Growing up in the Bronx, I started going to public school in 1941. Every morning before instruction began, the teacher would take attendance. Then we would all stand, face the Stars and Stripes hanging on the wall of the classroom, put our hands to our hearts and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
This routine was followed daily and was merely experienced as a necessary routine. There was absolutely no understanding of the meaning of this gesture and why we were performing it. There was no discussion or context offered and so we, the students, complied.
I don’t recall when this morning routine stopped, but the U.S. was at war and the Pledge of Allegiance as well as the National Anthem were standard parts of our lives.
When my father took me to Yankee Stadium or to the Polo Grounds to watch the New York Football Giants, we all rose before the game began and the public address system blasted the National Anthem to honor our country. I noticed that the men in uniform would not only stand, but would stand erect while facing the flag and saluting.
In the early 1950s, the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”, was delivered over and over again and permeated the country. It was the era of the communist witch hunt, starring Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
The Soviet Union, formerly an ally during WW2 and the country most responsible for the defeat of fascism in Europe, was now the enemy because they lived under a communist system of economics. Being a communist in the U.S. was seen as a threat to the well being and freedom of the people of the U.S. These people were seen as unpatriotic and could redeem themselves and demonstrate their patriotism only by cooperating with HUAC and naming others who were members of the Communist Party. Not only were thousands of lives ruined during these times, but many of those people who were communists or believed to be communists were accused of being spies acting on behalf of the Soviet Union. Being a communist was now a criminal act.
In 1940, Congress passed the Smith Act or the Alien Registration Act which originally targeted immigrants entering the country. This act made it a criminal offense to advocate for or belong to a group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government. This act was used during the communist witch hunt in the early 1950s to prosecute members of the Communist and Socialist Workers Party.
In March 1947, President Truman signed an order to force all government workers to sign a “Loyalty Oath.” Government employees were now vulnerable to the whim of the federal government regarding their loyalty as well as their employment. This was done within the context of the tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in what was called “the Cold War” from 1947 to 1991, 44 years of competition between the two countries in weapons development, nuclear development, space travel, etc.
Fear and anger permeated the country as we waited in anticipation for the nuclear attack. There was even a period of time that we had drills to help save us in case we had a nuclear attack . . . we hid under our desks at schools and in office buildings despite the fact that anyone with any sense knew that the desks would not protect us from a nuclear explosion. Instead, it served the purpose of keeping the public in a state of fear and demonized the communist Soviets, the enemy.
Responding to the threat that the small Pacific nation, Korea, was likely to go communist, the U.S. sent troops into that country. The Korean War began in June 1950 and lasted till July 1953. During those three years, there were over 54,000 U.S. casualties, with over 36,000 resulting in deaths. While the U.S. supported the South Koreans, the Soviet Union supported the North Koreans
The result of that war was the partitioning of Korea with North Korea implementing a communist government and South Korea maintaining a pro-Western capitalist government. (There are still, to this day, close to 40,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea).
In March 1965, the U.S. again responded to the threat of Vietnam forming a communist government by sending troops into that country. Again, as in Korea, the U.S. supported the South Vietnamese while the Soviet Union and China supported the North Vietnamese. U.S. involvement in Vietnam lasted until August 1973. Over 50,000 U.S. troops lost their lives during those eight years of military engagement.
From the time we enter school, we are primed for acts of “patriotism.” We are taught about American “exceptionalism,” which is what makes us great. As Hillary has said in her campaign for the presidency, “we are great because we are good.” We are taught that we are a democracy, that we are the ones riding the white horses and wearing the white hats.
The men and women who join the military are automatically celebrated as patriots and gain the full support of all segments of our society. But what if they are asked to participate in illegal and criminal acts? Are the troops who accept, unquestioningly their roles, the true patriots? Or are the people who challenge these criminal acts being committed in our names, the patriots?
