- 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
Equally significant, American industry in 1944 was not only arming and supplying its own forces around the world but also producing more than 25 percent of the armament of its Allies. This imbalance was to grow. Britain, after five years of total war effort, had reached the limits of its resources. From the invasion on, it would at best maintain its forces at their D-Day levels while American forces in the theater grew until by the time victory was declared in Europe, U.S. ground forces were some three times greater than those of all its Western Allies combined.
This shift in the balance of power in the military structure of the Western Allies was drastic. In hindsight it represented the descent of Britain from, and the rise of America to, the top rank of world power. When the Western Alliance was first formed, after Pearl Harbor, Britain was the senior partner as far as forces in being were concerned. It was bearing alone the air battle over its isles and Germany, the ground war in North Africa, the submarine warfare in the Atlantic, and the war against Japan in the Pacific and Asia. All this while American forces and war industry were in the hectic stage of coming on stream.
This disparity in forces confronting the enemy was rapidly closed; by the eve of D-Day, thirty months later, the American commitment of forces worldwide was predominant. Outwardly, Britain’s equality in the partnership was maintained; actually, it had ceased to exist. In the war councils American insistence that the invasion be in 1944 overrode British reluctance to risk what its leadership knew would be the last great effort Britain could mount. (In justice, once committed to the invasion, Britain, under the drive of Prime Minister Churchill, held back nothing. It risked all.) As to the Supreme Command of the Allied invasion, no question arose: It would be American.
The American soldier caught on Omaha might well have thought the battle lost.
(A strong case has been made that there have been not two separate world wars in this century but one war interrupted by a twenty-year intermission for refurbishing armaments and antagonisms. With only a slight adjustment in thinking, the Cold War can be included as a third phase of this one war, making, overall, a conflict covering three-quarters of a century—in length somewhere between the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century and the Hundred Years’ War of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, if that be a distinction to cherish.)
History never seems to repeat itself in any exact sense: The close of World War I found America facing no military threat; World War II ended with the immediate threat of a Soviet Union bound for world domination. The price of aloofness here was disaster; America had to continue leadership and support of what was now called the Free World.
The Soviet Union was unable to sustain this long conflict of sometimes open warfare and always of worldwide clandestine war. When the Communist political and economic structure collapsed in 1989, the Soviet Union dissolved into deeply troubled component parts; the mighty Soviet military machine, including its nuclear weapons, was left at dangerous loose ends.
The breakup of colonial empires into independent nations brought freedom for them to engage in tribal, ethnic, and religious wars conducted by a new raft of ruthless tyrants. America, as the superpower, is looked to by the rest of the world for leadership and resources to solve the humanitarian problems of disease and famine that are always the camp followers of such wars. Also in this correctional field is the United Nations, a cumbersome organization with a mixed record of effectiveness. There is an uncertain relationship between America’s responsibilities, by reason of national strength, and those of the United Nations. Once again, great nations do not have small problems.
This troublesome picture has a brighter side that is often obscured by the hurly-burly of the everyday world: the century’s two major tyrannies, Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union, have been broken, though their doctrines and practices continue to surface in various hate groups. And I find no credible denial that with American leadership, freedom has a better chance of surviving and growing in the world today than at any time in history. While this leadership is not pro bono in its purest form, it is a historic departure from the tradition that territorial acquisition and economic gain are legitimate spoils of power.
Sir Edward Creasy decreed that the historical stature of a battle must be judged not only on the basis of victory that helped “make us what we are” but also on the basis of “what we probably should have been” had it been lost. He correctly tags this latter process as speculation, not always a productive exercise. “What if” and “if only” applied to history are something on the order of trying to prove a negative. This may be a harmless, ego-stroking exercise when practiced privately, but an irritant when imposed upon others. Sir Edward therefore insisted that the speculation he considered necessary to his method be within the bounds of “human probabilities only,” a porous restraint but helpful. In dealing with human affairs, one must use any tool available.