Report: Patriotism In America – Is Love Of Country Still Strong?

American Flag“If you want people to be patriotic, you want a responsible patriotism, where they not only uphold their government but also take their responsibilities in a democratic society seriously … “

Millions of Americans display their love of country every year on the Fourth of July, the big bash celebrating the nation's birth more than 200 years ago. But some Americans worry that patriotism is not as strong as it used to be.

Older Americans say that people pay less attention to rituals like July 4th parades and the Pledge of Allegiance than in the past. Many people think that multiculturalism is reducing national unity. Others respond that the nation's increasing ethnic diversity strengthens rather than hurts loyalty to country. And many younger Americans insist they are just as patriotic as previous generations but show their love of country in different ways – like helping people in need or cleaning up the environment.

Richard Eustick remembers going with his father on Memorial Day to the local cemetery to decorate the graves of American soldiers. He remembers reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to start every school day. And he remembers Fourth of July parades that drew hordes of people to celebrate Independence Day.

Today, the 65-year-old retired naval officer sees far less evidence of patriotic feeling among Americans. “The level of patriotism has fallen off,” says Eustick, president of the Pennsylvania-based Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, which runs patriotic education programs for elementary and high school students and teachers. “When I look around, I don't think it's as high on the focus of people's consciousness as it was in my day.”

But the youngsters who attend the foundation's programs disagree. “The kids tell us that they're every bit as patriotic as we were in our day,” Eustick says. “They just express it in a different way, like environmental issues, taking care of other people issues and being more sensitive to people who are less fortunate.”

Ciara DiSeta, a high school junior from suburban Baltimore, knows that a lot of older Americans feel the way Eustick does. But reciting the pledge is still a daily routine at her high school. The junior ROTC program is popular. And she thinks that most of her schoolmates love their country and appreciate the political freedoms that Americans enjoy.

“I would say most of them do,” DiSeta says. “There are students who are patriotic, who do care about what it means to be an American.”

DiSeta shows her own patriotism in various ways. She goes to Fourth of July parades with her family. She has also lobbied state legislators in Maryland on educational issues and helped display the AIDS quilt on the National Mall in Washington. And this month she was selected to lead the Pledge of Allegiance for the annual Flag Day celebration at Fort McHenry National Monument. The successful defense of the historic fort by American soldiers in the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Every day you see the flag,” DiSeta tells the rain-reduced crowd of 2,500 people, “remind yourself of what it means to be an American.”

Patriotism is as American as apple pie and older than the republic itself. It resounds on national holidays that celebrate the nation's birth, honor its heroes and give thanks for its many blessings. It's heard whenever sports fans rise to sing the national anthem. It's seen whenever Americans fly the flag at their homes and businesses. It's felt whenever TV cameras bring back images of U.S. armed forces members risking their lives for American ideals around the world.

But it is equally American to disagree about what patriotism means and to worry about whether it is declining across the country. Patriotic themes have been used to justify sending U.S. troops into battle abroad, but also to oppose U.S. interventions in conflicts outside America's borders. Patriotism is invoked by those who advocate a limited government role in economic affairs and by those who favor a more activist stance. It's been a weapon in political debates throughout the country's history — from the Civil War to the Vietnam War, from the ideological conflicts of the progressive and populist eras to the “cultural wars” of the 1980s and '90s.

Today, the feeling is widespread that love of country has been falling off. Some conservatives say Americans seem less interested in and less respectful of military service than in years past. Others complain that “multiculturalism” is weakening the bonds that tie Americans to each other. Liberals, on the other hand, say Americans are less interested in helping their neighbors — and less interested in harnessing the power of government to do so. They also say that critics of multiculturalism are attacking the very essence of America — as a land of immigrants that welcomes people of every race, nationality and ethnic origin.

At the same time, some political advocates and observers say patriotism still holds sway among most Americans. And pollsters find that most Americans consider themselves patriotic and that an increasing percentage view patriotism as very important in their lives.

One leading scholar of U.S. cultural history says the strength of patriotism today is difficult to pin down. “The 1990s are a period when it's very unclear to say categorically whether patriotism is waxing or waning,” says Michael Kammen, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning history Mystic Chords of Memory.

“There are strong impulses of patriotism that one can point to, but there's [also] disillusionment with all branches of government,” Kammen continues. “When you're not terribly pleased with your government, you may not manifest your patriotism in the same way.”

Kammen emphasizes that patriotism means different things to different people. “Some people perceive it fairly narrowly in terms of the national interest,” Kammen says. “Others perceive it more broadly in terms of international responsibilities.”

