Stalin and the Confederacy
The matter of Confederate icons, statues, and base names has consumed a great deal of press recently. Two separate arguments have prevailed: one that says that changing the Confederate landscape in the United States would somehow "change history," while the other indicates history can't be changed by removal of icons, but the glorification of the Confederate cause must end. For me, the matter was brought into brutal clarity by a woman in the Republic of Georgia in 2015. On a business trip to the Republic of Georgia, I was invited by a local employee to visit Joseph Stalin’s birthplace. I’m not sure I knew at the time, in 2015, that Stalin was from Georgia. But I’m fascinated by history, so I went. The house of Stalin’s birth had been Sovietized, with heavy industrial surroundings and a museum. I paid a few extra dollars for a tour. My guide was a sexagenarian English-speaking Georgian woman who had a great depth of understanding of every major event in Stalin’s life. I quickly realized that she revered the dictator who had ordered the death of nearly a million Soviet citizens. When I asked her about this, she had a well-rehearsed response: “I have been to America and have seen all the statues of your Confederate leaders. If I asked you why Americans have so much devotion to men who fought a war for the right to kill millions of American slaves, you would say you are honoring the warriors and not the slavery they fought for, right? I give you the same answer for Stalin.” For me, this came completely out of left field. I answered that my family had immigrated from Italy to the American North in the 1920s and had no ties to the Confederacy. But that missed the point. Recent events have caused me to reflect on this conversation and reconsider my own blasé attitude toward the Confederacy and its icons, subjects that came up from time to time during my nearly 30 years in uniform. When I walked the fields of Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas and Chancellorsville with military lecturers who would occasionally wander from tactical analysis to defense of the “Lost Cause,” I said nothing. When my parents moved the family to southern Virginia and I was confronted by the locals with a vigorous defense of the “noble sons of Virginia,” I usually didn’t respond. When, during my Navy career, I was confronted by the Confederate battle flag hanging in spaces aboard ship or tacked to the bumpers of one of my sailors’ cars, I don’t believe I ever said a thing. When a uniformed colleague at the Pentagon argued energetically that it was right for 10 Army bases to be named after Confederates when not one was named for Ulysses S. Grant, I was merely bemused. No one in 2020 defends slavery. Instead they offer rationalizations in the name of “preserving history.” Changing base names and lawfully taking down monuments doesn’t change history. It merely stops glorifying those who committed historic wrongs. The Georgian woman’s narrative wasn’t quite right. Unlike Stalin, Confederate generals didn’t order the execution of millions. But their rebellion, waged to preserve slavery, ended up killing hundreds of thousands of Americans. And it gave ammunition to an apologist for Soviet communism decades after the Cold War.