The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

May/June 2005
OFF THE SHELF
 
 

O'er The Land Of The Free

REVIEWED BY JOHN CLARK PRATT

Marc Leepson, Flag: An American Biography, Thomas Dunne/St. Martins (334 pp., $24.95).

Widely praised for his last book, Saving Monticello, a history of Thomas Jefferson’s house, VVA Veteran arts editor Marc Leepson has done an even more extensive job of research for his fascinating history of the development, use, and significance of our national flag. And what a story it is. One has to read Flag slowly and carefully, lest some of Leepson’s absorbing discoveries be missed, and the end result of experiencing this book is to realize how much one has learned from it.

Chronological in its presentation, Flag begins with a discussion of early flags used by the Chinese, the Romans, and the English, the Viking flags flown mainly on ships, and the early American pine tree and liberty flags. On January 1, 1776, the first Continental Colors, also known as the Grand Union flag, was flown by Gen. George Washington. It had thirteen alternating red and white stripes, but the British Union Jack in the canton caused a great deal of controversy. As a result, it was changed by the Continental Congress to thirteen stars and stripes on June 14 (Flag Day), 1777.

Leepson goes on to show how many flag variants follow, then shows how the “myth” of Betsy Ross was developed. He also has some riveting chapters about the post-Revolutionary War variants and the flag change to fifteen stars and stripes, a version that flew for more than two decades.

We read about the birth of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the song that was debated in Congress for more than a century and not approved as the nation’s official National Anthem until 1931. The Civil War produced much debate and flag-oriented writing, resulting in what was called “flagmania,” which began after the fall of Fort Sumter. This section is particularly impressive.

We learn about the moniker “Old Glory,” then that in 1865 a law was enacted requiring that only American-made bunting could be used for flags. There are details about the nation’s 100th anniversary celebrations in 1876 and ceremonies that started the movement to create Memorial Day. Also revealed are many falsehoods about the flag, the actions of states to protect the flag, the birth of the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, the widespread use of the flag during World War I, the ways the newly established American Legion used the flag in the 1920s, and the interesting fact that during World War II laundries nationwide did not charge for cleaning flags.

The chapter on the Vietnam War is decisive in its handling of how pro- and anti-war groups featured the flag, and the book brings us up to date by noting the immense increase in flag sales after September 11, 2001, and the fact not widely publicized that the military has taken steps to discourage flying the American flag in Iraq.

Overall, Flag is a very significant contribution to our history. And it is a book that everyone who cares about the United States should read.

VVA Life Member John Pratt served as a U.S. Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War. He is a professor of English at Colorado State University and the author of, among other books, The Laotian Fragments.

   

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