[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to this weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]
To pay tribute to this recent, profoundly inspiring whistleblower, here are the opening few paragraphs of my new book on American patriotism:
“On November 19th, 2019, Army Lt. Colonel and National Security Council (NSC) official Alexander Vindman testified before the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Vindman, who had first-hand knowledge of the telephone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, offered testimony that was highly damaging to the president, and so Trump’s defenders and allies went on the attack against Vindman. They did so in large part by using his story as a Ukrainian American immigrant to directly impugn his patriotism and implicitly accuse him of treason: after Fox News host Laura Ingraham highlighted Vindman’s background in relationship to his work as a Ukraine expert for the NSC, law professor and former Bush administration official John Yoo replied, “I find that astounding, and some people might call that espionage”; and the next morning CNN contributor and former Republican Congressman Sean Duffy went further, claiming, “I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to make sure that the Ukraine got those weapons . . . He’s entitled to his opinion. He has an affinity for the Ukraine, he speaks Ukrainian, and he came from the country.” Unstated but clearly present in these responses is the idea that Vindman’s criticism of the president had marked him as unpatriotic and even un-American, opening up these broader questions about his affinities and allegiances.
Just over a century earlier, however, former president Teddy Roosevelt began his 1918 Metropolitan magazine article “Lincoln and Free Speech” with these lines: “Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country . . . In either event it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth—whether about the President or anyone else.” And in the prepared statement with which he began his testimony, Alexander Vindman expresses his own vision of patriotism clearly. “I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America,” he begins. “As a young man I decided that I wanted to spend my life serving the nation that gave my family refuge from authoritarian oppression, and for the last twenty years it has been an honor to represent and protect this great country.” He contextualizes his ability to offer such honest public testimony as part of “the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant.” And he ends with his father, whose “courageous decision” to leave the U.S.S.R. and move his family to the United States had, Vindman argues, “inspired a deep sense of gratitude in my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service.” Addressing his father directly with his closing words, Vindman makes a moving and compelling case for Roosevelt’s point about the essential patriotism of telling the truth: “Dad, my sitting here today . . . is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Unfortunately, Vindman paid a significant price for his truth-telling—after Trump was acquitted by Senate Republicans in February 2020, he had both Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny (a JAG officer and attorney on the NSC staff) removed from their positions and escorted out of the White House by security. While that action clearly constituted direct payback by Trump against a figure who had criticized him, it was applauded by Trump’s supporters as a necessary step to remove figures who were not sufficiently patriotic to serve in such important national roles. As Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn Tweeted about Vindman, “how patriotic is it to badmouth and ridicule our great nation in front of Russia, America’s greatest enemy?” Although the last phrase of Blackburn’s Tweet jumps out, it is her contrast between “our great nation” on the one hand and “badmouth[ing] and ridicule” on the other that constitutes the core of her attack on Vindman’s patriotism.”
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?