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‘Love It Or Leave It’

It still seems to be a popular bumper strip — “America, love it or leave it!” — and it sticks in the craw as well as to the chromium. Along with its gag writer's glibness, it has an oddly non-American ring, stern and dictatorial, the words of a zealot. Actually, it was originated by a gag writer, Walter Winchell, who used it first in his column circa 1940 when he was campaigning against the German-American Bund. “Love it or leave it” — patriotism reduced to a Tin Pan Alley rhythm. A far cry from the warm words of welcome inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Along with the bumper strip goes the inevitable tiny American flag affixed to windshield or window — decalcomania as a way of life. “It's like hiring Madison Square Garden to announce that you love your wife,” said the New Yorker about this form of patriotism. The melting pot has grown cold.

 “Patriotism is dead in America,” publisher William Randolph Hearst Jr. lamented one recent night to a group of us. “They think it's corny or something.” He's an American and the rest of us are “they,” and anyway, it turned out he was talking about nationalism, not patriotism — the kind of nationalism that has wracked Europe twice in half a century: “These little countries still have their pride, their people will stand up and fight.” Another World War II veteran nodded vigorously. “He is right,” he growled. “I really worry about our country. It's the kids, damn ’em. You think they'd stand up and fight the way we did?” For a draftee, he was talking pretty big.

The message of the bumper strips, the Hearst message, is clear enough beneath its simplemindedness: “My country, right or wrong.” An American even more celebrated than William Randolph Hearst Jr. had this to say about that and about a war:

 “An empty phrase, a silly phrase… each must, for himself alone, decide what is right and what is wrong, in which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot think this and be a man. To decide against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may… Only when a Republic's life is in danger should a man uphold his government when it is in the wrong. There is no other time.

 “This Republic's life is not in peril. This nation has sold its honor for a phrase… The stupid phrase needed help and it got another one: 'Even if the war be wrong, we are in it and must fight it out; we cannot retire from it without dishonor.' Why, not even a burglar could have said it better.” 

So wrote Mark Twain in 1901. He was discussing the United States occupation of the Philippines while anticipating a Vietnam. His closing quotation is remarkably apt: “An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.”

Fred Dutton, one of a tiny band of courageous people still remaining on the UC Board of Regents, said something that should be graven in stone: “A society that hates its young has no future.” This is not to say that the young are not difficult and demanding. “What do they really want?” an anguish parent asked one night, wringing his hands, as though the problem could be quantified.

What they want is what they're not getting: honesty, straight answers, an end to the war psychology, a feeling that something real is being done about the real problems inside this country. Sometimes the generation gap seems as impossible to bridge as the credibility gap that caused such erosion in American life. As Lyman Bryson put it: “The younger generation thinks intelligence is a substitute for experience, the older generation thinks experience is a substitute for intelligence.” In the long run, if there is one, intelligence should carry the day.


  1. Lou Judson February 5, 2023

    Surprisingly political for Herb Caen! He was a good guy.
    It would be really great if whoever posts these could state the original pub date – I read Caen in the papers every time he was in them, and knowing the date would be a historical salute I’d appreciate!

  2. Bob A. February 5, 2023

    Caen quotes from Twain’s Letters from the Earth. If you haven’t read it, you really should.

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