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The Sacrifice of Black Americans for Raison d'Etat

Nearly 13,000 officers who served in Hitler's Wehrmacht went on to serve in the postwar Bundeswehr in American-occupied Germany. Others, including the Eastern Front tank commander Hasso von Manteuffel, became prominent political figures. Von Manteuffel was prosecuted in 1959 not for any of the war crimes that the German army perpetrated against Russian civilians, but for shooting a German deserter (he served two years).

Why did we let Hitler's generals into the armed forces of democratic West Germany? Because we needed them to fight the Russians.

We sheep-dipped them at "de-Nazification" tribunals, made sure they weren't guilty of obvious and glaring war crimes, and put them on the front line of the Cold War, where they faced other Wehrmacht officers in the service of the Soviet puppet regime in East Germany. We took Maj. Gen. Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler's military intelligence chief for the Eastern Front, and put him in charge of Germany's postwar foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND). He knew more about the Russian army than any Westerner alive, and we required his services.

Was that justice? In a sense it was: The Germans had the dubious privilege of holding a position that the Russians would attack with nuclear weapons in the first hours of a shooting war. They never would know who won. It came a lot closer to a hot war than anyone wants to admit (on this subject I recommend the German mini-series Deutschland 83). As a Jew, it made me nauseous to meet senior officers who had fought for Hitler; my people fought with the Bielski partisans in the Białowieża Forest, that is, the ones the Germans didn't kill in the first days of Operation Barbarossa. As an American, I was glad we did it. Nazism was no longer a threat, but the Russians were.

Something like this happened during and after the Civil War.

Half a million Northerners died crushing the Confederacy. Why didn't we just let the slave states leave the Union? The answer is that the Confederate rump would have allied with France and Britain to carve up the North American continent. Napoleon III of France invaded Mexico in 1863 and installed his puppet Maximilian of Habsburg. Mexican nationalists fought a guerrilla war under the brilliant leadership of Benito Juarez. In 1865 Lincoln dispatched Gen. Phil Sheridan, the scourge of the Shenandoah Valley, to Texas, where he raised 50,000 troops to threaten the French and supplied Juarez with arms and ammunition. The French withdrew in 1866.

Britain's Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, meanwhile, watched the military progress of the war hoping for an opportunity to intervene. If Lee had won Gettysburg, Britain probably would have recognized the Confederacy and intervened on the Southern side. Lincoln courted Russia, Britain's main geopolitical rival, hoping that the threat of Russian intervention would keep Britain neutral. Russia sent a fleet to New York in 1863 in a demonstration of support for the Union.

I've always wondered whether Lincoln wanted an early war rather than a later one, so that the Union would have time to suppress the rebellion before the European powers intervened. The French arrived in Mexico in 1863, as noted; a French alliance with the Confederacy might have made it impossible to prevent secession. If Britain had deployed its powerful navy in support of the South, the North could not have won the war.

America had to keep the slave states in the Union, which meant it had to crush the rebellion as quickly as possible, and then reintegrate the embittered and recalcitrant South into the Union. Southern resistance frustrated Reconstruction. Twenty years after the war, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the scourge of the South, was commander of the U.S. Army. He advised withdrawal of Northern soldiers from the former slave states because the occupation demoralized the armed forces.

With that, America threw the liberated slaves under the bus.

Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did African-Americans gain the rights that the Constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction Period had promised them. We allowed the Confederate dead burial at Arlington National Cemetery, and allowed the South to promote the insipid myth of a Lost Cause while imposing a Jim Crow regime. An indefinite period of military occupation was the only alternative, and the North did not have the physical and moral resources to pursue it. Healing the national wound meant allowing the former plantation-owning class to run the South, and that is just what we did.

This was a tragic outcome, and morally repugnant, but inevitable under the circumstances. I do not see how it could have happened differently. That is cold consolation to African-Americans who spent another century after their liberation from slavery wandering in the wilderness. Plainly put, we sacrificed their interests for raison d'etat, just as we forewent righteous vengeance against many former Nazis in order to win the Cold War (and did the same in Japan, where we whitewashed the wartime role of Emperor Hirohito).

It is folly to wallow in nostalgia for a non-existent past, as many white Southerners still do; it is insanity to try to erase the past, as the monument-destroyers want to do. As I wrote in this space August 15, it is time for government entities to divest themselves of memorials to a wicked cause, and transfer them where possible to private hands. We should look squarely at the ugly parts of our national past, repent our national sins, and move on.