[Viewpoint] The long divisions of war

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[Viewpoint] The long divisions of war

History has a tendency to cast shadows over the present. A power that once dominated a bygone chapter in history can shape the ideology and vision of later generations. In this way the past looms over the future, holding hostage the creativity of the next generation. And in doing so, cultural power becomes tantamount to historical power.

The writing of history is always open to dispute in the context of education. This is particularly true - and the disputes get particularly bitter - in a country with a war-torn past. The Korean War (1950-1953) remains highly controversial in South Korea after several decades. So is the Civil War (1861-1865) in the United States after a century and a half.

The deadliest war in American history was a battle between the Southern slave states that formed the Confederate States of America and Northern slave-free states referred to as the Union. The country was bisected. Currently, Americans are holding various events to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The 11 Confederate states seceded from the federal government, which was led by President Abraham Lincoln, who campaigned for abolition. The Confederacy, led by its own president, Jefferson Davis, fought for independence from the United States. Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the Confederacy, and in a second-floor office at the presidential residence in Richmond hangs a large portrait of Davis with the Confederate flag in memory of the bravery and pride of the Southerners.

A tour guide explained that Davis advocated the sovereignty of each state, one of the founding concepts of the United States. Each state had the right to join and leave the Union. He fought against Lincoln’s broader federal-first concept. Davis lost the war, but never surrendered the Southerners’ ideals or insistence on states’ rights.

Lincoln ranks among most Americans as their greatest president. But he is less well-received in the South. In downtown Richmond stands a domineering statue of Davis. Lincoln’s statute, in contrast, is of modest size and was made recently in 2003. It is supposedly the first statue of Lincoln erected in any Southern state.

I asked a museum official why.

Q. Lincoln kept the United States together. Why is he less appreciated in the South?

A. A war leaves a lasting scar. The American Civil War resulted in deaths of 620,000. A war among people of the same nationality left a legacy of hostility and resentment to pass on from generation to generation. President Lincoln reunited the country, but could not make up for the Southerners’ sense of loss and bitterness from the extinction of their unique culture.


The South was wiped out. The North’s stampede, as dramatized in the film “Gone with the Wind,” left a scar on Southerners for life. Washington, D.C., and Richmond are just two hours away from each other and yet poles apart in their views of the war, exemplified by the dwarf Lincoln statue in Richmond compared to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

I met with a member of the Gettysburg Institute, historian Alexander McDowell, who observed that the Southerners’ view of history is unique. When asked why the Southerners bear resentment toward Lincoln, he said it was due to Lincoln’s rejection of peace negotiations. Lincoln believed only absolute victory and conquest could reunite the United States. He was, therefore, ruthless in his prosecution of the war.

But as soon as the Confederacy surrendered, he treated the South with tolerance. The North respected Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, and Lincoln didn’t punish him or try other Southern politicians or generals for treason. The war ended without any war criminals. That is what made Lincoln extraordinary and great.

McDowell added that history can be easily twisted, as there are always forces who want to interpret and distort history in their favor. His comment on history hits the nail on the head for South Koreans. The writers of history can easily fall prey to distortion and one-sidedness.

Korean history in high schools was demoted to an optional course during the Kim Young-sam government. Pro-North Korean forces capitalized on the neglect of modern Korean history. They promulgated slanderous campaigns against Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee and painted North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il in glowing colors. They abused the power of culture under liberal governments for their own self-serving purposes.

The Lee Myung-bak administration restored the dignity of Korean history by making it a mandatory high school course. New history textbooks will be published. This time, they should reflect the public’s right to a fair, unvarnished and complete view of history.

*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAngIlbo.


By Park Bo-gyoon
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