11 May 2010
President Eisehnower Defends A "Traitor"
The discussion here in recent days over how we today view Confederates in light of charges of "treason" and of being "traitors" (and, by extension, their patriotism), has been quite interesting. See here and here. I'd like to continue that discussion with this post. The exchange below between a critic of Robert E. Lee and President Eisenhower offers perfectly contrasting views on this subject. What makes Eisenhower's response so fascinating to me is who he was at the time he wrote this letter. He was President of the United States and a war hero of the United States Military. But not just any war hero. He had served as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during WWII and was also the first Supreme Commander of NATO. No one can doubt Eisenhower's loyalty to the U.S. military, to his country, nor his concept of what defines an American patriot and, conversely, a traitor. His perspective, experience, and position adds much weight, in my view, to the argument that Lee is one of the most honorable and patriotic men to have served his Nation(s). The fact a modern sitting President, 5-Star Army General and war hero would offer such a clear, pointed, and strong defense of a man who waged war against the United States speaks volumes. Also worth noting is Eisenhower's use of the term "War Between the States" and his defense/explanation of secession. Eisenhower would, today, no doubt be labeled a "neo-Confederate" by certain historians and academics. That, too, is something worth contemplating. Most definitely a teachable moment.
Dear Mr. President [Eisenhower]:
"At the Republican Convention I heard you mention that you have the pictures of four (4) great Americans in your office, and that included in these is a picture of Robert E. Lee.
I do not understand how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, and why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.
The most outstanding thing that Robert E. Lee did was to devote his best efforts to the destruction of the United States Government, and I am sure that you do not say that a person who tries to destroy our Government is worthy of being hailed as one of our heroes.
Will you please tell me just why you hold him in such high esteem?"
Leon W. Scott, DDS
New Rochelle, NY
Below, and in response to the above letter, President Eisenhower simply explains why Lee is a worthy role model and American patriot worthy of respect and emulation. The silly notion that Lee should be viewed as a "traitor" is either extreme presentism and misunderstanding or an opinion motivated by ideology and politics.
August 9, 1960
Dear Dr. Scott:
Respecting your August 1 inquiry calling attention to my often expressed admiration for General Robert E. Lee, I would say, first, that we need to understand that at the time of the War Between the States the issue of Secession had remained unresolved for more than 70 years. Men of probity, character, public standing and unquestioned loyalty, both North and South, had disagreed over this issue as a matter of principle from the day our Constitution was adopted.
General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his belief in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.
From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.
Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Once again, presentism simply does not work for those who are honestly and seriously attempting to interpret historical facts and, hopefully, learn something from history.
(Image is taken from my personal collection and comes from a 1941 advertising calendar.)