The Fourth of July seems a rather tepid holiday compared to those of the early post-WWII years when there really was something to celebrate. America had single-handedly won the war against Japan in the Pacific. After landing at Normandy, American forces pushed the Nazi armies back to Berlin and forced the unconditional surrender of Germany.
Despite a seemingly implacable and resolute enemy, American soldiers fought their way from island to island across the Pacific to Japan. Against an equally determined military force, they fought their way across France to final victory in Germany. Over one million American soldiers were either killed or wounded during World War I, but Asian and European imperialism had been defeated.
In the post-war period, America was universally respected and admired for its collective courage, determination, and will. Not only was tribute paid to the American military, to the civilian leaders who had quickly mobilized industry and managed the economy in difficult times, and to the American people who had joined the war effort on the home front without complaint or cavil.
Americans felt rightly proud of themselves. They had given their lives to defeat Hitler and his genocidal, arrogant, and mad effort at world domination, and had fought back against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor with an absolute will to annihilate the enemy.
The Fourth of July was a celebration of American victory, but also a loud cheer for the greatness of America itself. The world was a better place after George Washington and his colonial armies defeated the British and the Founding Fathers declared independence. From 1776 until 1945 the history of the United States was one of unparalleled economic growth, social ambition and diversity, and military strength. Commitment if not devotion to the principles of democracy and private enterprise never wavered and America was indeed exceptional. Not only did the national economy recover quickly, but thanks to American aid and support, both Germany and Japan were helped back on their feet.
After 1945, world acclaim became more muted and tempered by American misfortune. The Korean War ended in stalemate after nearly 150,000 casualties. The Cold War intensified and the possibility of nuclear war increased the more nuclear warheads were aimed at the enemy.
Vietnam was a military and political disaster. American supremacy had not been challenged by a superpower but by a small Asian nation. Americans were stunned that ‘a nation of pajama-wearing little men who crawled through tunnels and ate rat meat and cold rice’ could have beaten them. Ho Chi Minh and his loyalist supporters were having nothing of American arrogance and exceptionalism and neither were people back home. The Sixties and early Seventies were a time of political and social upheaval, animated by what many thought was an unnecessary, brutal, and mindless war.
America today faces multiple enemies and appears to many powerless and inept to confront them. Russia acts with impunity in its new-imperialistic ambitions. America is no match for China which owns a significant proportion of American debt and quickly has become a powerful, canny, and dominant international economic force. The Middle East has broken apart and ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their supporters have destabilized Europe, thrown American politics into a wild free-for-all, and threatened moderate countries throughout Africa.
At home, the once-celebrated principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights have become eroded by political and social divisions. The polity of the nation has fractured. The individualism that Jefferson envisaged – individual enterprise within the context of community and civic responsibility – has been replaced by a more venal and selfish one. Alexander Hamilton would be abhorred by the radical populism that characterizes the United States today. He deeply suspected Jefferson’s ‘will of the people’ and argued strongly for a buffer of elite, intelligent, and insightful men against it.
The chaotic America of 2016 is a far cry from that of 1945 when America was indeed whole, solidly united, and visionary.
Once patriotism is delinked from the reasons for it, it becomes dangerous. Patriotism in an era when a nation is weak, threatened, and no longer great is a rallying cry for leaders who are befuddled by world events and a refuge for their constituents who feel threatened by them.
Patriotism soon becomes xenophobia, and xenophobia always leads to war.
It is no wonder, then, that the Fourth of July has become an empty celebration of fireworks, cookouts, parades, and flags. Most Americans have only the dimmest appreciation for the nature of their Revolution, the philosophical principles instituted in the Bill of Rights, or the vision of the Founding Fathers. More importantly, many feel adrift in uncharted geopolitical and cultural waters. What is there to celebrate except celebration itself?
Today freedom, justice, the pursuit of liberty and happiness, fairness, equality – all 18th Century principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – have been co-opted and misused. Little thought is given to what they really meant or mean. The words alone are enough when couched in the call to patriotic duty. The words to Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton were not empty but vital:
The sum of all is, if we would most truly enjoy the gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people; then shall we both deserve and enjoy it. While, on the other hand, if we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most abject slaves (Samuel Adams).Freedom was not just a vague concept, a given right, part of an American’s legacy. It was a responsibility, and there was always the danger of falling from freedom to ‘abject slavery’. Adams and others, particularly Jefferson who was influenced by John Locke, believed that freedom and ‘the pursuit of happiness’ had little to do with personal satisfaction or venal interests. They were the foundation for civic liberty and justice to be nurtured and cared for.
