March 31, 2014

1956. What Foreigners Think About Americans

What Foreigners Think About Us
Edward R. Murrow and some of the Murrow Boys in 1950. Bill Downs is standing on the far left.

From Pageant, June 1956. "What Foreigners Think About Us," pages 117-123.
"Today, it's important to know how other countries feel about America. Especially in view of the import of international politics, foreign aid, threat of war and, of course, the American overseas tourist. To find out how others see us, Pageant asked top CBS-TV and foreign correspondents in seven countries to interview the man in the foreign street on what he thinks about Americans.

"Newsmen who held the mirror up for us were David F. Schoenbrun, Paris; Daniel Schorr, Moscow; Bill Downs, Rome; Howard K. Smith, London; Richard C. Hottelet, Bonn, Germany; Robert C. Pierpoint, Tokyo; Alexander Kendrick, Africa.

"None of the correspondents knew what his fellow newsman in the country next door was saying—but wait till you read from their reports. It seems that everyone from Africans to Frenchmen has definite and similar opinions of Americans, their resources and their way of life."


1. What puzzles foreigners most about Americans?

France: The French are most puzzled about Americans' attitude towards money; why, they ask me constantly, do you think Americans work so hard to earn money and work equally hard to spend it?

Russia: Russians seem most puzzled about the decentralization of power in the U.S. For example, when told that President Eisenhower opposed racial discrimination, they ask why he doesn't ban it. When you explain that the President doesn't have dictatorial authority, they shake their heads uncomprehendingly.

Italy: Our naïvete. As one of the biggest nations in the world the foreigner often expects us to act the part. They are puzzled when we make a major blooper in diplomacy or our foreign relations. Likewise, they are puzzled when we pay out billions of dollars in foreign aid and then don't ask for something in return. The result is that sometimes foreigners feel they must treat us as somewhat idiotic and spoiled children. Americans abroad usually fall into one of three categories—the "everything is better back in Podunk" type; the "Why don't these people learn to do it our way" type; the "Gosh, isn't this wonderful" type. Fortunately, the latter predominates.

England: Haste. They wonder why Americans are always in a hurry. In Britain you get business done by writing letters and having them considered at some length, before a request is granted (interviews with salesmen, etc.). The American system is to do it by telephone, and do it immediately. In a world that has lasted so long, our fellow men do not understand the rush.

Germany: The Germans tend to be puzzled by the American mixture of practical, hard-headed realism and buoyant, optimistic idealism. America still the country largely known as the land of the dollar, and Americans as shrewd businessmen. Yet the United States has been giving away money in vast quantities since the end of the war. Has this been sheer generosity, or has Washington had an ulterior motive? On a personal level, general American preference for the aristocracy strikes everyone as rather odd. Many Americans seem to gravitate toward the Graf (Count) or the Freiherr (Baron) or the the Fuerst (Prince) in a way that does not seem characteristic.

Japan: Our treatment of racial minorities. Asians are well aware of our democratic ideals of freedom and equality, and they find it extremely difficult to rationalize this with the many unfortunate incidents which occur regarding racial minority groups in America. It is hard for them to understand how a nation, which so loudly preaches democracy, can at the same time tolerate an Emmett Till case. Unfortunately, the progress made in America toward racial equality is not well advertised in Asia.

Africa: Why there are so many of them wandering all over the place without any real reason except to seek enjoyment, when everybody knows the United States is the home of all enjoyment.

2. What disappoints them most about Americans?

France: What disappoints the French most about Americans is to find that we are not all millionaires. They are shocked by middle-class, low budget tourists, who complain about prices in Paris.

Russia: What disappoints Russians most about Americans (the few Americans they've seen) is our refusal to acknowledge the superiority of their system...and especially the fact that American workers say they like capitalism, flourish under it and are not oppressed by it.

Italy: Our fallibility. America's tradition, particularly in the minds of Italians, is that it truly is "the promised land." They have relatives in the U.S. that prove it. This reputation, plus a good coating of Hollywood fairy stories, makes every short-coming or failure doubly significant in their judgment. For example, one never hears of the bastards that must have been left by the German army during its stay in Italy. But one would think the orphanages were all full of American illegal progeny.

