The recently concluded seriesd on PBS, “The Vietnam War,” stuck me as symptomatic of the permanent divide in America’s dual personality — we Americans tend towards being for something or against something.
This “us” against “them” had been made a whole lot worse by extreme partisan politics, Facebook and apparently a whole lot of Russian hackers exploiting American schism. But there has always been this schism with us Americans.
During the Revolutionary War, there were probably more loyalists wanting to remain colonies of Britain than there were “Americans” wanting, fighting and dying for independence. But the radical leftists of that era were more organized and zealots for their cause — and much better writers.
It might be difficult to comprehend in today’s political environment, but the conservatives of that period were the loyalists wanting to preserve or maintain the status quo, wanting to remain British subjects and wanting to preserve the way of life as such.
There certainly was no talk about “Make America Great Again” because there was no America. But I suspect the loyalists would have been supportive of the concept — of returning to a more conservative or familiar environment.
In contrast, the leftists of the 1700s wanted change. The colonists felt slighted by their treatment of their rulers from England. And thus began a series of protests, resistance, riots and eventually, war.
It was such protests and riots against unfair treatment by Britain that planted the seeds of independence. Protests, violence, riots and an eight-year-long war were part and parcel of these new Americans.
Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence subsequently wrote in 1787, four years after America won its independence from Britain, “what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”
Protests, peaceful or otherwise, is part of the American character. Such protests were crucial in ending the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War started out as a popular war with the support of the vast, vast majority of Americans. When the first few, very few, Vietnam War protesters spoke out, it was reminiscent of the few, the very few, NFL protesters.
The injustices of the Vietnam War were hard to discover because of America’s blind belief in all that is good about America and Americans — and the misleading by our government and leaders.
Patriotism, especially the blind patriotism of America and Americans, is the same today as it was then. Leaders, then as now, knew how to exploit Americans’ love of our country. We want so much to believe in our goodness that it is hard to stomach the reflective mirror that doesn’t always reflect such.
In response to a very small number of Vietnam protesters burning the American flag, Congress in 1967 enacted legislation that made flag burning a crime. It remains highly offensive to Americans.
Our flag and our national anthem are sacrosanct in our hearts and minds. They were and still are a uniting emblem of what is good about Americans.
But protests and resistance are also sacrosanct in our hearts and minds; it is the main ingredient in our freedoms and liberties. Long before we had a flag and a national anthem, we were protesting and resisting, rebelling and fighting, hating and loving.
In one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s more controversial decisions, Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), concerning the physical desecration of our flag, the justice for the five-member majority wrote, “Recognizing that the right to differ is the centerpiece of our First Amendment freedoms, a government cannot mandate by fiat a feeling of unity in its citizens. Therefore that very same government cannot carve out a symbol of unity and prescribe a set of approved messages to be associated with that symbol.”
But as I said, Americans are either for something or against something.
In the same decision there were four individual and passionate dissenting opinions. Justice Stevens, a Navy veteran who won the Bronze Star in World War II, wrote, “If those ideas are worth fighting for — and our history demonstrates that they are — it cannot be true that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.’’
Today’s NFL protests, by predominantly black players, are mild in comparison to the Vietnam War protests of half a century ago.
Fifty years ago, America, especially white America, hated the most prominent black protester of the Vietnam War — Muhammad Ali. As a Muslim, Ali cited religious reasons for his decision to forgo military service in 1967. But most of us remember his statement, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong” as the basis of his refusal.
Yet now, half a century later, most Americans, including white Americans, love and greatly admire the recently departed Muhammad Ali.
Who changed, Ali or us?
Thomas Muri is a resident of Whitefish.