9-11, Reconstruction and American Resolve

When America is attacked, it has responded most forcefully. No mastermind assailants have lived into old age. No belligerent regimes have survived. No aggressive groups have failed to suffer the crippling blows of a determined nation.

We honor the dead, the injured, and the families of these on this sacred day.

What have we learned? That depends upon our appreciation of history.

Was the Afghanistan war an appropriate response to the terrorist horror in New York City and Washington D.C. a decade ago? The Iraq war? Two very different questions, but both with instructive antecedents in American history.

After the bloodiest conflict in American history, the Civil War, a dozen-year program called “Reconstruction” happened in the battered South.  “Battered” because General Sherman, in his infamous march, did what was necessary to devastate the enemy. The Confederacy had no hope of living on, and that, much like the insistence on unconditional surrender from imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II, was a critical war goal.

Reconstruction was regime change — indeed, the most radical regime change ever undertaken by America. Federal troops occupied the South. President Andrew Johnson considered Reconstruction a modest, short-term project, but Republicans in Congress had a much more aggressive agenda. With passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, which granted citizenship and voting rights to former slaves, and aggressive expansion of the Freedman’s Bureau, which established schools and hospitals and registered former slaves to vote, a sea change occurred in the South. Indeed, many African-Americans were elected to the House and Senate.

Not surprisingly, there was a backlash from the battered South — a resurgency, you could call it. The Ku Klux Klan, founded by ex-Confederate soldiers opposed to Reconstruction, was one result. But federal troops checked the power of the backlash.

And then politics. Compromise. The contested 1876 election (Rutherford B. Hayes vs. Samuel Jay Tilden), with wild controversy over the winner of the electoral and popular vote. As part of the compromise, Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction.

When federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877 — when the mission of Reconstruction was abandoned — an era of Jim Crow laws and barriers to African-American civil rights surged.

The mission of Reconstruction — whether or not it was well-conceived at the outset — died horribly in 1877 for lack of political will. And the worst followed.

When America mushes on a mission, very bad things happen.

The projection of American power is a signature event. We do it, generally, because we are committed. And by committed, we mean some hard work over the long haul. Or at least, that is the paradigm since the surge in Iraq.

Before the surge in Iraq, we suffered a Vietnam paradigm — exemplified by Harry Reid’s declaration on the eve of the surge that “this war is lost.”

Reasonable minds can differ as to whether we should have gotten into Afghanistan or Iraq or Vietnam  in the first place — but once there, we have a moral obligation not to let leisurely American poll-driven impatience dictate complete withdrawal if withdrawal means — as it did in Vietnam and would have in Iraq —  surrender to murderous enemies.

History instructs commitment. The worst thing America can do is charge in and then change its mind.

President Bush confronted what appeared to be a losing proposition in Iraq. A bloodbath was imminent. And virtually everyone said “get out.” We could have skipped out and let whatever happened happen. But Bush redoubled. He said we’re in it to win. And the evil that would have prevailed was defeated.

The worst we can do is mush. The worst we can do is pull out, as we did with Reconstruction. Ten years after 9-11, America’s saving grace is commitment, and steadfast belief in a better world.

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8 Responses to 9-11, Reconstruction and American Resolve

  1. Joe says:

    and an empty pocket book … how can we ever dig ourselves out of the deep hole that the shrub put us in … the Iraq and Afgahan wars have thoroughly divided the nation and questioned the very nature of the government we have.

  2. John Barron says:

    I really like this. Really on point.

    • Thank you kindly John. I wasn’t sure how to handle 9-11. I have my own memories of that day in Washington DC. Who called. My numbness. Going into an empty office notwithstanding, and working. Bonding with an African-American gentleman in a Georgetown bar that evening and sharing most profoundly and honestly our numbness. I still haven’t sorted it out. But I sought a measure of solace in history so that I could skip lightly across generations and feel less pain.

  3. John Myste says:

    Wow! I don’t agree with you, but your argument was so well-written, I haven’t the energy to debate it.

    Excellent job. Very good article.

    Just a taste for the argument I will never make: Reconstruction is very expensive and has an opportunity cost and it was not America we were trying to reconstruct.

    No, no, stop right there! I am not willing to defend my comment, so don’t bother challenging it, sir.

    • Thank you most kindly John. Just a taste for the argument I will never counter-make: the expense of a thing is a calculation in the inception of an undertaking. It has nothing to do, thereafter, with the morality of committing to the undertaking.

  4. Like John Myste, I don’t agree. Very well-written, but that’s par for the course with you.

    • You are most kind in your disagreeableness. 🙂

  5. lbwoodgate says:

    Let me disagree with one aspect of it. 🙂

    “President Bush confronted what appeared to be a losing proposition in Iraq.”

    Bush’s failure here was listening to Rumsfeld and his “small army” approach instead of to the generals and White House staff that said you needed mnay more boots on the ground and that the cost of this war was going to be well over the initial $20 billion Bush/Cheney were promoting. To be there at all was and still is a bad judgement call and we are paying for it dearly and will be for years to come.

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