I visited Cuba earlier this year with an American tour group and learned many things. One of them was that the U.S. government’s involvement in Cuban affairs before the Cuban Revolution was more extensive than what we’ve been taught – and not in a good way.
American involvement in Cuban affairs began as early as 1854, when the Ostend Manifesto was drafted by Southern expansionists who wanted to acquire Cuba from Spain in order to facilitate the expansion of their slave economy. Its publication outraged anti-slavery Northerners and the idea was shelved, although the Confederates would have pursued the acquisition of Cuba if they’d won the Civil War.
Many ex-Confederates moved to Cuba after the South lost the war because slavery was still legal there. They had little effect, however, because American businessmen were already heavily invested in Cuba and controlled its lucrative sugar industry.
The Spanish-American War
The Cuban War of Independence, inspired by Cuban patriot José Martí, began in 1895 and by 1897 the liberation army had the Spanish on the defensive. Then in 1898 the U.S. militarily intervened in the war after the American battleship U.S.S. Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, killing 266 U.S. sailors. President William McKinley asked Congress to declare war in April and in the subsequent Spanish-American War an American army defeated Spanish troops at the Battle of San Juan Hill and a U.S. naval force subsequently destroyed a Spanish naval squadron at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. These losses, coupled with other Spanish military defeats in the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, caused Spain to sue for peace and a ceasefire was established on August 12. In the formal peace treaty that was signed in December, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico were annexed by the U.S. and Cuba became a protectorate – a virtual U.S. colony. Cubans were not included in the negotiations with Spain.
During my visit to Cuba I learned that most Cubans resent America’s intervention in their independence war. They believe they were close to defeating the Spanish on their own, and the Maine was blown up as part of a secret scheme by U.S. imperialists to create an excuse for America to gain control of Cuba. (No definitive cause for the ship’s explosion has ever been identified.)
Opponents of the removal of Confederate monuments like to ask where it will stop, and claim the removal of any Confederate monument from public property is a threat to all of America’s historical monuments. But there’s a significant difference between Confederate monuments and flags that are used to commemorate history and those used to honor the Confederate cause.
Arizona’s Jefferson Davis Highway Monument
The Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway is a good example of something that’s not a historical monument, but a political statement in support of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis wasn’t a Confederate soldier, but the president of the Confederacy – the political leader of a traitorous, violent rebellion. After the South lost the Civil War he didn’t give up and was a proponent of the myth of the Lost Cause, a continuing propaganda campaign that claims the old South had a superior culture and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights. In other words, the causes for which the North and South fought were morally equivalent – the South just happened to have lost the war. Furthermore, Davis was an unrepentant white supremacist until he died in 1889.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) began promoting the idea of a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913. They were organized in 1894 to ostensibly honor the memory of Confederate veterans, and have succeeded in creating numerous Confederate monuments and memorials across the country, including a controversial Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Their Jefferson Davis Highway project was a response to the dedication of the Lincoln Highway. It was an attempt to suggest that Davis’ historical status should be similar to Lincoln’s.
The UDC succeeded in getting individual stretches of U.S. highway dedicated to Davis, and after the federal government began regulating the nation’s highways in 1926, the they asked that a single route be officially designated across the entire country. But their request was denied because highway officials found that their Jefferson Davis Highway was in reality just a “a collection of routes.” But the UDC didn’t give up and for many years continued to get various stretches of highway across the country dedicated to Davis on a piecemeal basis.
In 1943, for example, the UDC succeeded in getting a Jefferson Davis Highway monument erected along a highway near Duncan, Arizona, near the state line with New Mexico. Then in 1961, as part of their participation in Arizona’s Civil War Centennial commemoration, they succeeded in getting the state’s portion of U.S. 80 designated as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. The monument, however, wasn’t located along U.S. 80, so the UDC got it moved it to its present location along U.S. 60 east of Apache Junction, which was part of U.S. 80 back then.
The Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops
The Jefferson Davis Highway monument wasn’t the only Confederate monument the UDC erected in Arizona. On January 8, 1961, Arizona’s Governor Paul Fannin announced the official opening of the state’s Civil War Centennial commemoration, including a plan to erect a Civil War memorial at the state capital. Fannin was a conservative Republican and an ardent supporter of Arizona’s Senator Barry Goldwater, who opposed Federal enforcement of school desegregation in the South. During his 1960 election campaign Fannin called civil rights protest marches and sit-ins “un- American.” So it isn’t surprising that the UDC was able to hijack Arizona’s Civil War Centennial commemoration. In fact, they took advantage of the Civil War centennial to build several new memorials to the Confederacy across the nation.
On the day that Gov. Fannin made his announcement, for example, the UDC succeeded in having the Confederate flag fly over the state capitol building. Later that year, as previously mentioned, the UDC got Arizona’s stretch of U.S. 80 designated as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.
