In the last days of the presidents a new star appeared. By then the organization of fear was vast and persuasive beyond anything that could have been conceived by the founding fathers. It involved the entire economy. Every coin, changing hands, paid tribute to it. The rings of warning and defense, whether or not they were penetrable, insured that the entire planet would be pulverized in the event of an attack or the appearance of one. On the domestic front the police were their own masters, and no branch of technology was closed to them. Any window, any light bulb, any picture might be a television camera connected to the nearest precinct. No one dared to examine too closely. Those who did might be arrested a few minutes later, charged with obstruction or conspiracy. Bail no longer existed, trials came seldom, sentences were inevitable, heavy, and without appeal. On the whole, it was said, the public was relieved at the steady disappearance of disturbing elements.

Then the star appeared. On the dollar, first. On the seal, in the circular array above the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM (FROM MANY ONE) bill after bill began to show one star too many. It gave the motto new possibilities, but that was scarcely noticed. There were some arrests for counterfeiting but the scandal spread rapidly and involved several large banks. Severity was recommended as the number of bills that had to be withdrawn grew from edition to edition of the daily papers. Possession of the improper bills was harshly dealt with. Then for a few days the press was silent on the subject and only the pressure of rumor forced the government to admit at last that the offending constellation had been traced back to the mint itself. But the die that had wrought the terrible addition was not found. And when new bills were issued, within a week bills with the same serial numbers, and otherwise indistinguishable by any known techniques, contained the new star. The search for the counterfeiters surpassed any hunt in the nation’s history. Suspect after suspect was seized, grilled, tried, sentenced, publicized, but the star continued to appear. At last the bill was completely withdrawn, and redesigned without the seal.

Then the star began appearing on the flag. Again it was simply embarrassing at first. No one could understand how it came to be there: one too many in one of the rows, not always the same row. It happened on flags that people had owned for years. Sometimes it seemed to occur overnight, to patriots who were accustomed to hoisting their flags every morning. Some were mortified and then frightened at the thought that they might have flown the improper constellation for a day or even more without noticing it, and that someone else might have counted. For by then everyone counted, all the time. Fewer and fewer flags were flown.

In time there was no piece of the national insignia that did not risk the appearance of the free, illegal star. Officers’ uniforms, taken from cupboards in their own homes, would prove to have acquired the shameful decoration through no agency known to the owners. Medals locked in cases displayed the unwarranted distinction when the cases were opened. Document after document affixed with the seal turned out to be of questionable validity because the new star had found them with its mark. Even on those monuments to the war dead that were marked with stars it appeared again and again under the final name, with a blank space after it. A few days later there would be another one. Followed by a blank. And then another. And another.

At last the flag was re-designed. With no stars at all. The seal was re-designed. Without stars. All the national insignia were re-designed without stars. All the stars were chiselled from the monuments to the war dead. And the country shook itself, not without suspicion but not without a smile, and began to recover from its shame.

This Issue

February 12, 1970