Sunday, August 09, 2009


U. S. Naval Captain Stephen Decatur, after defeating pirates on the Barbary Coast of northern Africa, returned to American in 1816 and uttered a toast which contained the (in)famous phrase: "our country, right or wrong."

The following was written in response to a letter I sent, which was a response to one of those jingoistic chain e-mails that goes around the world a few times and come back every few years. In my letter I pointed out that I preferred a more nuanced patriotism and that I had no problem with public criticism of our country by anybody- foreign or domestic.

Dear Jim:

"My country, right or wrong. May she always be right; but, right or wrong, aways my country." -- author unknown (to me) (Actually, I think there are several versions of the quote.)

But, DAMN TO HELL ANY S.O.B. who thinks he has some obligation to go all around the world apologizing for our country, which has sacrificed the lives and bodies of more of its own sons and daughters for the rest of the world than any other nation, has provided more food, shelter and medicine for other peoples than any other nation and done more good in the world during the past 100 years than any other nation in world history. AND ALL WITHOUT CLAIMING ANY TERRITORY OF OTHER NATIONS. Au contraire! We have been asked to stay to protect them from further danger! No person and no nation is perfect, but on balance, the good greatly outweighs the bad.



Dear ______________

You are right on the original quote, which came from U. S. Naval Captain Stephen Decatur, and was said in a context totally unlike that used in recent decades as a challenge to those who want to criticize our nation or to correct its wrongs. Here's the context of the original quote, lifted from an on-line article by J. R. Dunn:

"Shortly after returning to the U.S., [in 1815, Decatur] again set sail for North Africa, commanding a squadron of nine ships, with the mission of ending Barbary state piracy once and for all. In the Mediterranean he captured the Algerian flagship Mashouda along with an accompanying brig, then leveraged the victory to gain a favorable treaty from the Dey of Algiers. Similar submissions followed from Tripoli and Tunis.

On returning home in April 1816, he was feted as the Conqueror of Araby. It was at one such banquet that he raised his glass and spoke the words,

'Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.'"

Decatur's comment still makes no sense to me, although I confess that at a remove of almost 200 years, I may have missed something in translation. Here's a good comment on Decatur's famous quote, followed by another quote which I think states a true patriot's sentiments better than Decatur did:

" My country, right or wrong is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying My mother, drunk or sober."

Gilbert K. Chesterton,

"My country right or wrong; when right, to keep her right; when wrong, to put her right."
Carl Schurz

As for your contention that in the course of our nation's history we managed to do all that good without claiming the territory of other nations- please remember, I did major in history. I noticed you qualified it by limiting it to only the last 100 years. Are you ashamed of what we did the first 120? Like invading Mexico and seizing modern day New Mexico, Arizona and California back in 1846-1848? Or the proposals to invade and seize Canada from the British circa 1812? (That one didn't turn out so well). How about the "Spanish American" War trumped up by yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst and ignited (literally and figuratively) by an unfortunate accident involving a boiler explosion on the Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898? We gobbled up Cuba and the Philippines after that mismatch, and we still own Puerto Rico and some islands in the Pacific Ocean to this day.

How about the times we invaded countries in the Caribbean or Central America in the 20th century? For instance, we attacked Cuba in 1961 (the Bay of Pigs disaster) with proxies, and we successfully invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson, fearing the creation of "a second Cuba" on America's doorstep, ordered U.S. forces to restore order. Citing as an official reason for the invasion the need to protect the lives of foreigners, none of whom had been killed or wounded, a fleet of 41 vessels was sent to blockade the island, and an invasion was launched by Marines and elements of the United States Army's 82nd Airborne Division. [paraphrased from Wikipedia.]

Of course, that doesn't include our invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), Iraq (1990 and 2003) and Afghanistan (2001), currently costing us a few hundred billion dollars a year. Just think how much tax money we could save the tea baggers if we stopped invading and occupying other countries but instead supported a world policing body! We could call it "The United Nations."

The upshot is, if we don't realistically confront our country's faults and address them-- if we jump on anyone who criticizes us- we won't get better, and we will keep repeating our mistakes. So which is worse: not being embarrassed by harsh truths, or making our country good enough that we won't have so much to be embarrassed about? I opt for the latter.



Blogger Bill said...

Hi, Jim, I love your stuff and have just quoted the guts of this column in a listserv I send out. I volunteer at the SANTIAGO [Chile] TIMES and I know we'd love to be able to run your stuff and wouldn't pay you a cent. Please email me at I have a blog at With admiration and best wishes. Bill

4:52 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home