Nelson DeMille, one of the nation’s top novelists, is the author of By the Rivers of Babylon, Cathedral, The Talbot Odyssey, Word of Honor, The Charm School, The Gold Coast, The General's Daughter, Spencerville, Plum Island, The Lion's Game, Up Country, and NIGHT FALL, which was released by Warner Books in November 2004. He co-wrote Mayday with Thomas Block and has contributed short stories, book reviews, and articles to magazines and newspapers. You can learn more about him and his work at www.nelsondemille.net
Mr. DeMille kindly contributed the following Foreword to Flag: An American Biography:
A biography, according to most dictionaries, is an account of a person's life, written or told by another.
But here, Marc Leepson has expanded the meaning of the word and written a biography of an inanimate object: the American flag. And what a great job he has done.
Mr. Leepson begins at the beginning with the birth of the flag in 1777 during the American Revolution, and proceeds through the flag's infancy during the War of 1812, its childhood during the Civil War, its adolescence during the Spanish-American War, and its coming-of-age during the world wars.
And then there was the Vietnam War, when the flag, always venerated until then, became a symbol of the divisiveness that split the nation. The chapters that deal with the Vietnam period, at home and overseas, are worth the price of the book.
On a personal note, I served in Vietnam and during my year there, I rarely saw an American flag displayed at military installations or in combat operations. In fact, my photographs taken in Vietnam verify that memory. Mr. Leepson in his book writes:
The key words there are "especially during the war's early years before it became controversial at home." By the time I got to Vietnam in November 1967, what was happening at home was starting to affect how newly arriving troops viewed the war, and thus conspicuous displays of patriotism, such as flying or carrying the American flag, was waning. This was in stark contrast to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops as well as South Vietnamese troops who often carried flags into battle, and rallied around their flags, and also raised them in defiance of the enemy. I saw little of that on the American side during my tour of duty, and one might say that this period was the absolutely low point of the American flag.
By the time of the Gulf War, however, the flag had again become a unifying symbol, at least to most of the nation. And on September 11, 2001, the American Flag flying over the ruins of the World Trade Center sprouted tens of thousands of new American flags across this country, Europe, and the world.
Many countries have more than one national symbol or emblem, some of which are religious, cultural, or pertain to royalty. In America, however, there are only two national symbols - the bald eagle, not known by everyone in other nations, and the American flag - known to the entire world. Marc Leepson explores the close identification of America and Americans with their flag and their country. A quote from Henry Ward Beecher in 1861 on the eve of the Civil War sums up this feeling:
Mr. Leepson also discusses "the cult of the flag," which swept the nation following the Civil War and led to the incorporation of the flag motif into many aspects of American life, art, home decoration, and public displays - a phenomenon that continues to this day and that is rarely seen in other countries.
Flag: An American Biography is not a book with an agenda, or a subjective point of view; it is an objective history of the American flag, well researched, well presented, easy to read and understand, and very informative and entertaining.
One of the most entertaining aspects of Flag is its focus on personalities. For instance, Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, is probably the designer of the American flag - not Betsy Ross. There are other such tidbits in the book, which keep us turning the pages, and probably causing us to read out loud to anyone nearby.
This is one of those books that seem as though someone should have written it years ago - but better late than never. Flag: An American Biography is a must read for scholars, history buffs, patriotic organizations, flag wavers, flag burners, anyone who owns an American flag or has seen a flag in the last forty-eight hours.
This iconic symbol of the nation, which is so ubiquitous in our lives, needs a history, and this is the definitive history of the Flag of the United States of America. Marc Leepson has done a wonderful job of making this inanimate object come alive and speak to us.