The Great Inquiry into National Character

Daniel Pipes

Daniel Pipes, a historian, is president of the Middle East Forum and founder of Campus Watch:, @DanielPipes, [email protected]. He has an A.B. and a Ph.D. in history, both from Harvard. His last article for Academic Questions, “The Wreckage of Endowed Chairs,” appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of AQ.

Of all the books that no one can write, those about nations and national character are the most impossible.
- Jacques Barzun, 19431

Like an impressionist painting, national character appears when a body of countrymen are viewed from an appropriate distance.
- Don Martindale, 19672

Clever people among today’s intelligentsia disdain the very idea that there is such a thing as “national character.”
- Thomas Sowell, 20093

Stereotypes about national character—a generalization about an ethnic group’s enduring qualities—may seem to be the stuff of idle cocktail-party chatter, the observations of jaundiced hotel keepers, or the superficial impressions of travelers, but they are much more. Indeed, a long and impressive tradition of elite politicians, intellectuals, and social scientists have opined on this topic. These include political leaders of the United States (Theodore Roosevelt)4, United Kingdom (Stanley Baldwin, John Major, David Cameron),5France (Georges Clemenceau),6Germany (Otto von Bismarck, Adolf Hitler),7India (Narendra Modi),8 China (Hu Jintao),9Indonesia (Joko Widodo), and10Japan (Tsutomu Hata).11 Intellectual luminaries such as Theodor W. Adorno,12 Walter Bagehot,13 Lawrence Durrell,14 David Hume,15 T.E. Lawrence,16 Theodor Mommsen,17 Montesquieu,18 John Ruskin,19and Max Weber have also discussed national character.20

Social scientists have devoted great efforts to research, systematize, and theorize about this hoary topic, especially Americans in the World War II era. A bibliography of “principal writings of social scientists and historians on culture and personality, national character and American character” between 1940 and 1963, with annotations, fills seventeen pages and features many stars: Daniel Bell, Morroe Berger, Daniel J. Boorstin, Henry Steele Commager, Marcus Cunliffe, Merle Curti, Erich Fromm, Francis L.K. Hsu, Harold J. Laski, Max Lerner, Seymour Martin Lipset, Talcott Parsons, David Riesman, Walt W. Rostow, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Edward A. Shils, Melford Spiro, Thorstein Veblen, and William H. Whyte, Jr.21

Although the grand mid-century social scientific undertaking largely failed, it bears a close look to savor its colorful and idiosyncratic claims and to learn from its errors. In brief, the sociologists, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and others got carried away by disciplinary enthusiasms and made the fundamental mistake of ignoring change over time, in other words, the role of history.

Pre-World War II

Ascribing a national character, usually negative, to other peoples goes very far back; Hippocrates connected Europeans’ martial qualities to their climate.22 More broadly, the ancient Greeks developed the concept of nomos, meaning conventions, rules and customs people take for granted. The Egyptian priest Manetho was an early antisemite. Medieval Muslims spoke of “a cowardly Turk, a covetous Arab, an uncivilized Persian, or a choleric Negro.”23

Given their striking advancement over the rest of the world from about 1700, Europeans and their progeny accounted for their own success by invoking a mish-mash of self-satisfied explanations that included the superiority of the Caucasian race, European geography and climate, the Greco-Roman heritage, the Christian religion, and nationalism. In 1742, for example, the philosopher David Hume vented acerbically from on-high: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. . . . the most rude and barbarous of the Whites . . . have still something eminent about them.”24 With time, these casual notions evolved into ambitious theories about national character in hefty and learned tomes. For example, Richard Chenevix (1774-1830), a leading scientist, wrote a two-volume Essay upon National Character in which he devoted 1,121 pages to establish that England boasts the world’s most “superior civilization” while France is “the nation that has retained the largest share of ferocity.”25

As the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and psychology developed, a great debate developed over the issue of external characteristics (climate, geography, type of government, etc.) versus heredity. The former, a minority opinion, won the support of the historian William Dalton Babington who averred that “there is no truth in the ancestral theory of national characters.”26 Or Sidney Gulick, an American professor of theology living in Japan, argued that “the more outstanding national characteristics are largely the result of special social conditions, rather than of inherent national character.”27

But most scholars retained old ideas about “blood” and racial traits while imbuing these analyses with a new pseudo-rigor. In his influential The Group Mind, the acclaimed psychologist and William James chair of psychology at Harvard University, William McDougall, in 1920 contended that race “is of fundamental importance in determining national character” and found “no reasonable doubt that there are great differences between races, and that these may be, and in many cases have been, persistent through thousands of generations.” In particular, he focused on brain size and offered such generalizations as ascribing to the negro race “certain specific mental peculiarities . . . especially the happy-go-lucky disposition, the unrestrained emotional violence and responsiveness.”28In a 1893 study on National Life and Character that future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called “one of the most notable books of the century,”29 historian Charles Pearson relied on national character to predict race wars in which the “lower races will predominate” over the “higher races.”30

Anthropologists went into the field to prove such theories. For example, after administering the Rorschach ink test to a number of “simple country folk” in western Morocco, Manfred Bleuler and his co-author jumped to the conclusion that the Moroccan lacks the European’s “tendency to abstract generalization,” that he is easily swayed by “a marked enthusiasm under the influence of momentary events,” and that “he lacks the systematic, energetic, and persevering striving after outward success” that characterizes Europeans.31