The U.S. was guilty of attacking two sovereign nations that presented no threat to the U.S., despite the fact that the U.S. projected to its people that anything communist was a threat. One might ask whether or not the U.S. respects the right of all nations to self-determination? History shows us that the answer is no . . . only the U.S. has the right and the power to determine the future for all countries.
The U.S. was guilty of creating a humanitarian crisis in both Korea and Vietnam, causing the death of millions of unarmed, innocent civilians and destroying the infrastructure of both countries. The death and destruction was not limited to these two countries as the U.S. initiated, during the Vietnam War, the bombing of Laos and Cambodia.
During these two wars, there was a strong antiwar movement. Demonstrations against the wars were frequent and ongoing. It is interesting to note that those who claimed to be in support of our troops, accused the antiwar people of not supporting the troops and, therefore, being unpatriotic.
Think about that. We, who wanted the government to withdraw the thousands of military personnel and bring them home safely, were accused of not supporting “our” troops. What better way to support them than calling for their safe return to the U.S.?
The U.S. has a long history of intervening in the internal politics of sovereign nations. It is important to acknowledge the illegal and criminal activities of the U.S. in order to try to define what and who is a patriot.
Between 1949 and 1953, the U.S. and U.K. set out to overthrow the government of Albania, the smallest and most vulnerable communist country in Eastern Europe. Exiles were recruited and trained to return to Albania to stir up dissent and plan an armed uprising. Many of the exiles involved in the plan were former collaborators with the Italian and German occupation during World War II.
When President Nixon ordered the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia in 1969, American pilots were ordered to falsify their logs to conceal their crimes. They killed at least half a million Cambodians, dropping more bombs than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a rising star in Ghana: Kwame Nkrumah. He was prime minister under British rule from 1952 to 1960, when Ghana became independent and he became president. He was a socialist, a pan-African and an anti-imperialist. Nkrumah was overthrown in a CIA coup in 1966. The CIA denied involvement at the time, but the British press later reported that 40 CIA officers operated out of the U.S. Embassy “distributing largesse among President Nkrumah’s secret adversaries.”
Iran may be the most instructive case of a CIA coup that caused endless long-term problems for the United States. In 1953, the CIA and the U.K.’s MI6 overthrew the popular, elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh. Iran had nationalized its oil industry by a unanimous vote of parliament, ending a BP monopoly that only paid Iran a 16% royalty on its oil. For two years, Iran resisted a British naval blockade and international economic sanctions. After President Eisenhower took office in 1953, the CIA agreed to a British request to intervene. After the initial coup failed and the Shah and his family fled to Italy, the CIA paid millions of dollars to bribe military officers and pay gangsters to unleash violence in the streets of Tehran. Mossadegh was finally removed and the Shah returned to rule as a brutal Western puppet until the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
There are many, more current examples, of U.S. intervention in the affairs of foreign nations.
The 1973 Chilean coup d’état followed an extended period of social unrest and political tension between the right-dominated Congress of Chile and the elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. Upon the election of Allende, US President Richard Nixon ordered the U.S. to initiate economic warfare, thus sabotaging Allende’s government. With the country suffering economically, Allende was overthrown by the armed forces and national police.
The military, with U.S. support (remember Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) deposed Allende’s Popular Unity government and later established a junta that suspended all political activity in Chile and repressed left-wing movements, especially the communist and socialist parties and the Revolutionary Left Movement.
Allende’s appointed army chief, Augusto Pinochet, rose to supreme power within a year of the coup, formally assuming power, with U.S. support, in late 1974. The United States government, which had worked to create the conditions for the coup, promptly recognized the junta government and supported it in consolidating power.
In 2009, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton played an important role, as she has admitted and attempted to defend, in the coup in Honduras that ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.
Hugo Chávez was first elected president of Venezuela in 1998. One of his campaign promises was to convene a new constitutional convention, and on 15 December 1999 he put the new Constitution of Venezuela to the voters in a referendum, which passed with 71.78% of the popular vote. Chávez was reelected in 2000 under the terms of the new constitution. Following these elections, Chávez had gained control of all formerly independent institutions of the Venezuelan government.
