A Question of Patriotism

by Derrick G. Jeter

“A fish starts smelling from the head.”

This proverbial sounding statement came from the highest-ranking intelligence officer to have ever defected from the Soviet bloc to the United States, Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Propaganda Redux,” General Pacepa warns that America’s political left is falling into an old communist propaganda trick—“Sowing the seeds of anti-Americanism by discrediting the American president . . . to make the head of the Free World stink.”

Strident partisanship, of course, isn’t a modern development in American political life. Since the rise of parties in the late eighteenth century, our politics have often been nasty affairs. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr went at each other with such ferocity it eventually cost Hamilton his life. John Adams’s and Thomas Jefferson’s political battles were so heated they almost consumed their friendship. What is new is the comparison of the President of the United States with some of the world’s most evil men. Coupled with this is the defense by those making such comparisons that they are doing their patriotic duty and any question to the contrary is tantamount to branding them as traitors.

“Don’t question my patriotism” is their mantra. “The President is Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot, but don’t question my patriotism.” “American soldiers are no better than the Nazi thugs who gassed millions of European Jews, but don’t question my patriotism.” “American foreign policy is totalitarian and despotic, but don’t question my patriotism.” “The President is worse than our enemies, but don’t question my patriotism.”

Well, question we should—especially in light of Theodore Roosevelt’s definition of patriotism.

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 in so far as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency 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 about any one else—save in the rare cases where this would make known to the enemy information of military value which would other wise be unknown to him.

The key phrases here are “stand by the country” and “tell the truth.” Though we can debate what it means to stand by the country, there should be no debate about telling the truth. However, this has not been the case in recent times.

Advocating that the President’s policies and the actions of American troops is the moral equivalent of Hitler and his wicked regime is a baseless lie. There is no moral equivalency, and those making such statements know it. But it is more than that. It trivializes the very real evil that was Hitler and the Third Reich by comparing the truth to a lie. What Hitler and his soldiers did was evil, while actions taken by more recent presidents, in general—though politically unpalatable to some—are nonetheless morally unequal to the Holocaust, the Soviet gulag, or the Cambodian killing fields.

The question here is not whether any one president’s single action, say Harry Truman’s use of nuclear weapons to end World War II, was evil, but whether we can cloak ourselves in the flag of patriotism while denouncing the President as the equal of truly evil men. Based on Roosevelt’s criteria it hardly seems so. “It is unpatriotic not to tell the truth . . . about the President,” Roosevelt affirmed. But what is also implied is it’s unpatriotic to tell brazen lies about the President. This seems especially salient if those lies could damage the country. In that case, how are the lie-mongers “stand[ing] by the country”?

This is not to say that critics of this sort are out right traitors, as some on the political right would charge, especially in the hyper-heated context of the war in Iraq: “They want America to lose.” But it is to say that the promoters of a “we’re no better than Saddam Hussein”-type of rhetoric are grossly shortsighted about the consequences of their words. As General Pacepa wrote,

During the Vietnam War we spread vitriolic stories around the world, pretending that America’s presence sent Genghis Khan-style barbarian soldiers to Vietnam who raped at random, taped electrical wires to human genitals, cut off limbs, blew up bodies and razed entire villages. Those weren’t the facts. They were our tales, but some seven million Americans ended up being convinced their own president, not communism, was the enemy. As Yuri Andropov, who conceived this dezinformatsiya war against the U. S., used to tell me, people are more willing to believe smut than holiness.The final goal of our anti-American offensive was to discourage the U. S. from protecting the world against communist terrorism and expansion. Sadly, we succeeded. After U. S. forces precipitously pulled out of Vietnam, the victorious communists massacred some two million people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Another million tried to escape, but many died in the attempt. This tragedy also created a credibility gap between America and the rest of the world, damaged the cohesion of American foreign policy, and poisoned domestic debate in the U. S.

Pacepa concludes: “For once, communists got it right. It is America’s leader that counts.” Those who would accuse the President of stinking fail to realize that the odor covers the whole country. Such pungent rhetoric should cause the rest of us to hold our noses and question where the stench really comes from.

Ion Mihai Pacepa quotes: Ion Mihai Pacepa, “Propaganda Redux,” The Wall Street Journal, http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110010438, accessed 7 August 2007.

Theodore Roosevelt quote: Theodore Roosevelt Cyclopedia, Albert Bushnell Hart and Herbert Ronald Ferleger, eds., (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1988), 416. Electronic edition: http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/TR%20Web%20Book/TR_CD_toHTML502.html, accessed 8 August 2007.