(Editor's note: The writer, Philip Terzian, is the associate editor of the Providence (R.I.) Journal.)
I TOOK MY children recently to a national historic site -- a pleasant experience, for the most part, spoiled only by the sight of the Stars and Stripes waving defiantly from a nearby flagpole. The American flag may mean some things to some people -- history, heritage, the Constitution, veterans' sacrifice -- but to many it must conjure up a series of indelible, and distasteful, images.
For three-quarters of a century, Old Glory flew over a nation that sanctioned slavery. Until 1920, it signified the democratic state that denied suffrage to women. It was the American flag that followed troops in the conquest of our Southern neighbor Mexico, an episode described by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as "one of the most unjust (wars) ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation ... following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory." The Stars and Stripes rode with Gen. Philip Sheridan, whose pacification of the American West in the 1870s was guided by the notion that "the only good Indians I ever saw were dead."
It was the Star-Spangled Banner that Earl Browder invariably waved at workers' rallies in the 1930s ("Communism is 20th Century Americanism"), a gesture mirrored by Fritz Kuhn and his German-American Bund, which flew the Stars and Stripes with the swastika. It was the American flag that rained death on the innocent women and children; the sick and dying in hospitals; the elderly and infirm by the tens of thousands in Hamburg and Hanoi, in Tokyo and Belgrade, in Berlin and Nagasaki and hundreds of smaller cities and towns. The American flag has been the banner of choice for what Dwight D. Eisenhower once called the "super-patriots," the hard hats pummeling picketers in New York, the enemies of abortion on demand, militias and survivalists alike.
I CITE these instances of history not to endorse a certain view of the Stars and Stripes (which I do not share) but to shed some light on the flying of the Stars and Bars, the Confederate battle flag, at the South Carolina capitol. I should explain, at this juncture, that I believe the flying of the flag over any state capitol of the Old Confederacy is a fine idea, if that's what the legislatures want. While people may differ about the virtues and defects of the causes for which men have fought and died in history, there is little difference between honoring the sacrifice of men who died at Gettysburg and men who died in the Battle of the Bulge -- defending a nation that practiced racial segregation, in the Army, and the North and South.
The temper of the argument against the Confederate flag -- and not just the battle flag, misused and abused by racists, but any emblem, including the Confederate national banner -- is quickly manifest: Opponents invariably draw a parallel with Nazi insignia, as if the government of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis bore any resemblance to the Hitler regime. And as for the feelings of those who gaze upon the flag in dismay, what is to be said for the residents of the Shenandoah Valley, whose landscape was flattened by arms, or the people of Georgia, whose farms and houses were burned to the ground, by American troops? The sight of the Stars and Stripes might well fill them with dread.
What is most discouraging, however, is the ignorance of history. The South did not go to war to defend slavery -- one of many issues dividing the sections -- but to execute the rights of the states when they had joined a "united states of America," including the right to dissolve the Union. The overwhelming majority of Confederate soldiers were not slaveholders, and Northern troops did not fight to abolish slavery, but to preserve the Union. It was Abraham Lincoln who decided that the Union was indissoluble; Southerners took up arms to defend their homeland against invasion. It was Lincoln, and his Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of the war, who made slavery the decisive issue.
Of course, none of this will persuade those who, in the North, still harbor bigoted views of the South, or in New England, where sanctimony has been a blemish since, say, 17th-century Salem. Reconciliation between North and South used to be a hallmark of national politics; now, depicting the Confederacy in demonic terms is the means by which conflict is healed.
I say all this, incidentally, as a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War: An ancestor died at Antietam on the Northern side. History has a way of binding, as well as dividing, Americans. My wife is descended from the first president of the first institution of higher learning in Alabama; it was burned, library and all, by Union forces under the command of Gen. Granville Dodge. My unfortunate forebear, a trooper in a Delaware regiment, was killed in the famous Bloody Lane, probably shot by a rifleman of the Sixth Alabama Infantry. Full circle, as it were.
LET BOTH SIDES honor the distinguished past, and leave the other alone.