Similarly, people on both sides of the immigration debate claim to base their stands on patriotic beliefs. “There are very strong advocates of pluralism who insist that they are patriotic Americans,” Kammen says. “There are others who take a narrower perception and want to be more exclusive, and they, too, wave the flag in defense of patriotism.” 1

Both of the major political parties claim, naturally, to base their platforms on patriotic motives. But historian James Loewen thinks that both actually undermine patriotism with some of their stands.

“The private, me-first agenda that [Republicans] push undercuts patriotism from the right,” says Loewen, an author and visiting professor at Catholic University in Washington. “Meanwhile, the Democrats are seen, and sometimes correctly, as tools of special interests. So when they push for a public agenda, people believe that they're not really pushing for the good of the nation as a whole, but only for their constituency.”

In fact, the definition of patriotism is even disputed in what might seem to be the clearest of patriotic issues: whether to permit laws to prohibit burning the flag as a form of political protest. For the past decade, patriotic organizations have been working to overturn the Supreme Court decisions that threw out on free-speech grounds state and federal flag-protection laws.

“We see a most visible sign in the decline of patriotism in the legalized desecration of the symbol of patriotism, our flag,” says Patrick Brady, a retired Army officer and chairman of the Citizens Flag Alliance, one of the organizations lobbying for a constitutional amendment to permit Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the “physical desecration” of the U.S. flag.

But Carole Shields, president of the civil liberties organization People For the American Way, says that safeguarding free speech helps distinguish the United States from other countries. “We have to be able to allow political protest,” Shields says. “Otherwise, we are Cuba, and we are Iran.”

The flag-desecration amendment has won approval in the House of Representatives three times, including as recently as this month. But the proposal has failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate. This spring, supporters thought they had a chance in the Senate, but they put the measure on hold after a head count indicated that they were two votes short.

As the nation prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July, here are some of the questions being asked about the health of American patriotism:

Is patriotism declining in the United States?
When pollsters Peter Hart and Robert Teeter asked Americans last year how much they personally value patriotism, more than two-thirds of those questioned — 70 percent — said they considered it “very important.” When pollsters asked the same question two decades earlier, the number was substantially lower: only 43 percent.

Some other polls also suggest that patriotism today is at a relatively high level — at least compared with the 1960s and '70s, when the country suffered through a series of domestic and international shocks. But Teeter, a Republican political consultant who teams with Democrat Hart to do the NBC/Wall Street Journal polls, doubts the meaning of his survey data.

“People say they're very patriotic,” Teeter says, “but I'm not sure what the term means to people.”

“The idea of sacrifice is not very prevalent in this generation,” Teeter continues. Military service may not be the only way to demonstrate patriotism, he acknowledges. But there's also reason to doubt Americans' commitment to some of those other expressions of love of country. “Maybe it means you go vote,” Teeter suggests, “but only half do that.”

On the other hand, Fred Yang, a senior vice president at Hart Research who worked on the poll, is more inclined to take the results at face value. Patriotism was at a low ebb after the Vietnam War, Yang says. It rose during the 1980s and, in Yang's opinion, has remained high during the '90s. “I don't think patriotism has gone down that much since the '80s,” he says.

The pollsters' differing reactions to the same data points to the difficulty of measuring patriotism. One scholar tried to get at the question by comparing the number of households observed to be flying the American flag. Comparing census records from 1875 with his own observations in the early 1980s, Wilbur Zilensky found a seeming increase in patriotic expression. Fewer than 1 percent of households displayed the flag in 1875, compared with 4.7 percent in 1981-82. 2

Americans themselves, however, appear to think that patriotism is weaker today than in the past. A Gallup Poll in 1994 found that 73 percent of those responding said Americans were less patriotic “than in previous decades,” while only 16 percent said Americans were more patriotic. (Eight percent said the level of patriotism was the same.)

Ironically, two political advocates on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum both doubt that patriotism actually has dropped off. “Patriotism is strong among the public,” says John Fonte, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “There's always a problem with elites.”

A few years ago, Fonte helped lead an attack on proposed standards for teaching history on grounds that they shortchanged American patriotism. 3 Today, he similarly blames liberal scholars for distorting the definition of patriotism to suit their political ends.

“In the '60s, there was open hostility to America and American ideals,” says Fonte. “In the '90s, it's more a question of redefinition, where patriotism and the nation-state are redefined into an ersatz patriotism, a kind of progressive ideology. I call it post-patriotic.” 4 (continued below)

From a liberal perspective, Shields of People for the American Way also thinks that Americans by and large are as patriotic as they ever were, but that they're expressing patriotism differently than in the past.

“We use different language now as we describe how we feel about America,” says Shields, who has fought with conservative groups on a number of education-related issues. “We talk more about our role in the world than we used to and less in flag-waving terms.”

Observers agree that the end of the Cold War makes patriotism harder to define in terms of the United States' role in international affairs. “There's some evidence of reduced willingness to take up arms,” says Walter Berns, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who is writing a book on patriotism. “The fact is that we don't know what would happen if we were really put to the test.”

