A GOOD friend of mine stopped me short the other day by asking: ``Why did you become an American citizen?'' That is a step I, a Welshman born, took more than 20 years ago. Working in the United States, not intending to live permanently in Britain again, I had, it seemed, a clear obligation to be a citizen of the country I worked in, which was my home, and to which I gave allegiance. A matter of principle and honor.
But there were broader, and perhaps more emotional, reasons; the embracing of values and qualities perhaps not peculiar to the United States but certainly deeply rooted in this new and wonderfully open society. Thanksgiving may be a time when many Americans, both those born here and those who have sought its citizenship later, reflect on those values.
One of the most cherished must surely be the intellectual openness that has permitted the flourishing of a number of religions now international in scope, but with their origins in the US. Sometimes these American-born religions suffered harassment and even persecution, but the climate of the country was such that they ultimately became accepted, and have burgeoned.
Another aspect of this openness is the welcoming to American shores of immigrants of many colors and diverse backgrounds. By utilizing their talents and industry, both they and America have prospered.
America has afforded opportunity for growth and success for those whose opportunity might have been less in their lands of origin.
It is a country open to creative innovation, both in the arts and technology. The willingness to experiment has made it a leader in science and engineering.
It is a country rooted in the free-enterprise system, a system that for all its flaws has proved immeasurably superior to the controlled economies of communist lands, so many of which are now in disarray.
It is a country with the imaginative breadth of vision to embrace daring ideas and carry them out on a bold scale - both on America's own soil and in such programs as space exploration.
But above all, it is a country that cherishes freedom, not only for its own citizens, but for all citizens of the world, even though they may at present live in lands where freedom is hobbled.
All this is not to say that America is a paragon. There are poor and homeless Americans who have not been fulfilled by the promise of their country. Abroad, there is skepticism about America's motives, and sometimes its maturity. But still, America remains for millions a beacon of freedom, a symbol of goodwill and generosity. It is to America that many East Berliners, and Cubans and Soviets, and Asians want to come. Those who want a better and freer life do not seem to be blazing a trail to Moscow or Havana.
For the most part, Thanksgiving is an American occasion, not generally celebrated in the rest of the world. But there can be universal gratitude for these best of qualities that have taken root in the United States, and American gratitude for the heritage from older lands that has encouraged their growth.
Sometimes we take it too much for granted, but it is a wondrous thing to live in a land where we can speak our minds, publish what we want, quarrel with our government, pray in the manner we choose. In the United States, and the countries that share such ideals, we change our governments by the vote of the people and not by the thrust of the bayonet and the rumble of the tank.
Liberty has yet to come to many embattled lands, but there has been progress in such ancient countries as Spain and Portugal and in the third world of Latin America, and even some stirring of thought in such countries as China and the Soviet Union.
While much remains to be achieved, the world is not without evidence of blessings as it celebrates Thanksgiving 1987.