Small Nations, Big Feelings

In the 1930s, Americans fell in love with Czechoslovakia and Spain; today, it’s Ukraine. What happens when one finds a “second mother country”?

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

It seems most Americans have rejected Putin’s effort to present the war in Ukraine as an ideological proxy battle between East and West. Instead, they have elected to support Ukraine in a way that looks more like Davenport’s: an embrace of the intimate, the local, the very, very national.

Perhaps some of this is racial. Saudi incursions into Yemen haven’t led to Yemeni flags flying high in Boston and Dallas, whereas the invasion of a European state has stopped traffic in Chicago. Yet systemic racism alone does not provide a complete answer for why Ukraine has received such widespread support, nor does it explain this particular kind of flag-waving support. The plights of Central European states do not automatically garner global sympathy. Consider Marcia Davenport’s own era: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain referred to German incursions into her beloved Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing.”5 More recently, Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 did not provoke an outcry anywhere near the scale of what we see today.

If we consider why and how the current Ukrainian crisis gets so much attention, we may learn something new about how Americans think about international issues. Much like Marcia Davenport’s 1930s, the past decade has seen conversations about two topics in parallel: what perils nationalism could pose to the safety of the world, and how to foster international sympathies and sensibilities. It seems notable that, faced with one of the biggest international relations crises of the past decade, we find ourselves reaching not only for the expertise of diplomacy and the universal language of peace but also for the more quotidian tools of nation: flags, recipes, and local stories about local people. Those yearning for more international engagement will find that the so-called “global citizen” may be a chimera. But perhaps you can make a citizen with a second—or third or fourth—mother country.

Although today’s uptick in foreign-flag purchases may be the biggest that Mr. Schaller has seen, it is not entirely without precedent. In the years of crises clustering around World War II, passionate attachment to a foreign nation became prevalent among internationally minded Americans. The fates of the world’s “small powers,” often referred to as “small nations”—including China (especially the Manchurian region), Abyssinia (now called Ethiopia), Poland, Yugoslavia, and yes, Czechoslovakia—all interested America’s burgeoning cosmopolitans. The attention showered upon these seemingly provincial places did not derive only from the state’s relative position in a broader geopolitical calculation. It came from a fascination—as Davenport experienced in Prague—with the components of a state that give it claim to nationhood: internal complexities, culture, and traditions.

To better understand this “inter-national” brand of internationalism, let us more thoroughly consider the case of Marcia Davenport, who came to understand Czechoslovakia as “one concrete example small enough to be held in the palm of my mental hand, so to speak, and typical enough to serve as a perfect example of everything I mean.”6

You’ve almost certainly never heard of Marcia Davenport. A successful biographer, best-selling novelist, and merciless music critic, she boasted extraordinary talents. She also boasted extraordinary connections. Her mother gained fame as a soprano, giving Davenport access to New York City’s artistic circles. Davenport’s second husband, Russell Davenport, worked as managing editor of the newly founded Fortune magazine and closely advised the future “one-world” advocate, Wendell Willkie, during his memorable 1940 presidential campaign.7 Their country home in Vermont offered proximity to her famous friends, including political commentator Dorothy Thompson and her literary husband, Sinclair Lewis. In short, Marcia moved in elite, influential, and internationally oriented circles. This makes her love for the apparently provincial and deeply national Czechoslovakia all the more curious.

Davenport’s fascination with a small European state might have remained a private eccentricity, had it not been for the rapidly unfolding catastrophe of World War II. The infamous Munich Agreement in 1938 gave her personal affair with Czechoslovakia a political hue. Increasingly, she came to see Czechoslovakia not only as a place she loved in and of itself but also as a stand-in for her growing international vision and commitments. When reflecting on the war years, Davenport recalled that “the fate of the small country became common cause with every man and woman who stood up to be counted against Hitler.”8 She volunteered for Czechoslovak-specific relief organizations and also for groups with more global aims, including The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, which lobbied the US government to join in the global fight against fascists. In this way, personal affection for the particularities of a people evolved into a commitment to international ideals.

Davenport was hardly the only one in the 1940s whose international engagement was born from love of a small nation. For some, such as American editor Hamilton Fish Armstrong, Yugoslavia became a site of inspiration. The Balkan state served as the backdrop for his World War I–era military service as well as the first blissful months of married life with his wife, Helen. It also inspired a number of articles and books, some of which he published in the magazine he edited: Foreign Affairs, the most well-respected international relations periodical of the day. For others, such as American novelist Pearl Buck, it was the then-provincial state of China. The formative decades she spent there motivated her advocacy for more cultural understanding and appreciation within the realm of international politics.9 Buck became a leading advocate of international adoption programs and a supporter of civil and women’s rights. Although their professional biographies describe buzzing cosmopolitan elites, these figures found their intellectual footing within solid and specific national contexts.10

It seems most Americans have elected to support Ukraine in a way that looks more like Davenport’s: an embrace of the intimate, the local, the very, very national.

Such love affairs with foreign nations hardly qualified as secret trysts. In the case of Davenport, it seems that she leveraged her connection to Czechoslovakia as a means of claiming expertise. In a private report on the state of Europe in the immediate postwar period, she repeatedly referenced her “intimate” relationship with Czechoslovakia. This specifically “intimate” kind of knowledge justified her international analysis included in the report, which she entitled, “WE NEED THEM WORSE: Memo on Europe—Four Months Post-War.”11 The memo, circulated to her friends in the publishing world, argued for more involvement from the US in the rebuilding of postwar Europe. While she admitted that the small states needed the US, she argued further that without American participation, the whole of Eastern Europe could come under the influence of the Soviets—a fate she believed would endanger the world at large.