This nurture and care was everyone’s responsibility. If freedom, justice, and fairness were to be guaranteed for all Americans, then each American had a duty to promote them, secure them, and protect them:
I know of no safe depositor of the ultimate powers of a society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power (Thomas Jefferson).Patriotism has a sorry history. Henry V rallied his troops before the battle of Agincourt with calls to patriotism, the greatness of England, and the absolute rights of the English to the French throne. In his famous ‘band of brothers’ speech before the final battle, he not only appealed to nationalism and country, but said that fighting together in this most righteous of causes would unite both nobles and common men. It was not only duty and honor to which Henry appealed, but the communion of English souls.
Later in Shakespeare’s play Henry in disguise discusses his decision to fight the French with some of his troops, common soldiers commandeered into service. He looked for approbation from them on the rightness of his cause – one which was tortuously and tenuously justified through long academic history. He hated the fact that his grandfather, Henry IV, might have been a usurper, and now he might also be an illegitimate pretender to the throne of France; and so when the common soldiers suggested that he was committing thousands of Englishmen to a probable death because of his rarified, barely justifiable, and esoteric noble goals, Henry was shocked. Weren’t they part of his valorous band of brothers, together in goal and spirit?
Despite his reflection on the questionable nature of his cause and on the moral question of sending thousands to their death for such an improbable claim, he executed his plans. He took Agincourt, secured French lands and power, and went on to be a great English hero.
He relied on patriotism – the ideal of fighting for the glory of country and the rightness of its cause – to consolidate the support of his troops; and the call to action in the service of one’s country was no more than a silver-tongued, impassioned exhortation to take the first bullet.
Patriotism was the South’s call to arms in the Civil War and it fought to preserve the plantation- and slavery-based, aristocratic system of the English cavaliers. Like the soldiers of Henry V, those of the Confederacy knew or cared little about the patriotic sentiments expressed by their commanders.
They were sent to the slaughter under a banner of regionalism, the causes and principles of which they only vaguely understood.
All wars coalesce public opinion and strengthened the morale of fighting men through patriotism, and the honor and duty to country; and in all wars the principles enunciated by political leaders mean little to the common man. It was only through emotional appeals to patriotism that these leaders were able to pursue their ends.
How else would doughboys have poured over the trenches in World War I into a withering hail of bullets, dying at a rate almost matching that of the most deadly of conflicts, the Civil War? Who understood the real reasons for the European conflict, Archduke Ferdinand, and petty border differences between the descendants of ancient kings? Very few; but all understood the meaning of the tocsin call to arms. Which of the 70,000 men who died at the Battle of Borodino understood Napoleon’s grand imperialistic schemes or the nature of Russian aristocratic claims to Europe?
Religious patriotism sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths in the Crusades. All had to fight for Christianity against the infidel and to rid Europe of the scourge of Islam. The Mexican-American War was not fought defensively or over issues of survival but Westward expansion, and many criticized President Polk for his aggressive attempts to take over Mexican lands in his march to the Pacific. The death toll and cost of the war were considerable; and yet the war was fought to support American interests. A call to patriotism in this questionable cause was heard throughout the land.
President McKinley prosecuted the short Spanish-American War because of similar ‘national interests’, i.e. fighting to eliminate Spanish influence in the Pacific. Again, a questionable war, with many dead and more wounded.
The War of 1812 had more justification, and despite the fact that it was fought over a simple issue – the impressing of American seamen – it really was about ridding the United States once and for all from English influence. Once again, it was a war about territory, influence, and power, and patriotism was the now wearying call to arms.
Patriotism is even more corrosive in peacetime, for it appeals to a primitive, emotional center with even less justification than going to war. In this election year, it is patriotic, say the Republicans, for Americans to stand up for liberty and individual rights. It is not enough for citizens to reflect on the principles, policies, and programs of the Right; they must vote patriotically, casting a ballot for higher principles. Such appeals to patriotism plays on the ignorance of many voters, or their inability to sort through the complexity of today’s socio-economic and political world, and is manipulative and exploitative.
Patriotism was not an issue at the time of the birth of the nation. Everyone fought the British, and all suffered because of the harsh, rigid, and unfair administration of our occupiers. There was no clarion call to arms for abstract reasons of patriotism, but to free our country from the yoke of British rule. The revolt was real, immediate, and understandable.
By inference, the responsibility of assuring an honorable and just nation is the role of both leaders and citizens; and that if the body politic weakens, both must act to strengthen it through reason and reasonable arguments. What happens today is far removed from Jefferson’s sentiments.