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THE NATIONS: The Birthday Spirit

6 minute read

It was not George III but Parliament who attempted to tax America. The most that can be alleged against the King is that he stood by Parliament in their quarrel with the American people. The Americans demanded independence of Parliament, not separation from the Crown. They were ready to acknowledge George III as their King provided they were allowed to govern themselves. —”1776, the British Story of the American Revolution”

As this brisk defense of George III shows, the British still differ with the U.S. over what happened in 1776. But after 200 years, they are prepared to be good losers. One notable sign: the lavish pictorial exhibit celebrating their defeat that is currently on display at Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum, where it is expected to attract more than 1 million visitors. Two years in the making, “1776, the British Story of the American Revolution” traces events from just before the Stamp Act was imposed, in 1764, to George Ill’s gracious acceptance of credentials from John Adams, the fledgling nation’s first minister to London, in 1785. Fittingly, the monarch’s words on that occasion (“Let the circumstances of language, religion and blood have their natural and full effect”) were tape-recorded for the show by his great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Prince Charles.

Commemorating the U.S. birthday is practically a worldwide event. The well-wishers include not only staunch U.S. allies but also ideological enemies in the Communist-dominated states of Eastern Europe. Some of the celebrators —and non-celebrators too—have seized the chance to deliver lectures to the U.S. on the error of its ways. By and large, though, the world is getting into the spirit of’76.

To mark the occasion, a stream of dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II and Monaco’s Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, will follow Spain’s King Juan Carlos and French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing in paying their respects in Washington. Many countries have sent gifts to the U.S., though there is nothing to compare with France’s centennial present of the Statue of Liberty. Britain has loaned to the U.S. for a year a copy of the Magna Carta, signed in 1215. (In like spirit, an anonymous U.S. institution helped the British government last week to buy back Flodden Field, site of the Battle of Hastings.) Canada, which became a new home for some 40,000 exiled American Tories during and after the revolt, has contributed a $1.1 million book of photographs, Between Friends, of the 40-mile zone that straddles the world’s longest undefended border. Despite the current bristling state of anti-American nationalism in Canada, the country’s ultimate summer festivity, the wild, woolly Calgary Stampede, has this year been dedicated to the Bicentennial.

Special Cognac. Israel has created a 1,000-acre Bicentennial Park near the site where the biblical Israelites defeated the Philistines. In Singapore, the government is displaying the Revere Bell, a piece of sounding brass 26 in. high that was presented to the local cathedral in 1843 by Mrs. Joseph Balestier, wife of the first U.S. Consul in Singapore. France is offering so many formal festivities that the U.S. embassy in Paris has lost count. In addition to a $1.2 million son et lumiere display at Mount Vernon, special stamps and medals have been struck and the state-owned television network has produced 50 hours of Bicentennial programming on such topics as the American Indian and the politics of Boston. There is even a special Bicentennial Champagne (by Moet & Chandon) and a cognac (by Hennessy).

In Germany, there have been rodeos in Düsseldorf and rock concerts in Berlin. For a film, German army volunteers are re-creating the role of Hessian mercenaries during the Revolution. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has named as an official Bicentennial site the venerable Paulskirche in Frankfurt, where, in 1848, a handful of radical German democrats held the first liberal assembly in their country’s history. (One of their number, Carl Schurz, eventually became a U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior under Rutherford B. Hayes.)

In Japan, the Bicentennial is almost as popular as baseball. It is also big business. Department stores, travel agencies, bookshops and theaters have all got into the act—as have U.S. businessmen pushing American wares abroad under the name of the Liberty Bell Campaign. There are binational sporting matches, a welter of U.S. cultural exhibits and even a “Viva America” revue in Tokyo, with topless dancers imported from Las Vegas. On a more elevated level, the semi-official Japan Foundation is sending thousands of cherry trees to three U.S. cities—Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco—where Japanese have settled.

Even some Iron Curtain countries are quietly humming Yankee Doodle. The Soviet Union is publishing editions of works by modern American authors, including Willa Gather and Truman Capote, and a wide variety of cultural exchanges are under way. Poland, which contributed Generals Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kazimierz Pulaski to the Revolutionary cause, is endlessly broadcasting that fact. The country trying hardest to be unimpressed is Stalinoid Czechoslovakia, where the official newspaper Rude Pravo grumbled recently: “In 200 years, the United States failed to resolve any of its principal problems.”

Little is heard about the Bicentennial theme in the developing world. Even among the privileged intellectual classes of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the U.S.’s 200th birthday often seems more a cause for cynicism and concern than for merrymaking. The view of Indian Member of Parliament Hiren Mukherjee, a Communist, is shared by many: “The land from which so much was expected in the cause of advancing freedom seems to have turned into the gendarme of reaction everywhere.”

Great Ghosts. Not all the criticism is that pointed. Frequently expressed is a concern that the values of the Revolution are slipping away. Americans, says Conrado Aquino, president of the Philippines’ University of the East, have absorbed “too much individualism that has led to acts centered on the self without regard to others. It is time to go back to the humane values that the founding fathers handed down.” Another who feels that way, but for opposing reasons, is Argentine Author Jorge Luis Borges, who recently spent three months in the U.S. teaching and lecturing. Says he: “The United States was a country of great individuals—Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Poe—the people who really set your country apart. But America seems to be drifting away from the great ghosts who were so important to mankind.” Borges’ last word, however, was an optimistic assessment of what the Bicentennial is supposed to be about. The U.S. still represents a democratic ideal, he says—even if its citizens are not always the best practitioners of it. “America is still the best hope,” says Borges. “But the Americans themselves will have to be the best hope too.”

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