But Kammen thinks Americans' patriotic feelings are stirred whenever U.S. interests are under attack abroad. “A lot of people are made uncomfortable by the anti-Americanism of the bombing of the consulate in Kenya, the rock-throwing at the embassy in Beijing,” Kammen says. “The American public tends to react to the sense that our embassies are beleaguered, our troops are beleaguered.”

Above all, Kammen cautions against any effort to generalize about the level of patriotism in the country. “The country is sufficiently diverse that it's very hard to generalize,” he says. There was a definite “surge” of patriotism in the 1980s, Kammen says, but “I don't see any singular trend of that sort right now.”

Should schools try to instill patriotism in students?
Five years ago, a Christian right majority on the Lake County, Fla., school board adopted a policy requiring that students be taught that American culture, values and political institutions are “inherently superior to other foreign or historic cultures.” 5 The policy brought the suburban Orlando community worldwide media coverage and helped provoke a successful campaign by local teachers and parents to elect a new school board in the next election. The new board promptly rescinded the policy.

Today, the schools' curriculum includes a healthy dose of patriotic material, according to one senior administrator. “The Pledge of Allegiance goes on every single day,” says Beverly Haskins, the school system's supervisor of staff development. But children are not taught that America is superior to all other cultures. “There's a great deal of emphasis on cultural diversity,” Haskins explains. “All of us are trying to teach our children to get along with each other.”

The episode represents one of the many skirmishes that have been fought in school systems around the country over how to impart American patriotism in an increasingly diverse country. To many observers, the efforts to accommodate multiculturalism seem to teach students something other than love of country. “Schools are having a divisive effect,” says Fonte. “Multicultural education is having an effect on students, reducing their identification as Americans.”

Liberal policy advocates disagree. “The most depressing thing I can think of is that because the country is becoming more diverse, it is less patriotic or less able to be patriotic,” says Shields. “That's a very dangerous kind of thinking that denies the very best thing that America is.”

One recent study of parents' attitudes indicates a measure of ambivalence about how schools should teach patriotism and how well they are doing on the issue. The survey found that 80 percent of the parents surveyed said schools should teach students about Americans' common history. But 69 percent also said schools should teach students about different cultures as well. 6

“Parents believe that multiculturalism is part of our heritage, but people don't want basic American history lost,” says Matthew Schuerman, associate communications director of Public Agenda, the New York-based group that did the survey.

Patriotism advocates have long focused on schools as an important instrument for inculcating love of country. In 1923, for example, the newly formed American Legion adopted a resolution urging that schools should “inspire” patriotism and teach “a vivid love of America.”

Even so, historian John Bodnar, who has written extensively about patriotism, says schools have not done a good job. “Historically, schools have taught patriotism in a very perfunctory manner,” says Bodnar, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Today, almost all states prescribe minimum high-school graduation requirements in American history. In addition, three national organizations have laid out advisory standards for U.S. history, world history and social studies. The U.S. history standards were adopted in 1996 by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California in Los Angeles after an earlier version was revised in the face of sharp attacks from conservative groups.

But Barbara Kapinus, a senior policy analyst with the National Education Association (NEA), says the regulations and standards may not always be translated into actual classroom teaching. “There's a difference between prescribed curriculum and taught curriculum,” Kapinus explains. “I don't know how much gets actually covered.”

Not a lot, says the Freedoms Foundation's Eustick. “A lot of those elements of patriotism are not there any more,” he says. But he backs away from faulting teachers or administrators. “There are so many more things that have gotten crowded into the curriculum,” he says. “It may be just that they're completely overwhelmed with all the things they have to teach these days.”

Shields also worries that students are not learning enough about the American political system. “There is evidence that there's not nearly enough” civics education, Shields says. “We're paying a price for that. For instance, I think a lot of people don't understand the importance of an independent judiciary and how it protects our rights.”

For her part, Kapinus says schools need to do more than preach love of country if students are to leave with a fully developed sense of patriotism.

“If you want people to be patriotic, you want a responsible patriotism, where they not only uphold their government but also take their responsibilities in a democratic society seriously,” says Kapinus. “That is a set of skills and knowledge that goes beyond history and civics. Part of it is being thorough and thoughtful in thinking through an issue, sticking with a problem even if it's not readily apparent how it's going to be solved or dealt with. Those are the kinds of mental habits that you hope you would have if a democratic society is going to work.”

Should the news and entertainment media promote patriotism?
The news media generally gave strong, sometimes sycophantic support to the United States' participation in the 20th century's two world wars. But much of the reporting on the Vietnam War reflected negative attitudes toward the U.S. role in the conflict. Many Americans accused the media of being unpatriotic and blamed the U.S. defeat in the war on the negative reporting from the war zone.

