A strong bipartisan coalition in Congress proposes to rename military bases named for people who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. But President Trump has threatened to veto the whole military budget, including pay increases for our armed forces, if Congress includes provisions for renaming the bases.
"We won two world wars, beautiful world wars, that were vicious and horrible, and we won them out of Fort Bragg," said Trump. "We won them out of all of these forts, and now they want to throw those names away." Earlier, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany had claimed that renaming the bases would dishonor troops who trained there.
Fort Bragg was named for Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, who previously had served in the United States Army. It is one of 10 military bases named for Confederate military leaders.
One can reasonably speculate that Mr. Trump's stout defense of keeping the names of traitors to the U.S. on military bases is a "dog whistle" to some people in his political base. A few of these folks seem to have a soft spot in their hearts for the values inspiring the Southern states to secede. But Trump is not completely wrong when he suggests that there is something to be said for avoiding wholesale name-changing.
On the other hand, the press secretary's claim that changing the names would "dishonor" troops who had trained at these bases is ridiculous. Her claim is disproven by an historical example.
During World War II, many American soldiers trained at Camp Cooke in California. The base was named for Maj. Gen. Phillip St. George Cooke, a loyal soldier who served on the Union side in the Civil War. In 1958 the main part of Camp Cooke was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base in honor of a former Air Force chief of staff. The other part was turned over to the Navy and was named the Naval Missile Facility at Point Arguello.
Camp Cooke was thus totally renamed. But there was no way that this name change could have dishonored World War II troops trained there. Their honor stemmed from their patriotic deeds, not from the name of the base where they trained.
Of course, renaming could easily get out of hand. Wholesale renaming is one of the many unattractive characteristics of revolutions, hasty efforts to improve things by violent means, which generally take bad situations and make them worse.
During the French Revolution, for example, they tried to rename the months of the year, but these changes didn't take.
The Russian communists were also great renamers. Petrograd became Leningrad, Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad, and a mountain was renamed Mount Stalin. These excesses were later repudiated, though I got nervous responses in Leningrad in 1989 when I asked when it was going to be restored to the original St. Petersburg.
Many other American places and buildings have been criticized recently because their names honor earlier leaders who owned slaves. A good place to start might be to change names honoring people who were traitors to the country, like the Confederate generals for whom bases are now named.
But I'm not so sure that we should go further than this. Leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were, like all people at all times and in all countries, imperfect even by the standards of their own days. They come off even less well by today's standards. But they also made great contributions, and if we are going to start a wholesale renaming of places and institutions, where do we stop?
We should not underestimate the importance of symbols, especially those connected with America's "original sin." But beyond some point we will be better off concentrating on changing bad things about today's world rather than on changing names.
Paul F. deLespinasse of Corvallis is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. His most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. This column originally appeared in NewsMax.
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