1960s >> 1969 >> no-779-july-1969

The Stars and Stripes . . . Forever?

The American flag, in the general form it takes today, was born during the American Revolution and represents a clean break in design from the English-type standards that were in use in the colonies until 1777. Even General Washington, in his earlier battles, used a flag with English and Scottish crosses rather than the stars. Paintings such as the one showing him crossing the Delaware with the Stars and Stripes were inaccurate. So is the story that the first flag was made in 1776 by Betsy Ross of Philadelphia from a design furnished her by General Washington. The Continental Congress accepted the original stars and stripes (thirteen of each) design on June 14 1777.

The school texts, encyclopedias, and information almanacs supply the type of data concerning the flag, its growth to the present 50 stars, its dimensions, and its rules of display. Such information is of concern to patriots but more to the point is a discussion of the purposes which the Stars and Stripes serves, the interests which it supports, the very reasons for its existence.

All previous revolution, as Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, were revolutions by a minority in the interests of a minority. Even though it did not exemplify the classic pattern of bourgeois revolution, in that it was directed against a colonial power rather than a landed aristocracy and church within the nation, the American Revolution was no exception. There were no serfs in the American Colonies, not even peasants in the ‘free’ sense of some European peasants who worked the lands of (frequently absentee) landlords. But there was a great majority of impoverished small farmers, business people, artisans, and fishermen, not to mention chattel slaves and a tiny minority of privileged landowners, commercial-type capitalists, and financiers. The privileged minority was, nevertheless, dominated by the mother country and had something definitely to gain by a break in relations. It raised the cry of ‘freedom’ (meaning freedom of commerce) and went about the task of convincing the majority of underprivileged that revolution against England would also be in their interests. Such a task was not easy, especially in a land like America which was largely populated by expatriate British, and desertions from the army and outright refusals to fight were rampant.

The new American ruling class, then, like all ruling classes, had urgent need for initiating ideas and attitudes and gadgets that would aid in preventing a new revolution from developing. Historians record that such a fear was uppermost in the founding fathers and a number of steps were taken to circumvent the possibility. The Stars and Stripes has served admirably, since 1777, as a symbol of a common interest among all Americans. As with the bourgeoisie of all nations, the American capitalist class has never hesitated to use the flag to stir base emotions in workers in order to fight workers of other countries and one another as well. This is the primary purpose of the Stars and Stripes, as it is of the Union Jack, the Hammer and Sickle, the Tricolor, and every other national emblem on earth.


But no flag, in itself, can be expected to raise emotions in the desired manner. Americans, generally, are not stirred by the Union Jack, nor does the Stars and Stripes bring a tingle to the spine of the average Briton. A system of indoctrination is needed. In America we have the Pledge of Allegiance, written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy of Boston and recited by schoolchildren all over the country to this date. [1] And there is The Star Spangled Banner, a national anthem (fortunately unsingable by most voice ranges) about the flag, written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key during the war with Britain. Although it is virtually impossible to enforce laws and codes of custom concerning these patriotic exercises on a universal basis, there are laws, penalties, and prescribed codes of custom in many areas of endeavour in the various states and on a national level.

For example, Section 69 of the General Laws Relating to Education in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1966) goes into the subject of proper display of the flag in the schools and continues:

   Failure to display flag as above required for a period of five consecutive days by principal or teacher in charge of a school, or failure of teacher to salute the flag and recite pledge of allegiance or to cause pupils under his charge to do so . . . (provides for a penalty of a $5 fine for every such period).

And failure by a school committee subjects each member to the same penalty.

In its zeal to enforce respect for the national anthem, Chapter 264, Section 9 of these Massachusetts laws reads:

  National Anthem: Whoever plays, sings or renders the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in any public place, theatre, motion picture hall, restaurant or cafe, or at any public entertainment other than as a whole and separate composition or number without embellishment or addition in the way of national or other melodies, or whoever plays, sings or renders the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, or any part thereof, as dance music, as an exit march or as a part of a medley of any kind, shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars.

And Section 9 of the same chapter provides a penalty for misuse of the flag of a fine ranging from $10 to $100, one year in jail, or both.


On the federal level, a joint resolution by both Houses resulted in Public Law 829: a codification of existing rules and customs on flag etiquette. The Law was approved on December 22, 1942. But there was, apparently, no desecration problem since there were no provisions for penalties.

The most agonised reaction to desecration and defilement of the Stars and Stripes was that of the Congress of 1967-8. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the burning of the American flag by an opponent of the Vietnam war in Central Park, New York, in May 1967. By a vote of 385 to 16 the House of Representatives passed a Bill that provided penalties of one year imprisonment, $1,000 fine, or both. The Congressmen were outraged and vied one with another in the vitriol of their language. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina demanded: “Let’s deal with these buzbards,” and James Haley of Florida emoted:

Load a boat full of them and take them 500 miles out in the ocean and handcuff them, chain the anchor around their necks and throw them overboard. (Time Magazine, June 30, 1967)

So enraged were the Representatives, in fact, that they completely forgot to refer in their Bill to burning. The language deals with “publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling or trampling upon,” omitting reference to the act that motivated the Bill.

But the Senators, in their version, saved the day and inserted the flammatory word. So Public Law 90-381, which became law on July 5 1968, provides for the following penalties:

(a) Whoever knowingly casts contempt upon any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defiling, burning, or trampling upon it shall be fined not more than $1000.00 or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.

And section (b) carefully defines what is meant by ‘flag’ in order to avoid the possibility of a legal technicality that the object mutilated, defiled, burned, or trampled upon was but a replica or picture of the flag or some other official emblem other than the Stars and Stripes. The term is all-encompassing. It took 191 years. But there is now a Federal law to avenge maltreatment of “Old Glory’ and it specifically applies to desecration by Americans abroad of America’s flag as well.

Socialists do not include flag desecration in any list of revolutionary activity —not because we respect a nation’s flag but because revolutionary socialist activity must be dominated by consciousness and understanding, not upon unreasoning passion. Nor are we flag wavers.

Harry Morrison

(World Socialist Party of the United States)

[1] The Republicans, in 1954, had the words “under God” inserted after “one nation indivisible.” But the Supreme Court decisions on religion in the schools (1962 and 1963) now makes the use of this phrase questionable in the classrooms.