Rare Audio: Albert Einstein Explains “Why I Am an American” on Day He Passes Citizenship Test (1940)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein on Indi­vid­ual Lib­er­ty, With­out Which There Would Be ‘No Shake­speare, No Goethe, No New­ton’

Albert Ein­stein Called Racism “A Dis­ease of White Peo­ple” in His Lit­tle-Known Fight for Civ­il Rights

Lis­ten as Albert Ein­stein Reads ‘The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence’ (1941)

Ein­stein for the Mass­es: Yale Presents a Primer on the Great Physicist’s Think­ing

Albert Ein­stein Hold­ing an Albert Ein­stein Pup­pet (Cir­ca 1931)

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.

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