Op-Ed: Would Nelson Mandela Remove Statues of Lee and Jackson? By David Montgomery


Those who want to ban or destroy all symbols of the Confederate States of America need to learn from Nelson Mandela. For no particular reason, I put the movie Invictus in my Blu-ray player last night and viewed it for the first time. It is the story of how Nelson Mandela used the national rugby team of the apartheid government as a means of national reconciliation. Their rugby team, known as the Springboks, were hated by Mandela himself and the black majority as a symbol of apartheid, and an opening scene shows white faces rooting for the Springboks and black faces rooting for their opponent England during the first international match after sanctions on South Africa were lifted.

In a later scene, the South African Sports Union votes to change the name and colors of the Springboks to erase what they saw as symbols of racism. Does this sound familiar yet? Mandela intervenes and insists that the Springboks retain their name and colors. He explains that the Springboks and their colors are revered by the Afrikaaners and that preserving them would be a significant gesture of reconciliation toward the white minority. In another notable scene, Mandela attends a rugby match in which many whites were waving the old Union flag of the apartheid regime. When his assistant whispers that they should be banned, he whispers back that “it is their constitutional right, and we decided already not to ban the flag.”

Invictus no doubt exaggerates the success of Mandela’s support for the Springboks, though South Africans of all colors are now Springbok fanatics. Nevertheless, it was a part of Mandela’s much broader policy of forgiveness and reconciliation, a policy that prevented South Africa from descending into the madness of Zimbabwe and made it a more successful multiracial country than any other in Africa.

Unlike Mandela, politicians of both parties in the United States are pandering to uninformed animosity toward any person, thing or symbol associated with Secession or with how the South fought the Civil War. It is particularly galling that the Republican Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, approved the midnight removal of statues of Civil War soldiers by the mayor of Baltimore.

No matter what you think about a historical event or period, erasing the memory of it is always a bad idea. So is destroying symbols that are meaningful to other groups of fellow citizens. It is said that history is written by the victors so that history books say little or nothing about the motivations, conduct or virtues of the losers. We know a great deal more about what the Romans thought of the Carthaginians than what the Carthaginians thought about themselves or the Romans. Our fellow Americans who served the South deserve more of an effort at understanding.

Tearing down statues of predecessors is a universal practice in countries where succession is based on intrigue or coups rather than democratic processes. Stalin and Khrushchev both removed depictions of prior leaders and struck reference to them out of official histories. So does every new dictator who murdered his predecessor along with his supporters or clan.

Surely, no one wants to follow these examples in dealing with the South and the Civil War.

Granted, there are times when seeing a statue toppled is gratifying and consequential – the fall of communism was celebrated throughout Eastern Europe by destroying statues of Lenin, and I cheered as much as anyone at the confirmation that we had won the Cold War. Statues of Hitler and Nazi monuments likewise were eradicated quickly after the Second World War, and Germany banned the Nazi flag just as we seem to be heading toward banning the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia.

But not all examples of triumphal destruction of symbols of the previous regime are good ones. Greeks celebrate the soldier who wrapped himself in the Greek national flag and jumped off the Parthenon when forced to desecrate it by Nazi invaders. Muslim victors have destroyed the religious symbols of conquered peoples from the time of Mohammed to the reign of ISIS. The same liberals who were outraged when radical Islamists defaced ancient Buddhist monuments are now applauding the destruction of monuments of the Confederacy.

Unfortunately, some of those who want to remove memorials to Confederate soldiers and leaders and other symbols of secession put the Confederacy in the same moral category as Nazis and see the removal of all signs of the Confederacy as no different from the elimination of Nazi symbols. And they adopt the same triumphalism as ISIS.

That is historically inaccurate, morally indefensible, and an atrocity against civil society. First, let’s take our own example of misdirected outrage. The statue to the Talbot Boys lists the names of men who died in the Civil War. Very few Confederate soldiers owned slaves, and historical accounts that pay attention to who they were and why they fought overwhelmingly to conclude that they fought for the same reasons as all other American soldiers throughout history: to defend their loved ones and communities against aggression and out of loyalty to the men standing next to them. They have been buried side by side by Union troops and given the same recognition as American veterans.

