The recent Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) ad hoc committee proposal recommending a Civil War memorial including the names of Confederate soldiers disturbs us on both philosophical and practical counts. We believe that the idea of memorializing Confederate soldiers represents a troubling historical amnesia. The proposal was tabled by the Board of Overseers, but we remain concerned about the manner in which the HAA committee considered this issue.
Proponents of the proposed memorial are quick to stress that it would honor all Harvard men who lost their lives in the Civil War. Yet its main purpose is to find a way to recognize the Harvard men who died fighting for the Confederacy. Union men are already honored in Memorial Hall. The benefactors who gave this building as a gift to Harvard wrote into its trust that the names of Confederate soldiers could never be enshrined within its walls.
However, Southern attempts to honor the Confederate war dead at Harvard have been all too frequent. This issue came up again when the renovations of Memorial Hall began. The committee found that placing the Confederate names in new parts of Memorial Hall would violate the trust, so they proposed putting the names in Memorial Church. But inscribing only the 64 Confederate names would look a bit too obvious, so the committee recommended a new, grand tribute to all Harvard's Civil War dead.
The decision to exclude the 64 Confederate names from Memorial Hall was not simply based on Northern prejudice. Confederate soldiers were first and foremost traitors. They fought against the United States of America. Secondly, they fought to preserve the brutality of slavery.
Some supporters of a memorial to these Confederate soldiers claim that the mere passing of time makes such a tribute feasible. But as Martin Luther King, Jr., once pointed out, time is neutral. Has the passing of 130 years decreased the sordid nature of treason and slavery?
Thinking vaguely of the Civil War as some distant, tragic conflict is dangerous. But if we strip away scales of historical amnesia and remember that the Civil War was a struggle between competing moral conceptions, one good and one evil, we must oppose any memorial which includes Confederate names.
Supporters of the proposal try to avoid this argument by arguing that the cause of the Confederacy would not be honored by the memorial. Robert Shapiro, the committee head, claimed that the proposed memorial would only honor "individuals as Harvard students." But it is impossible to divorce the Confederate war dead from the context of their struggle.
Memorials are primarily symbolic. Memorials do not simply express tragedy. Harvard does not erect memorials to those who die in car accidents or train wrecks. Our war dead are honored because we deem them to have made a heroic sacrifice. Our memorials implicitly endorse and commemorate the causes and ideals that soldiers die for. Memorials do more than just express regret that a Harvard graduate was struck by a bullet or a cannonball.
A memorial that intermingles Union and Confederate names also places both causes on an even moral footing. This disrespects the Union cause, equating patriotism with treason and emancipation with slavery. Had the Confederacy succeeded, would we view the result as morally neutral? Although it is tragic that so many Southern men died in the Civil War, we are glad that their Confederacy was vanquished.
Another common argument is that Harvard should memorialize Confederate soldiers because a Nazi soldier has been honored in Memorial Church. On the surface, this is the old but surely false "two wrongs make a right" argument. But closer inspection shows that the German whose name appears on the Church wall, Adolf Sannwald, was drafted against his will into the Nazi forces. He was a minister who opposed the Nazis and helped to shelter Jews. He tried to serve as a chaplain but was forced to carry out non-combatant jobs such as janitor and clerk.
Sannwald was a special case--Harvard has not honored Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a graduate student who planned the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor. It is reasonable to assume that Yamamoto will never be memorialized here, no matter how much time passes. And it is important to note that those who wish to honor the Confederate war dead do not claim that these men were special cases--that their actions are somehow justified by extenuating circumstances. Their proposed memorial would imply the opposite conclusion--that there was nothing wrong with fighting for the Confederacy.
Proposals to honor Harvard's Confederate war dead have always been extremely controversial. Yet, the HAA committee attempted to keep their proposal as concealed as possible. As with most decisions of the University's governing board, there was no serious attempt to promote campus debate, and in fact the committee's report has been kept confidential.
The articles about the proposed memorial which appeared in summer issues of Harvard Magazine and the Gazette were ill-timed if their goal was to promote student response. This proposal has become a major campus issue primarily due to the efforts of the Black Law Students' Association.
We urge that the HAA committee responsible for the Civil War dead proposal be disbanded and that the Board of Overseers kill the proposal outright. Their recommendation glosses over painful but meaningful chapters in American history and is morally bankrupt. The surreptitious actions of this committee are yet another example of the University's attempt to ignore student opinion. This domineering trend should be reversed.