Enduring legacy of a punitive peace

The current controversy over the removal of statues of Confederate leaders in Southern cities highlights once again the ongoing legacy of the punitive peace that the victorious North imposed on the Southern Confederacy during Reconstruction.

Winston Churchill, the great British statesman, counseled “resolution in war and magnanimity in victory.” There was a crushing victory for the Union armies of the North, but the peace that the radical Republicans, who took control of the Reconstruction of the defeated Southern states, imposed can hardly be described as being magnanimous. Initially, while Lincoln was still president, his impetus was to bring the South back into the Union as quickly as possible. However, as conflict between his successor, Andrew Johnson, and radicals in the Congress and in the Senate flared up into bitter hostility, with a nearly successful attempt to impeach the latter, the peace that was imposed upon the South bore more the hallmarks of a military occupation than reconciliation between fellow Americans.

Neither was there any attempt to help with rebuilding the shattered South that had gone bankrupt during the war. Indeed, the provision within the 14th Amendment that “refused to pay any debt or obligation in aid of insurrection or rebellion” set the tone that made financial assistance unlikely. The sharecropping economy that did emerge guaranteed that both white and black sharecroppers could expect little more than a subsistence existence. Not surprisingly, when the federal government removed its troops in 1876, embittered white Southerners turned on the newly freed slaves, who were to be the worst losers, and sought to return them to a condition not much different from the slavery they had putatively been liberated from by the 13th Amendment.

The 20th century offers two strikingly different examples of “Reconstruction” efforts after two far more destructive world wars that offer critically important lessons in peacemaking. In an even more optimistic wave of euphoria than was the case after the Civil War, the victorious Allied powers who came together in Versailles in 1919 intended to shape a peace settlement that would make the “Great War” of 1914-18 “the war to end all wars.” The optimism was best characterized by President Wilson’s 14 points, led off by the call to abolish all secret treaty-making between nations. Instead, what followed was much more characterized by what had become the Liberal Party’s election slogan in Britain’s first election after the armistice of 1918: “We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak.”

The “War Guilt Clause” made it seem that Germany alone was responsible for the war and had to pay the lion’s share of reparations for four years of wartime destruction. There were major territorial losses, a humiliating demilitarization and a bitterly resented military occupation of the Rhineland. What the Weimar government that replaced the Hohenzollern dynasty in 1918 described as a “dictated peace” was to be one of the main causes for the rise of National Socialism and Adolf Hitler. To many historians, the even more destructive world war that followed was Europe’s second “Thirty Years’ War” with its roots in that of 1914-18, but engulfing much more than just the European continent.

The peace that followed the Second World War was far more magnanimous. It began with an attempt to denazify Germany, but rooting out all Nazi supporters and sympathizers soon proved impractical. Rebuilding Germany took precedence over denazification, as did building Western European unity to face the threat of communist expansion from the east. The United States offered financial assistance for rebuilding the shattered nation with the Marshall Plan and took a leading role in forming the United Nations. Former Europeans’ enemies came together to create the European Coal and Steel Community that was to expand into the European Common Market and now today the European Union. Germany’s postwar reconstruction was dramatically more successful than that of 1919. The Federal Republic of Germany is now the linchpin of European economic and political unity.

Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar chancellor who is credited with playing a pivotal role in the country’s Wirtschaftswunder, could well have fallen foul of an uncompromising denazification program. As mayor of Cologne, he had allowed Nazis to use public buildings and fly their flags from city flagpoles. In 1932, he had demanded that they become part of and play a leading role in the Weimar government.

In contrast, the enduring demonizing of Confederate leaders makes it easy to ignore how deeply the Peculiar Institution was embedded in the American experience. Most of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, 12 presidents also owned slaves — some while they were in the White House — and even Ulysses Grant, the Union’s commanding general, owned a slave until 1859.

In retrospect, the South might well have been better served if Confederate leaders like Robert E Lee had been included in the decisions about Reconstruction. He felt that slavery was a “moral and political evil,” and supported President Johnson’s program for Reconstruction. Undoubtedly, he would have been more effective in convincing his fellow Southerners to follow suit than the carpetbaggers and scalawags who took advantage of the shady opportunities Reconstruction offered. Significantly, it was the first Southern president after the Civil War, Lyndon Johnson, who almost a hundred years later began the process of legislatively unraveling the legacy of discrimination left behind after the Civil War with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Rather than dismantling statues, perhaps what the South needs is a flurry of new statue erection to include a more complete and nuanced picture of the Civil War and the Reconstruction past. The recent erection of a statue in front of the courthouse in St. Louis of Dred and Harriet Scott is long overdue. There are no statues for Hiram Revels or Blanche Bruce, the two African-American Reconstruction-era U.S. senators, and the missing list is much longer than this alone.

In Europe, where statue removal has a long and contentious history, some have suggested that adding context to controversial monuments might serve the cause of historical memory far better than removing them. Without memory, it is all too easy to control the past, as George Orwell observed, and those who control the past control the future.

Roger Gocking lives in Saranac Lake.

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