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Small Nations, Big Feelings: America's Favored European Nations Before Ukraine

In March 1930, American author Marcia Davenport arrived at Prague’s Woodrow Wilson Station. She knew not a single Czech word or person, yet she “fell in love” with this newly formed European state. She cherished the ritualistic performance of village festivals, the cautious drives through city streets barely wide enough for cars, the echoing chatter of women in marketplaces, even the smell—“a rich compound of coal smoke, roasting coffee, beer, smoked pork, and frying onions.”1 For the next twenty years, Davenport returned to Czechoslovakia almost annually, each time amassing more knowledge and friends. During World War II, she worked tirelessly from the US to raise funds for the invaded state and disseminate accurate information about Czechoslovakia on the American airwaves. Her involvement became so intense that she even struck up a romantic (and ultimately tragic) affair with the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, Jan Masaryk. A faraway place truly became this New Yorker’s “second mother country.”2

We often think of those dramatic decades leading up to World War II as a kind of battle between instinctive nationalism and stubborn isolation on the one hand, and a highfalutin universalism and abstract international idealism on the other. The reality, however—at least for Davenport—was less binary. She found her way into international engagement not by walking the halls of the League of Nations but by embracing the intimacy of daily life in a foreign nation. Reminders of a shared human experience and universal political ideologies have their place. But exposure to the particularities of domestic life within nations can cultivate an international perspective.

Feeling patriotism for a foreign country is, when you think about it, odd. Usually our love for country is for our own country, and we roll our eyes at any student who returns from study abroad still wearing a beret. Of course, we care when wars or disasters beset other countries. But we usually do so because of universalistic values, because we care for humanity wherever it may lie. The sort of fervor we feel for our own country typically stops at the border. It’s therefore hard to recall a recent time when many Americans have waved flags for a country that isn’t their own, or with which they didn’t have a diasporic connection. Then this February, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

Already in March, the president of the National Flag Company, Artie Schaller III, spoke to the New York Times on the skyrocketing demand for Ukrainian flags in the US. “This would be the biggest increase in volume for another nation’s flag that I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Schaller observed. “I can only compare it to—in my time—9/11, for just how quickly people are willing to show support and are using a flag to do that.”3 American enthusiasm for Ukraine extended beyond flags: for months, Instagram feeds have filled with recipes for traditional borscht; choirs for Kyiv have appeared on Saturday Night Live; and a small town in upstate New York has loyally followed the daily trials and tribulations of one Ukrainian man through his column for their local newspaper.4

Read entire article at Public Books