President Trump on Wednesday short-circuited a push to rename military bases that honor Confederate generals, thrusting himself into the middle of a difficult Pentagon debate over race and discrimination in America’s armed forces.
In a series of Twitter posts, the president flatly declared that his administration “will not even consider” renaming North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, Virginia’s Fort Lee or any other of the 10 Army installations that bear the names of famed Confederate figures. The White House argued that casting the monikers as racist is absurd, given that the sites have served as key training grounds for patriotic American soldiers who went on to fight in World War II and other conflicts.
The president’s comments appeared to come as a surprise to top Pentagon officials, many of whom had spent the past week acknowledging the need to confront racism within the ranks amid the national convulsion over the death of George Floyd, a black man in police custody, and eyeing specific actions to prove they were serious.
Just this week, the Navy and Marine Corps banned the use of the Confederate flag from public spaces, aircraft and ships.
Before Mr. Trump’s tweets, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy indicated this week he was open to a discussion about removing the names of Confederate generals from bases. Prominent retired officers such as Gen. David H. Petraeus also have embraced the cause.
“The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention,” Gen. Petraeus wrote this week in The Atlantic magazine. “Now, belatedly, is the moment for us to pay such attention.”
The tumult following Floyd’s death has energized those who have long advocated for removing or downgrading memorials and other tributes to the Confederacy. Statues have come down in Richmond, Virginia, and other cities, the NASCAR racing circuit said Wednesday it was banning the Confederate flag, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, issued a public call for the removal of President Jefferson Davis and 10 other Confederate soldiers and politicians honored in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
But Mr. Trump’s forceful intervention upended a potential key piece of the military’s response to the national crisis, and it’s unclear whether the Army will be forced to abandon the issue outright.
“It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our legendary military bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc.,” Mr. Trump said in a Twitter message. “These monumental and very powerful bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom. … Therefore, my administration will not even consider the renaming of these magnificent and fabled military installations.”
“Respect our Military!” the president concluded.
White House-Pentagon tensions
Even before the president’s tweets, tensions between Mr. Trump and the Pentagon leadership were soaring. Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week publicly opposed Mr. Trump’s idea of invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act and using active-duty U.S. troops to quell riots across the country. Mr. Esper said he was concerned that the military would be drawn into a fierce and partisan civilian debate on race, policing and equality.
Mr. McCarthy and other Pentagon leaders also made clear that they oppose the use of troops in American cities unless a true emergency arises.
The Pentagon chief also faced awkward questions about his presence in a photo Mr. Trump had taken in front of a church near the White House that just moments before had been cleared of protesters.
Mr. Trump reportedly considered firing Mr. Esper over his public comments, which also included powerful personal reflections on the death of Floyd and a promise that the Pentagon would be more aggressive in rooting out racism.
In the days since, top Defense Department officials have taken concrete steps.
Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, issued an order this week banning the use of the Confederate flag in an effort to bring his forces closer together and tear down any remaining racial divisions.
“The order is meant to ensure unit cohesion, preserve good order and discipline and uphold the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment,” he said.
The Marine Corps took a similar step, and Army officials confirmed this week that Mr. McCarthy would support a “bipartisan discussion” about removing the names of Confederate generals from bases.
Some prominent retired generals argue that honoring Confederate figures — even Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose military acumen and groundbreaking tactics are taught at academies across the country — is especially problematic. In addition to their support of slavery, they point out, the Confederate leaders tried to destroy the United States.
“Plainly put, Lee, Bragg, and the rest committed treason, however much they may have agonized over it,” Gen. Petraeus, who also served as head of the CIA, wrote. “The majority of them had worn the uniform of the U.S. Army, and that Army should not brook any celebration of those who betrayed their country.”
He added, “We do not live in a country to which Braxton Bragg, Henry L. Benning, or Robert E. Lee can serve as an inspiration. Acknowledging this fact is imperative.”
Other retired Army officials went further and drafted a mock order that would immediately rename each of the 10 bases and asked Mr. McCarthy to sign it. The memo was included in a piece they wrote for Defense One.
Ready for a fight
But the White House already has dug in and seems eager for a fight. Perhaps hopeful that the issue could energize conservative and military voters, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Wednesday that the president would veto any defense legislation from Congress that renames the forts.
“To suggest that these forts were somehow inherently racist, and their names need to be changed, is a complete disrespect to the men and women who the last bit of American land they saw — before they went overseas and lost their lives — were these forts,” she said.
The White House also distributed printouts of Mr. Trump’s tweets to the White House press corps to make sure they got the message.
Before the death of Floyd and subsequent protests, the Pentagon defended the bases. A Memorial Day weekend editorial from The New York Times calling for name changes was met with anger by top Defense Department officials who said that singling out the bases amounted to an “attack” on the military.
The events of the past two weeks seem to have changed attitudes within the upper echelons of the Pentagon.
The military for years has tried to walk a fine line between keeping the controversial names while not celebrating the Confederacy or its ideals.
Fort Bragg in North Carolina, for example, is named after Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, but the base’s website says it was named “for his actions during the Mexican-American war.”
Alabama’s Fort Rucker was “named in honor of Colonel Edmund W. Rucker, a Civil War Confederate officer, who was given the honorary title of “General,” and who became an industrial leader in Birmingham after the war,” according to the base’s website.