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|July 3-9, 2008
In the interest of understanding patriotism from the perspective of Boulder County’s citizens, Boulder Weekly went out on the streets and asked dozens and dozens of people, “What does patriotism mean to you?” To see what your fellow citizens had to say, click here: What does patriotism mean to you?Elders compare the patriotism of the “greatest generation” to that of today
From World War II to Iraq
by Pamela White
In the American collective memory, the years of World War II might well stand out as a time when Americans were united, when everyone did his or her part for God and country, when patriotism went unquestioned from sea to shining sea. It seems to be our tendency to look at the sepia-toned photographs of those years and idealize what we see.
In our exploration of what patriotism means to people in our community, Boulder Weekly interviewed three people whose experiences of those years varies distinctly — a farm-raised minister’s daughter, a Japanese-American survivor of internment and a man who was drafted but became a conscientious objector. We asked them to look back on the 1940s and their memories of patriotism as they experienced it then with the way Americans express it today.
‘A moral nation’
Amy Vandersall, 74, grew up in Mill Creek, Penn., a rural community as American as apple pie. The daughter of a minister and a homemaker, she helped her mother with chores and attended church three times every Sunday. She was only 8 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, prompting the United States to enter World War II.
What she remembers most about the years that followed was feeling that everyone was a part of the same great effort, each person, no matter how young, doing what he or she could to help win the war.
“I remember there was no talk at all about patriotism,” she says. “We just knew we were patriotic.”
Back then, the government’s message to the people — “Save for taxes, or spend for the Axis” — was to be frugal — a sharp contrast to the days after 9/11, when President Bush urged Americans to shop, she says.
Gasoline was rationed. Meat was rationed. Shoes were rationed. When something broke, people fixed it, rather than buying a replacement. People grew as much of their own food as they could. Clothing was mended, socks darned. And everything that could be recycled was recycled.
“We didn’t even ask if we were doing what we needed to do — we just went and did it,” she says. “Now it seems to me there’s a lot of talk about patriotism, about being unpatriotic, and we aren’t being asked to do anything.”
One of her chores in those years was to take the lids and bottoms of tin cans, insert them inside the can and then squash them flat so they could be packed together for recycling.
“The government said to save tin cans, so we did,” says Vandersall, still devoted to recycling and composting.
Her father planted what to her young eyes was a “huge Victory Garden.” The garden produced so much that her father had to help her mother with canning, putting up 80 jars of canned peas at the end of one fruitful summer.
When she was 10, a military convoy stopped on a road that passed near their home. It was a scorching hot day, she recalls.
“We went up to the soldiers and asked, ‘Do you need anything?’ And they said, ‘Yes, we need some water.’ Their canteens were completely empty. We went and got a couple of big buckets and carried them to a nearby spring. Well, those guys would take that cup and drink it down and take another cupful and refill their canteens. They were just so happy that we came along. And we were so excited about giving them water.”
The war — and the soldiers — felt real to her, she says.
“The attitude then about the war was that we didn’t ask for it, but we had to fight and get done,” she says. “We had to help the English and the French against Hitler. And that’s so different from now, where we have a pre-emptive war that is unnecessary.”
What Vandersall doesn’t remember during the war is lots of flag-waving.
“We felt that the United States was a moral country,” she says. “There’s the difference. We felt that the United States was a moral country, and so, therefore, we didn’t have to be waving flags.”
It was easier for Americans to be proud of their nation in those days, she says.
“We really thought President Roosevelt was great, that he was someone who would go down in history,” she says. “We had good government.”
And, listening to the news each night on the radio, she saw her nation inching toward victory. The contrast to the country’s situation today couldn’t be more marked.
“There’s nothing of a victory here,” she says. “Bush just pre-emptively went into Iraq and started dropping bombs on the supposition that we had to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and he lied about it. I’ve been depressed ever since he started to do it.”
Vandersall said the flap about Barack Obama not wearing a flag pin struck her as “idiotic.”
“It doesn’t say anything about being patriotic,” she says. “You can’t pin your patriotism on your lapel. It’s about your actions.”
When Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Vandersall, then 11, ran into forest and, deeply touched, picked a sprig of dogwood blossoms, which she pressed between two pieces of glass.
“I still have it today,” she says. “It just says that I picked it the day Roosevelt died.”
‘We need to disagree’
Aya Medrud thought she was an American until Dec. 8, 1942. It was on that day, while attending services for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception at her Catholic Church, that Medrud learned that other Americans viewed her as Japanese.
“I remember walking to the mass and feeling very fearful, but I went because it was obligatory,” she says. “I remember that the nun who was my best friend, who was always very caring about what I did, put her arm around me and told me how sorry she was that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. She didn’t treat me as a Japanese American, she treated me as Japanese.”
