Prejudice, politics, and patriotism

Throughout American history various religious, racial, and ethnic groups have been charged with disloyalty, dual loyalty, or no loyalty. They have been criticized for any emotional, political, or financial support of the ''old country,'' for holding religious or political beliefs allegedly contrary to America's well-being, for ensnaring us in or shirking from foreign wars, for lacking the essential social, intellectual, and biological makeup necessary for being a true American, and even for plotting and conspiring to overthrow the government.

Whether it was by early Protestant colonists or today's universalists, immigrants and foreigners were damned, for, if they denied one charge, they appeared to confirm the other. When they were ''isolationist,'' they were criticized for not being responsive to America's international interests - and when they were ''internationalist,'' they were scolded for not being for America first.

In recent months, similar criticisms have been made by some rather distinguished political figures:

In a Foreign Affairs article Sen. Charles Mathias Jr., of Maryland, wrote that ethnic political influence has ''proven harmful to the national interests'' and ''generated both unnecessary animosities and illusions of common interest where little or none exists.'' Rep. Paul McCloskey of California was more specific, claiming that the Israeli lobby ''has controlled the Congress'' on Israeli issues.

These are serious charges, just as they were when articulated by earlier nativists. Unlike them, however, Senator Mathias claims to admire ''ethnicity.'' It's their politics which bother him. Similarly, Representative McCloskey believes that lobbying ''is not dishonorable,'' except in foreign affairs when done by one side only.

From the spirit and substance of both congressmen's views, it would seem that foreign policy was and is adversely determined only by ethnic groups; no mention is made of other pressure groups: industry, military, agriculture, oil, or (in the case of Representative McCloskey) the Arab lobby. It is as if there would be no rancor or difference over what constitutes the nation's best interests, except for ethnics and descendants thereof.

For all of the questions, charges, and accusations (past and present), history has shown that ethnic, religious, and racial groups have never had the political power critics ascribed to them and that whenever ethnic interests conflicted with American ones, as defined by government, the latter won out.

Clearer still are the frustrations and failures of ethnic petitions, pressures, and politics. The Irish could not stop American-British rapprochement at the turn of the century; nor could American-Germans keep us out of World War I; nor could American-Armenians and their many non-Armenian supporters prevent the Allies and the United States in the early 1920s from signing treaties with Turkey which omitted any provision for an independent Armenia; nor could American-Germans and -Italians on one hand and American-English and -French on the other keep us out of or bring us into World War II; nor could Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Latvians, Slovenes, Estonians, or Finns propel America into liberating their homelands from Russian influence or domination - or prevent America from signing the Helsinki agreement; nor could emigre and American-Cubans convince President Kennedy to remain committed to the over-throw of Castro or to maintain support of their secret military forces in Miami; nor could Greeks and Armenians sway President Ford and then President Carter from opposing a congressional arms embargo on Turkey; nor could Jews, Chinese, Turks, Lebanese, Africans, etc., move us into taking action which the American government felt was not in its best interests.

Historically, minorities always faced the dilemma of whether or not to speak up. In spite of the criticisms leveled against them, no ethnic or minority group has called for or formed a political party (as in other countries). They worked within the established political parties. Similarly, ethnic groups have never been all on one or another side of an issue. So it was in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; but during wars abroad they always rallied around the flag, fighting their overseas kinsmen, even though some of their American relatives were interned, as with Japanese, German, Italian, and Aleuts.

Whether real or imagined, minority group activities and thinking were never as dangerous to American democracy as the wide-ranging repressive and aggressive actions inflicted upon individuals and groups in the name of national defense and patriotism. Unfortunately, our history as a nation has been tarnished by various alien and sedition acts, nativist riots and lynchings, Palmer raids, McCarthy witch hunts, and assorted fits of paranoia about British, French, Irish , German, Japanese, Italian, Jewish, and black Americans.

The fact remains that for all of the accusations, vituperation, and prejudice against religious, racial, and ethnic groups, the latter have never been guilty of disloyalty, subversion, espionage, or destructive of the structures and operations of American government - even though governmental statutes and laws were often used to discriminate, exclude, restrict, and even expel them.

Unfortunately, we seem to be again reaching a point where a ''patriot'' is, as A. A. Milne said, one ''who thinks other people are not patriots."

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