fb-pixel Skip to main content
Opinion | Niall Ferguson

I picked a fine time to become an American

A new U.S. citizen holds a flag to his chest while listening to the Pledge of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library on July 3.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I picked a fine time to become an American.

It was a gray, overcast morning in Oakland, Calif. The finest England football team for a generation had just been beaten by the dastardly Croats. And Hurricane Donald Trump had just made landfall in London.

Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American, as a 20-foot Trump Baby blimp floated over London, hideously symbolizing a new nadir in the Anglo-American relationship.

Or perhaps not. Down on the ground, slack-jawed Tories studied the government’s Brexit white paper, a substantial number of them thinking pretty much what Trump had so bluntly told The Sun. So when May had said, “Brexit means Brexit,” what she actually meant was that Britain would become an unhappy cross between Switzerland and Ukraine. Common rulebook? Consultation of the European Court of Justice on contested points of European law? Brexit Shmexit.

Come to think of it, I had indeed picked a fine time to become an American.


I was one of 1,094 people of every color and creed, drawn from 85 countries, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Yemen. We had gathered, anxiously clutching the requisite documents, outside the rather antique Paramount cinema (currently showing: “Animal House” and “This Is Spinal Tap”).

I was not the only new citizen of European origin (Scotland), but we were a distinct minority. Rather to my surprise, the Chinese were the most numerous group, accounting for close to a fifth of the new Americans. (How many Americans became Chinese citizens this week?) Next were the Mexicans (more than 150), then the Filipinos, closely followed by the Indians.

Yet it was the sheer range of countries represented that was most marvelous. The young man to my right, immaculately dressed in white, was from Eritrea. He had studied computer science in Swansea and had initially come to California to work for NASA.


I approach any encounter with US bureaucracy weighed down by dread. Would this be like the Department of Motor Vehicles, famed for its Soviet-style antagonism to the public? Or would it be more like the implacable, pitiless Internal Revenue Service?

In fact, the officials of the Citizenship and Immigration Service could hardly have been more affable. The master of ceremonies was a genial, balding, bespectacled chap who won his audience over with a virtuoso display of multilingualism, chatting to us in what sounded like pretty fluent Spanish, Chinese, French, Hindi, and Filipino.

Yet this was very far from a multicultural occasion. Quite the reverse. To get us in the mood for our impending Americanization, a choir sang a medley of patriotic songs, including a rather baroque setting of the preamble to the Constitution, “Yankee Doodle,” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

That did it. The way that song conjures up visions of vast American landscapes (“From the redwood forest/to the Gulf Stream waters”) always gets me by the throat because, glimpsed in movies, such vistas were what first drew me to the United States.

Then came the information from the bureaucracy about our rights and obligations — specifically, our right to vote, our option to obtain a passport, and our inextricable link to the Social Security system. (Nothing, rather disappointingly, about the right to bear arms. And not a word about the spiraling federal debt we were all now on the hook for.)


The ceremony then became more stirring. A “Faces of America” video had a distinctly martial soundtrack. We raised our right hands to swear the oath of allegiance, absolutely and entirely renouncing and abjuring “all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and swearing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.” Then we placed our right hands on our hearts to recite the pledge of allegiance.

It’s heady stuff, even in Oakland on a Thursday morning.

And then there he was — eliciting disapproving intakes of breath from some — the POTUS himself, much larger than life on the big screen. “This country is now your country,” Trump told us sternly. “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.”

And that wasn’t all: “You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life.” Compare and contrast with the Barack Obama version: “Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology . . . ”

The grand finale was “God Bless the USA,” the bombastic country-and-western anthem by Lee Greenwood. It, too, was a call to arms. “And I’m proud to be an American/Where at least I know I’m free/And I won’t forget the men who died/Who gave that right to me/And I’d gladly stand up next to you/And defend Her still today.”


More than half a century of being British has made it hard for me not to cringe at this kind of thing. But this hokum is now my hokum. And this president is now my president, until such times as we the people vote in another one.

Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American — because there is no other kind of time.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.