Most Americans by birth, myself included, have little reason to think about the process of attaining our highly sought-after nationality. But it only takes a moment’s reflection on the millions upon millions of immigrants who came to the United States in the twentieth century alone to get us pondering not just the how but the why of American citizenship. It’s become more relevant than ever today, when we need not look far to notice how many trans-national projects, careers, couples, and families have sprung up around us. Not only do a wider variety of people come to America today, but more Americans base themselves elsewhere than ever before. For some serious thoughts on changing nations, have a listen to the radio clip above, a brief interview with German-born theoretical physicist (and internationally known icon of science and intelligence) Albert Einstein. Last year, we featured footage of Einstein’s 1933 speech in praise of individual liberty at London’s Royal Albert Hall. He gave it not long after the Nazis took power in his homeland; just four days later, he set sail for America and never looked back.
This broadcast went out in 1940, not long before the United States joined the Second World War, as part of I’m An American, a joint effort of the NBC network and the Immigration and Nationalization Service to invite “a number of naturalized citizens to talk about the American citizenship which they have recently acquired, a possession which we ourselves take for granted, but which is still new and thrilling to them.” Einstein, an articulate if still thickly accented speaker of English, calls this rare media appearance a “self-evident duty,” and praises the egalitarianism and cooperative spirit that inclines America toward “the development of the individual and his creative power.” The famed scientist’s interlocutor, Second Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor Marshall E. Dimock, asks him about the reasons he appreciates his new citizenship, why he prefers to live in America given his “international outlook,” and whether he feels America still lives up to its grand promise of liberty. Whether you believe America has improved or gone downhill since that era, I think you’ll find in Einstein’s proud responses a reminder that it often takes a former outsider to clearly see the qualities that have given the country its place in history.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.