But their biggest achievement in Arizona was having the new Civil War monument at the state capital dedicated solely to Confederate troops. Its construction began in front of the State Senate building in 1961, but it wasn’t dedicated until February 14, 1962, as part of the state’s 50th birthday celebration. It wasn’t enough, however, for the UDC to dedicate a Confederate memorial on the anniversary of Arizona becoming a U.S. state. They also used the occasion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Confederacy’s official declaration of the short-lived Confederate Territory of Arizona on the same day in 1862. Arizona’s Secretary of State Wesley Bolin spoke at the dedication ceremony. After Bolin died in 1978 the legislature created Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza and most of the monuments at the capital, including the Confederate troop memorial, were relocated there.
The plaque fastened to the Confederate memorial reads:
ARIZONA CONFEDERATE TROOPS
This seems innocuous enough for it to be considered a historical monument, and not a political statement, as there were men from territorial Arizona that enlisted and fought in the Confederate army. But there’s also an inscription on the base in front of the memorial that reads, “A NATION THAT FORGETS ITS PAST HAS NO FUTURE.”
A speech given by Grace McLean Moses at the UDC’s 1962 national convention sheds some light on this phrase’s purpose and meaning. She described the Confederate soldier as being “touched by the divine hand of Providence” and “a knight in shining armor.” After the Civil War he “sought to pass on to future generations the ideals, manners and code of conduct for which the South has been justly renowned.” Then she warned that our nation stood at a crossroads of history and “we find America lacking in those qualities which made her great and without which she cannot hope to endure.”
Those qualities, she explained, were the ones that glorified the Confederate soldier: “Let us stand fast, in a world of change and unrest, for those high ideals for which they gave so much. Only then shall we truly honor them. It has been written that ‘a nation that forgets its past can have no future.’ It is our labor of love to make the memory of the Confederate soldier eternal.”
The speech was a thinly veiled criticism of the growing African-American civil rights movement and the Federal government’s enforcement of desegregation in the South. The fact that her speech included the same phrase that’s inscribed on the Arizona Confederate monument shows that it was part of a nationwide political strategy. The UDC, in fact, intentionally exploited the opposition to the civil rights movement in order to increase its membership during this time.
The UDC is not just a bunch of “nice old ladies.” Since their beginning they have been a political organization that has promoted the myth of the Lost Cause in a myriad of ways. During the Great Depression, for example, they succeeded in getting the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to use public money to construct numerous Confederate monuments throughout the South. They have also been accused of manipulating the narratives that were collected from elderly former slaves by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project.
“In light of everything that has happened…we can’t go through our daily lives honoring symbols of hate, symbols of separation and symbols of segregation right now,” said Bolding, surrounded by like-minded activists at the state capital in Phoenix.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey subsequently said that he would ask for a governmental review of the marker because he’d rather see the state’s highways named after Arizonans. But the Arizona Republic newspaper reported on May 28, 2017, that Gov. Ducey never asked the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names (ASBGHN) to consider removing the monument or renaming the highway.
In August of 2017 three proposals to remove the name Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway from the stretch of U.S. 60 east of Apache Junction were received from the public by the ASBGHN. The board held a public meeting to discuss these proposals on September 25, 2017. The board’s staff presented research which indicated there probably wasn’t a Jefferson Davis highway anywhere in Arizona anymore, and that the status of the Jefferson Davis monument on U.S. 60 is the responsibility of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), as it’s located in the public right-of-way.
On October 2 the group Progress Now Arizona delivered a petition with more than 700 signatures to Gov. Ducey’s office calling on him to use his powers to cut through the red tape and have the roadside monument removed and the highway renamed.
On October 13 the Arizona Department of Transportation issued a letter wherein they stated that their official position is that a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway no longer existed anywhere in Arizona, and that the Jefferson Davis monument along U.S. 60 is privately owned. Subsequently, on October 23 an ADOT spokesperson said that the agency’s director believes the monument should be relocated to private property because it keeps getting vandalized, and Confederate groups, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, periodically gather around it to conduct ceremonies that could create safety problems because the monument’s in the public right-of-way. Nothing has happened since then, except that the monument was vandalized again in November.
As for the Confederate soldier memorial at the state capital, on June 5, 2017, several of Arizona’s black leaders called for the removal of all of Arizona’s Confederate monuments. A spokesman for Gov. Ducey responded that their complaint about the Confederate soldier memorial on the Wesley Bolin plaza was misdirected at him because the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission is in charge of the plaza’s monuments, even though the governor appoints two of the commission’s members.
When Gov. Ducey was asked about the issue on August 14, 2017, he said, “We fought the Civil War and the United States won the Civil War. We freed the slaves and we followed up with civil rights after that.”
