Profiles in Patriotism

In my writing I have frequently questioned the false narratives and harmful beliefs fostered by politicians and the media on our patriotic holidays. Why is patriotism considered the highest virtue? Why is military service always portrayed as the ultimate in patriotism? Why are other public servants who sacrifice for others not honored as patriots? Why is constructive criticism of our country branded as unpatriotic? Why isn’t patriotic fervor used to mobilize people for good change instead of wars?

Historian Howard Zinn taught us that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

Dr. Michael Knox, founder of the U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation, says “Our society should be as proud of those who fight for alternatives to war as it is of those who fight wars.”

President John F. Kennedy warned us that “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”

This article honors three patriotic dissidents for whom we should be proud. These three individuals spent much of their lives conscientiously objecting to the military, social, political and economic status quo in our country and working for a better America.

Daniel Ellsberg April 7, 1931 – June 16, 2023

Daniel Ellsberg is the whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971. The Pentagon Papers were a top secret internal Pentagon history of U.S decisions about the Vietnam War. These 7000 pages of documents proved that, from the beginning of the war, U.S. officials knew the majority of Vietnamese supported Ho Chi Minh – not the South Vietnamese government – and the war was not winnable. But this knowledge was suppressed and the government repeatedly, knowingly lied to the public and the soldiers fighting the war.

Ellsberg was a smart, well educated patriotic American who initially believed in the U.S. Cold War objectives. He had two PHDs in Economics. He served three years in the Marines as a company commander (1954-57). Beginning in 1958 he worked for the Rand Corporation (a military contractor), the Department of Defense, and the State Department (two years in Vietnam) and again in 1967 for the Rand Corporation helping write the documents that became the Pentagon Papers. He was a military analyst, nuclear war planner, and consummate war machine insider.

But the lies he saw were too much for his conscience. He was also influenced by hearing a draft resister who spoke openly and proudly about going to jail to oppose the draft. Later Ellsberg said about this person, “…It was the example he was setting with his life….his words in general showed that he was a stellar American, and that he was going to jail as a very deliberate choice– because he thought it was the right thing to do.” This experience motivated him to copy the documents that became the Pentagon papers.

Daniel knew he was risking years in prison. But he was willing to sacrifice his freedom for the public good. In a rare twist of fate he was prosecuted for stealing secrets but did not serve time in prison because of the misdeeds of the Nixon administration.

For the rest of his life Daniel Ellsberg never stopped speaking out about unnecessary government secrecy, government lying about wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine), the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need for whisleblowers when the government behaves badly. He suggested, “There should be at least one leak like the Pentagon Papers every year.”

Harry Belafonte March 1, 1927 – April 25, 2023

Born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. he was an American singer, actor, and political activist who popularized Caribbean calypso music during the 1950’s. He was mixed race with Scottish, Dutch, Jewish, Jamaican and African immigrant roots. From 1932 to 1940 he lived with his grandmother in Jamaica. He later moved back to New York, dropped out of high school and joined the Navy during WW II.

Throughout his life, Belafonte was an advocate for many political, social justice and humanitarian causes. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was a confidant (and financial supporter) of Martin Luther King. He spoke out against apartheid in South Africa

He served as a cultural adviser to the Peace Corps, an American Civil Liberties Union ambassador for juvenile justice issues, and a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. His last concert was a benefit concert for the Atlanta Opera. He was a many faceted individual!

He was a vocal critic of the policies of the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations. When he was criticized for his opposition to the second Iraq war he responded, “Bring it on. Dissent is central to any democracy.”

Donna Howard July 3, 1946 – July 30, 2022

Not all patriotic heroes are famous or celebrities. Donna Howard is a shining example. A Duluth resident, Donna Howard was a dedicated peace activist and advocate for the poor and homeless. Throughout her life she worked to build a more just and peaceful society through equal measures of kindness, persuasion, persistence, and defiance of bad government actions.

Donna was a founding member of the Duluth Loaves and Fishes Community which offers short term housing and hospitality to women and families experiencing homelessness. In 1991 Donna helped establish the Olive Branch House and was a volunteer staff person there for the rest of her life.

Born and raised in Iowa, Donna began her activism opposing the Vietnam War in Berkeley California. Over the years Donna participated in hundreds of peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience in opposition to excessive military spending, nuclear weapons, war, poverty, environmental destruction and institutionalized racism. This included being arrested and jailed for protesting the ELF nuclear submarine communications facility in Clam Lake, WI. In 2002, she helped found the Nonviolent Peaceforce which uses unarmed civilian peacekeepers for nonviolent conflict resolution, negotiation, and protection for civilians in conflict torn countries. For 15 years Donna participated in these efforts. She was active member of Northland Grandmothers For Peace.

Donna was an inspiration to many many people with her humble but steadfast work for a better world.

We need a broader, more inclusive definition of patriotism. We need to honor patriots like these three persons. There are many social reformers, activists, dissidents, organizers and volunteers who deserve to be honored. It is their patriotism and their hard work that actually secured our freedoms and everything that is good about our country.