- Historic Sites
D-Day: What It Meant
A soldier who landed in the second wave on Omaha Beach assesses the broadest implications of what he and his comrades achieved there
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
A conjecture, worthy of a certainty, is that no American soldier on Omaha Beach at high noon, June 6, 1944, gave thought to being present at a turning point in world history. Any abstract thinking he may have done was more likely along the lines of being in a major debacle. The English Channel to his back, his weapons, fouled by saltwater and sand, he was largely naked before an enemy firing down from trenches and massive concrete bunkers along high bluffs looming to his immediate front. Fortunately for his mission, if of no comfort to his person, his allies invading Europe by sea and air along some fifty miles of less forbidding Normandy coast were in better straits.
Their battle is popularly known as D-Day. Their mission was to break through the German coastal defenses and secure a lodgment area in Normandy for the mustering of the armed might of the Western Allies, then assembled in England. This accomplished, they were to attack and destroy the German armies in Western Europe and, in concert with the forces of the Soviet Union, advancing from the east, invade Germany and destroy the Nazi regime that had held most of Europe in bondage and terror over the past five years.
June 6, 1944, was the final, pivotal point of America’s march to global power.
This generalized American soldier’s lack of interest in history at the darkest moment of his travail is understandable. In the end, of course, he prevailed on Omaha and, with his allies, secured the lodgment. This done, the ultimate success of the mission became as much a given as war ever affords. Costly battles that followed in Normandy, at Arnhem, and in the Ardennes delayed but could not halt the Allied armies that continued to grow in strength, while those of their foes steadily eroded without hope of recovery. By any sort of reasoning, the D-Day victory was decisive to victory in Western Europe.
Now, fifty years later, a clearer perspective of this victory shows that it not only was decisive in a theater of operations of a long-ago war but can also be strongly argued as the decisive turning point in America’s long, hesitant march to the peak of power in a world of vast change in its every human aspect: political, social, economic. This perspective is supported by an abundance of recorded history. The battle and the blind avalanche of events leading to it are exhaustively documented. The half-century since is also minutely recorded; for many it is within living memory. For the first time, much of it has been under the electronic eye of television. Unfortunately—as with the written word—this inherently impartial eye can be manipulated to blink selectively. In time, however, the decisive direction of history emerges from these encumbrances with distinct clarity. Just so, from the varied records of this century emerges the trace of America’s sometimes reluctant march to global power, with June 6, 1944, as its final, pivotal point.
No such perspective is now available on America’s tenure in power or on the uses it will make of it, for on time’s long calendar it is a position just assumed. Apart from its effectiveness in serving American interests in the Gulf War and its limitations and dangers in serving European interests in the Balkans and in serving humanitarian interests in Somalia, the record is blank, as only the pages of history yet to be enacted can be blank. The sole certainty is that this history, when enacted, will bear the imprint of what the late Barbara Tuchman identified as the “Unknown Variable…namely man.” Over time this variable has demonstrated a strong proclivity toward illogical and unpredictable behavior—a trait made more confusing by frequent infusions of acts of sense and conscience.
So, this future of America as the global superpower is best left to its uncharted devices. There is no existing tool for determining its course. There is a tool, however, for examining the voluminous record surrounding D-Day as the pivotal point in this march to power. It is best to stipulate that this tool is not the computer. Its astounding capabilities are invaluable, but it cannot, of course, solve problems involving tumultuous human emotions. At present the human stuff, the pulse, of history can be ciphered only by us humans, using humanly conceived criteria against which to measure actions and events; an inexact tool, but our own.
The criteria by which I measure the place of D-day in the unending parade of world history were propounded by Sir Edward S. Creasy, a noted nineteenth-century historian and jurist, in his classic study Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. This work, first published in 1851, was followed in quick succession by five more editions over the next three years and frequent reprints since. It has been studied by generations of historians and read for pleasure by even more history buffs. The criteria are as I extract them from the text of the preface of the first edition. Their prose style is of his period; their content has stood up remarkably well to the test of time and dissent; I know of none better: