Brooke Gladstone: On this week's On the Media, the roiling tug of war over historical narratives.
Ty Seidule: At West Point, every year they're going to study the Battle of Chancellorsville during the Civil War, and every year Lee is going to beat Hooker. That's not going to change. We're not changing history, we're changing commemoration.
Akexis Akwagyiram: History is central to the dynamics of what we're seeing play out across the Sahel. You look at slavery, you look at colonialism, the history is so ugly and so hideous. You don't have to go back very far. This is all within living memory as well.
Male Speaker: President Putin, laying out his case that Ukraine is always part of Russia historically.
Mikhail Zygar: My mission was to start writing completely different version of Russian history because unfortunately it has always been written by historians who were serving the state.
Ty Seidule: The facts changed me, the archives changed me and my culture lied.
Brooke Gladstone: It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Once there was a time when all the tumult was about Donald J. Trump, the man.
Donald J. Trump: The people, my people, are so smart. You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters? It's incredible.
Brooke Gladstone: Then the fracas, abetted by the media, spread to his party and widened an already national fissure so that a nation that once shared a few fundamental values would come to battle over the most basic, the principle at least, that every citizen has a vote and is equal under the law. That is what this latest indictment, courtesy of US Special Counsel Jack Smith is about.
Jack Smith: The state went up considerably with this indictment because what's really on trial in this case is democracy.
Brooke Gladstone: Former Nixon White House counsel, John Dean, pleaded guilty to helping cover up the Watergate scandal and became a key witness in that prosecution.
Jack Smith: If Trump can get away with what he has done, what's spelled out in this indictment, our system of law no longer works and our election system is in jeopardy.
Brooke Gladstone: Smith lays out the case that Trump knew full well that he'd lost the presidency and still conspired to keep it by any means necessary. His document shows how. It also shows by being so very persuasive, how loyal are Trump's people?
Matt Gates: House Republicans should immediately demand that Jack Smith present himself for a transcribed interview before the Judiciary Committee in the next 15 days.
Brooke Gladstone: Florida Congressman Matt Gates.
Matt Gates: If he does not do that, we should send a subpoena. If he ignores the subpoena, we should hold him in criminal contempt of the Congress, and if Merrick Garland doesn't enforce that criminal contempt, then we ought to impeach Merrick Garland. By the way, while we're doing all of that to showcase how political and indeed dirty this has all become, we can utilize congressional immunities to immunize President Trump. This is all an effort to try to distract us from the very real crimes committed by Hunter and Joe Biden.
Brooke Gladstone: The point is, the United States of America has become a blur. Its institutions under attack, its culture wars increasingly ugly and cruel. What defines us? If it's worth the effort to fix and progress to what we could be, we first have to reckon with what we were. We need a true and honest historical narrative. Teach it, see it reflected in what we choose to honor. Ty Seidule is a former Brigadier General and vice chair of the National Commission on base renaming. Ty, welcome to the show.
Ty Seidule: Thank you, Brooke. What an honor to be here.
Brooke Gladstone: Many army posts have had these titles since World War I. What spurred the creation of this commission now?
Ty Seidule: Well, I think there are three things. The slaughter of Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015, I think it was the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville 2017, and finally the murder of George Floyd in 2020. The National Reckoning that came with that, and Congress then passed a law that said to change, rename, or modify everything in the Department of Defense including base names, but down to paraphernalia, Trump vetoed that bill and Congress passed it with a super majority to create that commission.
Brooke Gladstone: There was strong bipartisan support.
Ty Seidule: I think that's important to remember that the military only makes significant social change when its political bosses tell it to. This is one of those times.
Brooke Gladstone: Can you tell me about the original namesakes? You've argued that they were all kinds of bad and some weren't even good at their jobs.
Ty Seidule: No. They're bad, and there's awful, and there's evil in a way. John Brown Gordon, who actually was a great fighter, wounded five times at the Battle of Antietam, but after the war, he gave a speech to Black Charlestonians, where he said, "If you African Americans are to demand equality, the 40 million of us white people will exterminate the 4 million of you in a race war." Then he later founded the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia and fought for segregation then and forever, and never served a day in the US Army. That's something to remember. These are named after the enemy.
Henry Benning, famous post in Georgia was someone who never served in the US Army, but who gave speeches trying to break apart the United States of America starting in 1849. He was a fire-eater, and later said that he would rather have pestilence and famine than Black equality. Then they're terrible generals, Leonidas Polk. Among historians we often say that the worst shot the US Army fired, canon shot they fired during the Civil War, was the one that killed Leonidas Polk. If he had lived longer, the Confederacy would've lost earlier.
Brooke Gladstone: How about Bragg?
Ty Seidule: Braxton Bragg was a terrible commander, his men hated him, during the Mexican war he was fragged, in other words, his own troops tried to kill him, and in the 1850s he got out of the army and bought an enslaved plantation where he sent the workers out as young as six years of age and said they were at a very good age to send out to the fields.
