On April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. And so ended the devastating human destruction of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, the turbulent 12-year era to reintegrate Southern states from the Confederacy and 4 million newly freed slaves into the United States.
At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 fighting in World War I, “the war to end all wars”, ended on what would come to be known as Armistice Day. On that day Germany signed an agreement for peace which brought an end to the fighting. Seven months later leaders of the United States, Great Britain and France met to sign the Versailles Agreement which led to the formation of the League of Nations, a precursor to the United Nations.
On May 8, 1945 the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers and the Allies’ acceptance of Germany’s surrender brought an end to World War II in Europe. Three months later the Japanese accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and unconditionally surrendered. On September 2, 1945 the Japanese foreign minister formally signed the instrument of surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri, marking the official end of World War II.
Subsequent wars and conflicts such as those in Korea and Vietnam ultimately ended in less ceremonial fashion but when the fighting ceased the healing began.
Today, the United States has friendly alliances with many of the nations who faced us in war. It would have been unthinkable during the fierce fighting of both World Wars that we would eventually be collaborative partners on the world stage with Germany or Japan. And it was just as unthinkable that the U.S. would commit to contributing to the re-building and re-construction of cities in those war-torn nations that had been demolished and decimated by bombs dropped by American and Allied forces.
The total number of deaths in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam was 112 million souls both military and civilian. Yet the opposing forces in these horrific wars and conflicts found a way to reconcile their differences and move forward with a goal of peaceful, if not prosperous, coexistence. Enemies became allies. Hostilities gave way to restoration and rebuilding. Animus gave way to mutual cooperation. Foes became friends.
Wars end. Conflicts cease. Fighting stops. And the difficult work of healing begins.
During the past four years America has been at war with itself. Not with bombs and guns but with ideas. In some ways, these few years have been an ideological Second Civil War pitting brother against brother and sister against sister in the fight for ideas. Long-time friendships have been torn apart. Estrangements among family members have caused painful separation. And people have been condemned or ostracized for their partisan leanings. The ammunition of this war has been words not bullets. The engines of virtual machines of this internal war have been fueled by hateful rhetoric from elected officials, political pundits and even mainstream media. The pain inflicted has been severe. The conflict has been debilitating and demoralizing. The spirit and principles our nation was founded upon have been attacked by vitriolic accusations and grenades of hate lobbed back and forth by political adversaries.
So, if bitter war-time enemies could lay their weapons down shouldn’t we expect that political foes might do the same?
Now that the most hostile and contentious political period in modern America has ended it is essential to the health of the nation that we see an end to bellicose, belligerent and antagonistic sparring. It’s time for a complete and total re-set of the way in which American politics is conducted. It’s past time to resume the hard work of returning to a more cordial way of settling policy differences. We would do well to return to the example set when President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil, two of Washington’s most affable and amiable pols, would fight like cats and dogs during the day and then set their differences aside for a few moments to sit together at the end of the work day enjoying cocktails and each other’s company. We should remind ourselves of a time when political adversaries like Senators John McCain and Joe Biden found little to agree upon politically and yet considered each other best of friends.
Are those bygone years of a bygone era that can never be recaptured? No! It won’t be easy but we can’t accept that it is inevitable that those halcyon days are gone forever. To succumb to the cynical view that politics has forever changed and that it has and will continue to be tribal is a frightening, alarming and an unacceptable prospect.
Now that the election is over it is vital that we immediately enter into a period of political reconstruction. We need a partisan version of a Versailles Agreement. An American political version of a Potsdam Declaration. A truce and treaty between partisans to end hostility and commit to working collaboratively for the sake of the Union.
Unlike our catastrophic military wars, no one need be seen as the victor. No one should feel like the vanquished. There should be no surrenders. No admission of guilt or wrongdoing. No banishing of the opposition. Just simply a return to a time when public interest becomes more important than self-interest. A time when it mattered more about what was right than who was right. A time when political horse trading doesn’t start with the words: “first, you give me your horse”.
To end the great political Civil War of our time it is helpful to reflect on what President Abraham Lincoln said during the greatest period of clannish unrest and division in our history. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address he said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In his second inaugural address Lincoln spoke about the urgent need to: “to bind up the nation’s wounds”.
Now that the political battle of 2020 has ended it is critical that leaders, political and others, commit to finding ways of crafting a new alliance that will enable our wounds to be bound up.
In 1945 representatives of 46 nations gathered in San Francisco to hammer out the principles of an agreement that would result in the establishment of the United Nations, an innovative organization committed to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights . If 46 countries with disparate interests, cultures and philosophies could coalesce around those principles then surely political parties in the U.S. should be able to agree on a way forward to work together with civility and respect.
Will it be easy? No. Will it yield a perfect solution? No. But as Voltaire said: “Il meglio è l’inimico del bene” or “the best is the enemy of the good”. In Washington speak: “Don’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect”.
People of good will and good faith who are tasked with legislating and governing should pledge to strive, not for a new way of doing business, but rather for reviving a once and honorable way of conducting themselves on behalf of the American people. If this can be achieved, it may be the most important victory of this year’s political season.
After all of this is over, all that will really matter is how we treated each other
For more commentaries by Stu Turgel go to: https://thephoenixfile.net/commentaries/