In the special case of Japan, racial explanations served both to explain backwardness and achievements. Johannes Justus Rein, a German professor of geography, found the Japanese to be “a race of children, harmless, confiding, gay, and inclined at all ages to childish games, easily interested in anything new even to the point of enthusiasm, but when only half acquainted with it speedily becoming weary of it.”32Such Western ideas also convinced some Japanese: a prominent professor of philosophy, Tetsujiro Inoue, discerned from head shapes that Westerners possessed a more developed brain and wrote in 1889 that the “Japanese are greatly inferior to Westerners in intelligence, financial power, physique, and all else.”33

But race and national character also accounted for positive Japanese qualities. A British captain and writer found the Japanese in 1859 “a very remarkable race” and declared it “impossible not to recognize in their colour, features, dress, and customs, the Semitic stock whence they must have sprung”; he concluded by predicting their future success.34 Gulick in 1905 claimed that the Japanese proved “the inadequacy of the physiological theory of national character.” His proof? “Were an Oriental necessarily and unchangeably Oriental, it would have been impossible for Japan to have come into such close and sympathetic touch with the West.” He went on to predict that “Japan has a brilliant future before her, due . . . to her national character.”35 The sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote in 1915 that the Japanese were doing so well due to “a parallelism [with Westerners] in racial composition.”36 Again, this appreciation had an impact on the Japanese; 1909, the polymath Inazō Nitobe wrote that "in the receptive faculty of the Japanese race there must be something which makes it near akin to the races of Europe. Is it due to the Aryan blood which may have come to us through the Hindoos, as . . . proved by craniological evidence?”37

German romantics and nationalists scrutinized their own and others’ Volksgeist (national spirit) in a systematic way and hoped to make an exact science Meyer 242 of it to discern a nation’s unique attributes. Prominent figures in this endeavor included such luminaries as Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and the co-founders of folk psychology (Völkerpsychologie), Heymann Steinthal (1823‑99) and Moritz Lazarus (1824-1903). Over time, German scholars promoted the idea of the nation as a whole mystically bound through a shared racial heritage. Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of psychology, wrote a book in the midst of World War I which argued that wartime brings out national character more clearly than peacetime.38

Inspired by Nazi ideology, German social scientists went on to develop a vast pseudo-science based on racial characteristics; the eminent psychologist Erich R. Jaensch used his prestige, his power, and the results of his research into vision and memory to draw up bio-psychological types and a purported scientific basis for Jewish racial inferiority,39 thereby winning Hitler’s favor. The Nazi regime, anthropologist Margaret Mead notes, even made “a systematic attempt to alter [the German] national character.”40 German efforts imbued the idea of national character, in the words of Austrian sociologist Frederick Hertz, with “a new and sinister significance.”41

World War II – Studies

Already in 1872, the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill held that “the laws of national (or collective) character are by far the most important class of sociological laws” and urged the development of a discipline he dubbed “Political ethology, or the science of national character.”42 But he did not pursue the idea, nor did anyone else until World War II. That war prompted three momentous changes among Anglophone social scientists: they agreed that “the problem of national character is of fundamental importance—now and in the future”;43 they abandoned the racial approach in favor of a focus on personality and child-rearing; and they sought to apply insights on national character to public policy.

They aimed high in terms of influence. The British journal Nature explained in a 1941 editorial:

To the statesman who must handle the broad issues of future policy, the enduring features of national character and the trends of its development are equally significant. There can be few more important tasks for the social sciences than to contribute to the full understanding of the character, mood, and prevailing interests of the nations among which the War is being fought, and by which an international order must be reconstituted.44

In addition, Allied scholars sought to understand their own populations, to reach out to friends in enemy territory, improve relations with allies, and provide guidelines for occupying forces.45 An author in Science News even hoped national character studies could avoid “those misunderstandings and misinterpretations which may lead to war.”46

Heeding these offers of help, the U.S. government called on the services of noted academics to interpret the Axis, especially Japan. The Office of War Information and other agencies of the U.S. government invited leading anthropologists and psychologists to pitch in. Their questions, as reported by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, included these:

Was capitulation [by the Japanese ] possible without invasion? Should we bomb the Emperor's palace? What could we expect of Japanese prisoners of war? What should we say in our propaganda to Japanese troops and to the Japanese homeland which could save the lives of Americans and lessen Japanese determination to fight to the last man? . . . When peace came, were the Japanese a people who would require perpetual martial law to keep them in order? Would our army have to prepare to fight desperate bitter-enders in every mountain fastness of Japan? Would there have to be a revolution in Japan after the order of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution before international peace was possible? Who would lead it? Was the alternative the eradication of the Japanese?47

Of special note was the undertaking dubbed “fieldwork-at-a-distance” in countries that could not be entered. Anthropologists, whose usual research focused on small-scale societies, stressed features of social life—notably kin ties, family relations, and communal beliefs. Psychologists placed great emphasis on Freudian concepts of personality, childhood rearing practices, and sexuality. Although they fully recognized that Burmese, German, Japanese, Romanian, and Thai societies differ profoundly from the small South Pacific or African societies they had studied (making these anthropologists wary about making generalizations), certain professional orientations carried over.

Studies by Geoffrey Gorer, Weston La Barre, and Ruth Benedict stand out, all pertaining to Japan. Gorer’s pathbreaking analysis of March 194248 looked at three aspects of upbringing in Japan and drew far-reaching conclusions about the country's politics and military.

First, he held that “drastic toilet training” lay at the basis of the value system. This accounts for why the Japanese lack a sense of moral absolutes and care less about right and wrong than about doing the right thing at the right time. It also explains “the striking contrast between the all-pervasive gentleness of Japanese life in Japan . . . and the overwhelming brutality and sadism of the Japanese at war.” It leads to a preoccupation with ritual, encouraging compulsion and even neurosis; this in turn explains the unbalanced nature of Japanese society. And because obsession leads to aggression, the Japanese need occasionally to vent their dangerous urges through foreign adventures.

