It may seem strange that the outbreak of hostilities between warring factions in the Middle East would bring to mind the peaceful, idyllic fields of south-central Pennsylvania, but it is difficult to watch the news coming out of Israel and Palestine these days without recalling the important role that Gettysburg played in 1978 to bring an unlikely peace to that region.
Seldom is there something happening in the world that does not in some way connect to or a least remind one of Gettysburg. I don’t just mean the battle by that name, but the famous address that Lincoln gave there, the decades of struggle over the memory of the place, the evolution of the park into a national park, and much more that falls under the general subject heading of Gettysburg.
In the last century and a half, numerous U.S. presidents have made use of Gettysburg symbolism to further some larger political goal with varying degrees of success. Woodrow Wilson used a speech at the 50th anniversary of the battle to promote his hope for peace. Months later, the world erupted into the War to End All Wars. At the 75th anniversary, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to an estimated 200,000 people at the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, while another 100,000 clogged the roads unable to reach the field. Months later, the world exploded into World War II.
In 1979, however, quite unexpectedly, Gettysburg and a president played a key role in bringing about the end of millennia of hostilities between two long-warring peoples.
carter’s peaceful plan
Jimmy Carter had long been a Civil War buff, and its greatest battle was seldom far from his thoughts. One of his ancestors had fought at Gettysburg, and in 1976, while he watched the results of the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania come in, candidate Carter noticed that he had won the vote in the electoral district that included the battlefield. To his delight, he remarked, “We ought to tell the Georgians that we finally won in Gettysburg.”
Two years later, while sitting at the presidential retreat at Camp David just a few miles southwest of the famous battlefield, his thoughts drifted there again. He was in the fourth day of intense negotiations designed to bring peace between Egypt and Israel — a conflict that predated Moses.
The leaders of both nations were there with him (Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel), but their views could scarcely have been farther apart. On one key negotiating point, Begin had declared, “My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off before I ever agree.”
In Carter’s view the two leaders were thinking in the wrong direction. “I tried for three days to get them to talk about the future,” Carter said. “But all they would talk about was the past.” Faced with the standoff and searching for some way to bring the parties to a different level of thought, Carter first kept them apart for a while, then proposed an excursion. “We went to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg one day,” he later recalled, “and I made them both agree not to talk about the Middle East or about anything that happened since 1865.”
Thanks to the meaning and mythology attached to the Gettysburg story since 1863 (much of it carved in stone in more than a thousand monuments and markers), Carter’s choice of destination was a fertile place for symbolic demonstration and persuasion. Two powers of the same region, grown from the same land but with differing cultural histories, once differed so greatly from each other that they engaged in the bloodiest war the continent had ever known. The worst of the fighting happened on the ground they were touring.
When the war was over, the two powers became one again, healed their wounds, set aside many of their differences, and went on to form the most powerful nation on earth. If North and South could accomplish this, then Egypt and Israel had a chance as well. As he admitted later in his memoirs, Carter wanted to demonstrate the high cost of war and persuade the two leaders to sign the first-ever peace agreement between Israel and an Arab nation.
The Egyptian took to the field right away. As a military student, Egypt’s Sadat had studied Gettysburg in detail and recognized it as the turning point in the Civil War. Israel’s Begin, however, was slower to the mark as he knew nothing about the battle. When the group passed the monument commemorating Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, however, Begin recited it from memory in a thick Yiddish accent, probably adding an Israeli emphasis to the line “that this nation…shall not perish from the earth.”
It took many more hours of negotiating, but less than a week later the three leaders took part in a historic signing ceremony for an agreement that brought peace between the two long-warring nations. Menachem Begin even gave in on his sticking point without losing an eye or his right hand.
lessons from gettysburg
To be sure, many factors helped bring about the Egyptian–Israeli peace in 1978, most of them having nothing to do with Gettysburg. But years after they signed the accords, the participants expressed a belief that the trip to America’s hallowed ground had meant a great deal. Carter said as much in a speech long afterward.
Sadat made one interesting observation. Since our visit to Gettysburg, he had been thinking that Carter, as a Southerner, could understand what it meant to be involved in a terrible war, and also knew how difficult it was to rebuild both the material things and the spirit of the people after a recognized defeat.
For Carter, Gettysburg was a reminder of the high cost of war and an example of reconciliation among adversaries. Sadat, lured by the military aspect of the field, felt the hope and healing in the post–Vietnam era ideas it elicited. Begin was taken with the ideas embodied in Lincoln’s immortal address.
Though perhaps not in the way he intended, Carter’s idea had worked. Both negotiating parties found meaning in the Gettysburg story that, though different from the other, helped inspire their thoughts and actions toward peace.
With war in the Middle East again the lead news story, one wonders if there might not be some magic left in the meaning of Gettysburg and whether a trip to the battlefield might someday encourage opposing leaders to find common ground, even if that ground lies in south-central Pennsylvania.
This essay was adapted from Thomas A. Desjardin’s book These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory (DaCapo, 2003).