Not long after, her father, a Japanese-born American and martial arts instructor, was picked up off the streets of Seattle and placed in a “justice” camp. She didn’t see him again until the summer of 1944.
A few months later — in April 1942 — the government instructed Japanese immigrants and citizens to pack a single suitcase each and to report for internment. Medrud and her mother and brothers spent several months confined to a horse stall in the Puyallup, Wash., fair grounds with a single light bulb hanging overhead, before they were transported to an internment camp in southeastern Idaho.
“I think that at the time, people felt that going into the camps amicably meant that they were patriotic in some way,” she says. “That I could not grasp.”
This insult — being treated as a dangerous foreigner by the country she’d called her own — was a defining moment for her, says Medrud, who is a peace activist and works on immigrant issues.
Having had no idea where they were going when they’d packed their belongings, she and her fellow internees weren’t ready for the cold, hard winters of Idaho.
“It was pretty bad because most of us didn’t have the right clothing,” she recalls.
Medrud recently got her family’s file from the national archives and was surprised to see letters in her own handwriting in the folder. Though she has no recollection of doing so, she campaigned tirelessly for her father’s release, writing to the U.S. Army, J. Edgar Hoover and even President Roosevelt.
She also found documentation showing that her father and uncle had volunteered to serve in the U.S. military during World War I — a show of patriotism she feels ought to have proven their loyalty to the United States. But apparently, Pearl Harbor erased the value of that gesture, at least where Japanese Americans were concerned.
Her family was released in December 1944, after “proving” their loyalty by giving the right answers on the questionnaire that was required of all Japanese Americans aged 17 and older.
The rhetoric that came out of the Bush administration following 9/11 and which continues today exhibits for Medrud “the most negative aspect of our nation.”
“The expression of patriotism should not be put in terms of ‘you do what the government tells you,’” she says. “We talk about the government as if it’s an entity over there that has nothing to do with us, but we are the people. So if we don’t say that, we disagree we are complicit. So I think that we need to disagree.”
For Medrud, patriotism means being educated, aware and active. “For me it means that you have to be involved in the government, and you have to care about what’s happening. And we shouldn’t be just involved in what’s going on in this nation,” she says. “We’re really in a global culture now, and we need to be concerned and aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world. The whole idea of injustice to any human being is what drives me to do whatever I can try to do.”
‘Refuge of scoundrels’
Nick Helburn, 89, was finishing his master’s degree when he was drafted into World War II. Having studied World War I — and having seen how the world had only changed for the worse in its wake with millions dead and entire regions destabilized — he concluded that violence begets violence and became a conscientious objector.
Though one might assume that refusing to shoot Nazis would come with severe consequences, Helburn said that, overall, people responded well.
“I really expected more discrimination, more semi-violent reactions, and on the whole I had a fairly easy time of it,” he says. “There was certainly some prejudice against us, some feeling against us, but not much. Even among the veterans and active members of the armed services, why, the attitude was, ‘Well, this is what we’re fighting for — the acceptance of differences of opinion.’”
There was very little of the “you’re either with us or against us” attitude that marred American rhetoric following 9/11, he says.
As a conscientious objector, Helburn was placed in the alternative service and assigned to a rock quarry in Tennessee, where he smashed big chunks of basalt into chunks small enough to put through a rock crusher to make gravel. That led to his serving on a trails crew, which repaired bridges originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal, and then a fire-jumping unit in Montana.
“I had a particular interest in Montana, that being the place where I had gotten my master’s degree, and so I volunteered,” he says.
Helburn made 22 jumps over the course of two summers before the camp was closed as the Marines came back from the Pacific theater.
“They wanted the jobs available for them, so the camp was closed,” Helburn says.
When Helburn compares the social climate of the early 1940s with that of the present day, he sees significant changes.
“I think that the educated public is probably more skeptical in the sense [of believing] that patriotism is that last refuge of scoundrels,” he says, paraphrasing Samuel Johnson’s famous quote.
During World War II, it was common for people to believe that a person’s greatest loyalty should be reserved for their nation. Now, that attitude has diminished, with more people believing their loyalty belongs first to their family and community, he says.
“Among the less educated part of the public, I’m not sure that’s the case, but it seems to be in the more educated part,” he says.
Education, in his opinion, is key.
“The less educated are more of the flag-waving type, and those who are educated are too skeptical to do that,” he says.
If people are less inclined today to feel loyalty to their country, it’s because the system has largely failed to live up to its own ideals.
“We can sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ but the reality doesn’t measure up to it,” he says. “That’s probably the greatest thing. Within the memory of a lot of us, we’ve seen too many wars that ended with no tangible improvement.”
What is patriotism to you?
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