Web Only / Features » July 7, 2015
Before It Was a Symbol of Racist Backlash, the Confederate Flag Was a Symbol of Endless War
Despite the fact that retailers and political figures are calling for its removal, history might be too prominent for the extinction of the Confederate flag.
Starting around 1898, well before it became an icon of redneck backlash, the Confederate Battle Flag served for half a century as an important pennant in the expanding American empire and a symbol of national unification, not polarization.
This post first appeared at TomDispatch.
The Pentagon just can’t let go. In the wake of the Charleston Massacre, Amazon and Walmart have announced that they will no longer sell Confederate flag merchandise. Ebay says it will stop offering Confederate items for electronic auction. The Republican governor of Mississippi calls his state flag, which includes the Stars and Bars in the top left corner, “a point of offense that needs to be removed.” Even Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, agrees that a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in his state's capitol building belongs in a museum.
Yet the Department of Defense says it isn’t even “reviewing” the possibility of a ban on the flag, deciding instead to leave any such move to the various service branches, while military bases named after Confederate officers will remain so. One factor in this decision: the South provides more than 40% of all military recruits, many of them white; only 15% are from the Northeast.
Filling the ranks isn't, however, the only reason for the military’s refusal to act.
Over the last few weeks, there has been near unanimous agreement among liberal and mainstream commentators that the Confederate flag represents “hate, not heritage.” The flag’s current presence in American culture is ubiquitous. It adorns license plates, bumper stickers, mugs, bodies (via tattoos) and even baby diapers. The flag’s popularity is normally traced back to the post-World War II reaction of the Dixiecrat South to the Civil Rights Movement. South Carolina, for instance, raised the Stars and Bars over its state house in 1961 as part, columnist Eugene Robinson said on ”Meet the Press,” of its “massive resistance to racial desegregation.”
All true. But like many discussions of American conservativism, this account misses the role endless war played in sustaining domestic racism. Starting around 1898, well before it became an icon of redneck backlash, the Confederate Battle Flag served for half a century as an important pennant in the expanding American empire and a symbol of national unification, not polarization.
It was a reconciled Army that moved out into the world after the Civil War, an unstoppable combination of Northern law (bureaucratic command and control, industrial might, and technology) and Southern spirit (an “exaltation of military ideals and virtues,” including valor, duty, and honor). Both law and spirit had their dark sides leading to horrors committed due either to the very nature of the American empire—the genocide of Native Americans, for example, or the war in Southeast Asia—or to the particular passions of some of its soldiers. And both law and spirit had their own flags.
Lost Cause Found
“Northerners and Southerners agreed on little” in the years after the Civil War, historians Boyd Cothran and Ari Kelman write, “except that the Army should pacify Western tribes.” Reconstruction—Washington’s effort to set the terms for the South’s readmission to the Union and establish postwar political equality—was being bitterly opposed by defeated white separatists. According to Cothran and Kelman, however, “Many Americans found rare common ground on the subject of Manifest Destiny.”
After the surrender at Appomattox, it was too soon to fly the Stars and Bars against Native Americans. And it was Union officers—men like generals George Armstrong Custer and Philip Sheridan—who committed most of the atrocities against indigenous peoples. But Confederate veterans and their sons used the pacification of the West as a readmission program into the U.S. Army. The career of Luther Hare, a Texas son of a Confederate captain, is illustrative. He barely survived Custer’s campaign against the Sioux. Cornered in a skirmish that preceded Little Big Horn, Hare “opened fire and let out a rebel yell” before escaping. He then went on to fight Native Americans in Montana, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and Arizona, where he put down the “last of the renegade Apaches,” before being sent to the Philippines as a colonel. There, he led a detachment of Texans against the Spanish.
With Reconstruction over and Jim Crow segregation installed in every southern State, the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the U.S. took Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, was a key moment in the rehabilitation of the Confederacy. Earlier, when slavery was still a going concern, southerners had yearned to separate Cuba from Spain and turn it into a slave state. Now, conquering the island served a different purpose: a chance to prove their patriotism and reconcile with the North.
