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John Whitehead's Commentary

America -- Love It or Leave It?

John Whitehead
Here in America we are descended in spirit from revolutionaries and rebels--men and women who dare to dissent from accepted opinion.
Dwight D. Eisenhower

There is probably no better truism than that spoken by the philosopher George Santayana when he said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it." Yet even those of us who do remember the past--and the slanderous charges of anti-Americanism that were leveled at protesters who opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s--are being forced to relive it through the recent rhetoric of pro-war activists.

Showing a heightened degree of intolerance for anti-war sentiments, some of these hawks have fallen back on the old jingoist slogan "America -- Love It or Leave It," hurling it at the rising tide of protesters who are opposed to the Bush Administration's war with Iraq. Associating patriotism with support for Bush's recent call to arms, some news journalists and television pundits have even begun posing the question, "Is it anti-American to be anti-war?"

But as Theodore Roosevelt so aptly informed the American people in an 1899 speech in which he outlined his philosophy of life and his attitude toward U.S. expansionism, loyalty to one's country has very little to do with unquestioning faith in our political leaders. In fact, declared Roosevelt:

Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiently or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.

Thus, it is vitally important that good citizens, good Americans, and therefore true patriots not only safeguard but consider a moral duty the right to question policies of their government and leaders with whom they might disagree.

In this age of spin doctors and manipulation, those who question the motives of government provide a necessary counterpoint to those who would blindly follow where politicians choose to lead. As the renowned journalist H. L. Mencken once remarked, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and hence, clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins--all of them imaginary."

Not even those who drafted the Constitution were willing to put their trust in government officials. Speaking of them, Thomas Jefferson said, "In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by chains of the Constitution." Thus, America's founding fathers made sure that American citizens had the right to protest against their government when and if they felt the need to do so--and without recriminations from anyone. That is why the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, besides allowing for freedom of speech and the press, also grants "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

As such, it is not true patriotism to accept what our government leaders tell us without question and to proclaim "my country right or wrong." Neither is it patriotism to condemn those who disagree with governmental policies as being anti-American and demand that they leave the country because they do so.

Indeed, the protest marchers--many of whom were war veterans as well--who crowded New York City streets in mid-February with shouts of "Give peace a chance," "No blood for all" and "Get the warheads out of D.C.," among other things, are no less patriotic and no less American than those who carry signs proclaiming that "War is the only solution" or "Bomb Saddam." As someone who attended a peace rally in London said, "I'm proud to be an American because I can express my opinion freely and I have always been opposed to war."

Public debate in a free marketplace of ideas on crucial issues is a very healthy thing for any society. And it is what America is all about--the right to speak freely and to dissent and to do so openly without being shut down by the government or shouted down by fellow citizens. After all, this is what separates us from Saddam Hussein-type regimes.

However, as the following insight into the mindset of a military strategist illustrates, it is equally critical that we view with some degree of cynicism any propaganda churned out by those affiliated with the military industrial complex. As Hermann Goering, Hitler's field marshal, noted in remarking on the reluctance of citizens who oppose war:

That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Therefore, whether one is for or against war, we must all exercise our right to voice our opinions about it. At the same time, we must learn to respect the right of others to speak out and, if need be, fight to protect their right to disagree with us. Finally, we must begin to show greater discernment in how we sift through the wealth of information and misinformation being churned about over this war with Iraq. If not, we may very well be condemned to relive the tragedies of the past.

As George Washington once said: "If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  is available at Whitehead can be contacted at

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