Waving the U.S. flag becomes all right again

Displays: Attacks of Sept. 11 result in the U.S. symbol losing its ambiguity and moving toward the political center.

September 24, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 propelled the United States toward war. But they also ended a war: a cultural conflict, smoldering since Vietnam, over the political connotations of displaying the American flag.

Before Sept. 11, someone wearing an American flag pin on his lapel might be perceived as a conservative, a veteran, a member of the National Rifle Association or perhaps a politician.

After Sept. 11, the same pin might mean that the person is a liberal New Yorker, an artist or stockbroker, perhaps, or any American mourning the death and destruction in New York and Washington.

The proliferation of flags on houses and cars across the nation during the past two weeks has been similar to outpourings of patriotism during World War I, World War II, the Civil War and other conflicts, historians say. But it also has a new meaning, because it has wiped away the conservative symbolism that was attached to flying the flag after the Vietnam War.

"Flying the flag became ambiguous after Vietnam," says Roy Wagner, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia. "But the terrorism ... was such an unambiguous attack on symbols of America -- the World Trade Center and Pentagon -- that flying the flag lost its ambiguity and became clear again.

"Displaying the flag moved closer to the political center," says Wagner. "The flag is being displayed precisely because people see America being targeted."

At different times in American history, the flag has been embraced by different groups for different, often contradictory purposes, says Marilyn Zoidis, curator of the "Star-Spangled Banner" exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

"How can the same flag be flown by the Ku Klux Klan and civil rights marchers?" Zoldis says. "How do we burn the flag during the Vietnam War and drape it on the coffins of dead soldiers?"

The mixed meanings attached to flying the American flag during the Vietnam era became obvious during another spate of violence in New York's financial district: the "hard-hat riots" of May 8, 1970.

After Ohio National Guardsmen shot antiwar protesters at Kent State University, New York Mayor John V. Lindsay ordered the flag on top of City Hall to be lowered to half-staff in mourning for their deaths. Antiwar protesters marched down Wall Street.

But they were confronted by about 200 construction workers, many wearing hard hats, who marched behind a cluster of American flags and chanted "All the way, USA! ... Love it or leave it!" The workers chased and beat many of the antiwar protesters, injuring about 70 people, according to The New York Times.

Enraged that the mayor had lowered the flag for people they perceived as unpatriotic, the workers stormed City Hall and raised the flag. An aide to the mayor lowered the flag again. The workers jumped barricades to pummel the police guarding the building, and city officials raised the flag, fearing damage to City Hall, to shouts of "Lindsay's a Red!" and strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

President Richard M. Nixon tried to exploit the flag's symbolism by inviting some of the construction workers to the White House and describing them as emblematic of his "silent majority," says Joseph McCartin, associate professor of history at Georgetown University.

"The Vietnam era was a turning point in the politics of the flag," says McCartin. "Prior to Vietnam, leftists and socialists all embraced and displayed the flag. But in Vietnam, for the first time people took issue with the symbol of the flag itself. The antiwar protesters called into question the whole notion that America could be redeemed. And so they burned flags and spelled America with a k."

Rallying around the flag isn't only practiced in America, of course.

Flags seemed to fly everywhere in Great Britain during the Falklands war.

Turkey, Israel and Morocco, among many other nations, are enthusiastic about displaying their colors wherever possible, while some Scandinavian nations frown on such, says Frederick Holborn, senior adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Flag-waving has also waxed and waned in popularity during periods of American history.

During the Revolutionary War, the patriots couldn't rally behind one symbol because each colony flew a different banner. Gen. George Washington's personal guard carried white banners showing an emblem of a pine tree and the words "An Appeal to Heaven." South Carolina militia flew a yellow flag with a coiled snake and the words "Don't Tread on Me."

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the stars and stripes pattern as the official flag of the new nation. Its resolution stated: "That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternately red and white, that the union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation."

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