WASHINGTON — Pentagon leadership said Thursday that a process is underway to evaluate the potential removal of Confederate symbols from U.S. military installations, a move that falls out of step with President Donald Trump, who said last month that his administration would "not even consider" such an action.
"There is a process underway, by which we affirm what types of flags are authorized on U.S. military bases," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper explained before the House Armed Services Committee when asked about the potential removal of the Confederate battle flag as well as other associated symbols of the Confederacy.
"I want to make sure that we have an approach that is enduring and that could withstand legal challenge but that unites us and most importantly helps build cohesion and readiness," Esper added.
A push to take the names of Confederate leaders off U.S. military bases has gained renewed force after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, a black man, after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes.
When asked whether U.S. Army bases named after Confederate generals harmed morale or unit cohesion in the military, the nation's highest-ranking officer offered a personal story.
"For those young soldiers that go on to a base, Fort Hood or Fort Bragg or wherever, named after a Confederate general, they can be reminded that that general fought for an institution of slavery that may have enslaved one of their ancestors," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley explained.
"I had a staff sergeant when I was a young officer who actually told me that at Fort Bragg. He said he went to work every day on a base that represented a guy who had enslaved his grandparents," he added.
"I personally think that the original decision to name those bases after Confederate generals and the 10 bases you're talking about in the Army, those were political decisions back in the 1910s and '20s and '30s and World War One, World War Two timeframe, and they're going to be political decisions today," he said.
"Some think it's heritage, others think it's hate," Milley added.
"The American Civil War was fought, and it was an act of rebellion and an act of treason at the time against the Union, against the stars and stripes and against the U.S. Constitution," Milley said.
Last month, Trump, in a string of tweets, wrote that U.S. Army bases named after generals who fought for slaveholding states of the Confederacy in the Civil War will not be renamed.
The president contended in his June 10 tweets that the Confederate names of the bases have become part of the nation's great "heritage."
"It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc. These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom," Trump wrote on Twitter.
Trump's statement that his administration "will not even consider" changing the names came three days after a spokesman for the U.S. Army said, "The secretary of the Army is open to having a bipartisan conversation regarding the renaming" of 10 Army bases named after Confederate generals who had served in the U.S. Army, the nation's oldest service branch.
Last month, both the Marine Corps and Navy announced plans to ban the Confederate battle flag from being displayed on vessels and installations.
— CNBC's Dan Mangan contributed to this report.