England: The joy Americans take in traveling several thousand miles to Europe and meeting other Americans in the lobby of the American Express Company. Europeans often complain that the thrill seems the greater, the nearer neighbors they find themselves to be.

Germany: Those Germans who are disappointed with Americans—and they're a pretty small minority—don't like what they consider to be the American's childish manners, loud voices and loud neckties, colorful clothing (especially sports shirts). Americans do tend to have a lot of money by local standards, and sometimes throw it around a bit demonstratively.

Japan: Recently Asians have been acutely disappointed by America on two issues. First of all, we seem to have abandoned our traditional anti-colonialism for the expediency of tacitly supporting our colonial European allies. Secondly, we have rather clumsily continued to emphasize military strength and the military defenses of the free world while the Communists have more nimbly switched their attacks to the economic and political fronts. Most Asians feel disappointed that we have not more readily responded to the Communist challenge in these new areas.

Africa: That they're not all rich, as expected.

3. What do they like best about Americans?

France: The French love the youthfulness of Americans, American enthusiasm, yes, even our naïvete, which they find personally charming, if politically frightening.

Russia: What Russians like best about Americans is our breeziness, informality, our ability to form quick friendships and enthusiasms. On the personal level, they frequently find more in common with Americans than Europeans. Especially after a little vodka.

Italy: Our idealism. This is expressed not only in the fact that the new Italian Republic copied the form of our government—but it is expressed in simpler terms. Europe, generally, and Italy in particular, has never quite gotten over the aristocratic tradition and acceptance of special privilege. Family name, occupation and education still tend to stratify population. They admire the GI sergeant who speaks with ease to his officers. But underneath, the thing most admired in Americans is the American precept that one man is as good as another. This is expressed in the vote and in everyday relationships. And it is in this precept that democracy finds its greatest argument against totalitarianism.

England: The geniality of Americans. In most cases American visitors to Europe seem to do their utmost to maintain a friendly attitude.

Germany: The most likable thing about Americans is their friendly and unconventional manner. One German says: "Americans are frank, they are not prejudiced." The average American has won himself many friends in Germany by his fresh, open approach to life.

Japan: We are an open and sincerely friendly people.  While some of the more reserved Asians may not respond immediately to the back-slapping type of friendliness, most Asians find the Americans have a genuine interest in the welfare of other people.

Africa: Their informality and lack of snobbism.

4. What do they think of American women?

France: They find American women to be the most beautiful and dullest women in the world: beautiful from the purely physical point of view, the beauty of good health, good looks. However, they find American women conformist; they all look, talk, and dress alike. The tourist with her flat-heeled shoes, bright-colored raincoat, shoulder bag with a brass eagle has become the symbol of the American women for the French.

Russia: Russian women tend to be envious of the well-groomed, well-dressed appearance of American women, the long fingernails and other evidences that American women don't work as hard as Soviet women. This envy is sometimes concealed behind ridicule.

Italy: Pampered. In Italy, particularly, the woman is still something of her husband's personal chattel. And the Italian women are a bit frightened by the power the U.S. housewife wields in family affairs. They are also somewhat scornful of the efficiency of American women in their antiseptic methods of raising their child or even bearing them.

England: They find Americans healthy, pretty and well-tailored, but complain that, as Westerners say of the Chinese, it's hard to tell one from another.

Germany: "Die Amerikanerin," the American woman, is regarded in Germany mainly with envy. She is regarded as fully emancipated, and German women would like to enjoy a measure of her independence. But Germans feel that the American woman has bought independence at the price of femininity. She may be a good comrade, but she is taken as lacking in the tenderness and devotion which Europeans consider a woman's greatest charm.

Japan: Perhaps my answer is colored by the personal prejudices of an American bachelor, who finds foreign women eminently attractive, but here goes. American women are considered to be very well dressed, quite attractive, and cold. Probably the most telling criticism is that they are not really very womanly. Most foreign men find them somewhat frightening.

Africa: Their main experience being with American women in American movies, they love 'em all.

5. What do they think of young people in America?

France: The French don't know young people in America. What they think about them, therefore, is based upon what they read in the papers, as reported from America, or in the movies from America. This has led the French to conclude that American youngsters are dope-fiends, juvenile delinquents, rapists, and gang-muggers.