Today, by contrast, much of the news coverage and commentary surrounding the U.S. role in the Kosovo crisis has been positive — too much so for some opponents of the war. Nonetheless, many Americans think that the news media weaken national patriotism by being too critical of the actions of the U.S. government.

“The function of the media is to tell us the truth about ourselves, and they don't do a very good job of that,” says Citizens Flag Alliance Chairman Brady. “That's because the vast majority of them are of one mind-set. They're liberals.”

Many Americans, however, do have negative views about the media and patriotism, according to the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press. In a February survey, it found respondents almost equally divided on whether the news media “stand up for America” (41 percent) or “are too critical of America” (42 percent). That represented a significantly less favorable view of the media than the center found in the mid-1980s. In surveys in 1985, 1986 and 1987 more than 50 percent of the respondents said the news media stood up for America while no more than 35 percent thought the media were too critical. 7

“When we first did these surveys, the people thought that the media were basically moral and patriotic,” says Andrew Kohut, the center's director. “Now there's more criticism, suspicion and rebuke of the values that the media possess.”

Historian Loewen cites the coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal as one example of the media's negative effects on public patriotism. “That helps undermine patriotism,” Loewen says. “They try to persuade us that our national leaders are jerks, not making the separation between private jerks and public policies.”

Other observers, however, question the basis for the public's distrust of the media. “My sense is that the media are fairly evenhanded,” says Kammen. “I'm not aware that patriotism has been a particularly pervasive or strong issue that the media have dwelt upon in recent years.”

Eustick also finds little reason to fault the media for the way it has dealt with patriotism-related issues in recent years. “I find that the press and the media are positive in how they treat the story,” he says, “while at the same time they certainly point out that we've got some warts.”

Indeed, as Eustick points out, the news media over the past few years have been filled with celebratory remembrances of U.S. history. TV journalists Tom Brokaw of NBC News and Peter Jennings of ABC News both produced coffee-table books within the past year marking, respectively, the U.S. victory in World War II (Brokaw's The Greatest Generation) and the United States' dominance of events in the 20th century (Jennings' The Century). Both books formed the basis for prime-time documentaries.

There was also a surge of patriotism in movies — notably, Steven Spielberg's “Saving Private Ryan,” the fictional story of a World War II mission to rescue an American soldier whose three brothers had all been killed in the war. Ironically, some conservatives criticized the film, saying it demeaned patriotism by depicting U.S. soldiers as unaware of or indifferent to the reasons for the war.

Still, Shields says the media give too little attention to the small-scale patriotism that Americans exhibit in their day-to-day lives. “There are plenty of Fourth of July celebrations,” Shields says. “Sometimes people talk as though that doesn't happen anymore.”

Kohut also believes the media overplay negative aspects of American life. “Large percentages of people think that the way the press reports and does its job gets in the way of social progress,” he says.

Kalb disagrees. “Journalists do the country a favor by checking and double-checking,” Kalb says. “The point is that you come at this with a commitment to integrity and truth.”

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Background

Making America
The roots of American patriotism lay in a political tradition imported from England and other European countries, but it took a distinctive form because of Americans' devotion to liberty and to their unique political institutions and their pride in America's natural beauty.

The earliest European colonists viewed America as a land of destiny: “the glorious renovator of the world,” according to Jonathan Edwards, a 17th-century Colonial clergyman. 8 The political struggles of the 18th century helped forge what was at first an Anglo-American patriotism, aimed at securing for the colonists the natural rights of Englishmen. Later, the Revolutionary War turned it into a strictly American patriotism. With the writing of the Constitution, Americans had formed both a nation and a national government that — as historian Merle Curti wrote in his seminal history of American patriotism — “they could love and to which they could be loyal.” 9

National patriotism competed, however, with sectional loyalties. The North with its manufacturing economy had differing economic interests from the agrarian South — differences aggravated by the slowly intensifying dispute over slavery. Slaves were not the only Americans overlooked by the patriotism of the pre-Civil War period: so too were Native Americans and, in many respects, women. The country's growing prosperity masked these problems to some extent. But there were some dissenters. In his “Address to the Workingmen of New England,” Seth Luther warned that the talk of national glory and wealth was being used “to hide existing or anticipated and inevitable evils.” 10

The Civil War transformed patriotism, both in the North and the South. Whether viewed as a fight to avoid subjugation or to preserve freedom and the Union, the war instilled deep feelings among Americans, including those who waged fierce combat for four years. Patriotism was “the credo of the fighting soldier,” according to Civil War historian James M. McPherson. 11 The North's victory ended slavery and also resolved the issue of political allegiance. Henceforth, Americans owed their primary loyalty to their country, not to their region or state. But both sides found cause for patriotic renewal. The North celebrated its magnificent victory, the South its heroic effort.

