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On a “what if” radio program sixty years ago, I heard the newly inaugurated President Lincoln persuade Robert E. Lee that his loyalty to the United States Army should outweigh his allegiance to the state of Virginia. In short order, Lee quells the rebellion; in 1868 he is elected to succeed Lincoln, and they all live happily ever after. But what about the slaves, I wondered? 

Profiles in Courage, for which Sen. John Kennedy received the 1957 Pulitzer Prize, revisited the aftermath of the Civil War. On his telling, Andrew Johnson, tactless as he was, intended to execute Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation. He was frustrated by the radicals, whom Kennedy describes as “frenzied” and “fanatical,” and who engineered his impeachment. Edward Ross, the senator whose vote kept Johnson in office, is one of Kennedy’s heroes. He upheld constitutional justice despite his opposition to the administration’s policies. Kennedy waves away allegations that Ross’s vote was bought, allegations taken seriously by historians. He mentions only in passing that emancipation of the slaves was one legacy of the war. This fits a pattern in Profiles in Courage. John Quincy Adams gains Kennedy’s praise for abandoning the Federalist party in his youth. His decades-long opposition to slavery is relegated to an afterthought. Regional reconciliation, not black freedom, is the central issue in Kennedy’s account of nineteenth-century American heroes.

My other childhood reading reinforced the message. The moral landscape of the Civil War was dominated by the great compromise at Appomattox: Grant magnanimous in victory, Lee dignified in defeat. Above that tableau, the soaring words of the martyred president ring out: “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.”

For many, the recent movement to tear down statues of Confederate generals violates the spirit of Appomattox. Against them, historians like Eric Foner remind us that the now-controversial statues were erected not during the age of Reconstruction and reconciliation but rather in the early twentieth century and in the 1940s. Raising these monuments coincided with, and was likely motivated by, the desire to consolidate white supremacy. By this account, we cannot appeal to the tolerant spirit of Appomattox in order to justify retaining the monuments as noble parts of the national landscape: They have no redeeming value. (Foner himself does not advocate removal of Confederate statues, urging that our moral and historical sense is better served by new statues honoring African Americans like Nat Turner.)

To dismiss the significance of Lee statues merely because they may have been designed to reinforce racism is too facile, however. It would have been impossible for respectable white supremacists to summon up the ghosts of Lee and his confreres were it not that men like Grant and Sherman, who, persisting in the effort to safeguard black freedom during Reconstruction, nevertheless plugged for the pardon of their erstwhile colleagues and foes and encouraged their rehabilitation. We cannot deny a powerful fact: The victors in the Civil War did not want to reduce the South to a state of permanent occupation, but rather wished to restore the Confederate states to the Union. Thus, you cannot condemn the statues without reassessing the compromise that made them possible. Are we to say that Grant and Sherman promoted the wrong approach and should have adopted a more punitive policy toward the postbellum South? Or that Lincoln was culpable for emphasizing the white widows and orphans when he should have focused on the need for radical measures to ensure justice for recently liberated black slaves?

Where do these questions leave us?

In truth, the American past is painful, as are the histories of most peoples. Symbols of respect for the Confederacy cause offense to those who are sensitive to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Even today, when they are deployed as instruments of intimidation, they pose a continuing threat. It is natural that those who are outraged or offended would want to extirpate these symbols, if only to prevent the wrong people from making them shrines.

But there is more to the current controversies about Confederate monuments. There are powerful feelings of catharsis that come from cleansing the public square of evil. Knocking down a statue makes great street theater. And the next day, when the baneful image has vanished forever, there is a wonderful sense of purity in the air.

So I wonder, is the catharsis of street theater what we most need? Can the jubilation of wiping the slate clean indeed remove the horror of the past and awaken us from the nightmares of history? Or does it oversimplify our struggle to overcome evil? Must we, in taking responsibility for our past, continue to gaze without blinking at those indelible scars?

Purim is the Jewish festival that commemorates Haman’s failed attempt to exterminate us. It is a day of mourning turned to joy, a carnival day marked by drinking and wild merriment. But it is just one day in the calendar. The next day is a return to reality. When Jews think of the Holocaust, our mood is solemn.

One of the things to remember about the aftermath of the Holocaust is the failure of the triumphant allies to prosecute its perpetrators to the full extent. American officials and other allies turned a blind eye in some instances, allowing the escape of major war criminals. Then there were lesser offenders who slipped through the net because they were needed for recovery or useful in the Cold War or simply inconspicuous enough to avoid attention. There were German soldiers who were convinced they were doing their patriotic duty, not being accessories to genocide.

Compromises were made in postwar Germany. Although during the war some talked about reducing Germany to a pre-industrial agricultural economy, by the time the conflict ended, Allied leaders decided that Germany had to be rehabilitated, and this was accomplished without asking very many questions. In other countries, such as France, there were spasms of denunciation and summary executions of accused Nazi collaborators. But these subsided as well. The crippled nations of Europe yearned for recovery; new dangers loomed as the Cold War began. A more thorough justice was deferred and eventually forgotten.

In the Jewish communities where I grew up, in the ’60s and ’70s, all this was a source of outrage. Elsewhere, the injustice was known but not much discussed. But it was only in 1985, decades after these collusions and evasions, that the anger went public when President Reagan agreed to attend a ceremony at the Bitburg military cemetery to celebrate the normalization of relations between the United States and Germany. Because the cemetery included the graves of SS members, Reagan was accused of whitewashing Germany’s Nazi past for the sake of his foreign policy.

It seems to me that the Bitburg controversy was a belated and symbolic response to the much more egregious omissions and commissions of the preceding forty years. Yet, in retrospect, Americans and Jews are better off because the Bitburg episode is part of our public record. It was the closest we came to a frank, public airing of that bitter history.

Whether we like it or not, the United States was founded on a constitutional compromise that tolerated racial slavery. It fought a bloody civil war connected to that “peculiar institution” that brought about its legal demise but failed to secure a “just and lasting peace” that included the victims of slavery. The simulacrum of regional peace that ensued is inseparable from the compromises embodied by the statues that honor and ennoble the “lost cause.” It is inseparable from the retreat from freedom and the triumph of Jim Crow that deferred almost endlessly the prospect of black civil rights and dignity. The public statues we have testify to that dark and ambiguous history. Satisfying as it may be to destroy them, I doubt that sweeping them away will provide either the serenity we crave or the guilty, responsible enlightenment we need. 

Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.

Photo by Cville Dog via Creative Commons. Image cropped.