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Patriotism and Its Enemies

Norman Podhoretz

The Fourth of July is hard upon us once again. But does this annual commemoration of the day in 1776 on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted still inspire the sentiment described by the Virginia Gazette on its first anniversary? “The face of joy was and gladness was universal,” the paper reported. “Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more. Amen, and amen.”

This prayer was largely answered for many years. The festivities inspired by Independence Day — the picnics, the fireworks, the singing and the dancing — were never regarded as complete without a dose of florid oratory to remind the revelers (many of them, having toasted each of the states one by one, a little the worse for drink) of what their revels were all about. And, along with the speeches, it was common for the Declaration itself to be read aloud.

Yet in the decades following the Civil War, patriotism began falling out of fashion. American patriotism, in particular, began acquiring a bad name, which it still retains in many quarters. Admittedly, as far back as the 18th century, the great English literary critic Samuel Johnson famously dismissed patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But this was an uncharacteristic remark coming from so fervent a Tory as Johnson.

After all, love of country (which is what the word patriotism signifies) is so common a feeling among peoples in the world that praising or deploring it is rather like praising or deploring human nature itself. In almost every respect I prefer Johnson to the contemporary English philosopher Bertrand Russell. But I must concede that Russell — who, as a lifelong radical, might have been expected to take a negative view of patriotism — was being more natural when he said: “Love of England is very nearly the strongest emotion I possess.”

Very few, if any, statements of a similar cast can be found among American intellectuals — and certainly none can be found among radicals — in the past 100 years or so. With a lonely exception or two like Walt Whitman, American writers have associated patriotism not only with scoundrels but with charlatans, demagogues, fools, nativist bigots and the “boosterism” that critics like H.L. Mencken and novelists like Sinclair Lewis mercilessly ridiculed to such lasting effect.

Some of these writers denied being unpatriotic, protesting simply that the America they loved no longer existed. What they despised, or so they said, was not the nation born on July 4, 1776, but the one that supplanted it in the Gilded Age following the Civil War. It was then that this country supposedly fell under the malignant rule of businessmen and the corrupt politicians under their thumb.

Making matters worse were the hordes of foreigners from Southern and Eastern Europe who flooded American shores to fill the need for cheap labor. These immigrants (if they were Catholic) were suspected of a subservience to the pope in Rome that made them unfit for democracy; or (if they were Jewish) of a propensity to support alien ideologies like socialism (and later, communism) that were subversive of the American Way.

Finally, the polyglot country being created by the arrival of many millions of low-born foreigners was destroying the homogenous culture that had unified the nation and made it work. The English language was being barbarized; manners were being coarsened; and there was less and less evidence of the “republican virtue” without which the Founding Fathers believed the political system they had created could not long endure.

If such attitudes contained an element of truth, they were also shot through with provinciality, ignorance and bigotry. Often they amounted to nothing more than a hysterical fear of being displaced that spread among the descendents of people who had arrived here in early days. In any case, out of this amalgam of sentiments a tradition arose of what can fairly be called anti-Americanism. It was a tradition that flourished not only on the political left but also on the right.

Thus in the late 19th century, not even the most fiery Marxist — let alone a more moderate socialist like the novelist and editor William Dean Howells — could have matched the bilious detestation felt by the conservative historian Henry Adams, direct descendent of two American presidents, for what he thought America had become since the days of his ancestors.

The new America made even stranger bedfellows in the 20th century. During the 1930s, for instance, alliances were formed between the eminent poets, critics and novelists of the “Southern Agrarian” school who defiantly described themselves as “reactionaries,” and the revolutionary Marxists in the North whose center was the magazine Partisan Review.

The two groups were brought together partly by a common passion for literature, but what really cemented the alliance was the loathing they shared for capitalist or “bourgeois” America. The reactionaries, true to their self-designation, looked back to the antebellum South (slavery and all!) as a golden age. For their part, the revolutionists looked not back but forward. They envisaged a socialist America that, in their distorted interpretation, would be a truer fulfillment of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution than the country they were actually living in.

Another way of explaining what made bedfellows of such disparate groups is to reintroduce a word that was once fashionable among them: alienation. Henry Adams, and many other products of the old American patriciate, thought the country rightly belonged to them but was being stolen by the rotten “gang” of swindling plutocrats that had taken over in the Gilded Age. The America created by this gang, said the 20th-century literary critic R.P. Blackmur in a reverential essay on Henry Adams, had no “purpose beyond the aggregation of force in the form of wealth.” In such an America, Blackmur insisted, there was no room for so distinguished an intellectual as Adams.

Another eminent 20th-century critic, Edmund Wilson — descended like Adams from the patriciate, though himself a man of the left — made a similar observation about his own father: “The period after the Civil War — both banal in a bourgeois way and fantastic with gigantic fortunes — was a difficult one for Americans brought up in the old tradition. . . . They had been educated at Exeter and Andover and at eighteenth-century Princeton . . . but they had then to deal with a world in which this kind of education and the kind of ideals it served no longer really counted for much.”

So many copies of this picture of the new America have been rolling off the printing presses for so long now that it takes a real effort to see the deeper truths concealed by its superficial accuracy. But if one makes the effort, what becomes immediately apparent is that other young men with the same background that supposedly rendered Henry Adams and Edmund Wilson Sr. unfit for political careers in the new America were nevertheless able to make a great mark on the times.

There was, for example, Henry Cabot Lodge, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts from 1893 until his death in 1924. The scion of a family almost as eminent as the Adamses, a noted author and a man of great intellectual gifts, Lodge became perhaps the most important senator of the age. Even more damaging to the myth was Theodore Roosevelt. Like Adams, Roosevelt was both a patrician and a historian. For all that, he wound up exactly in the position that, in the stereotypical conception of the Gilded Age, he should have been disqualified from reaching — the presidency.