The United States' westward expansion — a divisive issue before the Civil War because of slavery — now helped Americans transcend their sectional differences. The settlement of the West became a national cause — one shamefully blind to the suffering inflicted on Native Americans. The transcontinental railroad and communications networks also provided “a powerful force for national union and national loyalty,” according to Curti. 12

Patriotism also grew, though in mutated form, with the growing immigration of the late 19th century. The nativism that first surfaced with the Irish and German immigrations before the Civil War became more intense with the mix of Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nativism also fed on the political conflicts over socialist, anarchist or pro-labor views that many Americans thought were undesirable imports from European countries.

By the 1890s, many Americans were seeking to renew and strengthen national patriotism. A host of patriotic societies were formed, including the American Flag Association, which in the decade after its founding in 1897 helped make Flag Day a widely observed occasion. Then, at century's end, Americans found an outlet for their patriotic sentiments in the country's first overseas conflict — the Spanish-American War — and an embodiment of their patriotism in their bully-pulpit president, Theodore Roosevelt. The war divided Americans, but — unlike the Vietnam conflict — it was over before the divisions could harden. And Roosevelt preached from the White House a patriotism that in his mind at least transcended class, status, even race. An American's first loyalty, Roosevelt declared, “is due to the nation, and to his fellow citizens no matter what position they occupy.” 13

War, Peace and Loyalty
The United States became a major global power in the first half of the 20th century and a dominant superpower in the half-century since. The nation's growing international role reinforced Americans' patriotic pride but also fed what Curti called a “paramount and enduring concern over disloyalty” that peaked during the Cold War and the Vietnam War. 14

Americans had been divided before each of the country's 19th-century conflicts, but the divisions over the two world wars, the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict produced sharper, more protracted debates along with a series of bitter congressional investigations and a web of internal security legislation.

World War I provided the first example. The war produced a government crackdown on draft protesters and widespread public attacks on German-Americans. In the war's aftermath came the so-called “Red Scare” prosecutions of domestic radicals and urgent calls for the teaching of patriotism in public schools.

These excesses contributed to what Kammen describes as the unpopularity of patriotism in some circles during the 1920s and early '30s. By the end of the decade, however, Kammen says, there was an “upsurge of patriotism” — fed in part by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's determined effort to lift the country's spirits as well as its economic health. 15 Indiana University's Bodnar describes the period as one of liberal patriotism — focused on social and economic justice at home rather than military and diplomatic power abroad.

An upsurge in patriotism in the 1940s was sparked in part by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to lift the country's spirits. (Photo Credit: Corbis Images)
An upsurge in patriotism in the 1940s was sparked in part by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to lift the country's spirits. (Photo Credit: Corbis Images)
Americans, in fact, were divided on the eve of World War II. A strong “America First” movement opposed involvement in the impending global conflict. The divisions may have led Germany and Japan to underestimate Americans' resolve, Curti wrote with the memory of the war still fresh, but they “seemed almost instantly to disappear” after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war immediately afterward. 16 “The one time the nation got together was during World War II,” Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat and veteran of the war, recently recalled. 17

The wartime unity did not survive the peace. The Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union and the “loss” of China to a communist government in 1949 brought forth what Curti describes as “a crusade against men and women deemed 'un-American.' ” 18 A few Americans were prosecuted as spies, and many others found their loyalty questioned — in congressional hearing rooms and elsewhere — for nothing more than having joined or sympathized with the U.S. Communist Party or other political organizations deemed by some to be “communist fronts.” The anti-communist witch hunt was led by an otherwise undistinguished Republican senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, who held sway in Washington for several years until his excesses finally brought him a Senate censure in 1954.

A decade later, Americans were divided again, this time over Vietnam. Opposition to U.S. involvement in the war spawned sharp debates in Washington and raucous, sometimes violent, demonstrations around the country. Many protesters were openly sympathetic to Communist North Vietnam rather than the pro-American regime in South Vietnam and scornful toward the professed U.S. goals in the conflict. The demonstrations produced a widespread backlash most pithily stated in the defiant admonition to the protesters: “America — Love It or Leave It.”

The Vietnam protests combined with civil rights activism to produce a seeming decline in patriotism — or, at least, what Kammen describes as “conventional manifestations of patriotism.” 19 But, he says, patriotism never completely collapsed. Today, the divisions have healed even if they have not been completely forgotten.

Fireworks over the National Mall in Washington, D.C., attract hundreds of thousands every Fourth of July. (Photo Credit: Mike Theiler, Reuters)
Fireworks over the National Mall in Washington, D.C., attract hundreds of thousands every Fourth of July. (Photo Credit: Mike Theiler, Reuters)
“There were patriots on both sides,” says Shields of People for the American Way, whose brother served in Vietnam while she protested the war at home. “Neither of us was wrong,” she says. “That was a very tough time.”

