D-Day: What It Meant

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“They [the fifteen battles] have for us an abiding and actual interest, both while we investigate the chain of causes and effects, by which they have helped to make us what we are; and also while we speculate on what we probably should have been, if any one of those battles had come to a different termination.” Concerning battle causes and effects: “I speak of the obvious and important agency of one fact upon another, and not of remote and fancifully infinitesimal influences.” He discards fatalism and inevitability as factors in history but recognizes “the design of The Designer” in human affairs. In something of an aside, he notes: “I need hardly remark that it is not the number of killed and wounded in a battle that determines its general historical importance.”

Pursuant to his criteria and method, he named the victory of the Greeks over the Persians on the Plain of Marathon (490 B.C.) as the first truly decisive battle in world history, because it ensured that the “whole future progress of human civilization” would stem from Greece, not from Persia. Among the great armed conflicts of the era, he wrote, to Marathon alone can be traced the spirit that “secured for mankind the treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, the liberal enlightenment of the western world and the gradual ascendancy for many ages of the great principles of European civilization.”

Continuing up to his own time, he judged only fourteen other battles of like decisiveness in shaping his nineteenthcentury world, with which, with the British Empire as its superpower, he seemed quite content.

Thirteenth on his list is the American Continental Army’s defeat of the British at Saratoga (1777). In his opinion, this victory decided the outcome of the Revolution, making possible the founding of the American Republic. He observed, with some awe, that the American citizen had in two centuries and a half “acquired ampler dominion than the Roman gained in ten [centuries].” To Britain, France, and Russia—the great powers of his day—he added “the great commonwealth of the western continent, which now commands the admiration of mankind.”

Sir Edward did not venture far into predictions on the future of this “great commonwealth.” Perhaps his judicial experience made him wary of guessing at human directions. He did, however, quote at length the predictions of his noted contemporary Tocqueville, the brilliant firsthand French observer of the American phenomenon. Tocqueville’s predictions were not modest. He was emphatic that nothing could halt America’s growth and power. His predictions about the limits of America’s territorial and population expansion were quickly overtaken and passed, but his basic premise has proven sound.

America’s potential as a world power was first put to the test in World War I. Entry into the war ensured the Allies’ victory and secured a voice in the political squabbling that followed. Disillusioned by the cost of a war that yielded such obviously dangerous and desolate results, popular American opinion forced the return to an aloof position in world affairs; frequent reference was made to President Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements. Then, with no military threat from any quarter, the country reduced its formidable wartime forces to negligible size and, in the heady postwar boom, turned to creating domestic problems, principally the devastating economic depression of the 1930s.

The world war of the 1940s, which incidentally ended the Depression, was the most critical test of national character since the American Revolution and the Civil War. From the Revolution came the nation; from the Civil War, a firmly united nation; from World War II, a nation that was one of two dominant world powers. The almost immediate confrontation that followed with the Soviet Union, the other power, developed into the long and costly Cold War. (Veterans of Korea and Vietnam can rightly call this title an oxymoron.) America emerged from that grueling test, which included the period of raucous and violent dissent over Vietnam, as victor and undisputed king of World Power Mountain. This distinction seems to rouse no great outpouring of national pride, because, perhaps, the reality of it reveals responsibilities that are onerous, homage that is given grudgingly and usually along with demands, blame that exceeds glory, and costs that impinge upon serious domestic needs. A thick national skin and a cool, unblinking eye appear essential to the holder of global power.

To speculate on how Sir Edward Creasy might measure D-Day against his criteria would be grossly presumptuous and might disturb his rest. I apply his criteria and method as I interpret them, nothing more.

I have noted that the “causes and effects” leading to D-Day and afterward are extensively and variously recorded. From the generally agreed-upon hard facts in this record—not upon “remote and fancifully infinitesimal influences,” which Sir Edward disdained—it stands out as the time when and place where American leadership of the Western Allies was unequivocally asserted. This was a mantle bestowed not as a generous gesture but for the preponderance of American manpower and matériel committed to the battle.