WASHINGTON — The top military official in the United States called on Thursday for “taking a hard look” at changing the names of Army bases honoring Confederate officers who had fought against the Union during the Civil War, disagreeing with President Trump and further exposing a divide between the military and the president.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Mr. Trump’s senior military adviser, told a House hearing that the base names had become an issue of “divisiveness.”
Ten Army bases that honor Confederate generals who fought to defend the slaveholding South have been the focus of a growing movement for change.
“There is no place in our armed forces for manifestations, or symbols of racism, bias or discrimination,” General Milley said.
The American Civil War, he said, “was an act of treason at the time, and those officers turned their backs on their oath” to the country.
General Milley had warned White House officials this month that he planned to give his unvarnished opinion to Congress if the base issue came up, an administration official said. But his assessment was nonetheless likely to anger the president, who has made clear his disdain for both the waves of demonstrations for racial justice that swept the country last month and the calls to rename the Confederate bases.
But just as Mr. Trump has shown an increasing willingness to air divisive and even racist viewpoints, military leaders have also shown more willingness to publicly express views at odds with their commander in chief’s.
General Milley infuriated the president last month when he issued a public apology for taking part in Mr. Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square for a photo op after the authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters. “I should not have been there,” General Milley said later.
The 10 bases named after Confederate generals are all in the South: Fort Bragg in North Carolina; Fort Hood in Texas; Fort Benning and Fort Gordon in Georgia; Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Pickett and Fort Lee in Virginia; Camp Beauregard and Fort Polk in Louisiana; and Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Critics argue that the men lionized by these base names were traitors who fought the very military that now honors them, and that glorifying them is a boon to racist groups.
Gen. Maj. George Pickett, for instance, led an infantry assault against Union soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg, while Col. Edmund Rucker, who was wounded and captured during the Battle of Nashville in 1864, was later released in a prisoner exchange organized by the Ku Klux Klan’s first grand wizard, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and General Milley, as well as senior Army, Navy and Air Force officials, have been anxious to show understanding of the public anger over racial inequity that has also manifested itself among those in uniform. They have held meetings to discuss the gap in the military between its mostly white officer corps and its diverse ranks, where 43 percent are people of color.
But Mr. Trump grew upset when he saw articles about the possibility of renaming bases, according to administration officials.
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, encouraged the president to block any attempt to change the names, the officials said. Mr. Trump has tweeted several times to voice his ire about renaming the bases, in posts that have infuriated senior defense officials.
“The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars,” Mr. Trump wrote in a string of Twitter posts. “Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!”
The president even threatened to veto the military spending bill passed by Congress if it contained a requirement to rename the bases.