The Impact of Geography On Modern American Life
by October 20, 1953
Sigimnond deR. Diettrioh
Head, Department of Geography
The impact of geography on modern American life cannot easily be measured
by our common statistical procedures, it can better be shown in the negative,
in the woeful lack of geographic understandings of most of our people.
Modern geography, despite its ancient origin since Homer and Herodotos, is
a relatively new science that re-emerged with Kant, von Humboldt and Ritter at
the beginning of the last century. Being an integrating study it went into a
temporary eclypse while its children, the specialised sciences became popular.
It was not until the turn of the present century that the need for understanding
the entirety of man's world became fully appreciated and geography had become re-
cognised for what it is, the science which integrates other part-sciences and
brings the into a homoeentrio focus.
In the United States this modern concept of geography emerged much slower
than in Europe. It was not until the First World War that the work of the pioneers
had become generally known to the great American public. That prelude to Armageddon,
if not demolishing, at least breached our self-satisfied isolationism and rendered
the intellectual atmosphere favorable for the search of geographic knowledge.
With our suddenly grown economic stature we could not tolerate any longer such
geographic ignorance as that which motivated two large American concerns to send
their best salesmen to Peru to sell their products: mackintoaes and galoshes.
Why would a Peruvian in Iquique buy any of these? It takes ten years there to
tain one inch! It was in these times that the first great schools of geography
developed in the United States like Clark, Chicagp and Johns Hopkins.
The need for better geographic understanding arcee also on the domestic scene.
The resources of America, once thought of as boundless, proved to be finite,
thus valuable. As a result movement for the wise utilization of our resources,
known as conservation, emerged, first it appeared in isolated fields ultimate,
however, embracing a nation wide program for the wise use of all our resources.
Since in using his resources man comes in direct contact with nature and its
creative and destructive forces no sound resource-use program could have been
established without a thorough knowledge of geography. Thus another impetus
was given to the study of geography. No wonder that under these circumstances
economic geography, especially the study of resources, became the outstanding
field for American geographers.
World War II was, however, the real eye-opener as far as the American
public was concerned. Involved in the first really global war geographers,
the few there were in the country, were at premium. In the various armed forces
training programs geography became a cardinal subject. The intelligence
agencies assembled, studied and disseminated hitherto unbelievable amount of
geographic information, improved and expanded known geographic techniques and
developed new ones. The people became aware, their leaders cognizant of the
fact that four-fifths of all the problems which confront a democratic nation
concern (1) resources-their use, ownership, or taxation, (2) specific places
or regions, and (3) relations with foreign countries and peoples. Geographic
knowledge is necessary in understanding such problems, and mere experience in
politics does not provide that information.
The impact of geography on American life then manifests itself in the
need for more and better geographic understandings since the application of
geographic knowledge and understandings has to take place in every phase of
human endeavor. The most general application of geographic knowledge in a
democracy in today's interdependent world occurs in good citizenship. The
next field where geographic knowledge is necessary is in economic planning,
private and societal alike. The increasing public interest in problems of
resource-use open up another avenue where geographic understandings are
essential. Not only in economic but in social planning there is a need for
the advice and know-how of the geographer. Federal and military agencies
are in need of geographic information. Thus on the American scene the people
have come to recognize, to an ever increasing degree, the advisability of
applying geographic knowledge and understanding in almost every phase of