Why We Fought
Published on Monday, March 25, 2002 in the Long Island, NY Newsday
Why We Fought
by Bernard Stein
IN 1970, I was a second-year teacher in a Long Island high school. I had stopped saluting the flag a number of years earlier to protest America's involvement in the Vietnam War.

But the Pledge of Allegiance was part of school's daily ritual and so I stood, respectfully, facing my class, each and every day while it was recited over the loud speaker without ever realizing that the flag was attached to the chalkboard over my shoulder.

In early November, I was called to the principal's office and told that I was to report to the district superintendent during my first non-teaching period. When I asked what it was all about, all the principal was able to tell me was that it somehow concerned a letter to the editor published in our local community newsletter.

To say that I was petrified at being called to the superintendent's office would be an understatment. I knew that as a non-tenured teacher I could be removed with little or no explanation.

When I arrived, the superintendent asked me about saluting the flag. I told him I could not make such a pledge but that I always stood respectfully (at what military people call "parade rest"). He told me that a parent of one of my students reported that I had "turned my back on the flag."

I explained to him that I stood facing my class, as teachers normally do, and didn't even realize where the flag was. He went on to tell me that he had fought in World War II and, as a result, if he had the power to force me to recite the pledge, he would do so.

When I returned to my home school, I was shaking. The principal called me to his office and asked me what had happened. I told him about my meeting with the superintendent and about my concern for my future. His response was one that I have never forgotten. He told me that he, too, had been a soldier in World War II. He had been part of a U.S. program that worked with young Germans to counter the influence of the Nazi indoctrination programs.

The principal said that, from his point of view, America had fought the war in order to guarantee that no one would ever be forced to pledge allegiance to any symbol or any government. To him, World War II had been a fight for freedom of thought.

To this day, his words ring in my ears and I have shared them repeatedly with my students over the more than 30 years of my teaching career. I hope that one day all Americans will come to recognize that patriotic frenzy at the expense of freedom diminishes the very reason for glorifying our nation.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.