In an Op-Ed piece in today's Times, author Edward Ball reminds Americans that how they remember the Civil War still makes a huge difference in how they see ourselves today. For instance, as Ball says, the desire to regard American history as a fairly steady path toward freedom and tolerance and the refusal to come to terms with the War's essential tragedy "presents us with an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge" and blinds us to the real legacy of the Civil War.
Even progressives tend to look to the Civil War as a tremendous collective sacrifice that resulted in a resounding new birth of freedom. The only problem with this view is that it almost completely conflicts with the facts. The War led to a brief period of Reconstruction in which ex-slaves enjoyed a fleeting taste of freedom, only to be crushed once again by 100 years of retrenchment, bitter injustice, and unparalleled oppression. As Ball says, the South lost the War and won the peace by demanding, often with force, that white supremacy prevail.
Until the country as a whole learns to confront this history more forthrightly, racial injustice will remain its greatest challenge. Even a second presidential term for Mr. Obama, however unprecedented that would be, cannot "redeem the tragedy at the core of American history." Only Americans' shared willingness to acknowledge and learn from this tragedy can do that.