WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Donald Trump on Wednesday said his administration will “not even consider” changing the name of any of the 10 Army bases that are named for Confederate Army officers. Two days earlier, Defense Secretary Mark Esper indicated that he was open to a broad discussion of such changes.
“These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” Trump wrote. “The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Name changes have not been proposed by the Army or the Pentagon, but on Monday, Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy indicated in response to questions from reporters that they were “open to a bipartisan discussion” of renaming bases such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Benning in Georgia.
Supporters of disassociating military bases from Confederate Army officers argue that they represent the racism and divisiveness of the Civil War era and glorify men who fought against the United States.
To amplify Trump's view, his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, read his tweets to reporters in the White House briefing room. She said he is “fervently” opposed to changing the base names and believes that doing so would amount to “complete disrespect” for soldiers who trained there over the years.
The possibility of renaming the bases, McEnany said, is “an absolute non-starter” for Trump.
If Congress were to pass legislation requiring name changes, he would not sign it, she said.
The U.S. military recently began rethinking its traditional connection to Confederate Army symbols, including the Army base names, mindful of their divisiveness at a time the nation is wrestling with questions of race after the death of George Floyd in police hands. The Navy and the Marine Corps are now banning public displays of the Confederate Army battle flag on their installations, casting their decision as necessary to preserve cohesion within the ranks.
Ten major Army installations are named for Confederate Army officers, mostly senior generals, including Robert E. Lee. Among the 10 is Fort Benning, the namesake of Confederate Army Gen. Henry L. Benning, who was a leader of Georgia's secessionist movement and an advocate of preserving slavery. Others are in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana. The naming was done mostly after World War I and in the 1940s, in some cases as gestures of conciliation to the South.
Few voices in the military are openly defending the link to Confederate symbols, but some of the bases named for Confederate officers are legendary in their own right. Fort Bragg, for example, is home to some of the Army's most elite forces. Any decision to change the name at Bragg or other bases likely would involve consulting with officials from the affected states and localities.
Paul Eaton, a retired two-star Army general and a former commanding general of Fort Benning, said Trump's statements go against ideals the Army stands for.
“Today, Donald Trump made it official. Rather than move this nation further away from institutionalized racism, he believes we should cling to it and its heritage, by keeping the names of racist traitors on the gates of our military bases,” Eaton said.
Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and veteran of the Iraq war, said in an email exchange that renaming these bases is long overdue.
“Most serving soldiers know little about the history behind the Confederate leaders for whom these bases are named, or the political deals that caused them to be honored in this fashion,” he said. “There might be some pushback from a small segment of soldiers from the South, but this is what we like to call a ‘teachable moment.’ Now is the time to finally bring about a change that will speak volumes as to what the U.S. Army stands for.”
David Petraeus, a retired four-star Army general, said the renaming move, which he supports, amounts to a “war of memory,” and that before deciding to rename bases like Fort Bragg, where he served with the 82nd Airborne Division, the Army must be ready to follow its own procedures for such change.
“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," Petraeus wrote in an essay published Tuesday by The Atlantic. “Now, belatedly, is the moment for us to pay such attention.”
Fort Bragg was named for Braxton Bragg, a native North Carolinian and Confederate general with a reputation for bravery and mediocre leadership. His forces were defeated at the Battle of Chattanooga in November 1863.