something for himself.” ” Well, ain’t he? ” commented the foreman. “He buys our product too. (Shoes, in this case.) Best on the market.”

    Abandonment of the collaboration between labor and capital: “a feeling of “we are in the same boat.”

    Unchanged: “Their chief criticism was that we lack an adequate system of health insurance.”

  3. Don says: May 10, 201111:08 am

    The Russians loved the ice cold water fountain at the USA exhibit in Moscow…1959. There was always a line to get a drink of the cold water.

  4. Stan says: May 10, 20111:07 pm

    @ Hirudinea: The world emulated us, have you ever heard the song ‘We All Live in Amerika’ by Ramstein? When the world started drinking our Koolaid everyone wanted what we wanted and to get things cheap production went to poor countries causing the US mass unemployment along with the rest of Europe. The only people with jobs are those that make next to nothing.

    Enjoy the McDonalds next to your house where ever you’re from.

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.