Those in the know, however, understood that Davenport’s claim of intimate knowledge also derived from her interpersonal relationships. Her wartime efforts on behalf of Czechoslovakia resulted in an introduction to Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk. In addition to representing Czechoslovakia on the world stage, Masaryk served as a figurehead within the state itself, as the son of the country’s first “founding father,” Tomáš Masaryk. The couple eagerly superimposed their mutual affection for each other’s state onto their person. Marcia would later recall, “The relation grew out of the profound attachment that I had formed in my youth for Prague and for the countryside of Bohemia and Moravia, and for the plain people who are of their essence.”12 Masaryk, who had spent significant portions of his life in the US, felt much the same about it. In a draft of her memoirs, Davenport wrote that Masaryk’s decision to publicly display his relationship with her—an American—was a political one, meant to signify his allegiances during the early days of a brewing Cold War. She wrote, “His intimate friendship with me was not only well known everywhere—it was in a sense slapped down to them as though a declar[ation] of his westerness.”13

The politically charged affair came to a screeching halt in 1948, when Masaryk died under suspicious circumstances. While many presumed he had committed suicide in response to recent political events, others suggested he had been murdered as a consequence of his affection for the US. Devasted, Marcia refused to return to Czechoslovakia for decades.

Masaryk and Davenport’s relationship captured the nation-loving internationalist zeitgeist: they loved each other for both who they were and the nation they seemingly embodied; that nation in turn was loved both on its own terms and for the international world they understood it to represent.

The small nations of World War II did not receive the amount of widespread sympathy seen today for the Ukrainian cause. Still, by placing our present-day world and the Ukrainian crisis in conversation with the world of seventy-plus years ago, we find similarities and see how loving a foreign nation can shade, paradoxically, into internationalism. Exposure to even the most parochial of symbols and minutia of cultural practices—identifying the exact ingredient that makes a borscht Ukrainian, becoming familiar with a flag—can lead to international engagement.

Davenport serves as a case in point. Her relationships with Masaryk, Czechoslovakia, and the world writ large all eventually came to operate as one. In today’s reporting on Ukraine, we see a similar collapsing of boundaries between personal, political, national, and international. As journalist Masha Gessen has noted, newspapers have frequently opted to report on a major geopolitical event in Europe through countless interviews of individual Ukrainian civilians attempting to go about their daily lives.14 Surely some of these journalistic decisions have followed the lead of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose heart-wrenching and highly personal dispatches to the world have stunned global audiences. These more personal and emotive reports and speeches have spurred conversations about US foreign policy, international law, and world order.

Moreover, these conversations are proving effective. Although changing domestic and global circumstances have fostered many discussions about shifting world order and US foreign policy for the past decade, it seems that the situation in Ukraine has accelerated the process.15 The US has provided billions of dollars of aid since January, and as of August 2022, the majority of Americans still feel that the US ought to continue to support Ukraine.16 Waves of generosity and recalibrations of US foreign policy have not followed in the wake of crises in Palestine or Yemen, and that absence may reveal something. Correlation is not causation, but those events did not have such immediate impacts on the tenor of US foreign policy discussions, perhaps because the reaction of many Americans did not involve care, intimacy, and identification.

Perhaps we forget just how strange it is to see Ukrainian flags flying in American cities because it feels so very intuitive. Yet hanging a blue-and-yellow flag on an American door does not necessarily align with our formal understanding of what “counts” as either typical international engagement or patriotism. This apparent paradox between the instinctive and the analytical suggests that there is room for revision within our understanding of nationalism and internationalism. Though our world today differs in substantial ways from that of Marcia Davenport, such a stark binary between the national and the international did not necessarily apply in the past either. Instinctive fascination with the intimacies of national life still can become an essential means of creating an international vision.


This article was commissioned by Ruby Ray Dailyicon

  1. Marcia Davenport, Too Strong for Fantasy (Scribners, 1967), p. 147.
  2. Marcia Davenport to Rebecca West, November 2, 1941, Box 14, Folder 19, Rebecca West Collection, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections & University Archives, University of Tulsa.
  3. Amanda Holpuch, “U.S. flag makers are rushing to fill orders for Ukrainian flags,” New York Times, March 3, 2022.
  4. Gregory Warner, “As Russians approach his town, ‘the cat must still be fed,’Rough Translation, NPR, August 3, 2022.
  5. Neville Chamberlain, “National Programme,” BBC, September 27, 1938.
  6. Marcia Davenport, “WE NEED THEM WORSE: Memo on Europe—Four Months Post-War,” Box 35, Marcia Davenport Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  7. See Samuel Zipp, Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World (Belknap Press, 2020).
  8. Davenport, Too Strong for Fantasy, p. 323.
  9. See David A. Hollinger, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017).
  10. See Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (Anchor, 2019).
  11. Davenport, “WE NEED THEM WORSE.”
  12. Davenport, Too Strong for Fantasy, p. 323.
  13. Marcia Davenport, draft materials, Box 35, Marcia Davenport Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  14. Anand Giridharadas, “Is This How Russia Ends?,” interview with Masha Gessen, The.Ink, April 6, 2022.
  15. Countless op-eds and columns have covered what Ukraine means for US foreign policy, including “Ukraine War Ushers In ‘New Era’ for U.S. Abroad,” The New York Times, March 12, 2022; “Putin Has Made America Great Again,” The Atlantic, February 19, 2022; “Is the war in Ukraine a turning point for American foreign policy?” The Economist, March 25, 2022.
  16. Simon Lewis, “Just over half of Americans say U.S. should back Ukraine until Russia withdraws – Reuters/Ipsos poll,” Reuters, August 22, 2022.
Featured image: 2022.02.26 Stand with Ukraine, The White House, Washington, DC. Photograph by Ted Eytan / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)