Yet no such inconvenient facts were allowed to complicate the picture of an America that was unworthy of the patriotic sentiments it had once inspired. Those ordinary folk who continued to cling to such sentiments were looked down upon with derision by their putative betters as small-town hicks, clones of Sinclair Lewis’s George F. Babbitt, members of H.L. Mencken’s “booboisie.”

For decades, hardly a voice could be heard to contest the contempt for America among those whose job it was to disseminate words. World War I led to a brief outburst of patriotism, but the senseless slaughters of that war brought on a new wave of revulsion that prevailed throughout the 1920s.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to World War II. When the Great Depression set in, the left at first interpreted it as a vindication of the attacks on business that had been launched since the 1860s. In accordance with this line of thinking, the Communists, and those liberals who sympathized with them, did everything they could to blacken the name of the U.S. They went so far as to declare that “social fascism” was governing America, and that it was no different from the openly totalitarian regime Hitler was building in Germany.

In 1932, a long list of non-Communist writers, including Edmund Wilson himself, even advocated voting for the Communist presidential candidate as the best means of taking the country back from the businessmen. But in 1935 the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin began growing fearful of Nazi Germany. Stalin decided it was the better part of prudence to establish friendly relations with Western democracies. Overnight, the revolutionism that had formed the core of the “party line” changed.

To kick off the new era of the “Popular Front,” the leader of the Communist Party in this country suddenly declared that “Communism was twentieth-century Americanism.” Having scorned liberals as “useful idiots” or “running dogs of capitalism,” the Communists now declared themselves to be on the same side. We too are liberals, said the Communists, only “liberals in a hurry.”

To provide concrete reassurance, they disguised everything they did as indigenously American. And if on the left patriotism was now the order of the day, much the same was happening on the right. The ghost of Henry Adams was exorcised, while conservative “isolationists” who opposed American entry into the war on the side of the British did so under the battle cry (echoed by some non-Communists on the left) “America First.”

The argument between isolationists and interventionists was rendered academic by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. From that day until the war ended four years later, patriotism became more pervasive in this country than at any time since the founding of the republic.

So powerful was this resurgence of patriotic feeling that it spilled over into the immediate postwar period. It was even powerful enough to drown out the opponents of what came to be dubbed the Cold War. And when the Cold War turned hot in Korea, President Truman was able to mobilize just about the entire country behind a policy of responsibility for holding back the advance of communism in the name of the “free world.”

What brought patriotism yet again into disrepute, of course, was Vietnam. Unlike the war in Korea, the one we entered in Vietnam gradually provoked heated opposition. As that opposition spread, mainly on the campuses, it resurrected the old tradition of leftist anti-Americanism that had grown dormant. In being awakened, this sleeping giant emitted many obscene roars. Thus, in a replay of the early 1930s and its theory of “social fascism,” America was excoriated as “Amerika” — meaning, as before, that it was no different from Nazi Germany. Protesters openly hoped for the defeat and humiliation of this country; spitting on the flag or burning it became commonplace.

It was all the more amazing, then, that the nation’s 200th birthday on July 4, 1976, let loose a flood of intense patriotic sentiment. Even in liberal New York City, where huge crowds watched an armada of “tall ships” magnificently gliding under sail into the harbor, many wept, no doubt to their own astonishment.

The change foreshadowed by this event swept Ronald Reagan into the White House 41/2 years later. As president, he did everything he could to restore the old spirit of patriotism of which he himself was so quintessential an embodiment.

Even so, the young people who had spat on and burned the flag in the ’60s and ’70s, and who had whenever possible dodged the draft, continued to win praise (in the words used at the time by Archibald Cox of Harvard Law School) as “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known.” Which is why I believe that a further shift in the climate can be detected in (among other developments) the two recent books by Tom Brokaw acclaiming those who fought in World War II as “the greatest generation.”

In effect, Mr. Brokaw was removing the championship belt from the waist of the Vietnam-era draft dodgers and tying it around the soldiers who had done their duty by answering the summons to war. That he should have been rewarded for this with bestsellerdom, rather than punished with vituperation, surely meant that the virtues of patriotism were once more being recognized.

Ironically, just as this was coming to pass, some conservative thinkers were moving in the other direction. Driven by their disgust with certain Supreme Court decisions relating to abortion and other social questions, by the degeneracy of so much of our popular culture, and by their disappointment in the American people for refusing to demand the removal of Bill Clinton from office after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, these conservatives took to sounding like the leftist radicals of the 1960s. Some even questioned the legitimacy of the American “regime” and suggested that civil disobedience and rebellion might be the only recourse for persons of conscience.

Fortunately, nearly all the conservatives who fell into this state of mind have been beating a quiet retreat. I believe that most of them will, on further reflection, re-embrace the truth — so long denied by so many — that the United States of America represents one of the highest points in the history of human civilization. Unlike, say, fifth-century Athens or Elizabethan England, the U.S. has earned its place on that exalted list not by the production of artistic monuments. What entitles it to so high a ranking is its creation of a society in which more people enjoy more liberty and more prosperity than has ever been seen at any time anywhere else on earth.

For all these blessings we Americans should be giving daily thanks, but what better time for a full-throated expression of our gratitude than the Fourth of July? Tomorrow — when, as in 1976, an armada is again scheduled to sail into New York harbor — will tell much about whether, or to what extent, we have truly recaptured our appreciation of this, one of the most extraordinary countries that has ever existed, and of how incredibly lucky we are to live here.

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