Southern ports like New Orleans, Charleston, and Tampa were used as staging areas for the invasions of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Northern soldiers passing through New Orleans were glad to see that “grizzled old Confederates” were cheering them on, saluting the Union flag, and happy to send their sons “to fight and die under it.” Newspapers throughout the South, along with Dixie's largest veterans association, the United Confederate Veterans, saw war with Spain as a vindication of the “Old Cause” and reveled in the exploits of former Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee.
In June 1898, just weeks after U.S. troops landed in Cuba, two train-car loads of Confederate flags arrived in Atlanta for a coming reunion of southern veterans of the war. The Stars and Bars would soon festoon the city Union General William T. Sherman had burned to the ground. At the very center of the celebration’s main venue stood a 30-foot Confederate flag, flanked by a Cuban and a U.S. flag. Speech after speech extolled “sublime” war—not just the Civil War but all the wars that made up the nineteenth century—with Mexico, against Native Americans, and now versus Spain. “The gallantry and heroism of your sons as they teach the haughty Spaniard amid the carnage of Santiago to honor and respect the flag of our country, which shall float forever over an ‘indissoluble union of indestructible states,’” was how one southern veteran put it.
War with Spain allowed “our boys” to once more be “wrapped in the folds of the American flag,” said General John Gordon, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, in remarks opening the proceedings. Their heroism, he added, has led “to the complete and permanent obliteration of all sectional distrusts and to the establishment of the too long delayed brotherhood and unity of the American people.” In this sense, the War of 1898 was alchemic, transforming the “lost cause” of the Confederacy (that is, the preservation of slavery) into a crusade for world freedom. The South, Gordon said, was helping to bring “the light of American civilization and the boon of Republican liberty to the oppressed islands of both oceans.”
With Spain defeated, President William McKinley took a victory tour of the South, hailing the “the valor and the heroism [that] the men from the south and the men of the north have within the past three years … shown in Cuba, in Puerto Rico, in the Philippines, and in China.”
“When we are all on one side,” the president said, “we are unconquerable.” It was around this time that, after much delay, Congress finally authorized the return of Confederate flags captured by Union forces during the Civil War to the United Confederate Veterans.
To Serve Mankind
World War I brought more goodwill. In June 1916, as Woodrow Wilson began to push through Congress a remarkable set of laws militarizing the country, including the expansion of the Army and National Guard (and an authorization to place the former under federal authority), the construction of nitrate plants for munitions production, and the funding of military research and development, Confederate veterans descended on Washington, D.C., to show their support for the coming war in Europe.
“About 10,000 men wearing the gray, escorted by several thousand who wore the blue, marched along Pennsylvania Avenue and were reviewed by the President,” one observer reported. “In the line were many young soldiers now serving in the regular army, grandsons of those who fought for the Confederacy and of those who fought for the Union. The Stars and Bars of the Confederacy were proudly borne at the head of the procession … As the long line passed the reviewing stand the old men in gray offered their services in the present war. ‘We will go to France or anywhere you want to send us!’ they shouted to the president.”
Wilson won reelection in 1916, his campaign running on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But he could then betray his anti-war supporters knowing that a rising political coalition—made up, in part, of men looking to redeem a lost war by finding new wars to fight—had his back.
Decades before President Richard Nixon bet his reelection on winning the Dixiecrat vote, Wilson worked out his own Southern Strategy. Even as he was moving the nation to war, Wilson re-segregated Washington and purged African Americans from federal jobs. And it was Wilson who started the presidential tradition of laying a Memorial Day wreath at Arlington Cemetery’s Confederate War Memorial.
In 1916, he turned that event into a war rally. “America is roused,” Wilson said to a large gathering of Confederate veterans, “roused to a self-consciousness she has not had in a generation. And this spirit is going out conquering and to conquer until, it may be, in the Providence of God, a new light is lifted up in America which shall throw the rays of liberty and justice far abroad upon every sea, and even upon the lands which now wallow in darkness and refuse to see the light.”
What alchemy it was—with Wilson conscripting the Confederate cause into his brand of arrogant, martial universalism. The conflict in Europe, Wilson said at the same wreath-laying event a year later (less then two months after the U.S. had declared war on Germany), offered a chance “to vindicate the things which we have professed” and to “show the world” that America “was born to serve mankind.”