Brooke Gladstone: You've said that the first thing to know is that in the 19th century most army officers saw the Confederates as traitors. Probably the most egregious one being General Robert E. Lee, who is the most memorialized Confederate.
Ty Seidule: The thing about it is there's only one crime in the US Constitution, that's Article 3, Section 3, which says that treason is levying war against the United States. If anybody did that, it was Lee. Remember, Lee killed more US Army soldiers than any other enemy general in our history.
Brooke Gladstone: It was about a quarter million of his own and a quarter million of the Union Army.
Ty Seidule: Brooke, I don't like to say Union Army. Remember, it's the United States Army. Grant wore the same blue uniform that I wore for my career, so these Confederates refused to accept the results of a democratic election and choose armed rebellion insurrection rather than accept the results of an election.
Brooke Gladstone: I stand corrected.
Ty Seidule: When you use the language differently, you look at them differently. In fact, in 1868, all of the Confederates were granted amnesty for the crime of treason, to bring them back in.
Brooke Gladstone: If in the 19th century they never would've named bases, and posts, and streets, and squares, and schools after Confederate figures, when did it start to happen?
Ty Seidule: In World War I, by that time most of the Civil War generation have died out, and the idea that this was the War of the Rebellion, which is the official name, changes, and the Confederates and their children have the most successful propaganda campaign in history, led by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to change the meaning of the war. The war was no longer about slavery, it was about state rights.
That also coincides with, they redo all the constitutions, and so it excludes Black people. They exclude them from the vote. No Black person can go in the courthouse. Lynching reaches its height at this period. All of these create lost cause of the Confederacy myth, and when that occurs, now the South as a one-party state, Democrats, allows these posts to be named after Confederates in World War I. Half in World War I, half in World War II.
Brooke Gladstone: Then we have a bunch of monuments, so many of them.
Ty Seidule: There are two parts where Confederate monuments come in. One is 1890 to 1920, when, as they would say back then, the whites are back in the saddle. Now there is a white supremacist government in the South that they put these monuments up in front of courthouses to show, "We are the ones in charge." It's a symbol of white supremacy. That's what they say when they dedicate them. There is that period, then there's a period after World War II, and those are a reaction to integration. In fact, I went to a school in Alexandria, Virginia, I was bused from the white elementary school, Douglas MacArthur, to the segregated all Black School. What was the name of that segregated African American school? Robert E. Lee Elementary, named in 1961.
Brooke Gladstone: How did you find your way to this commission and how were the people picked?
Ty Seidule: There were four people picked by the Secretary of Defense and four people picked by the House and Senate Armed Services Committee, the chair and ranking. I was picked by Secretary of Defense, Austin. I had written about why the bases were named as they were, published a book about this. I had written op-eds about what we could change them to. When I retired from the military in 2020, I did it in part so that I would have the academic freedom to be able to say these things out loud. Once I had that freedom, you couldn't shut me up. The fact that we're changing these base names isn't going to end racism, but it's not a bad place to start. We want to make sure that who we commemorate represents our values.
Brooke Gladstone: What was the process, whereby these posts got new names?
Ty Seidule: Well, we first listened to the law, and the law had very clear things that one is that we had to listen to local sensitivities. We started meeting in March of 2021, and in the summer of 2021, we went to each one of these posts in person during the COVID time to ask the local communities both on post and off post what they thought. Then, we did a website where we got 34,000 names of people open to the public.
Now, some of them were saying that we should name it after Britney Spears. Then we took that of those, some 3000 were unique names, and then we necked it down to about 87 names. Then went back to the communities again, telling them that these are 10 names a piece that we think you should think about. We did another session with them, and then we met among the eight of us, decided those names, and announced them in May of 2022.
Brooke Gladstone: Did you see a lot of pushback?
Ty Seidule: Remarkably not
Brooke Gladstone: From the communities?
Ty Seidule: By the time we named them, they knew what was coming because we had engaged them so much.
Brooke Gladstone: Not much pushback at all you say until couple months ago. What happened?
Ty Seidule: Well, there are several candidates for the Republican nomination that think that this would get them traction, so both Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis went to North Carolina and said if it was up to them, they would change the name back to Bragg.
Mike Pence: I also look forward to as president restoring the name of Fort Bragg to our great military base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and thank the people that have served there and they're proud of their service there. It's an iconic name and an iconic base and we're not going to let political correctness run amuck in North Carolina.
Ty Seidule: Even though the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, that's the year before the commission was created, says nothing can be named after a Confederate.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you say to the people who charge that you're changing history?
Ty Seidule: We're not changing history, we're changing commemoration. At West Point, every year they're going to study the Battle of Chancellorsville during the Civil War and every year Lee is going to beat Hooker. That's not going to change, but commemoration is going to change because that tells us not about the figure memorialized as much as it does who put it up and why they put it up.
