WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s comment that the U.S. Civil War was sparked by a lack of “compromise” drew criticism and reignited a debate over Confederate monuments and the role of slavery.
In an interview on Monday night with Fox News, Kelly was asked whether a Virginia church should have removed plaques honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee and President George Washington, both Virginians. Kelly said figures of the past could not be viewed through the lens of current moral values.
“I think it’s just very, very dangerous and it shows you … how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is,” Kelly said. “I will tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.”
“The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand,” Kelly added.
The comment sparked an immediate backlash, with critics noting that the United States had made a number of compromises on slavery before tensions eventually erupted into the war between the North and the South in 1861.
“Notion that Civil War resulted from a lack of compromise is belied by all the compromises made on enslavement from America’s founding,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African-American writer, wrote on Twitter.
Others accused Kelly of encouraging white supremacists by saying Lee was honorable.
“It’s irresponsible & dangerous, especially when white supremacists feel emboldened, to make fighting to maintain slavery sound courageous,” Bernice King, the daughter of American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., wrote in a Twitter post.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, asked on Tuesday about Kelly’s comment, told a news briefing: “General Kelly was simply making the point that just because history isn’t perfect, it doesn’t mean that it’s not our history.”
Replying to another question about whether figures such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general accused of war crimes and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, deserved to be honored, Sanders said: “The president has said that those are something that should be left up to state and local governments, and that’s not who I‘m here representing today.”
President Donald Trump has said Confederate monuments, many of which have been removed in recent years, should remain in place to preserve the country’s heritage.
He stirred tensions after a deadly rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, by insisting that counterprotesters were also to blame, drawing condemnation from some Republican leaders and praise from white supremacists.
Kelly had a distinguished military career and led the Department of Homeland Security before Trump tapped him to be chief of staff.
Kelly is viewed by some as a moderating influence in the turbulent White House, but has also stepped into controversy. Earlier this month, he attacked a Florida congresswoman who had characterized a call between Trump and a military widow who lost her husband in Niger as disrespectful.
Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis