We Who Are About to Bug Out Salute You
The liberal habit of sanctimonious betrayal, from Reconstruction to Afghanistan.
May 14, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 33 • By SAM SCHULMAN
There are dozens of good reasons for President Obama to have sincerely changed his mind about Afghanistan. Maintaining troops in that part of the world is expensive; our allies are corrupt and criminal; we may not succeed; the people we are helping are ungrateful and incapable of governing themselves; we’re betraying our basic principles; we have important work to do at home; it’s making us unpopular on the world stage.
Still, President Obama’s turnaround on Afghanistan is so dramatic that it may obscure the fact that he is not the first president to practice the fine art of bugging out on those with a strong claim on our interests and our sympathies, and for whom we have already sacrificed substantial blood and treasure. That honor belongs to Rutherford B. Hayes, a brave soldier and skillful general in the Civil War, who was elected in 1876. It is Hayes, the standard-bearer of Lincoln’s party, who brought the troops home and ended Reconstruction, with the almost unanimous support of the nation’s liberal establishment. They too fought politically against slavery before the Civil War, risked their lives to emancipate its victims, and, too soon, couldn’t wait to bug out of the South.
Reconstruction was liberal interventionism avant la lettre. After the Civil War ended, we had a duty to protect the lives and freedom of the slaves the Union armies emancipated by their defeat of the Confederacy, and, thanks to progressives like Carl Schurz, intellectual, soldier, and diplomat, we did our duty for more than a decade. As Schurz told Congress in 1865, we would have to continue “the control of the national government in the States lately in rebellion” until free labor was fully secure. There would be no timetable on the occupation. We should declare firmly “that national control in the South will not cease until such results are secured.” To enforce Reconstruction, the Grant administration used aggressive legal methods—questioned on constitutional grounds at the time—and raw military power. In 1876, only the U.S. Army, stationed in the state capitols of South Carolina and Louisiana, kept those states’ legally elected Republican governors in power and alive.
Hayes ran against President Grant’s Reconstruction; Schurz campaigned for Hayes (though a Republican, he had turned against Grant in 1872) and helped to write his Inaugural Address. The arguments may sound familiar. Maintaining the troops was too expensive; the Republicans’ carpetbagger allies in the South were corrupt and incompetent; success was in doubt; the people being helped were ungrateful and incapable of governing themselves; we were being unfair to the Southern citizens who had gone astray and betraying our basic principles; we had important work to do at home; the occupation was making us unpopular on the world stage.
After taking office in March 1877, President Hayes abandoned Michelle Obama’s South Carolina ancestors to the will of their former masters. In the words of a contemporary anti-Reconstruction account, South Carolina “was in anarchy” when Hayes was inaugurated:
But after Chamberlain resigned his office and fled the state, the new Democratic governor restored order: He disarmed the blacks and imposed a white supremacy regime enforced by what we now might call the “good Taliban” among the whites. On Election Days, “great numbers of young white men, largely from adjacent counties, ride to and remain about the polls, ‘to see fair play,’ they explain. These have not attempted openly to molest, but they have certainly frightened the Republican negroes. Accordingly, every election has gone Democratic.” Campaigning for Hayes the year before, Schurz had advised black Southerners to make a similar deal with the “good” Democrats: Just let the former slaves “emancipate themselves from rigid adherence to one party” and watch racial harmony and an orderly South emerge.
Let’s invite Carl Schurz to be our Virgil through the world of the pro-freedom, antiracist (in 19th-century terms), antislavery progressives who worked for so long to destroy Reconstruction at whatever cost to the population of freed slaves. Schurz is a curiously modern figure: He was, like so many of the liberal interventionists of the 1990s, a hero of his century’s 1968—1848. In his native Germany he was a student radical at Bonn University, a crusading propagandist, and finally a revolutionary commander in the 1849 Baden uprising. After Prussia crushed the rebellion, he fled from one European country to another, and finally reached America, where he settled in Waterville, Wisconsin, in 1855.