The Southern leaders targeted by Maryland’s governor and the mayor of Baltimore are no less worthy of memory and respect. Robert E. Lee was more conflicted than most. He was opposed to slavery, wanted to work toward its abolition, and tried to prevent secession. It was only after he concluded that Lincoln would not deal peacefully with the South that he took the job offered by his home state of Virginia to lead its army. Stonewall Jackson was one of the greatest tactical commanders in history, and his character and ability need to be recorded and remembered. I honor both men highly and am outraged at seeing their statues removed and names erased. And I am no neo-Nazi or white supremacist.

Granted, there are also statues of evil Southern aristocrats who maneuvered the South into Civil War and scoundrels who benefited from it, but remaining aware of misdeeds and their consequences help us to identify similar acts and politicians today. There are a great many statues of figures not associated with the South or slavery that I would like to see torn down first, not to mention almost all signs naming bridges after politicians.

What I find morally indefensible and a civil atrocity is the accompanying effort to depict anyone who defends the display of the so-called “Confederate flag” or monuments honoring Confederate heroes as a white supremacist or worse. That is at its most innocent a reprehensible form of bullying and name-calling intended to silence anyone who would defend those symbols. In its worse manifestations, it is an incitement to violence, as we have seen in the recent physical attacks by Antifa groups against peaceful citizens of a less left-wing temperament. At most malignant, such name-calling is a predecessor to the kind of laws that let Canadian and German officials jail or fine anyone who flies a prohibited flag or says something offensive to a sensitive group.

Destruction of symbols important to many for innocent reasons is also politically stupid, as Nelson Mandela clearly saw. To paraphrase Mandela’s lines in Invictus, he pointed out to those who disagreed about preserving the Springboks that “we have to live with those who are passionate about this symbol, and destroying it will just alienate them from the united country we want to build. The rainbow coalition contains white as well as other colors.” He could see the difference between symbols of innocent loyalties to teams and the banners of armed resistance to his government. He was also willing to eviscerate the militant arm of his own party.

The destroyers of Civil War heritage do not seem to share Mandela’s understanding. They demonize everyone with a different understanding of the South and its role in the Civil War and pursue a triumphalist strategy that is destined to achieve just the opposite of what they wish. They may frighten many into silent acquiescence with their destruction of treasured symbols, but at the same time, they create much more sympathetic feelings toward the very few true white supremacists who exist today.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.


Letters to Editor

  1. Deirdre LaMotte says:

    Oh dear. This really is not complicated. When
    bringing arms against a government and losing, please
    do not expect acclimation of any kind. The US government
    should not honor those whose purpose was to defend human bondage.
    Who cares how well bred General Lee was or how
    mighty he looked upon Traveler, or how
    well he did at West Point and on the battlefield.
    Slavery was an evil institution and bringing arms against the
    United States has a price: No public space should honor them.
    As Jefferson Davis’ VP, Alexandrt Stephens, said, “slavery
    … was the immediate cause of the late rupture
    and present constitution” and protecting it
    was the “cornerstone” of the Confederate government.

    Let people visit museums to view these
    monuments. These have no space in public
    spaces or courthouses.

    • Matthew Daley says:

      One does not have to deny that slavery was the critical, central issue to the Confederate States of America to also acknowledge that much more was involved in that sad chapter of our history. Economic issues that were tangentially related to slavery played a key role. Perhaps more importantly for our current conversation, the vast majority of those who wore grey and fought for the CSA neither owned slaves nor had an economic stake in that evil institution. We can remove statues from “public spaces,” but air brushing our history isn’t likely to help us to understand or to transcend the past. (I confess that I regard most museums as public spaces.) If one thinks that removal of statues and such from public spaces, as well as limiting incorrect speech will help solve the problem, take a close look at what is happening today in Germany and Russia.

      • Deirdre LaMotte says:

        Curious. Was it not General Lee who was adamantly against any
        Statues of Confederates? Were these not erected for intimidating
        reasons, amoug others, after Reconstruction? And most importantly,
        slavery is vile. Eliminating statues is not airbrushing at all. It is
        what a decent society does.

    • david montgomery says:

      A quotation from “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America” by Jim Webb, a Democrat and former US Senator from Virginia the best response I can think of: “… to tar the sacrifices of the Confederate soldier as simple acts of racism, and reduce the battle flag under which he fought to nothing more than the symbol of a racist heritage, is one of the great blasphemies of our modern age.”

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