Second, Gorer held that sons are subservient to their fathers but dominate their mothers. This memory causes Japanese rulers to see other states as masculine or feminine; the former they respect, the latter they despise. Gorer actually compared the Japanese sack of Manila to an “angry boy” who wants to “destroy his mother’s hair-do and break her precious pins.”

Third, he read great significance into the Japanese habit of mocking children to get them to behave. This leads Japanese to feeling endangered “unless the whole environment is understood and as far as possible controlled.” From this, it is only a short leap to world dominion. “The Japanese can never feel safe unless, as some of their more bombastic military speakers have proposed, the Mikado rules the whole earth.”

Gorer's astonishing jumps from child to adult and from home to the political sphere inspired a large literature.

La Barre found that the “severity or cruelty” employed in toilet training of children causes the Japanese to be “probably the most compulsive people in the world ethnological museum.” Indeed, the whole Japanese personality “is shaped by the struggle against and reactions” to the demanding training that accompanies a “culturally colored conditioning of the sphincters.” Specifically, an emphasis on preserving “face” leads the Japanese to engage in aggression in a surreptitious manner; and this may account for Japanese behavior at Pearl Harbor. Relations between the sexes also have a direct bearing on international politics, for the “constant, easy brutalitarian dominance of the male over the female in Japan, as in Germany, has a direct influence upon their attitudes toward weaker, hence ‘inferior’ peoples.” La Barre even argued that “Americans owe it to the Japanese to modify the Japanese social system with great drasticness, sureness of purpose, and thoroughness.”49

Benedict toned down Gorer's and La Barre's emphasis on child-rearing practices and Freud's anal-erotic theory Kerlinger 251 in the most impressive and lasting fieldwork-at-a-distance study, her The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. She uncovered a Japanese character formed by stringent toilet training and a shame culture which created a nation of obsessively clean, polite, and obsequious individuals. Still, she too saw a ready connection between family and state; an attitude of respect for the father, for example, “becomes a pattern throughout Japanese society.”50

World War II—Policy Recommendations

These analyses struck a responsive chord and so were widely (and crudely) disseminated. A report prepared in 1944 for General Douglas MacArthur held that the small physical size of the Japanese accounted for their aggression: “In every sense of the word the Japanese are little people. Some observers claim there would have been no Pearl Harbor had the Japanese been three inches taller.”51 MacArthur himself described the Japanese national mentality as that of a “twelve-years old”52 and proclaimed his goal in Japan to be the “reshaping of national and individual character.”53

With one main exception, policy recommendations emerging from this analysis turned out poorly. In particular, national character specialists predicted that the Japanese and Germans must undergo profound shifts before they could absorb democratic ways after World War II. Anthropologist Douglas G. Haring wrote of Japan in 1946 that democracy “cannot be created by fiat among a people whose deepest feelings run counter to democratic tradition. Only by changing the patterns of social experience in infancy can a society undergo permanent reform, either toward democracy or toward autocracy.”54 Unfortunately for Haring, as he wrote those lines MacArthur was successfully imposing democracy on Japan by fiat—and without meddling in the country's child-rearing practices.

The British journal Nature drew pessimistic conclusions about Germany, editorializing in 1941 that because “there have not been many generations of [German] children who have grown up during periods when the ideals of democratic co-operation had currency among the adult population,” postwar Germany is unlikely to change from its wartime horrors.55 Morris Ginsberg concurred, writing in 1942 that the need for authority is deeply rooted in German life and that the relationship of inferior and superior pervades all spheres of activity. A prolonged period of education in other forms of organization will therefore be necessary before Germans are led to abandon the forms of order resting on authority and hierarchical subordination.56

Richard Brickner’s 1943 diagnosis of German national character led him to prescribe draconian postwar measures on Germany, such as allowing couples to marry on condition they agreed to the government raising their children.57 After the war’s end and the start of the American Military Government, Bertram Schaffner, having taken part in the Nuremberg trials and worked on denazification, worried that even anti-Nazi Germans “are not aware of the very factors in German personal and family lives which make for authoritarianism, intolerance, distrust, aggression, and rigidity in their national behavior.” He advocated a lengthy occupation and called for not just ideological and institutional reform but by overhauling “interpersonal relations and family life.”58

In fact, however, Germans did not need a “prolonged period of education” or government raising of children before they became democratic; elections to the Bundestag successfully took place just four years after the collapse of the Nazi regime.

The social scientists did make one policy recommendation based on national character that turned out well. As John Dower explains, they called on the Allies to “refrain from attacking the emperor and the imperial institution, the consummate symbols” of Japanese culture. Even here, however, Dower finds that the academics’ argument “had negligible impact on the formulation of Allied war policy,” rather undercutting its importance.59In brief, hard-headed government employees made good decisions, quite uninfluenced by the faulty analyses of social scientists.

Post-World War II—Criticism

At first, even critics of the Gorer-La Barre-Benedict analysis tended to accept their general approach. Anthropologist John F. Embree quibbled about details60 and while psychologist Fred N. Kerlinger criticized them unsparingly (“untenable”, “serious errors and bias”), he found "there is much good in their work."61 Soon after the war’s end, however, the reductive World War II-era studies, or what Clyde Kluckhohn called the "Scott Tissue interpretation of history,"62 came to be discredited, repudiated, and sometimes mocked.