He immediately joined the antislavery Republican party and ran for lieutenant governor. (His wife did her bit in bringing the best of German culture to America: She founded our first Froebel Kindergarten.) Schurz worked for Lincoln’s campaign against Stephen Douglas, where he gained a reputation for eloquent denunciation of the Slave Power, in German and English. He ran for governor of Wisconsin in 1860 and led his state’s delegation to the Republican convention which nominated Lincoln. President Lincoln rewarded him by naming him ambassador to Spain (the presence of a notorious revolutionary embarrassed the reactionary royal government). At Schurz’s insistence, Lincoln brought him back in 1862 to give him command of a division in the Army of the Potomac. Schurz efficiently commanded largely German-American units at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.
Charmingly fluent in English, admired by the growing German-American community in the western states, Schurz only lacked, so to speak, a Hawaiian birth certificate to have made him a successor to Lincoln as GOP leader. He held the highest offices open to foreign-born citizens: U.S. senator (from Missouri 1869-75) and secretary of the interior in the Hayes administration. After Lincoln’s death, Schurz emerged as a national, not merely ethnic figure. He suggested to President Andrew Johnson, who thought the new South should be a “white man’s country,” that he send an agent to survey the conditions of the Union-occupied territories. Johnson seized the opportunity and deputized Schurz for the task, sweetening the assignment by offering to increase the amount for which Schurz’s life was insured.
From July to October 1865, Schurz journeyed through the South, concluding that the Army must remain and deploy throughout the countryside where they could protect blacks from persecution. As for the freedmen, they must be given full suffrage rights without delay. Upon his return he wrote the Report on the Condition of the South, his most lasting piece of writing. President Johnson, who had come out against Reconstruction after Schurz left Washington, received Schurz coldly, refused to listen to his report, and told him not to bother writing it up. When the Senate forced him to release the report in December, Johnson delivered it with his own executive summary declaring Schurz’s work proved that white people “throughout the entire south” evinced “a laudable desire” to “repair the devastations of war by a prompt and cheerful return to peaceful pursuits.”
Schurz’s is the baseline description of the woeful prospect for democracy—and the likely doom of racial and political minorities at the hands of violent reactionaries—if the defeated South were left in the control of its native elite. Schurz didn’t write a Human Rights Watch report on human suffering but a political recommendation. He was sympathetic to the freedmen, but he was a nation-builder, not a bleeding heart, and it was in the interest of nation-building that he had supported the Civil War. His aim was not mere racial justice but a republican settlement: The language of the report was most emotional when reporting lack of civic virtue, not racial persecution: Among the whites, treason did not “appear odious” and there was an “utter absence of national feeling.” His diagnosis was that the problem was civic, not humanitarian—a way of looking at things that would eventually lead to another century of oppression for American blacks.
The connection between antislavery and the ideal of liberal democracy (called republicanism then) had been a vital component of progressive orthodoxy from the beginning of the abolition movement. The great Boston Unitarian leader Theodore Parker saw emancipation and democracy as inseparable. In the 1850s, he urged his huge congregations (which included abolition’s boldface names: William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward and Samuel Gridley Howe, and Louisa May Alcott) not even to ask the question, “shall the African be bond or free?” Ask instead, “shall America be a Despotism or a Democracy?” There could be no emancipation without democracy; and more important, no democracy under law without emancipation.
This small-R republican ideal was distilled into the marrow of many idealists like Schurz, for all their practical experience as political and military warriors. The voting rights of all citizens—even those of the Southern whites—was as important to the keenest early supporters of Reconstruction as was protecting the lives and rights of the freed slaves. Schurz insisted on inserting a plank calling for “universal amnesty” into the 1868 Republican platform (colleagues softened his language on immediate black suffrage). The voter’s purple thumb was not only the symbol of liberation, but to idealistic republicans the final and only goal.