'Orthodox Americanism'
An old-fashioned patriotism gained strength in the United States from the mid-1970s through the '80s, fed in succession by commemorative observances, national travails and quick military victories abroad. “Orthodox Americanism” was “very much in vogue,” Kammen writes. 20 Conservatives cheered what they viewed as a return to traditional American values and love of country, but many liberals thought the patriotism of the era overemphasized military strength while sacrificing what they regarded as an equally important value: social justice.

The decade and a half included two nationwide extravaganzas of patriotic remembrance: the bicentennials of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 and of the Constitution in 1987. The celebrations produced an outpouring of oratory, op-ed commentaries and observances and re-enactments in communities around the country, along with scattered dissent. Six million people viewed the sailing of tall-masted sailing ships in New York Harbor on May 4, 1976; President Ronald Reagan marked the bicentennial of the Constitution with a speech at Philadelphia's Independence Hall on Sept. 17, 1987.

Patriotic feelings were also stimulated by the seizure of some 60 Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian militants on Nov. 4, 1979. Throughout the 444-day hostage crisis, Americans took a cue from a popular song by tying yellow ribbons around trees to hope for the hostages' return. Initially, President Jimmy Carter benefited from the patriotic fervor. But as the episode continued, Carter came to be seen as weak and indecisive. He lost his bid for re-election in November 1980 to Reagan, whose conservative views seemed the very embodiment of traditional patriotism.

Reagan preached an individualistic ethic at home and a robust foreign policy abroad. The nation took his unalloyed patriotism to heart. Upon returning to the United States from overseas assignments in 1983, New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple Jr. wrote, “I saw displayed more flags and bigger ones than I remember seeing since my Ohio boyhood.” 21

Reagan both encouraged and exploited the renewed patriotism. He campaigned for re-election in 1984 under the theme “Morning in America” and proclaimed the next year, after the punishing bombing of Libya for terrorism in 1986, that America “was back and standing tall.”

Both Reagan and his Republican successor, George Bush, stirred Americans' patriotism with military victories: the invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989 and the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In addition, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union allowed Americans to claim victory in the Cold War. Reagan's supporters gave him the credit for facing down what he famously called “the evil empire.” Critics faulted him for promoting what journalist William Pfaff has called “a frenzied nationalism” even while external threats to the country were diminishing. 22

At home, Reagan's conservative themes — his criticisms of government taxes and spending, federal regulation and social welfare programs — also won many admirers. A Democratic-controlled Congress fought both him and Bush to a standstill on many issues. But when Republicans captured both houses of Congress in 1994 with a sharper conservative message, they claimed to be continuing Reagan's mission. Critics, however, said that the anti-government themes actually undermined public patriotism by decreasing Americans' confidence in government.

One jarring note for the patriotic renewal of the 1980s came from an unexpected source: the U. S. Supreme Court. In 1989, the court ruled, by a 5-4 vote, that burning the flag as a political protest was protected by the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. “We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom this cherished emblem represents,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in the June 21 decision striking down a Texas statute. Congress promptly passed a federal flag-protection law, but the court ruled that unconstitutional by the same 5-4 vote one year later. Efforts to reverse the rulings by constitutional amendments reached the House and Senate floors, but they fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the measure to the states for possible ratification. 23

Patriotism and Diversity
Patriotism took on more diverse meanings in the 1990s with the renewal of political disputes over America's role in the world and the escalation of a political and cultural war over the role of diversity at home. Polls registered strong patriotic feelings among Americans but also a relatively high lack of confidence in government, especially the federal government, and uncertainty about U.S. involvement in post-Cold War conflicts around the world.

Bill Clinton's election as president in 1992 brought a baby-boomer Vietnam War protester to the White House for the first time, producing an undercurrent of distrust of his patriotism by many conservatives and by some in the military throughout his time in office. Clinton also openly embraced diversity, promising, for example, to appoint a Cabinet with women and minorities that would “look like America.” Many conservatives viewed his emphasis on affirmative action — or quotas, to use the critics' parlance — as a kind of political spoils system that undermined the unity of the American people.