Embree noted in 1945 that Japanese used roughly the same toilet training techniques during two centuries of peace.63 Hamilton Fyfe, an antisemite and Communist sympathizer, wrote a whole book in 1946 to prove “national character to be an illusion, and one that is doing great harm in the world.”64 Haring wrote in 1947 that, “‘National character’ has provided a happy hunting ground for sentimentalists, demagogues, and collectors of curiosa. Scientific investigation is overdue.”65 A Japanese journal published five articles in 1949 on “Problems Raised by The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.”

The year 1951 saw a boom in critiques: Bertram Wolfe, a specialist on Russia, mocked the baby-rearing theses: “in less time than you can un-swaddle a baby or change its diapers, they can tell MacArthur how to administer Japan, Truman how to deal with Russia, and [administrator of Allied-occupied Germany John] McCloy how to handle all the problems of German thought and institutions.”66 Psychologist Maurice Farber dismissed the wartime efforts as “produced by an impressionistic, essentially haphazard methodology.”67 Anthropologist Ralph Linton found that “recent studies have neither more nor less claim to scientific accuracy than the writings of Tocqueville or Charles Dickens”68 and Haring found they “approach the fantastic.”69 Berger warned that “anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists . . . must learn to avoid easy analogies between individual and national behavior.”70

Two years later, anthropologist David Mandelbaum said that national character studies “are still in the first fledgling and perhaps fumbling stages.”71 Historian David Potter observed in 1954 that “the concept [of national character] is under a serious cloud, if not entirely discredited.”72 The terrible shadow of Nazi efforts further discredited the idea of national character, prompting the journalist Milton Mayer in an influential book to note in 1955 that “[t]here is such a thing as national character, even though the Nazis said there is.”73 Things then got worse in the 1960s, when the near-absence of women, blacks, and other minorities from the discussion of national character offended many. Thus did E. Adamson Hoebel observe in 1967 that national character had “lost its savor” for anthropologists, most of whom find it “a blighted and unpromising field.”74

Others found the concept plain useless. Japan specialist Ezra F. Vogel felt it necessary in 1979 to repudiate the national character approach to explain Japan: “Japanese success has less to do with traditional character traits than with specific organizational structures, policy programmes, and conscious planning.”75 In 1980, anthropologist Peter T. Suzuki76 eviscerated La Barre’s methodological shoddiness and superficial conclusions in his 1945 study of Japanese national character conducted in a Utah internment camp.77 That same year, historian Richard Minear generalized that “statements about national character [are] intrinsically dangerous.”78 In a book on national character, psychologist Dean Peabody wrote of this topic that “seldom in intellectual history have so many poor arguments been based on so little relevant evidence.”79 Social psychologist Hiroshi Minami in 1988 criticized Benedict for writing a book that was "too static and a-historical to capture the real dynamics of Japanese social psychology."80

In a 2001 book on American national character, Jungian analyst Michael Gellert acknowledged that the “notion of national character is one of the vaguest and most mysterious in the history of ideas.”81 In 2006, Robert R. McCrae and Antonio Terracciano reviewed personality profiles in fifty-one countries and concluded that “perceptions of national character are unfounded stereotypes.”82 The 2013 Psychology Dictionary entry for “national character” defined this as “primarily consist[ing] of stereotypes that are seldom accurate.”83 In 2016, Charles Hill of the Hoover Institution disdained the study of national character, noting that it “was once recognized as elemental” but now, as a topic, it “hides somewhere between the distastefully insensitive and the arrogantly impermissible.”84

Post-World War II—Studies

Despite this volley of criticism, “The study of the national character was a central feature of post-World War II intellectual history. It was a project involving all of the branches of social science—history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science.”85 In 1951, sociologist Morroe Berger still expressed hope for “the growth of a formidable science of national character.”86 Between 1945 and 1955, anthropologists published books on, among others, the national characters of Americans,87 Brazilians,88 Chinese,89 Indian,90 the English,91 Germans,92 and Russians.93 These works filled various demands: to distinguish national character from national stereotypes,94 to work out occupation policies in Germany and Japan, and to develop military policy and strategy.95 Psychoanalysts continued to put whole countries on the couch. Thus, Henry V. Dicks in 1950 found the typical German to have “ambivalent, compulsive character structure with the emphasis on submissive/dominant conformity, a strong counter-cathexis of the virtues of duty, of ‘control’ by the self, especially buttressed by re-projected super-ego symbols.”96 As late as 1967, the American Academy of Political and Social Science devoted an issue of The Annals to “National Character in the Perspective of the Social Sciences,” edited by the distinguished sociologist Don Martindale.

In 1985, Peabody surveyed opinions about national character in six countries, both ingroup and outgroup, in the process finding impressive agreement across the board on the characteristics of each country.97 The New York Times published an article in 1990, “Why I Fear the Germans,” that pointed to greater parental aggression toward children, as well as more acts of aggression among children, in Germany than in Denmark or Italy.98 In 1997, sociologist Alex Inkeles collected his papers, surveyed the field and, with an emphasis on Germany, Russia, and the United States, concluded that much work remains to be done.99 Books on the American,100 Chinese,101 English,102 and eastern European103 national characters, as well as on comparative national character development,104 and levels of anxiety,105 appeared in the twenty-first century, though they tended to be more retrospective than descriptive.