When General Grant won the Republican nomination in 1868, liberal Republicans like Schurz were sure that their candidate’s success meant that Reconstruction could be completed. Speaking for Grant’s election, Schurz proclaimed that the Civil War had been fought not for black slaves alone but for all mankind. We broke “the power of aristocratic class government in the South” and thus we liberated not merely “four millions of blacks, but we delivered thirty millions of whites from the odious yoke of grasping aristocracy.” Like Parker, Schurz believed that emancipation was a vital national interest, and now that it was achieved, it was time to move on. The attention of “the best men” (a family catch-phrase among the Adamses, John, Henry, and Charles Francis) was drawn to new challenges: changing the spoils system into a professional civil service (even if it meant firing thousands of freedmen without educational attainments and replacing them with whites), breaking up the railroad trusts, solving the debt problem, and other ventures in human improvement.
In the real world, things weren’t so easy. As soon as Grant took office and began seriously to enforce Reconstruction, violent attacks on black citizens and Southern Republicans increased. After the the Fifteenth Amendment gave black Americans the vote, it got worse. The insurgents—members of the Ku Klux Klan and any number of local White Men’s Leagues, Red Shirts, and other terror organizations—claimed political legitimacy for their bloodshed. The liberals who supported the Civil War found themselves irritated at the hapless victims of white violence—former slaves and the survivors of the democratic resistance to the Confederacy. They were angry that the war against the insurgency drained dollars and political attention from pressing matters at home. The reason for all this violence soon became clear. It was Grant’s fault.
Grant hadn’t become a tyrant. It was the pro-war liberals who had changed. Back in 1866, President Johnson shocked the conscience of the Senate when he vetoed their civil rights bill. In 1870, Grant shocked the same Senate, which now included Schurz, when the administration introduced its own civil rights bills to enable federal authorities to deal with organized Southern violence. Schurz was aghast at the powers that the Force Act (1870) and the Ku Klux Klan Act (1871) claimed for the federal government, less so that the administration lacked the tools it needed to fight white terrorism. He became a Grant-hater. Demonizing Grant made it easier for liberal Republicans to convince themselves, at least, that they were the idealists. When Grant ignored the liberals’ demand for civil service reform and other goo-goo issues, they painted him as a drink-addled aspiring despot. His imperial ambitions made him indifferent to corruption. Henry Adams told all his friends that Grant had already ended constitutional government. Many a bien pensant Republican could tell a story of how some incident of corruption or petty tyranny—a thousand Abu Ghraibs—had convinced him or her that the postwar carpetbagger was worse than the prewar slaveowner. Soon, apologies began to appear in Schurz’s speeches to white border-state audiences: “Gentlemen: what would you have done under such circumstances?”
Abandoning the cause of black freedom did not take place without bad conscience: Rather than own up to their changing views, high-minded Republicans cast as much blame as possible on the deserted object of their affections. In this enterprise they found eager allies among white Southerners. Grant’s military victories had turned the world of the South upside down. By disenfranchising Confederate leaders, expropriating the human capital of the landowners, and allowing black majorities to elect governors, senators, and congressmen, Reconstruction elevated the lowest above the highest. Former slaveowners frothed with grievances against former slaves. Before secession, proslavery propaganda had preached that slaves were better off, at least, than factory hands in the North. Slave-owners cared for their laborers as if they were family from cradle to grave; the grateful loyalty, contentment, and efficiency of Southern slaves was proverbial. After emancipation, the story changed. It transpired that the slave labor force had always been treasonous layabouts. They flocked to the Union Army simply to avoid work. And the work they used to do? It was a misunderstanding. Blacks only ever worked under the threat of the slaveholder’s whip. Thin stuff, but the abolitionists who had written furiously against the slaveholders’ fables in the 1850s were now indifferent to the far bigger libels of the 1870s.