The political criticism of Clinton merged with a broader debate over multiculturalism in the United States. 24 Allan Bloom, a conservative scholar, had written a best-selling book in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind, that criticized what he saw as a downgrading of Western and American civilization and culture in American schools, especially colleges and universities. Then in 1992, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a prominent historian and liberal Democrat who had advised President John F. Kennedy, attacked multiculturalism in another best-seller, The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger criticized what he called “a cult of ethnicity” among minority groups that he said was challenging the dream of creating “one people.” 25

More recently, however, a prominent sociologist found less evidence of weakening American patriotism, at least among “middle-class Americans” surveyed in four suburban communities around the country. In his book One Nation After All, Alan Wolfe, a professor at Boston University, said he detected a “mature patriotism” unlike either the “reflexive anti-Americanism” of the Vietnam War era or “a reflexive pro-Americanism” with automatic support for the government's actions in foreign policy. “Mature patriotism,” Wolfe wrote, “means that those who think globally temper their internationalism with respect for America while 'my country right or wrong' patriots moderate their love of America with a recognition that its power is limited.” 26

Political Divisions
Politically, the country was both divided and uncertain throughout the 1990s on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues. At home, Republicans capitalized on disillusionment with the Democratic-controlled Congress and generalized anti-government feelings to capture majorities in the Senate and the House in the 1994 midterm elections.

But Republicans suffered a political backlash when they blocked a budget agreement in Congress and forced a limited federal government shutdown in late 1995. In the ensuing political standoff, Republicans passed and Clinton signed conservative legislation on such issues as immigration and welfare, but most other GOP initiatives faltered.

Clinton won re-election in November 1996, and Republicans lost ground in Congress both in 1996 and again in 1998. Then, to the Republicans' surprise and dismay, Clinton survived the yearlong scandal touched off in January 1998 by the disclosure of his sexual liaison with a former White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky. The scandal touched off a wrenching nationwide debate not only over Clinton's conduct but also about the nature of presidential leadership. Despite widespread disapproval of Clinton's behavior, most Americans favored keeping him in office. House Republicans nonetheless voted to impeach Clinton, but the Senate vote fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him from office.

In foreign policy, Republicans and Democrats alike struggled to define the U.S. role in the world without an overarching ideological conflict with the Soviet Union. 27 Clinton leaned toward U.S. involvement in multilateral peacekeeping efforts in regional conflicts, but he moved cautiously in the face of wariness among lawmakers in both parties and the public about potential American casualties.

Public dismay over the sight of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993 led Clinton to speed up departure of U.S. forces from a peacekeeping effort begun under his predecessor, George Bush. Clinton was more successful with a threatened invasion of Haiti in September 1994; the action was called off when the military rulers agreed to U.S. demands for free elections.

Clinton's most vexing foreign policy problem — also inherited from the Bush administration — was in the former Yugoslavia. The breakup of the communist-ruled country into independent states resulted in ethnic instability at the southeastern edge of an otherwise stable and democratic Europe. Public rage at the sight of “ethnic cleansing” by Serbian forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina was tempered by reluctance to intervene in what was seen as a civil war. Instead, Clinton pursued diplomatic efforts, which paid off in an accord signed at Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995; the agreement called for a cease-fire and a United Nations peacekeeping force including U.S. troops. When a new conflict arose in the Albanian-dominated Yugoslav province of Kosovo, Clinton again advanced a combination of humanitarian and strategic interests to justify U.S. involvement.

Public opinion was mixed toward the U.S. intervention from the beginning of the air war against Yugoslavia in March until its seemingly successful conclusion this month. One poll — taken by The Washington Post on June 5-6, after the initial announcement of a peace agreement — found that only 48 percent of those surveyed thought the United States “did the right thing” in getting involved in the Kosovo conflict.

“We had a responsibility to the world to help these people,” Monica Kellard, of Attleboro, Mass., told the Post. On the opposite side, however, Lisa Clark, of Columbia, S.C., said, “We have enough concerns and problems over here without having to go somewhere else.” 28

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Current Situation

Debating the Flag
The American flag is “the pre-eminent symbol of the broad freedoms established by our Constitution,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, declared as he opened the first of two Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in April on a proposed flag-protection amendment to the Constitution. Without laws to prohibit the “physical desecration” of the flag, Hatch said at the April 20 session, “the love of liberty that the flag instills in us all” could be destroyed.

For the past 10 years, however, the U.S. flag has become not only a symbol of freedom but a battleground as well. The Supreme Court's decisions in 1989 and 1990 striking down criminal laws against burning or defacing the flag as political protest drew strong opposition from many veterans' and patriotic organizations. Polls indicated that an overwhelming majority of Americans — 70 percent or more — opposed the rulings. But civil liberties groups as well as the American Bar Association opposed efforts to overturn the decisions. They argued that tolerating free speech was an even more important part of American patriotism than protecting the American flag.

Supporters and opponents of the proposed constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court rulings battled again in Congress this year. Twice, in 1995 and again in 1997, the House had voted in favor of proposed amendments. But Senate supporters of the measures came up short of the two-thirds majority needed to complete congressional approval and send an amendment to the states for what supporters and opponents alike expect would be all but certain ratification. This year, supporters thought they were within two votes of the two-thirds majority and hoped to sway wavering senators with a new round of hearings on the issue. 29

“Those of us who served in Vietnam, and watched our flag burned, knew that the flag we served under was worth protecting,” the leadoff witness, Citizens Flag Alliance Chairman Brady, testified. “We've had enough of the issues that tear us apart,” he concluded. “It is time for something that unites us. The flag amendment will do that.”

