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?"

    Sincerely yours,

    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.)


David Rhoads said...


While I don't entirely agree with them, I can appreciate the arguments you offer in defense of Lee, but I have to take issue with the notion that regarding Lee as having committed treason against the United States necessarily represents "extreme presentism and misunderstanding" in historical interpretation.

Article III, section 3, of the Constitution, the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, the several amnesty proclamations and the many individual pardons issued by Presidents Lincoln and Johnson to soldiers and officers who took part in the rebellion, not to mention the 1865 indictments of both Lee and Jefferson Davis for treason, all establish that interpreting the actions of the Confederates as treason is entirely consistent with a 19th-century interpretation of the law and the facts.

Moreover, I would submit that it is quite possible for 21st-century Americans to accept or reject this particular 19th-century interpretation without being unduly motivated by modern ideology or politics (just as it is possible, of course, to advance either position precisely because or ideology or politics).

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Not *all* David. I should have clarified. My indictment (pardon the pun) was perhaps too broad. Much of my criticism follows on the heels of the recent shrill emotional comments surrounding Confederate History Month and those who referred to Confederates as "traitors."

That being said, Lee, Davis, et al became citizens of another nation (the CSA), which is quite different than taking up arms to overthrow the government of the U.S. Their fight was a defensive one. Had they won, the U.S. would have been left alone to continue. They were not attempting to "conquer."

And, again, as Eisenhower points out in his letter, they were confident of the constitutionality of their actions. But I'm sure most were also aware that their actions carried the risk of being *called* traitors.

Victors are patriots, the vanquished are traitors. The same could be said of our War for Independence. Thanks for your perspective.

13thBama said...

If you (a general you, not intended for anyone in particular) dont like Robert E. Lee, that is fine. But I would never lump him in, nor George Washington for that matter, with Woodrow Wilson. "Progressive" Woodrow Wilson.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

13B - point well-taken and I agree. I'm no fan of Wilson. This was an advertising calendar for a Virginia business. Of course, Wilson, Washington, and Lee were all Virginians and "Southerners."

Chaps said...

Wilson had the Southerner washed out of him at princeton.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Chaps - probably so.

msimons said...

A lot of CW Bloggers need to read what Ike said about Lee and drop all of this foolishness about Treason.

Mark Snell said...

13B and Chaps,

. . . except when, as President of the US, Wilson successfully segregated US Government offices in Washington, DC. That certainly doesn't sound "progressive" to me.

13thBama said...

Southerners are attacked because, for the most part, we are a group that believes in God. Progressives want us to believe in the government in place of God. They will not be happy until we do.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mark - I believe Wilson also fired all the black staff who worked in the White House at the time. That admitted, I don't think there is any question that he is the father of the modern progressive movement in American politics.

msimons said...

Gen Mac agreed with Ike on this.
From his famous speech at Westpoint.

"The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Mike.

Mark Snell said...


Actually, Teddy Roosevelt is considered to be the first "Progressive" president. He even ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912.


If you are insinuating that I was attacking Southerners, you are mistaken; I merely was setting the record straight.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mark - I understand that, but I think Wilson was more successful in implementation of that political philosophy. Not an expert by any means, but from what I do know, that is what I gather. I think he is, at least in the minds of many, *disliked* and remembered more for his progressive policies than is Roosevelt. Popular perception:

TR: Rough Rider & War hero.
WW: Geeky, elitist, Princeton academic, master planner.

I do appreciate your input.

13thBama said...


I had not read your comment when I wrote mine. It was just bad timing. Sorry that you mistook my aim.