In their own eyes, the liberal Republicans were not so much tired by the fight for black rights as they were eager to declare that the virtuous republic they believed in was at hand. A year after his election to the Senate in 1869, Schurz and his liberal colleagues had become realists, with a more complicated understanding of the root causes of terrorism. Laws like the KKK Act wouldn’t alleviate black suffering. The South needed not a military occupation but a Reconstruction of the heart. As Schurz said, “let us not imagine we can correct the disorder in the South by mere laws. . . . If we want to produce enduring effects, our remedies must go to the root of the evil . . . the public sentiment of the South.” Of course black citizens were “confronted by an inveterate prejudice and by that spirit of reckless violence which is doing so much harm to the southern people.” But military occupation, he told them “as their sincere friend” would be “dangerous to the colored people. . . . Now that they have the political rights of citizenship it is much wiser and safer for them to trust to the means they already possess to make themselves respected, and to leave all else to the gradual progress of public opinion.”
The more Schurz explained his desertion to the blacks, the more he came to identify with the whites, even to plead their case with black voters. In 1874 he advised Southern blacks to “emancipate themselves from the serfdom of party discipline” and share their votes between their liberators and the Democratic party. As the late Hans Trefousse (Schurz’s biographer and a refugee from Hitler’s Germany) commented, such advice was rather awkward when one of the parties “was determined to eliminate their political rights altogether.”
When Grant ran for reelection in 1872, Schurz led a third-party effort, the Liberal Republicans, against the regular, pro-Reconstruction Republican party. In the words of its standard-bearer Horace Greeley, the movement promised to “bridge the bloody chasm between northern Republicans and southern Democrats. (Thomas Nast, in a famous cartoon, peopled the bloody chasm not with the Blue and Gray but with dead black men and women, over whose bodies Greeley tried to force a freedman to shake the hand of a Klansman.) The Democrats, spotting an opportunity to strip moderate votes from the Republicans, shrewdly called a halt to the overtly racist rhetoric they had sported in the past. Adopting a liberal motto, “Reform, not Race,” Democrats disciplined themselves to call black Americans “negroes” or “colored persons” rather than the brutal epithet they had previously deployed with such swagger.
Schurz urged blacks to vote for Greeley precisely because the Liberal Republicans promised to put daylight between the freedmen and the federal government, the only force protecting them. Fortunately, Grant won in a humiliating landslide and the troops remained. But in 1876, Schurz and the Liberal Republicans returned to the fold, both parties ran on anti-Reconstruction platforms, and that was that. Curiously, the gradual lessening of racial tension that Schurz foresaw did not, in fact, take place when Reconstruction ended. Instead, racism and racial mistrust gained velocity. In the 1890s and at the beginning of the new century, the Jim Crow system began to go into force across the South, and its segregation regime lingered for another three generations, well into the childhood of the baby boomers.
Reconstruction was killed not by a military victory of the Klan or the electoral power of the Southerners, but by the withdrawal of support by the North’s “best men.” With the Slave Power in ruins, the idealists and humanitarians who had urged the Civil War in the first place discovered a loftier vision of the world they wanted to create. To them it seemed that what we now call nation-building could more practically be accomplished with the help of respectable Southern whites than the black people they had freed from slavery. To them, the progressive ideals of classical republicanism were more important than black security, and would, through a vague process of evolution, end the white campaign against the rights and security of black Americans (for whom the liberals would always have the most friendly feelings).
This view of Reconstruction runs counter to the interpretation most of us have been taught by the greatest modern historian of the period, Columbia professor Eric Foner. Foner believes that Reconstruction was defeated by the essential racism of the white Reconstructors emerging from a temporary eclipse. Reconstruction was an aberration; the genetic racism of white Americans made the betrayal of Reconstruction inevitable.
The contrary view I outline above was argued, triumphantly, by Andrew S. Slap in his 2006 book, The Doom of Reconstruction. Slap demonstrates that the liberal Republicans were not the hopelessly racist, typical American hypocrites of Foner’s account but fair-minded people, not unconcerned about the fate of Southern blacks but simply more interested in the historical necessity of reform than in the consequences that reform can bring. Schurz was sincere, if not praiseworthy, in thinking that the antislavery movement was a “chapter in our past,” and that hard money and civil service corruption were the issues that needed his country’s full attention.