American history was fast turning into an endless parade of war, and the sectional reconciliation that went with it meant that throughout the first half of the twentieth century the “conquered banner” could fly pretty much anywhere with little other than positive comment. In World War II, for instance, after a two-month battle for the island of Okinawa, the first flag Marines raised upon taking the headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Army was the Confederate one. It had been carried into battle in the helmet of a captain from South Carolina.
With the Korean War, the NAACP’s journal,The Crisis, reported a staggering jump in sales of Confederate flags from 40,000 in 1949 to 1,600,000 in 1950. Much of the demand, it reported, was coming from soldiers overseas in Germany and Korea. The Crisis hoped for the best, writing that the banner’s growing popularity had nothing to do with rising “reactionary Dixiecratism.” It was a “fad,” the magazine claimed, “like carrying foxtails on cars.”
As it happened, it wasn’t. As the Civil Rights Movement evolved and the Black Power movement emerged, as Korea gave way to Vietnam, the Confederate flag returned to its original meaning: the bunting of resentful white supremacy. Dixie found itself in Danang.
Dixie in Danang
“We are fighting and dying in a war that is not very popular in the first place,” Lieutenant Eddie Kitchen, a 33-year-old African-American stationed in Vietnam, wrote his mother in Chicago in late February 1968, “and we still have some people who are still fighting the Civil War.” Kitchen, who had been in the military since 1955, reported a rapid proliferation of Confederate flags, mounted on jeeps and flying over some bases. “The Negroes here are afraid and cannot do anything,” Kitchen added. Two weeks later he was dead, officially listed as “killed in action.” His mother believed that he had been murdered by white soldiers in retaliation for objecting to the flag.
Kitchen’s was one of many such complaints, as the polarization tearing through domestic politics in the United States, along with the symbols of White Supremacy—not just the Confederate flag but the burning cross, the Klan robe and hood, and racist slurs—spilled into Vietnam. As early as Christmas Day 1965, a number of white soldiers paraded in front of the audience of conservative comedian Bob Hope’s USO show at Bien Hoa Air Base. “After they were seated,” wrote an African-American soldier protesting the display, “several officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] were seen posing and taking pictures under the flag. I felt like an outsider.” An African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, reported that southern Whites were “infecting” Vietnamese with their racism. “The Confederate flags seem more popular in Vietnam than the flags of several countries,” the paper wrote, judging by the “display of flags for sale on a Saigon street corner.”
Black soldiers who pushed back against such Dixie-ism were subject to insult and abuse. Some were thrown in the stockade. When Private First Class Danny Frazier complained of the “damn flag” flown by Alabama soldiers in his barracks to his superior officers, he was ordered to do demeaning work and then demoted.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in early April 1968 and American military bases throughout South Vietnam lowered their flags to half-mast. In some places, such as the Cam Ranh Naval Base, however, white soldiers celebrated by raising the Confederate flag and burning crosses. Following King’s murder, the Department of Defense tried to ban the Confederate flag. “Race is our most serious international problem,” a Pentagon representative said. But Dixiecrat politicians, who controlled the votes President Lyndon Johnson needed to fund the war, objected and the Pentagon backpedaled. Instead of enforcing the ban, it turned to sensitivity training. The Confederate flag, a black military instructor told a class of black and white soldiers at Fort Dix, does not necessarily “mean a man belongs to the Ku Klux Klan.”
The Sum of All Lost Causes
Back home, a backlash against the antiwar movement helped nationalize the Confederate flag. The banner was increasingly seen not just at gatherings of the fringe KKK and the John Birch Society, but at “patriotic” rallies in areas of the country outside the old South: in Detroit, Chicago, California, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. For instance, on June 14, 1970—Flag Day—pro-war demonstrators marched up Pittsburg’s Liberty Avenue with a large Confederate flag demanding that “Washington … get in there and win.”