But Gary May, a decorated Vietnam veteran who lost both his legs in a landmine explosion in the war, urged the senators to reject the amendment. “While serving in Vietnam, I never once heard one of my fellow Marines say they were there protecting the flag,” said May, now a professor of social work at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. “All the sacrifices of those who went before me would be for naught,” May concluded, “if an amendment were added to the Constitution that cut back on our First Amendment rights for the first time in the history of our great nation.”

One week later, the committee listened to a similar debate among five current senators and one who is retired, each a combat veteran. “Patriotism calls upon [us] to be brave enough to endure and withstand [flag burning] — to tolerate the intolerable,” said Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., a Medal of Honor winner who lost a leg in Vietnam. But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, told the panel the flag “deserves the reverence and respect as a symbol, not only of freedom and democracy but of a great deal of sacrifice.”

Senators also debated the practicalities of the amendment. Former Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, warned that the definition of “physical desecration” of the flag could be stretched to cover someone who wears flag-emblazoned underwear or discards a paper flag used to decorate a Fourth of July cake. But Hatch said that there had been no difficulties while flag-protection laws were on the books — and he noted pointedly that both Glenn and Kerrey had voted for the federal statute passed by Congress in 1989 and struck down by the court the next year.

The debate appeared to change no one's mind. Two days later, on April 29, the committee voted 11-7 along party lines to approve Hatch's proposal and send it to the Senate floor for consideration. Ten Republicans voted for the amendment, along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, while the seven other Democrats voted against it.

The fate of the amendment was sealed the next day, however, when North Dakota's two Democratic senators, Kent Conrad and Byron L. Dorgan, reaffirmed their opposition. Supporters viewed the two North Dakotans as their best chances to switch votes from previous sessions. “When it comes to amending the Constitution, I am a conservative,” Conrad said in a floor statement. Instead, he and Dorgan joined with two Republicans — Kentucky's Mitch McConnell and Utah's Robert F. Bennett — in offering a limited flag-protection bill that they said could withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Supporters of the amendment continued to voice optimism about the final outcome. “We need two votes in the Senate,” Brady said afterward. “It takes a while to get things through, especially when you're dealing with the media, who are very much opposed to you.”

“There are patriots on both sides of this issue,” says People For the American Way President Shields. “We come down on the side of the First Amendment and the fact that we believe a free society has to allow for protection of political expression.”

Because of the resolution's dim prospects in the Senate, floor action has been put on hold. In the House, the Judiciary Committee approved the resolution by voice vote on May 26; the full House passed the resolution in late June.

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Outlook

'Long May It Wave'
Overcast skies and intermittent showers dampen the ground but not the spirits of the 2,500 or so visitors gathered at Fort McHenry to celebrate this year's Flag Day. Nearly two centuries earlier, Francis Scott Key had anxiously watched the unsuccessful British siege of the fort from a prisoner-of-war ship anchored in Baltimore harbor. Today, Americans in all their diversity — old men in overalls, baby boomers in pressed jeans, kids in baggy shorts — join to listen to patriotic songs and speeches or simply to picnic, play and wait till the sky is dark enough for fireworks.

The two-hour program ends with a booming rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the hoisting of a giant flag over the historic fort and a 15-minute fireworks display that fills the sky not just with red glare, but blue and green and white and yellow. The audience oohs and ahs with each giant fireburst and then breaks into applause as a rapid-fire volley brings the show to a dramatic climax.

Some folks, however, do worry that patriotism is in trouble. “People don't know what it means to be free, what it takes to live in a democracy,” says Kevin Roth, a systems engineer and one of the performers with the singing group, “Maryland Sings.” His wife, Angela, a database administrator, says too many people “don't have respect for other people. That goes along with not having respect for the country.”

Bob Bassett, a hotel chef in his 20s, says he and his friends are all patriotic. But some of the people at work are “uninformed” about politics and government. “They really don't care,” he says. “They're just worried about getting by.”

Opinions will probably be similar when Americans gather next month for the nation's biggest patriotic holiday: the Fourth of July. Even as the fireworks rise above the Washington Monument and in countless other locations around the country, many citizens may be harboring doubts that love of country today is as strong as it used to be.

The worries are easily exaggerated, according to Scott McLean, a political scientist at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn. Polls show that patriotic sentiments have been holding steady over the past decade, McLean writes in a recent article. “The one thing that never seems to change,” he adds, “is a worry that we are not as patriotic as we were 25 years ago. Americans consistently say that the younger generation is not as patriotic as previous generations.” 30

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