Consider now the veterans of the feminist campaign against the Taliban in the ’90s and early 2000s. In March 2011, Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported in the Washington Post that figures in the Obama administration thought that sentimental concern for Afghanistan’s women was getting in the way of getting out of Afghanistan. Chandresakaran’s Bidenesque tough-talking source said that “gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities. There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down.” A few dissident voices insisted that women were not pet rocks, but the logic of history ground on. By January, it was revealed that the State Department had secured office space for the Taliban in Qatar and intended to start negotiations with them.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program, thought to ask the founders of the Feminist Majority Foundation about it. Mavis Leno spoke ingenuously: She was troubled by Obama’s lack of response to women’s concerns. “Perhaps the tremendous unpopularity of the war puts [President Obama] in an awkward position. I don’t think he is doing as much as he could. . . . I just don’t understand why the fate of these women has to be considered as special pleading. Are we just going to stand back and see this happen again? Women were making it a little way up the hill; can we at least make sure that they don’t slide back down again?”
Her comrade-in-arms Eleanor Smeal was more careful. Smeal (for whom I worked briefly as a consultant on a women’s economic empowerment project in the early ’90s) told Lemmon, “We will keep the pressure on and support women in any way we can. . . . We are talking to [a huge network of NGOs in Afghanistan] and they are taking the lead. What we can do is continue to put pressure on the U.S. government not to agree to anything that omits half the population.” Smeal’s formulation was diplomatic—so diplomatic that Secretary of State Clinton used it herself last month at a meeting of the U.S.-Afghanistan Women’s Council in her introduction of Laura Bush (for whom I also briefly worked as a consultant to the Bush Institute, partly on women’s rights in Afghanistan): “Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It is a figment that will not last.”
Was Smeal being humble when she described her intention to stay in touch with Afghan women’s organizations? She isn’t a humble private citizen. In fact, she spent much of the winter working hard and in public on curing President Obama’s abortion- and contraception-funding headache. A big fan of Obamacare’s contraception mandate, Smeal issued repeated broadsides against the Catholic bishops who want to preserve the principle of conscientious objection to abortion. In March, Smeal’s Feminist Majority Foundation welcomed a speaker who told them that Obama-care was “the most significant gain for women in her decades of activism.” Smeal’s own blog didn’t mention Afghanistan this winter; the blog of the Feminist Majority Foundation reprinted a few news items about women’s progress in Afghanistan: advances and reverses in maternal mortality, seating women in parliament or on committees, and on the poisoning of 150 schoolgirls. Far more attention went to the FBI’s definition of rape and—for good measure, you bishops—to victims of priest sexual abuse. In 2009, the president was deciding how much to increase our Afghan commitment, and Smeal wrote a manifesto declaring the Feminist Majority Foundation would never abandon the women and girls of Afghanistan; in 2012, the president is deciding how quickly he can abandon Afghanistan, and she says (by her silence), ladies, good luck to you in the future. Could Carl Schurz really have thought that civil service reform was more important than the organized murder of black Americans? Eleanor Smeal, a serious person who feels a deep responsibility to the causes she cares about, teaches us that he could.
Why do our best and brightest keep promising the world to our friends, and—after sacrificing the lives of their fellow citizens and the fortunes and honor of the entire country to achieve a result—tire of the struggle just as peace may be discernible in the distance? David Rieff’s formula is tempting: The liberal interventionists in the Yugoslavian venture of the ’90s “always had a special weakness for believing that the decisions they make out of political expediency somehow still epitomize virtue.” Of course politicians plead for what is expedient. What makes the expedient bugout fashionable is something else: a wider attachment to our purity of intent—a keenly focused sense of our true virtue. The bloody, self-sacrificial work of our soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, and those of our allies, has enormously benefited the Afghan people and particularly Afghan women. But never mind. If their sacrifice harms our own self-image, it is a sacrifice too far. Bugging out therefore will be the biggest favor we can do the Afghans. Someday those who survive our desertion will thank us for it, our idealistic liberals flatter themselves, as they head for the exits.
Sam Schulman is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.
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