The debate remains alive and interest strong. JSTOR, the digital library of almost 2,000 academic journals and some other materials, lists over 42,000 articles that include the term “national character.”106 The entry on national character at the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences has been viewed over 2.5 million times.107 The Google Ngram that documents the percentage of books in which a word or phrase appears shows a low level for national character from 1800 to 1925, then a ten-fold spike peaking in 1955-65, followed by an only modest decline thereafter.108

The discussion of national character today retains many of the specifics of earlier inquiries: while fanciful theories have largely evaporated, towering intellects long ago bowed out, and the inquiry is narrowly academic, it still echoes the grand sweep of those traditions. Reviewing the work of the “National Character School,” anthropologist Sujay Rao Mandavilli concludes that it left an “indelible mark” on social and cultural anthropology.109

Conclusion: The Need for History

What to make of the great mid-twentieth-century experiment to turn national character into a topic for objective analysis? Brilliant scholars came up with original and captivating ideas, clearly expressed. Unfortunately, the social scientists largely ignored a crucial dimension: the historical. This absence went far to undermine the utility of their work.

Simply put, unchanging national character cannot explain change over time. Even if one accepts theories about child-rearing in Japan and Russia, these cannot account for the aggression of their regimes at a moment in time. In Farber’s words: “No key to history . . . can be furnished by a method that is, in its essence, anti-historical.”110Over-confident social scientists ignored this rule and tried to explain historical developments without reference to history. In their most absurd form, knowing toilet-training practices obviated an understanding of Japanese history and the swaddling of infants meant ignoring Russia’s evolution. Social structures were made to replace all other causative forces, including individual personality, bureaucratic infighting, political ideology, religious emotion, and economic interests.

“With a wave of the anthropologist’s wand,” writes Minear, “historical reality disappears, and psycho-cultural analysis remains.” He continues, focusing on the effort to understand Japanese actions:

the wartime researchers were anthropologists, not historians, yet they addressed themselves with confidence to questions from which most historians would have flinched. . . . the wartime researchers into Japanese national character were poor historians. They were insensitive to the historical setting in which they worked and from which they tried to abstract Japanese national character. What is more, most of them came to see their analyses of Japanese national character as an explanation of Japanese history, an answer to such questions as why Japan invaded China and why Japan attacked the United States. . . . they saw a direct link between Japanese national character and Japanese foreign policy, a link which relieved them of any need to examine the actual historical setting of the l930s.

Minear continues, with specific reference to Benedict’s Chrysanthemum and the Sword: “What if the causes of the war were imperial or economic rather than cultural? These are not possibilities Benedict considers seriously. Ultimately, her depiction of Japanese character, heavily historical in content, becomes a character explanation of history. . . . Benedict’s analysis thus isolated Japanese behavior from its historical context.”111

The notion of a “social scientist” implies the possibility of studying mankind as one would amoebas or asteroids. The brief but intense scholarly incursion into the murky world of national character suggests the severe limitations of scientific and “historyless”112 methods when applied to humans. As ever, history provides a necessary approach. In Jacques Barzun’s formulation: “the form requisite to convey an explanation of a people is the historical. Don’t describe! Tell us what happened, who was there, and who said what.”113

Some social scientists did acknowledge their errors. Already in 1944, the psychologist Otto Klineberg ruefully acknowledged that the study of history “is an absolute prerequisite for a complete picture. Without it, we will make one mistake after another.”114 In 1953, the anthropologist Haring conceded that the Japanese national character must be seen in light of historical developments, thereby implicitly recanting his earlier writings (especially the 1946 article, “Aspects of Personal Character in Japan”).115

Were social scientists ever seriously to return to this topic—and they could, for as sociologist Don Martindale notes, “A rich heritage of notions and observations on national character is available” to them116—they should learn from the grand but failed study of national character and make history central to their future inquiries.

When they do, they will find themselves in good company. Historian David Potter reports that, “Among the more prominent American historical writers, there is hardly one who does not, either occasionally or constantly, explicitly or implicitly, invoke the idea of an American national character.” For nationalist historians generally, Potter notes, “the concept of national character became . . . the one dominant historical assumption which pervaded the treatment of all their material,” though he concedes they do little to elucidate the concept.117 Indeed, Potter is the rare historian who incorporates national character research in his work, a study of the American character; in a sophisticated historical review, he finds its key not in the usual categories of individualism or conformity, but in a singular commitment to equality.118

So, the basis does exist for a sound inquiry into national character.

Appendix: Definitions

A roster of distinguished authors has defined national character; here are some. Keywords are italicized:

  • Gordon Allport: “members of a nation, despite ethnic, racial, religious, or individual differences among them, do resemble one another in certain fundamental patterns of belief and conduct, more than they resemble members of other nations.”119
  • Jahangir Amuzegar: "if a majority of people routinely display certain attitudes and behavior patterns not found as commonly or as frequently elsewhere, they may be said to possess a specific national character."120
  • Ernest Barker: it is “the sum of acquired tendencies built up by its leaders in every sphere of its activity, with the consent and co-operation—active in some, but more or less passive in others—of the general community.”121
  • Morroe Berger: “the members of a nation, despite admitted differences among them, resemble one another in certain basic patterns of behavior and belief . . . more than they resemble the members of other nations.”122
  • Richard Chenevix: it is the sum of "prominent and leading features by which that nation is distinguished."123
  • Henry V. Dicks: “the broad, frequently recurring regularities of certain prominent behaviour traits and motivations of a given ethnic or cultural group.”124
  • Morris Ginsberg: “differences in certain traits or perhaps types in different groups.”125
  • Geoffrey Gorer: “National character is an attempt to isolate and identify . . . shared motives and values and predispositions.”126
  • Sania Hamady: “It stands for a common denominator of characteristics, with individuals varying from it in different directions and degrees.”127
  • Vidya Hattangadi: personality characteristics and patterns that are archetypical among the adult members of a society.”128
  • Frederick Hertz: “the totality of customs, habits and beliefs widespread in a nation.”129
  • Alex Inkeles and Daniel J. Levinson: it is the "relatively enduring personality characteristics and patterns that are modal among the adult members of the society."130
  • Alex Inkeles: “the dispositions built in the personalities of the individuals who make up a society” and national character is “the sum of such qualities across the individuals who make up a national population.”131
  • Hans Kohn: “Life in a common territory, subject to the same influences of nature and . . . history and legal systems, produces certain common attitudes and traits, often called national character.”132
  • Don Martindale: “National characteristics are a category of traits that individuals come to display in national groups.”133
  • John Stuart Mill: It is "the character, that is, the opinions, feelings, and habits of the people."134
  • Raphael Patai: it is "the sum total of the motives, traits, beliefs, and values shared by the plurality in a national population."135
  • Richard Pipes: it “represents the spirit not of an entire nation, but only of that social group which at a given time happens to control the instruments of power and the organs of opinion.”136