In August the memorial was vandalized twice with paint. “I think it’s absolutely irresponsible and non-productive. It does absolutely nothing to promote the cause of removing symbols of hate in the state when individuals take matters into their hands and vandalize state property,” said state Rep. Reginald Bolding in response to the vandalism.
At the February 14, 2018, meeting of the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission State Representative Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, a non-voting advisory member of the commission, asked the commission’s chair, Kevin DeMenna, to consider putting a discussion about the mall’s Confederate soldier memorial on a future commission agenda. She explained that many Arizona voters had told her they don’t like the memorial because they believe it honors the Confederate cause, and that a public discussion about it could be useful. Chairman DeMenna was noncommittal and soon gaveled the meeting to an abrupt close.
Which Confederate Monuments Should Be Removed?
The real problem with removing Confederate monuments from public property is deciding which ones should remain because they are truly historical, and which ones should be removed because they glorify the Confederate cause. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) has tried to address this issue. The SUVCW is the official successor to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Its members are descendants of Union soldiers that served during the Civil War – white and black.
SUVCW leaders issued the organization’s official policy on Confederate flags and monuments in 2017. They condemned their use by hate groups, but called for the protection of Confederate “veterans” monuments, and supported the flying of Confederate flags at Civil War battlefields and in museums. They also told their members they are free to express whatever personal opinions they might have about the issue, but they can’t to do it in the name of the SUVCW, and all inquiries from the press should be forwarded to their national office for an official response. It’s obvious that the SUVCW is reluctant to endorse all types of Confederate monuments, or flying the Confederate flag in any situation.
A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a public park, for example, might be a historical monument if it’s located on a battlefield where Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fought, or in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. But if it’s located elsewhere, it could be considered a political statement. The Memorial to Arizona’s Confederate Troops also falls into this gray zone. At first glance, it appears to be a simple monument to the Confederate troops from Arizona, but its history and the inscription in front of it indicate that it’s a political statement.
Americans have the right to make these sorts of decisions about the public monuments displayed in their communities. The complaint that removing a Confederate monument from public property amounts to erasing history is nonsense. In fact, when the monument glorifies the Confederacy, its removal actually serves to reinstate history by refuting the myth of the Lost Cause.
On June 4, 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that more than 1,700 monuments, place names and other symbols honoring the Confederacy remain in public spaces.
On Saturday, March 2, 1996, I was surprised to receive a large, padded envelope in the mail. The return address showed it had been sent from New Mexico by someone named Tony Merten. I didn’t know who that was until I opened the envelope and found a bright red t-shirt with a large black graphic on its front. The image was a copy of the famous 1886 photo of the hostile Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three of his warriors, taken in Cañon de los Embudos in the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico during their peace talks with U.S. General George Crook. There was also some text surrounding the image on the t-shirt that read, “MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS.”
There wasn’t a note in the package, but the t-shirt reminded me that I’d met Tony at an environmental workshop on public lands grazing at Arizona State University a few weeks earlier, the first weekend of February. The event was sponsored by the Arizona Grazing Clearinghouse, a loose consortium of local public lands grazing activists. I was a founding member of that group and had been one of the featured speakers at the workshop. Prior to that event I’d never met or heard of Tony, but he came up to me after I finished my bit and introduced himself. He complimented me on my presentation and also said that he appreciated all the articles I’d written on the topic and was glad to finally meet me in person.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been recognized for my work. In 1993 I’d been chosen by the National Wildlife Federation as Arizona’s representative to go to Washington, D.C., for several days as part of a campaign to lobby Congress for public lands range reform. And I was one of the local environmentalists selected to sit on the panel with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1994 when he visited Phoenix to discuss his Rangeland Reform ’94 proposals. But it was quite memorable to have a stranger seek you out at a crowded meeting to shake your hand and compliment you in person.
Several days after receiving the t-shirt I was shocked to learn that Tony had been found dead at his remote home in rural southern New Mexico from an apparent suicide. The news story said that Tony had been under suspicion by local authorities for shooting about a dozen cattle grazing on public land near his house, and that he’d recently sent letters to friends implying that he was going to kill himself. One of those folks had notified the Luna County Sheriff’s office and on February 28 they discovered Tony was sitting dead in the greenhouse behind his house with a pistol in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. He’d obviously been dead for several days. I realized that sending me the t-shirt was one of the last things he’d done, but more importantly, I couldn’t understand why he had killed himself. I decided to keep the t-shirt to remember him.