Chávez wanted to nationalize the Venezuelan oil resources and take it out of the hands and control of foreign investors. His goal was to allow native Venezuelans to receive a greater benefit from their own resources than they had been receiving. Such a move was considered anti-American and resulted in the U.S. supporting a failed coup of the Chavez government in 2002.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and now we have capitalist Russia. Despite the fact that communism in Russia is no more and, therefore, no longer a “threat” to our way of life, the U.S. continues its propaganda onslaught of Russia. Why?
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), initiated in 1997, was a neoconservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., that focused on United States foreign policy. The PNAC’s stated goal was “to promote American global leadership.” The organization stated that “American leadership is good both for America and for the world,” and sought to build support for “a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.”
For all intents and purposes, this was a fancy way of stating that the U. .S. should dominate all other countries economically, militarily, and politically.
Of the twenty-five people who signed the PNAC’s founding statement of principles, ten went on to serve in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. In case you don’t remember, these men were involved in 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Not surprisingly one of the first recommendations from PNAC, was the desire for regime change in Iraq.
Now that Russia was no longer a threat to the U.S., PNAC advocated for the U.S. worldwide takeover. To accomplish this, the U.S. has to neutralize both Russia and China. It is not communism that is the threat but the ability of these two nations to respond militarily to U.S. hegemony and imperialism.
Dan Welch, writer and political analyst, in a posting on Facebook regarding the so-called presidential debate, commented on Hillary Clinton’s comments regarding Russia: “I stood literally open mouthed watching this imperialist shill red baiting like it was 1954. Such a cynical, manipulative ploy to win an election and ramp up the war fever. . . . It is absolutely imperative that people realize how dangerous this is and push back hard against the Russia bashing . . . liberals are being sleep-walked into the next war without so much as a peep.”
Several years ago, while working in my photo lab, listening to a call-in radio program, the narrator was speaking to a young man who had volunteered to go to the Middle East and was leaving the next day. The narrator asked why he volunteered to go and the young man responded that he felt an obligation to protect us and our democracy here in the U.S. and to bring freedom and democracy to the people living there.
While one might admire his goals, we have to be struck by his naivety. He, like millions of us, is fed this pablum from early childhood which helps us all to define what patriotism is about.
The U.S. Constitution, a document which we in the U.S. claim to live by, provides us with the right of free speech and expression and the right to protection from the government’s unwarranted invasion of our privacy, as well as the right to bear arms. By the way, the right to bear arms was to ensure that the people were prepared to confront an oppressive government, not to guarantee their right to hunt defenseless animals or shoot one-another.
Yet, if we raise our voices in dissent of government actions or policies, we are stigmatized as unpatriotic or, as in Colin Kaepernick’s case, disrespectful. Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, decided that as a Black man he cannot in good conscience stand for the playing of the national anthem at the beginning of every football game. He has stated that the flag symbolizes for him the enslavement and brutalization of people who look like him and he refuses to stand and honor that flag.
While gaining some support for his actions, he has also been severely criticized. People have referred to the many thousands of men and women who have given their lives for what that flag represents and that he is disrespecting them and being unpatriotic.
I was always under the impression that what the men and women of “our” armed forces were supposed to be fighting for was to protect the rights of the Kaepernicks to express their dissent freely. Of course, I know that’s gibberish.
Patriotism goes beyond standing for the national anthem or singing God Bless America, it’s holding “our” government accountable for the actions it takes in our name. Unfortunately, “our” government has, for decades, been responsible for more deaths and destruction than any other government in human history.
Are we willing to passively accept that as we place our hand over our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance?
Dave Alpert has masters degrees in social work, educational administration, and psychology. He spent his career working with troubled inner city adolescents.