These thoughts were written after Einstein’s 1921 tour of the United States. There’s a lot to think about in his writing. It feels like an apt time as any to reflect back on our country’s past century.
“Some Notes on my American Impressions ” from The World As I See It:
I must redeem my promise to say something about my impressions of this
country. That is not ahogether easy for me. For it is not easy to take up the
attitude of an impartial observer when one is received with such kindness and
undeserved respect as I have been in America. First of all let me say
something on this head.
The cult of individual personalities is always, in my view, unjustified. To be
sure, nature distributes her gifts variously among her children. But there are
plenty of the well-endowed ones too, thank God, and I am firmly convinced
that most of them live quiet, unregarded lives. It strikes me as unfair, and even
in bad taste, to select a few of them fur boundless admiration, attributing
superhuman powers of mind and character to them. This has been my fate,
and the contrast between the popular estimate of my powers and
achievements and the reality is simply grotesque. The consciousness of this
extraordinary state of affairs would be unbearable but for one great consoling
thought: it is a welcome symptom in an age which is commonly denounced as
materialistic, that it makes heroes of men whose ambitions lie wholly in the
intellectual and moral sphere. This proves that knowledge and justice are
ranked above wealth and power by a large section of the human race. My
experience teaches me that this idealistic outlook is particularly prevalent in
America, which is usually decried as a particularly materialistic country. After
this digression I come to my proper theme, in the hope that no more weight
will be attached to my modest remarks than they deserve.
What first strikes the visitor with amazement is the superiority of this country
in matters of technics and organization. Objects of everyday use are more
solid than in Europe, houses infinitely more convenient in arrangement.
Everything is designed to save human labour. Labour is expensive, because
the country is sparsely inhabited in comparison with its natural resources. The
high price of labour was the stimulus which evoked the marvellous
development of technical devices and methods of work. The opposite
extreme is illustrated by over-populated China or India, where the low price
of labour has stood in the way of the development of machinery. Europe is
half-way between the two. Once the machine is sufficiently highly developed it
becomes cheaper in the end than the cheapest labour. Let the Fascists in
Europe, who desire on narrow-minded political grounds to see their own
particular countries more densely populated, take heed of this. The anxious
care with which the United States keep out foreign goods by means of
prohibitive tariffs certainly contrasts oddly with this notion. …But an innocent visitor must not be expected to rack his brains too much, and, when
all is said and done, it is not absolutely certain that every question admits of a
The second thing that strikes a visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life.
The smile on the faces of the people in photographs is symbolical of one of
the American’s greatest assets. He is friendly, confident, optimistic,
and—without envy. The European finds intercourse with Americans easy and
Compared with the American, the European is more critical, more
self-conscious, less goodhearted and helpful, more isolated, more fastidious in
his amusements and his reading, generally more or less of a pessimist.
Great importance attaches to the material comforts of life, and peace,
freedom from care, security are all sacrificed to them. The American lives for
ambition, the future, more than the European. Life for him is always becoming,
never being. In this respect he is even further removed from the Russian and
the Asiatic than the European is. But there is another respect in which he
resembles the Asiatic more than the European does: he is lest of an
individualist than the European—that is, from the psychological, not the
economic, point of view.
More emphasis is laid on the “we” than the “I.” As a natural corollary of this,
custom and convention are very powerful, and there is much more uniformity
both in outlook on life and in moral and esthetic ideas among Americans than
among Europeans. This fact is chiefly responsible for America’s economic
superiority over Europe. Co-operation and the division of labour are carried
through more easily and with less friction than in Europe, whether in the
factory or the university or in private good works. This social sense may be
partly due to the English tradition.
In apparent contradiction to this stands the fact that the activities of the State
are comparatively restricted as compared with Europe. The European is
surprised to find the telegraph, the telephone, the railways, and the schools
predominantly in private hands. The more social attitude of the individual,
which I mentioned just now, makes this possible here. Another consequence
of this attitude is that the extremely unequal distribution of property leads to
no intolerable hardships. The social conscience of the rich man is much more
highly developed than in Europe. He considers himself obliged as a matter of
course to place a large portion of his wealth, and often of his own energies
too, at the disposal of the community, and public opinion, that all-powerful
force, imperiously demands it of him. Hence the most important cultural functions can be left to private enterprise, and the part played by the State in
this country is, comparatively, a very restricted one.
The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by
the Prohibition laws. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the
government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be
enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this
country is closely connected with this.
There is also another way in which Prohibition, in my opinion, has led to the
enfeeblement of the State. The public-house is a place which gives people a
chance to exchange views and ideas on public affairs. As far as I can see,
people here have no chance of doing this, the result being that the Press,
which is mostly controlled by definite interests, has an excessive influence over
The over-estimation of money is still greater in this country than in Europe, but
appears to me to be on the decrease. It is at last beginning to be realized that
great wealth is not necessary for a happy and satisfactory life.
As regards artistic matters, I have been genuinely impressed by the good taste
displayed in the modem buildings and in articles of common use; on the other
hand, the visual arts and music have little place in the life of the nation as
compared with Europe.
I have a warm admiration for the achievements of American institutes of
scientific research. We are unjust in attempting to ascribe the increasing
superiority of American research- work exclusively to superior wealth; zeal,
patience, a spirit of comradeship, and a talent for co-operation play an
important part in its successes. One more observation to finish up with. The
United States is the most powerful technically advanced country in the world
to-day. Its influence on the shaping of international relations is absolutely
incalculable. But America is a large country and its people have so far not
shown much interest in great international problems, among which the
problem of disarmament occupies first place today. This must be changed, if
only in the essential interests of the Americans. The last war has shown that
there are no longer any barriers between the continents and that the destinies
of all countries are closely interwoven. The people of this country must realize
that they have a great responsibility in the sphere of international politics. The
part of passive spectator is unworthy of this country and is bound in the end
to lead to disaster all round.