Make no mistake about it: The current reawakening of patriotism in the United States is a refreshing sign of change. A decade ago, Watergate delivered a staggering punch to whatever patriotic impulse was still on its feet after Vietnam. A few years later, during the Iranian hostage crisis, American self-confidence took a further battering. By the end of the 1970s, the nation's rhetoric was sliding steeply toward cynical self-deprecation.
Now the feelings have shifted, and America is attractive once again. Legal immigration is booming. Military recruitment is thriving. And this summer's patriotic triple whammy - two political conventions sandwiching the US-dominated Olympics - produced a flood of literal and figurative flag-waving. Literally, because flags are waving in earnest these days. The nation's largest and oldest flagmaker, Annin & Co. of Verona, N.J., reports a 20 percent increase in sales this year - the largest jump since the bicentennial celebrations of 1976. Figuratively, because the mood of the nation - as measured in polls and seized upon by presidential candidates - is as upbeat as anyone can recall for decades.
Not surpisingly, the press has been busy analyzing this ''new'' patriotism. Not that it's really new. One has only to read the poets and novelists of America's past - Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, and the rest - to know that patriotism, even when debunked and satirized, has always been a major element in the American character. Yet the 1980s version may well seem new. In recent years it had almost seemed that we had lost the qualities that make patriotism possible - the capacity for devotion to ideals beyond oneself, for example, or the willingness to express praise openly.
The current fervor proves otherwise - to the nation's benefit. Like most benefits, however, patriotism can be undermined by excess, and now three caution lights deserve our attention:
* Materialism. The current surge of patriotism coincides with an upturn in the economy. A citizenry with more money in its pockets may well feel more optimistic - and therefore more loyal to the system that has fostered its prosperity. A Yankelovich survey for Time magazine in August supports that thesis: While whites think that things are going very well in America, nonwhites respond far less positively, and the results seem to correlate with income level. The caution: If patriotism is just materialism writ large, it risks being little more than ...
* Self-interest. In times of prosperity, an enlightened populace should naturally turn its attention toward sharing the successes with those in need. These days, however, there is ground for concern that patriotism is too often a first-person-singular activity - that what ''I'' do and how ''I'' prosper take precedence over how ''we,'' ''you,'' and ''they'' are faring. But because nations are collective entities, they depend even in good times on cooperation and even sacrifice. The caution: Lack of such sharing, bad enough at home, becomes even more damaging abroad, where it is apt to fuel ...
* Nationalism. In 1979, concluding a Monitor series on the 1970s, Henry Steele Commager wrote, ''The first and most basic difficulty is that we are attempting to solve global problems within the framework of nationalism. Every major problem that now confonts us - population, energy, the pollution of land, sea, and air, the control of the weather, the exhaustion of the soil and the resources of the seas, nuclear power, and nuclear war - is global; not one can be solved by any one nation.''
That's still true. Militating against the solution of these problems - and underlying some of the difficulties currently setting nation against nation in the 21 wars now being fought around the world - is a tendency within some countries toward superpatriotism, leading to a blind and clamorous jingoism.
As the United States rejoices in its newly rediscovered patriotism, the rest of the world needs to be able to rejoice with it - rather than envy it. For that to happen, the nation must work toward balance. Its patriotism must not be allowed to slide into bigotry, its contentment into ostentation, or its self-confidence into arrogance. The world, just now, needs American success - not American excesses.