I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t understand why Tony had killed himself. One of his friends, Will Baker, was a writer. He was so puzzled by Tony’s suicide that he published a book about it in 2000 titled Tony and the Cows. The book included more details about the official investigation into Tony’s death. The effort to identify the killer of the cattle began on February 15 when their carcasses were discovered. Investigators visited the few homes in the area later that day to ask if anyone had seen or heard anything, and Tony’s house was one of them. Tony denied any knowledge of the shootings. The investigators found more evidence the next day and it seemed to point to Tony. They stopped at his place to talk to him again, and were soon joined by the rancher who had owned the cattle. Tony became defensive and the conversations ended.
The following day, February 17, Tony penned the letter to his friends wherein he wrote that humans were destroying the Earth’s ecosystem and he saw “no hope” for the planet. “It is better to check out now than sometime later,” he explained. “Tell everyone I loved them all.” Tony may have killed himself later that day, or another day afterwards, but the official date on his death certificate is February 27.
A few days ago I was cleaning out my dresser and at the bottom of one of the drawers I came across the t-shirt Tony had sent me. I noticed, for the first time, that it’s size was extra large, which made me think that Tony had probably worn it, as he had been a large, athletic man.
Finding the t-shirt also renewed my bewilderment about why Tony had killed himself. Baker suggested in his book that Tony had been very lonely because he lived out in the Chihuahuan Desert by himself and hadn’t had a girlfriend in more than a year. But I decided I would use modern information technology to search through public records online for more information about Tony.
I discovered that his given name was George Anthony Merten. He was called Tony because his father’s first name was George too. He was born in 1952 in Los Angeles and grew up in West Covina, a suburb of LA. He had two brothers and three sisters, and was a star wrestler at West Covina’s Edgewood High School. He subsequently wrestled for the University of Redlands, in nearby San Bernardino County. My online research also discovered that Tony was divorced, and had no children.
On April 12, 1980, a group of 37 people left San Francisco with the intent to backpack across the entire U.S. They traversed 13 states before finishing at Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park on May 27, 1981. Tony was one of the hikers interviewed there by a newspaper reporter covering the event for the The Baltimore Sun.
“I wish it could go on forever,” he told her. He said that he’d left the U.S. Army, where he’d achieved the rank of lieutenant, in order to join the hike.* “I have achieved autonomy in my life,” he explained, and said that the hike had given him freedom from “boredom, routine, and authority.” Financial solvency was the key, he told her, and he explained he’d achieved it by saving most of his Army pay.
When Tony died he was a leader of the Southern New Mexico Group of the of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, and an active member of many other environmental groups. Perhaps environmental activism had become the most important thing in his life, and when it looked like it was going to be taken away from him, he decided to end it? But part of his decision to die obviously came from his belief that humans were irrevocably destroying the Earth’s ecosystem. So, in honor of Tony, let’s compare the current situation with the way things were back in 1996.
In regards to the specific issue of livestock grazing on Western public lands, today’s situation isn’t great, but it’s better than the bad old days, when public land managers routinely ignored environmental laws in favor of the ranchers. The fees ranchers pay to graze their cattle on public land were never increased to match the rates paid for private grazing land. But due to the steady pressure applied by local grazing activists, accompanied by lawsuits from conservation groups like Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, existing environmental laws were finally applied to many grazing allotment management plans – despite strong opposition from ranchers.
In Arizona, for example, many perennial streams on public land have been protected from livestock damage and forage utilization rates on numerous upland pastures have been limited to conservative levels. Public land managers have also started admitting that some areas, like hot deserts, aren’t suited for grazing. And conservation groups have “bought out” ranchers holding grazing permits for public lands that needed to be permanently retired from grazing.
Overall, however, there have been significant improvements in livestock grazing management on the nation’s public lands, especially those with sensitive resources. This was accomplished by a generation of dedicated Western environmentalists. Some of the major contributors, like Tom Lusting, Joe Feller, and Bob Ohmart, are already gone. Their achievements are significant because livestock grazing is the most pervasive use of our public lands, with about 27,000 permittees grazing livestock on about 270 million acres.
But these improvements in the management of livestock grazing on public lands are threatened, like so much other progress, by the anti-environmental agenda of the Donald Trump administration. Since he took office in 2017 some Forest Service staff in Arizona have arbitrarily classified controversial livestock management decisions as categorically exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public review process. And the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing a national pilot project that turns livestock management over to grazing permittees, without any public input, in order to give ranchers more “flexibility” because they know “better than anyone” what to do.
If Tony were alive today I presume he would want to oppose Trump’s regressive environmental policies. Maybe, however, he would think activism is entirely futile now because there’s no hope for the planet because human caused climate change from the burning of fossil fuels is accelerating in alarming ways that weren’t predicted. I wish he was still here though, so that we could try and convince him to help us fight.
* According to the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives, George Anthony Merten served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 06/24/77 to 06/23/80, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant.