The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump won’t remove Confederate names from military bases. So Congress and the Pentagon should.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper at the White House on May 19. (Evan Vucci/AP)

WAS THERE ever really any doubt what position President Trump would take in the debate about changing the names of Army bases honoring Confederate officers who fought against their country during the Civil War? Sadly, the answer is no. Mr. Trump long ago — with his compliments about the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville and his demonizing of football players who took a knee to protest police violence against black people — demonstrated his brazen willingness to use the volatile issue of race as a way to divide the country.

No surprise, then, that Mr. Trump saw political advantage in extolling the legacy of the Confederacy even as much of the country — still reeling from the killing of George Floyd — looked for ways to heal wounds caused by slavery and centuries of racism.

Nationwide protests sparked by the death of Mr. Floyd, a black man killed under the knee of a white police officer, prompted Virginia and Florida to announce plans to remove Confederate statues. NASCAR said it would ban Confederate battle flags from its races. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention called for the retirement of a gavel that carries the name of a 19th-century Southern Baptist leader who was a slaveholder and led the convention in support of the Confederacy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sought the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers and officials from the U.S. Capitol. Top Pentagon officials — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy — signaled that they were open to renaming Army installations bearing the names of Confederate commanders, and the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed the idea, passing an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act giving officials three years to remove the names.

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It took just two days for Mr. Trump to slap down the idea. “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory and Freedom,” Mr. Trump wrote in a Twitter message, adding his administration “will not even consider” renaming them. The bases in the South were established either during World War I, when the slavery-defending Confederacy was being romanticized into the Lost Cause, or during the hectic mobilization for World War II. The names, suggested by local officials, were seen as a way for the military to get local buy-in. It was not, to say the least, a well-thought-out process.

It is nonsensical that federal facilities in which young men and women are trained to serve their country bear the names of individuals who committed treason against the United States. Adding to that absurdity is that this lot of Confederate commanders were, as retired U.S. Army General and former CIA director David Petraeus wrote in the Atlantic, “undistinguished, if not incompetent, battlefield commanders.” Ambrose Powell Hill Jr., for whom Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia is named, seems best known for a case of gonorrhea he contracted during a furlough at the U.S. Military Academy. George Pickett, for whom Fort Pickett in Virginia is named, was accused of cowardice at a pivotal battle at Gettysburg and fled to Canada to avoid a war crimes prosecution for summarily executing 22 Union soldiers at the end of the war.

Renaming these military installations won’t eliminate racism or fix the injustices experienced by black Americans, but symbols matter. It is wrong — indeed downright insulting — to force black soldiers to serve on bases that bear the names of people who fought to keep them in slavery. Mr. Trump can never be expected to do the right thing, so Congress and the Pentagon must bring about the needed changes.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Trump might go down in history as the last president of the Confederacy

Paul Waldman: Why Donald Trump is standing up for the Confederacy

Robert W. Lee IV: Robert E. Lee is my ancestor. Take down his statue, and let his cause be lost.

Norman Leahy: Virginia’s Confederate statues betray the commonwealth’s claimed gentility

Jennifer Rubin: Do not underestimate the power of this moment