Russia: They have no special thoughts about young people in America, having seen practically none of them.

Italy: They don't know much about young people in America except what they get from Hollywood or from the sensational stories in the press. They have nothing but admiration for students who come to study in their countries. Generally, this student group is the hardest working, most serious and nicest group of Americans abroad. The State Department should give them yearly bonuses.

England: Foreigners have less contact with American young people than with other grades of Americans. Yet, it is the American teen-ager who has had the greatest apparent influence on foreigners. Probably Hollywood has been carrier of the teen-age cult abroad. In many places dungarees are standard wear for youth. Elizabeth Taylor and Tony Curtis hairdos are very prevalent among European teen-agers as are swoon sessions for visiting American crooners.

Germany: American children and teen-agers in general are judged mainly by the young Americans stationed in Germany with military families. They are thought to be overly self-confident, and to exercise their great personal freedom a bit too violently. Germans feel that American children tend to dominate their families, thereby hurting both themselves and their parents.

Japan: American young people are generally considered by foreigners to be friendly, undereducated, and oversexed. Asians are sometimes shocked and frequently fascinated by the freedom of association between boys and girls in America. Words like "necking" and "petting" scarcely exist in Asian vocabularies. Sometimes foreigners appear to be surprised at how well Americans turn out, considering the poor start they get as young people. This is no doubt evidence that their views of American youth are too harsh, colored by reports of American juvenile delinquency.

Africa: Every student in Africa who can go to an overseas university is not choosing America instead of Britain, as before.



6. What was the most unexpected thing you found in a foreign country that bespoke American influence?

France: A hot-dog stand recently opened on the Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris, in front of the Olympia Music Hall with a big sign "Hot Dogs" printed in English. A self-service restaurant on the Champs Elysees, specializing in chicken-on-the-spit; garish, Miami-Beach style sport shirts at the Bou Saada oasis in southern Algeria; a huge road sign at a camel caravan crossing in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, saying, in English: Death is so permanent...Slow Down...U.S. Air Force.

Russia: The most unexpected evidence of American influence I found in the Soviet Union was the American machinery used in the Stalin Auto plant in Moscow—lend-lease equipment is still in use.

Italy: Canned American spaghetti, imported from New Jersey. It showed up in a fancy Rome food shop.

England: The ubiquity of the American famous soft drink. In strife-torn Cyprus I was amazed to find that all the spots where riots most often occur had been emblazoned with large advertisements for that commodity. For example, on Metaxas Square in Nicosia, four vantage points were occupied by signs. This ensured that every time trouble broke out—which is often—photographers unwittingly propagated the pause that refreshes.

Germany: Perhaps the most incongruous American import in the land of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms and Wagner is the jukebox.

Japan: After living eight years abroad, I am still constantly amused and amazed by the widespread influence of American music. I don't suppose I shall ever quite recover from the first time I saw a Geisha clad in the dignified costume dancing a jitterbug.

Africa: Crossing the Equator in Kenya, British East Africa, a sign which read "Equator, 8600 feet altitude, Drink Pepsi-Cola."



7. What American product would a foreigner like to own?

France: An automobile.

Russia: The American product a Russian would like most to own is an American car—judging by the disbelief they express at the lower price. (A car comparable to a 1941 Ford costs $4,000 in Russia). When an American car parks in Moscow it draws a crowd.

Italy: If you leave out dollar bills and immigration visas, my guess for Italy would be washing machines. The number of women-hours spend in boiling, scrubbing, rinsing and drying laundry throughout Italy runs into the tens of millions.

England: After considering and rejecting Cadillacs (too expensive for Britons to run) and washing machines (no longer an American monopoly) I nominate the combined domestic refrigerator with deep-freeze unit. Britons go into ecstasies over this topic.

Germany: The housewife would most like a dishwasher or an automatic ironer. One journalist nominated a pocket size stapler.

Japan: The desire to own an American automobile is practically universal. It covers both sexes, all age groups, and transcends all national boundaries. The only possible objection would be against some of the new pastel colors, and most foreigners admit they could even get used to these if they could just afford the car.

Africa: A red automobile, preferably a taxicab.