When it comes to Civil War and WWII, balance how much to forgive and forget

William E. Ellis 
is a retired Eastern Kentucky University history professor.
William E. Ellis is a retired Eastern Kentucky University history professor.

With commemorations of the endings of the Civil War and World War II in recent weeks, there have been retrospectives aplenty in the media.

Not only have historians and others reevaluated the relative merits of the causes of these wars but have renewed controversies of whether the statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. John Hunt Morgan should remain in their places of honor.

These have roiled the ongoing debate over not only the place of these men in h istory but about public remembrance as well.

If we think about history, the collective memory, then there are bound to be controversies. Where you live in time and place has great impact.

I recall that about 1959 I belonged to a quasi-Southern college fraternity that required pledges to paint the testicles of Morgan's horse on the courthouse square red or gold.

That was not much solemnity for the "Lost Cause" from a bunch of college boys for the general or his steed. (If the truth be known he actually rode a mare.)

Several years ago when a controversy arose about removing the Confederate monument from Third Street in Louisville, I opined in Kentucky Monthly that it should stay as a reminder of Kentucky's past, but we should build no more monuments to the Confederacy in Kentucky. One reader replied that she bet I had a Confederate flag hanging on the wall in my den.

I don't think we can relive the past. I am not a reenactor nor do I collect memorabilia of the past wars. I relive the past with memories of family, friends and having lived through some of the most tumultuous times from the mid-20th century to the present.

The opinion of this historian is to leave the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Capitol rotunda, if for no other reason than to contrast and complement that of President Abraham Lincoln.

In Lexington, it would be better if the statue of Morgan were moved to a museum site and the courthouse square turned into an outdoor site fully detailing the history of slavery and the Civil War in Kentucky.

We don't want to forget about the lessons of the Civil War. First, slavery was the cause for the war. Second, we should honor the men who fought for both sides.

After all, it was the American Civil War. Do not destroy those images because they tell as much about the people who erected them as they do about the events, causes and circumstances themselves.

My last comment has to do with the United States' dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There have been several television programs, including on KET, and news articles about commemorations of the end of World War II and the use of atomic weapons.

The usual argument of the time, first by atomic scientist Leo Szilard, and reiterated by the old "New Left" of the 1950s and 1960s, specifically that a demonstration of the bomb would have persuaded the Japanese government to surrender, is patently wrong.

Imperial Japan had a militaristic, racist culture. It was a brutal empire. My father, Pfc. William W. Ellis, fought in the last months of combat in the Philippines. He and his buddy, Taylor from Bowling Green, and my mother's first cousin from Frankfort barely avoided combat in Okinawa.

They would have been part of the invasion of the Japanese homeland in which even by a modest estimate the United States and its allies would have suffered a million casualties. Many more millions of Japanese would have died. Japan would possibly still be a Third World nation today instead of a trusted ally.

Only after two horrific bombings did Emperor Hirohito take command over his warlords. The surrender was nearly complete, the war-weary Japanese people submitted to a peaceful occupation and survived quite well.

We should always empathize with the hibakusha, those who survived the mental and physical wounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will not fully admit the culpability of Japan during World War II.

So I conclude by saying, thank you, President Harry S. Truman. Thank you, Gen. Leslie Groves, and thanks to all the scientists and servicemen who saved my father's life. He returned in 1946 to be my "Pop" for the next 51 years. His guidance in my lifetime was immeasurable.

We can forgive, but we should never forget. And we should not distort history.

P.S.: I proudly drive my Georgetown-built Camry.