1 Jacques Barzun, "The English," The Nation, August 14, 1943, 188.

2 Don Martindale, “The Sociology of National Character,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 370 (1967): 31.

3 Thomas Sowell, “The Character of Nations,” National Review (June 2009).

4 Theodore Roosevelt, “National Life and Character,” The Sewanee Review (May 1894).

5 Stanley Baldwin, "What England Means to Me," speech to the Royal Society of St George, May 6, 1924; “Mr. Major’s Speech to Conservative Group for Europe,”, April 22, 1993; David Cameron, “Speech to the Foreign Policy Centre Thinktank,” The Guardian, August 24, 2005.

6 John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London: MacMillan, 1919), 29; quoted in a Secret memorandum by Martin Bormann, October 2 1940, published in the Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, vol. 7, February 9, 1946.

7 Quoted in Alfred Fouillée, Esquisse psychologique des peuples européens (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1903), I. Quoted in a Secret memorandum by Martin Bormann, October 1940, published in the Nuremberg Trial Proceedings.

9 Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the United States of America, “Full text of Hu Jintao's report at 18th Party Congress,” November 27, 2012.

10 Sri Lestari, “Who Are Indonesia's Election Rivals?” BBC Indonesian, July 22, 2014.

11 Associated Press, December 17, 1987.

12 Theodor W. Adorno et. al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Bros., 1950).

13 Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics (1872) in The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915), vol. 8.

14 Lawrence Durrell, “Landscape and Character,” The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1960.

15 David Hume, “Of National Characters,” The Philosophical Works (Edinburgh: Black and Tait, 1826,), vol. 3.

16 T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1935), 38.

17 Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, translated by William Purdie Dickson, book 1, 291.

18 Montesquieu, “Essai sur les causes qui peuvent affecter les esprits et les caractères” (1743) in Mélanges inédits de Montesquieu (Bordeaux: G. Gounouilhou, J. Rouam et Cie, 1892), 107-48.

20 Max Weber, “The Junkers and German National Character,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 386-95.

21 Michael McGiffert, “Selected Writings on American National Character,” American Quarterly 15 (1963) 271-288.

22 Hippocrates, De aere aquis et locis, ed. W. H. S. Jones (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962-69), Part 16, XVI.

23 As paraphrased by Ulrich Haarmann, "Ideology and History, Identity and Alterity: The Arab Image of the Turk from the `Abbasids to Modern Egypt," International Journal of Middle East Studies 20 (1988): 177.

24 Hume, “Of National Characters,” vol. 3, 236.

25 Richard Chenevix, An Essay upon National Character: Being an Inquiry into Some of' the Principal Causes Which Contribute to Form and Modify the Characters of Nations in the State of Civilisation (London: James Duncan, 1832), vol 2, 216; vol. 1, 190.

26 William Dalton Babington, Fallacies of Race Theories as Applied to National Characteristics (London: Longmans, Green, 1895), 11.

28 William McDougall, The Group Mind: A Sketch of the Principles of Collective Psychology with Some Attempt to Apply Them to the Interpretation of National Life and Character (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920), 154-55, 164-65. But other leading social scientists, such as Morris Ginsberg specifically argued against the racial basis of national character; see his “National Character and National Sentiment,” in ed. J.A. Hadfield, Psychology and Modern Problems (New York: Longmans Green, 1936), 29-50.

29 Theodore Roosevelt, “National Life and Character,” May 1894. Roosevelt’s views on race led to a decision that his statue be removed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. See Frank Miles, “NYC's Museum of Natural History to remove Teddy Roosevelt statue, officials say,” Fox News, June 21, 2020.

30 Charles H. Pearson, National Life and Character: A Forecast (London: Macmillan, 1893).

31 M. and R. Bleuler, "Rorschach's Ink Blot Test and Racial Psychology: Mental Peculiarities of Moroccans," Character and Personality 4 (1935): 97-114.

32 J.J. Rein, Japan: Travels and Researches Undertaken at the Cost of the Prussian Government (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884), 395.

33 Quoted in Kenneth B. Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan: Problems of Cultural Identity, 1885-1895 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969), 110.

34 Sherard Osborn, Quedah: A Cruise in Japanese Waters, The Fight on the Peiho, new ed. (Edinburgh; Blackwood, 1859), 331.

35 Gulick, Evolution of the Japanese, 13, xi.

36 Thorstein Veblen, "The Opportunity of Japan," in Essays in Our Changing Order, ed. Leon Ardzrooni (New York: Viking Press, 1934), 258. (This article was published originally in 1915.)

37 Inazō Nitobe, "The Influence of the West upon Japan," in Shigénobu Okuma, ed., trans. Marcus B. Huish, Fifty Years of Modern Japan (New York: Dutton, 1909) vol. 2, 475.

