Reconstruction as America’s First Failure in Counterinsurgency
Warfare is often cited as the continuation of politics by other means, but the difference can be quite blurry. This is particularly the case in the tense period after the settlement of conventional hostilities, or in the insurgency that sometimes follows that settlement. Congressionally designed Reconstruction following the American Civil War had as a political goal, and in all honesty as a Republican Party goal, the “adoption of new state constitutions that guaranteed African American male suffrage” (Grimsley, p. 12). This would also guarantee Republican national power. In 1876 there were 162 African American legislators in state houses or the U.S. House of Representatives. Within less than two decades, there would be only a small number of representatives and by 1901 the last African American in the House of Representatives would lose his seat (Tarrow, p. 74). If the efficacy of war strategy is evaluated in the success obtained in seeking political and social objectives, Reconstruction is America’s first failure in counterinsurgency. The similarities to subsequent counterinsurgency failures are striking. A underresourced political objective was countered by a diffuse but increasingly organized and violent resistance. The victors during conventional hostilities failed to confront the turmoil their objectives provoked and innocent civilians were subjected to terrorism and organized political, social, and economic intimidation.
Reconstruction, which was terminated in a political bargain after the 1876 presidential election, was the morally righteous but politically motivated idea of so-called Radical Republicans who came to power after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As historian James Hogue has put it, Reconstruction was “the continuation of civil war by other means” (as quoted in Grimsley, p. 20). The fight against Reconstruction ultimately proved successful as Republicans lost interest in contesting the racially defined political order of resurgent Southern power bases. The Republicans abandoned their strategy on the belief that they could maintain their national power as a pro-business party dominate in the West and North (Tarrow, p. 74). As Republican disinterest in the well-being of newly emancipated citizens developed, national leaders within the party pushed the responsibility for ensuring voting and civil rights onto the state governments. At the same time, conservative white Southern interests increasingly organized their opposition.
Read the Remainder at Point of Decision.