For many, the Confederate flag remained an emblem of racist reaction to federal efforts to advance equal rights and integration. Yet as issues of race, militarism, and class resentment merged into a broader “cultural war,” some in the rising New Right rallied around the Stars and Bars to avenge not the South, but South Vietnam.
In 1973, shortly after the U.S. officially ended combat operations in South Vietnam, for instance, Bart Bonner, a conservative activist and Vietnam veteran from Waterbury, New York, met with South Vietnam’s military attaché in Washington and offered to raise “a private, volunteer force of 75,000 American veterans to fight in South Vietnam under the Confederate flag.” For Bonner, and many like him, that flag now stood not for the “lost cause” but all lost causes conservatives cared about, an icon of resistance to the liberal Establishment.
Bonner told Soldier of Fortune magazine that he had the financial support of Texas millionaire Ross Perot and 100 men, including former Green Berets, Air Force commandos, and Navy Seals, ready to “show the people of South Vietnam … that not all Americans are cowards.” He added: “The Stars and Bars—the Confederate flag—is a beautiful flag.”
Nothing came of Bonner’s plan. But the scheme did anticipate many of the strategies the New Right would use to circumvent all those cumbersome restrictions the post-Vietnam Congress placed on the ability of the executive branch to wage war and conduct covert operations, including the rise of mercenary groups that continue to play a significant role in fighting America’s wars and attempts to raise money from private, often southern rightwing sources. Ross Perot, for instance, would fund some of Oliver North’s effort to run a foreign policy independent of congressional oversight, a scandal that would become known as Iran-Contra.
Moonlight, Magnolia, and My Lai
Before Watergate brought him down, President Richard Nixon fused overseas militarism and domestic racism into one noxious whole as part of his strategy to win the South in 1972 and secure his reelection. In southern Africa, where Black-led national liberation movements were contesting white rule, this meant putting in place National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s “Tar-Baby Tilt,” strengthening ties with the white supremacist nations of South Africa and Rhodesia. Support for Pretoria and Salisbury was popular in Biloxi.
But the foreign-policy centerpiece of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was Vietnam. Senator George McGovern summed the situation up this way after being told by Kissinger that the U.S. couldn’t exit Vietnam because “the boss’s whole constituency would just fall apart”: “They were willing to continue killing Asians and sacrificing the lives of young Americans because of their interpretation of what would play in the United States.”
The infamous March 1968 massacre at My Lai would prove especially useful in helping Nixon win the Moonlight and Magnolia set. After it came to light that members of the 23rd Infantry Division, also known as the Americal, had slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians, including women, children, and infants, Nixon made his support for Lieutenant William Calley, the only soldier convicted for taking part in the massacre, a key element in his reelection campaign. As historian Joseph Fry points out in his new book, The American South and the Vietnam War, Calley, who was from Florida, was extremely popular in the South. George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, flew to Fort Benning, where Calley was being held under house arrest, to speak at a rally, replete with Confederate flags. Mississippi Governor John Bell Williams told Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, that his state was “about ready to secede from the union” over Calley.
The campaign to depict Calley as an honorable warrior scapegoated by elites was but one more opportunity to generalize the historical experience of southern humiliation into an ongoing national sentiment. As after 1865, the solution to such humiliation has been more war, forever war. And with endless war comes an endless tolerance for atrocities. “Most people don’t give a shit whether he killed them or not,” Nixon said of Calley’s actions at My Lai. “The villagers got what they deserved,” commented Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender. You can draw a straight line from such hard-heartedness to today’s torture coalition, to men like Dick Cheney, who defend inflicting pain on innocent people “as long as we achieve our objective.”
The Confederate flag still flies overseas. It was carried into Iraq in 2003. In Afghanistan, at the infamous Bagram Theater Internment Facility, a platoon implicated in the torture of detainees, known as the “the Testosterone Gang,” hung a Confederate flag in their tent.
It is good to see the Confederate flag coming down in some places, but I suspect that reports of its final furling are premature. Endless wars will always have their atrocities. And atrocities will always find a flag.
Greg Grandin, a TomDispatch regular, teaches history at New York University and is the author of a number of books, including Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and The Empire of Necessity, which won the Bancroft Prize in American History. His new book, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, will be published in August.