38 Wilhelm Wundt, Die Nationen und ihre Philosophie: Ein Kapitel zum Weltkrieg (Leipzig: Alfred Kröner, 1915).

39 Erich R. Jaensch, Der Gegentypus: Psychologisch-anthropologische Grundlagen deutscher Kulturphilosophie, ausgehend von dem was wir überwinden wolle (Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Barth, 1938).

40 Margaret Mead, “The Study of National Character,” in Daniel Lerner, Harold D. Lasswell (eds.), The Policy Sciences: Recent Developments in Scope and Method (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951), 75.

  1. Frederick Hertz, “War and National Character,” The Contemporary Review (May 1947): 275.

42 John Stuart Mill, The Logic of the Moral Sciences (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2020), 71. First published in 1872.

43 Otto Klineberg, "A Science of National Character," The Journal of Social Psychology 19 (1944): 147.

44 “National Character,” an editorial based on a speech by Morris Ginsburg, Nature, July 12, 1941, 33.

45 For example, Margaret Mead, “Study of National Character,” 75-76.

46 Science News 18 (1939): 121.

47 Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946), 3.

48 Geoffrey Gorer, Japanese Character Structure and Propaganda (Committee on Intercultural Relations, March 1942), condensed and published on February 22, 1943 as "Themes in Japanese Culture," New York Academy of Science, Transactions, 5 (1943): 106‑24.

49 Weston La Barre, "Some Observations on Character Structure in the Orient: The Japanese," Psychiatry 8 (1945): 326, 336, 342.

50 Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 301.

51 Quoted in John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 142.

52 Quoted in Gavan McCornack and Yoshio Sugimoto, "Modernization and Beyond," in Gavan McCornack and Yoshio Sugimoto, eds., The Japanese Trajectory: Modernization and Beyond (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 2.

53 Douglas MacArthur, "Address to Members of the Allied Council for Japan, April 5, 1946," in A Soldier Speaks: Public Papers and Speeches of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, ed. Vorin E. Whan, Jr. (New York: Praeger, 1965), 167.

54 Douglas G. Haring, "Aspects of Personal Character in Japan," Far Eastern Quarterly 6 (1946): 15-16.

55 Nature, July 12, 1941, 33.

56 Ginsberg, "National Character," 196.

57 Richard M. Brickner, Is Germany Incurable? (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1943).

58 Bertram Schaffner, Father Land: A Study of Authoritarianism in the German Family (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), 81, 105. Worse yet plans existed, such as that of Harvard anthropologist Earnest Hooten, to have German males and females mate with non-Germans to “Breed War Strain out of Germans,” PM, January 4, 1943.

59 Dower, War Without Mercy, 121-22, 139.

60 John F. Embree, "Standardized Error and Japanese Character: A Note on Political Interpretation," World Politics 2 (1949‑50): 439‑43.

61 Fred N. Kerlinger, "Behavior and Personality in Japan: A Critique of Three Studies of Japanese Personality," Social Forces 31 (1953): 257-58.

62 Clyde Kluckhohn, Mirror for Man: The Relation of Anthropology to Modern Life (London: George G. Harrap and Co.: 1950), 184.

63 John Embree, The Japanese Nation: A Social Survey (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1945), 235-36.

64 Hamilton Fyfe, The Illusion of National Character (London: Watts, 1946), 2.

65 Haring, "Aspects of Personal Character in Japan," 14.

66 Bertram Wolfe, “The Swaddled Soul of the Great Russians,” The New Leader, January 29, 1951, 15.

67 Maurice L. Farber, “English and Americans: A Study in National Character,” The Journal of Psychology 32 (1951): 241. Farber also sardonically noted that if swaddling is so important, then “alterations in social, political, and economic institutions will be of minor importance compared with what could be accomplished by modifying specific child-rearing practices.” Maurice L. Farber, “Psychiatric Interpretation of Russian History: A Reply To Geoffrey Gorer,” American Slavic and East European Review 9 (1950): 153.

68 Ralph Linton, “The Concept of National Character,” in Personality and Political Crisis: New Perspectives from Social Science and Psychiatry for the Study of War and Politics, ed. Alfred H. Stanton and Stewart E. Perry (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1951), 142-43.

69 Douglas G. Haring, “Re: Ethnocentric Anthropologists,” letter, 53 (1951): 135.

70 Morroe Berger, “The Study of Man: ‘Understanding National Character’—and War, Commentary, April 1951.

71 David Mandelbaum, "On the Study of National Character," American Anthropologist 55 (1953): 176.

72 David M. Potter People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).

73 Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 240. Originally published in 1955.

74 E. Adamson Hoebel, "Anthropological Perspectives on National Character," in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 370 (1967): 2, 4.

75 Ezra F. Vogel, Japan as Number One (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), ix.

76 Peter T. Suzuki, “A Retrospective Analysis of a Wartime ‘National Character’ Study,” Dialectical Anthropology, 5 (1980): 33-46.

77 See summary of La Barre on page 19.

78 Richard E. Minear, "The Wartime Studies of Japanese National Character," The Japan Interpreter, 13 (Summer 1980): 56.

79 Dean Peabody, National Characteristics (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 18.

80 Quoted in Kawamura Nozomu, "The Concept of Modernization Re-examined from the Japanese Experience," in Gavan McCornack and Yoshio Sugimoto, eds., The Japanese Trajectory: Modernization and Beyond (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 268.

81 Michael Gellert, The Fate of America: An Inquiry Into National Character (Dulles, Va: Potomac, 2001), Introduction.

82 Robert R. McCrae and Antonio Terracciano, “National Character and Personality,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15 (2006): 156-60.