Brooke Gladstone: What is Fort Bragg named for?
Ty Seidule: It's named after Liberty. The community was really rallied behind this idea. The 82nd Airborne, one of our storied units, one of the lines of their songs is "We are the Soldiers of Liberty." The other part is Army Special Forces is on Fort Liberty, and Libertas is in their unit crest. They felt like their communities could rally around that phrase. African Americans could not vote. They were being lynched to enforce that, but now these names represent all of America and they represent who the army is in 2023.
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me about Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams, on what former Army Post is her name now?
Ty Seidule: I love this one, Brooke. She's at the former Fort Lee. Charity Adams was the highest-ranking African-American woman in Europe during World War II. She commanded the 6888th Postal Battalion. They were the ones to ensure that [unintelligible 00:13:19] got to all the soldiers and before her unit arrived, they were failing in that mission. When she got there she turned it around immediately. There's a great story where somebody found out that under her command were only black women and they sent some white lieutenant young officer to take control. As soon as she saw this young man come over, she said, you will take command of this over my dead body.
She was absolutely a hero. I think one of the things that the commission has done is to say, the idea of who we think of American heroes, it is wide and it is broad and it is deep and it represents the diversity of the American experience and Charity Adams is certainly one of those heroes, one of my heroes.
Brooke Gladstone: What about Lieutenant General Arthur Gregg, where's his name these days?
Ty Seidule: Also, there at Fort Lee. It is now Fort Gregg-Adams and Arthur Gregg joined the Army when he was about 20. Joined the logistics branch, like transportation, ordinance, quartermaster, eventually desegregated that officer's club at Fort Lee and then became the highest-ranking African-American general when he retired. He is still alive. He's the only person that I know of that's ever had a post named after him while he was still alive. I just was on a panel with him at Howard University celebrating the integration of the military. He is absolutely a superb representation and mentored officers at what is now Fort Gregg-Adams for years after his retirement.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, Fort Lee is smack dab in the middle of Virginia. You go about an hour and a half or so out of Washington and you are in the middle of the land of the lost cause. Everything is named for Lee Confederate flags. It does seem to be an outpost. People there are okay with this?
Ty Seidule: Well, one thing we should remember is that Petersburg, Virginia and Hopewell, Virginia there are a majority African American cities. There are more African Americans in the South than there are at any other place in the country. This is showing the diversity of the American experience and our logistics and sustainment branches are the most diverse of, I think, any workplace in the country with nearly 50% Black soldiers.
Brooke Gladstone: What's next for the commission are all the army posts named now?
Ty Seidule: We're done. We folded our tent on the 1st of October of 2022 and gave our recommendations to the Secretary of Defense who accepted all of them. The army doing what the Army does well is implementing every one of them right now.
Brooke Gladstone: Ty, tell me about the many dogs you have in this fight. Mississippi, you've written a number of books on this topic, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause, is one of them. Did you run up against your own community, your family? How did you get from there to here?
Ty Seidule: I grew up in Northern Virginia first and Alexandria has more streets named after Confederates than any other city in the country. I grew up believing that on a scale of 1 to 10, Lee was an 11.
Brooke Gladstone: That he was a God among men,?
Ty Seidule: God among men, what you should emulate. I later went to college to try to be a Virginia gentleman because that was the highest status in my community. I went to Washington and Lee University, named after Robert Lee. I became an army officer. My dad was from Mississippi, grew up with these same myths that I did, believing in this lost cause myth, believing in Lee the greatest human that ever lived. When I turned away from that and I turned away hard, there were lots of people, there remain lots of people who see me as either a traitor or someone who went against their own code.
Brooke Gladstone: It sounds like you changed your mind in college.
Ty Seidule: I wish I could say I changed my mind in college, but I went where Lee was buried. I went to school where Traveler is buried, Traveler is Lee's horse. They leave pennies and apples on Traveler's grave face down so that the hated Lincoln cannot see Lee's grave. No, I did not get it until I had a PhD in History, and I was living on Lee Road by Lee Gate in Lee housing area at West Point.
I wondered why are there so many things at West Point named after Lee. I went into the archives and realized that in the 19th century they saw Lee as a traitor. They said I will never forgive those who forgot the flag to follow false gods. I realized that the oath that I took that everyone in the federal government takes is an anti-Confederate oath written in 1862. The facts changed me, the archives changed me and marrying a woman who's incapable of lying, that changed me too. My culture lied. Then once I figured that out, I realized that I could not change people's minds with facts. I had to tell my own story.
Brooke Gladstone: Ty, thank you so much.
Ty Seidule: Thank you so much for having me on.
Brooke Gladstone: Ty Seidule, Vice Chair of the National Commission on Base Renaming. Is a professor at Hamilton College and author of the book Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner's Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause. Coming up, more teetering democracies and historical reckonings. This is On The Media.