- Historic Sites
D-Day: What It Meant
A soldier who landed in the second ware on Omaha Beach assesses the broadest implications of what he and his comrades achieved there
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
One of the more tragic consequences of a D-day defeat would have been the time given the Nazis to complete the Holocaust and to destroy the Resistance movement in occupied Europe. With the launching of the invasion, the Resistance was signaled to begin largescale sabotage of German communications. With the Resistance so exposed, German retaliation would have been swift and brutal. To rebuild the movement would have been slow and difficult. The thousands of additional lives lost in an extended Holocaust can be calculated; the effect on the establishment of Israel cannot.
That the war could have been ended by the assassination of Hitler is a human probability supported by the prior attempts on his life. That in a stalemated war it could have been ended between Germany and Russia by an accommodation reached between Hitler and Stalin is supported only by the recognized obsession of each dictator with staying in power, regardless of what was required to do so. This, however, runs off the scale of human probabilities.
Then there was the atomic bomb.
The two bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945 ended the war in Asia and the Pacific. This was a war that Japan could not have won, but it could have exacted a terrible price had defeat required an invasion.
That Germany would also have been targeted for the bomb is a human probability of the highest order. (In terms of death and destruction, the conventional bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was on the scale of that visited on Hiroshima some six months later.) To speculate on the response of Hitler to a threat of the bomb requires probing an exceedingly dark mind. He might have seen this new order of flame, smoke, and concussion as a Götterdämmerung scene fitting for his departure. I speculate no further than that. One way or another, the bomb would have ended the war in Europe.
Again, these are projections of things that never happened, of situations that never developed. There is no certain knowledge of what course history would have taken had the Persians won at Marathon, the British at Saratoga, or Napoleon at Waterloo, other than that in each instance oppression would have had a further run. And there is no certainty of the aftermath of a Nazi German victory on D-day, other than that it would have been followed by at least fourteen months of dark and bloody deeds that would have left an even more terrible scar on what we call civilization.
If we set aside probabilities, these, in sum, are the recorded facts: that D-day was won by the Western Allies; that it was fought at American insistence, with an American as supreme commander; that the most critical and hard-fought sector of the battle—Omaha Beach—was won by Americans against heavy odds imposed by terrain and enemy strength; and that from this battle to the end of the war, American preponderance in men and matériel continued to grow, and with it grew American influence and leadership in the Western Alliance. This pattern continued throughout the Cold War, the demands of survival denying any discharge from it.
From all this there emerges one overriding result: World leadership now rests upon the shoulders of a free people, committed to democracy—this at a level not equaled since the time of the Athenians and Marathon. It is a decisive turn in history; D-day is the pivotal point upon which this turn was made.
At nightfall after the Battle of Valmy (1792), in which the French revolutionary forces turned back Prussian and Austrian invaders, the poet Goethe, who was there, was asked by some dejected Prussians what he concluded from the defeat. “From this place,” he said, “and from this day forth commences a new era in the world’s history; and you can say you were present at its birth.”
It would not be amiss to address these words to all who fought the D-day battle on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944.