83 N. Pam, “National Character,” Psychology Dictionary, April 7, 2013.

84 Charles Hill, “The American Character,” Hoover Institution, June 21, 2016, accessed December 14, 2020.

85 Adam Rittenberg, “The Study of National Character in the Post War Era: the work of Erich Fromm, David Riesman, and David Potter” MA thesis, (Portland, Ore.: Portland State University, 1988), 1.

86 Morroe Berger, “The Study of Man: ‘Understanding National Character’—and War, Commentary (April 1951).

87 Margaret Mead, And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America (New York: Wm. Morrow, 1942); Geoffrey Gorer, The American People: A Study in National Character (New York: W. W. Norton, 1948).

88 Dante Moreira Leite, O Caráter Nacional Brasileiro: História de uma Ideologia (Sao Paulo: Livraria pioneira editôra, 1954); see also José Honório Rodrigues, The Brazilians: Their Character and Aspirations, trans. Ralph Edward Dimmick (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014); original publication in 1967.

89 Francis L.K. Hsu, Under the Ancestors' Shadow: Chinese Culture and Personality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948).

90 Sanjay Srivastava, Constructing Post-Colonial India: National Character and the Doon School (London: Taylor & Francis, 2005).

91 Geoffrey Gorer, Exploring English Character (New York: Criterion, 1955). On a lighter note, see the cartoons collected in Pont [Graham Laidler], The British: Character (London: Collins, 1938).

92 R. H. Lowie, The German People (New York: Rinehart, 1945).

93 Geoffrey Gorer and John Rickman, The People of Great Russia (London: Cresset, 1949); Margaret Mead, Soviet Attitudes toward Authority: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Soviet Character (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951).

94 H.C.J. Duijker, N.H. Frijda, National Character and National Stereotypes: A Trend Report Prepared for the International Union of Scientific Psychology (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1960).

95 Washington Platt, National Character in Action: Intelligence Factors in Foreign Relations (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1961)

96 Berger, “The Study of Man."

97 Dean Peabody, National Characteristics (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

98 “Why I Fear the Germans,” New York Times, April 25, 1990.

99 Alex Inkeles, National Character: A Psycho-Social Perspective (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1997).

100 Gellert, The Fate of America; Finn Pollard, The Literary Quest for an American National Character (New York: Routledge, 2009).

101 Warren [or Lung-kee] Sun, The Chinese National Character: From Nationhood to Individuality (London: Routledge, 2002).

102 Peter Mandler, The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

104 Roberto Romani, National Character and Public Spirit in Britain and France, 1750–1914 (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Helmut Kuzmics, Roland Axtmann, Authority, State and National Character: The Civilizing Process in Austria and England, 1700-1900 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

105 R. Lynn, Personality and National Character (Oxford: Pergamon, 2013).

106national character” at, accessed October 27, 2020.

107National Character,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, accessed December 19, 2020.

108national character” at Google Ngram, accessed November 8, 2020.

110 Farber, “Psychiatric Interpretation,” 161.

111 Richard E. Minear, "The Wartime Studies of Japanese National Character," The Japan Interpreter, 13 (Summer 1980): 37, 44-45

112 Bertram Wolfe, “The Swaddled Soul of the Great Russians,” The New Leader, January 29, 1951, 17.

113 Jacques Barzun, "The English," The Nation, August 14, 1943, 189.

115 Douglas G. Haring, "Japanese National Character: Cultural Anthropology, Psychoanalysis, and History," Yale Review (Spring 1953): 375‑92.

116 Don Martindale, “The Sociology of National Character,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 370 (1967): 31.

117 Potter, People of Plenty.

118 David M. Potter, “The Quest for the National Character,” in The Reconstruction of American History, ed. John Higham (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), 213.

119 Gordon W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Boston: Beacon, 1954), 116.

120 Jahangir Amuzegar, The Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution: The Pahlavis’ Triumph and Tragedy (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1991), 99.

121 Ernest Barker, National Characters and the Factors in Its Formation, 3rd ed. (London: Methuen, 1939), 140.

122 Morroe Berger, “The Study of Man: ‘Understanding National Character’—and War, Commentary, April 1951.

123 Chenevix, Essay, vol. 1, 1.

124 Henry V. Dicks, “Personality Traits and National Socialist Ideology: A war-time study of German Prisoners of War,” Human Relations 3 (1950): 112.

125 Morris Ginsberg, “National Character,” British Journal of Psychology 32 (1942): 183-205.

126 Geoffrey Gorer, Exploring English Character (New York: Criterion, 1955), 29.

127 Sania Hamady, Temperament and Character of the Arabs (New York: Twayne, 1960), 23.

128 Vidya Hattangadi, “Why study of National Character is important?”, June 13 2016.

129Frederick Hertz, “War and National Character,” The Contemporary Review (May 1947): 277.

130 Alex Inkeles, Daniel J. Levinson, "National Character: The Study of Modal Personality and Sociocultural Systems," in Handbook of Social Psychology, edited by Gardner Lindzey (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1954), vol. 2, 983. In statistics, modal means the value (or number) that recurs most frequently in a given set.

131 Alex Inkeles, National Character: A Psycho-Social Perspective (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1997), preface.

132 Hans Kohn, The Idea Of Nationalism: A Study In Its Origins And Background (New York: Macmillan, 1944), 9.

133 Don Martindale, “The Sociology of National Character,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 370 (1967): 35.

134 John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson (London: Routledge, 1963-1991), vol. 8, 905.

135 Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), 18.

136 Richard Pipes, “A Historian’s Reflections,” Vital Speeches of the Day 36, no. 23 (October 1970): 729.

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