It’s commonplace to read about the role sex plays in motivating behavior. But the power of ego to determine history is often ignored.
Consider the role that ego played in igniting the American Civil War (1861 – 1865).
According to The Destructive War, by Charles Royster, it wasn’t the cause of “states’ rights” that led 13 Southern states to withdraw from the Union in 1960-61.
It was their demand for “respect,” which, in reality, translates into “e-g-o.”
“The respect Southerners demanded did not consist simply of the states’ sovereignty or of the equal rights of Northern and Southern citizens, including slaveholders’ right to take their chattels into Northern territory.
“It entailed, too, respect for their assertion of the moral superiority of slaveholding society over free society,” writes Royster.
It was not enough for Southerners to claim equal standing with Northerners; Northerners must acknowledge it.
But this was something that the North was less and less willing to do. Finally, its citizens dared to elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Lincoln and his new Republican party damned slavery–and slaveholders–as morally evil, obsolete and ultimately doomed.
And they were determined to prevent slavery from spreading any further throughout the country.
Southerners found all of this intolerable.
The British author, Anthony Trollope, explained to his readers:
“It is no light thing to be told daily, by our fellow citizens…that you are guilty of the one damning sin that cannot be forgiven.
“All this [Southerners] could partly moderate, partly rebuke and partly bear as long as political power remained in their hands.
“But they have gradually felt that this was going, and were prepared to cut the rope and run as soon as it was gone.”
Only 10% of Southerners owned slaves. The other 90% of the population “had dog in this fight,” as Southerners liked to say.
Yet they so admired and aspired to be like their “gentleman betters” that they threw in their lot with them.
There were some Southerners who could see what was coming–and vainly warned their fellow citizens.
One of these was Sam Houston, the man who had won Texas independence at the 1836 battle of San Jacinto and later served as that state’s governor.
On April 19, addressing a crowd in Galveston, he said:
“Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you.
“But I doubt it.
“I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states’ rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates.
“But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.”
Four years later, on April 9, 1865, Houston’s warning became history.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
Huge sections of the South had been laid waste by Union troops and more than 258,000 Southerners had been killed.
The South had paid an expensive price for its fixation on ego.
Even more proved at risk a century later, when President John F. Kennedy faced off with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
In April, Kennedy had been humiliated at the Bay of Pigs when a CIA-sponsored invasion failed to overthrow the Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
So he was already on the defensive when he and Khrushchev met in Vienna.
Khrushchev pressed his advantage, threatening Kennedy with nuclear war unless the Americans abandoned their protection of West Berlin.
That August, faced with the embarrassment of East Berliners fleeing by the thousands into West Germany, the Soviet leader backed off from his threat.
In its place, he erected the infamous Berlin Wall, sealing off East and West Berlin.
Kennedy’s reaction: “That son of a bitch won’t pay any attention to words. He has to see you move.”
Then, most ominously: “If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it’s all over.”
In short: Kennedy was prepared to incinerate the planet if he felt his almighty ego was about to get smacked.
Nuclear missile in silo
What has proved true for states and nations proves equally true for those leading every other type of institution.
Although most people like to believe they are guided by rationality and morality, all-too-often, what truly decides the course of events is their ego.
For pre-Civil War Southerners, it meant demanding that “Yankees” show respect for slave-owning society. Otherwise, they would leave the Union.
For Kennedy, it meant playing a game of “chicken,” backed up with nuclear missiles, to show Khrushchev who Numero Uno really was.
It is well to keep these lessons from history in mind when making our own major decisions.