Washington: See if Anybody Salutes


THE FIRST THINGS we noticed were the flags. My wife and I had been driving through downtown Washington on a Saturday afternoon in November when we turned a corner and met the head of a column of 20,000 demonstrators, coming the other way. For the next hour, the marchers’ flags flapped around our car: dozens of red-and-black Sandinista battle flags, several Cuban and Chilean flags, Puerto Rican flags—and one American flag, which appeared to have been spattered with mud.

Those who commit themselves to a cause crave illogical, emotional symbols of their feelings—like flags. How else can we explain the importance of National Liberation Front (Vietcong) flags and posters of Mao and Che during the protests against the Vietnam War? Today’s pat explanation is that those flags betrayed a plainly “anti-American” attitude. That is a literal-minded simplification of emotions too unfocused to be easily named. Something in the banners of the sixties seemed an emblem of everything that the people who marched beneath them found inspiring. Something in the Sandinista flag must have held the same meaning for those who marched that Saturday to protest American policy in Central America.

The rest of the public is no less sensitive to symbols, yet for the majority of Americans the symbols cherished by the left are blasphemous. The NLF flags and the pictures of Chairman Mao, stirring as they were to many who carried them, delayed the moment when most Americans would agree that the Vietnam War had to end. The Sandinista flags are just as self-defeating.

The right, in general, is comfortable invoking religious and patriotic symbolism. The left is not. The left often thinks that it is enough to figure out the proper policy and preach it to the converted; the right has recently taken more care to sell its point of view to those who might not initially agree, using the arguments and symbols to which the public most readily responds. Over the past six years, the far right succeeded in promoting its supply-side program for economic policy, even though the something-for-nothing nature of the plan defies common sense. In theory, the left should be able to advance its case against military adventurism by capitalizing on the widespread fear that the United States may be caught in another guerrilla war. But when its arguments come wrapped in the Sandinista flag, they’re dead from the start.

In his book Vietnam, Stanley Karnow tells how Ngo Dinh Diem won a crushing victory over the figurehead emperor Bao Dai in a referendum held in 1955. Diem designed the ballots so that those for him were red, the Vietnamese color of good luck, while his opponent’s were green, signifying misfortune. Diem won by an overwhelming margin.

Here is a lesson from which those who want to change American foreign policy can profit. Why not a demonstration led by the Stars and Stripes?

—James Fallows