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The Moment Of The Century
Not so very long ago the whole embattled world waited for one man to say three words
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
June 6, 1944, was the pivot of the twentieth century. What had gone before that day led up to the invasion of France, and what followed was the consequence. At stake was the future of democracy. Fascism, communism, and democracy were locked in a death struggle that meant certain doom for one, if not two, of the competing ideologies. What was not certain was which one or ones.
At the beginning of June 1944, the Nazis were in control of the vast human and material resources of Europe, including big parts of Russia, but the Wehrmacht had failed to destroy the Red Army, which indeed was gaining strength daily and by this time had the Germans on the defensive. Hitler had the firepower to stop the Soviet advance, but only if he could concentrate his forces as Stalin was doing.
The Americans and British, meanwhile, were the only democracies in the world, and they had yet to play an important role in the European conflict. But they too had gathered strength and were ready to put their forces into a decisive struggle, beginning with the invasion.
If Hitler could stop that invasion, he would be free to move major forces from his western to his eastern front, enough perhaps to win a victory, almost certainly enough to impose a stalemate. Another consequence of failure on D-day would have been, probably, an immediate vote of no confidence in the presidential election for Franklin Roosevelt. (It is worth noting here that the United States was the only country to hold general elections during World War II.) The new governments would have a mandate to either prosecute the war more vigorously—which was hardly possible —or make an accommodation with the Nazis.
The same applied to the Soviet Union. If the long-anticipated and promised invasion failed, Stalin would have to attempt to make an even greater effort or—more likely because more possible—cut a deal with Hitler. He had, after all, done so in 1939. Either way—a Nazi-controlled Europe or a Europe split between the Communists and the Fascists—would be bad for democracy, possibly fatal.
“What if” history requires speculation. A “turning point” requires a genuine possibility that things could have gone the other way. So, did Hitler have any real reason to hope he could hurl back the Allies? Could the invasion have failed?
John Eisenhower says no. The son of the supreme commander is a rightly respected military historian, and his view is that D-day can be compared to engineers building a bridge. The engineers are willing to guarantee that the bridge can carry a specified weight when they know that in fact it can carry twice as heavy a load. The Germans could not hold their coastal fortifications (the Atlantic Wall, as Hitler named it) against the firepower the Anglo-Americans could bring down on a single spot, and once ashore, the Allies had an immense follow-up force that would sooner or later prevail.
I say yes. The invasion could not have been stopped by the Atlantic Wall, to be sure—fixed fortifications can always be overcome, another way of saying Hitler’s obsession with poured concrete (a result of his frontline experiences in World War I) cost him dearly—but it could have been stopped by weather. Although tide and moon conditions could be calculated in advance and were the heart of the intricate plan, wind and waves could not be predicted much before they happened. General Eisenhower had to count on suitable conditions on specific days— June 5, 6, 19, and 20, 1944. Everyone knows about his decision to stand down for a day because of weather; it is equally noteworthy that June 19 saw a storm severe enough to destroy one of the artificial harbors built after June 6 and to damage the other badly.
Another scenario might have been: If the weather had not in fact settled down on the afternoon of June 5 and the storm had continued even as the armada was crossing the Channel, either the fleet would have had to turn back and wait until June 19, or the Allies would at best be sending badly battered and seasick men off the landing craft and at worst find the craft swamped or turned over. There would have been no air support, nor any accurate naval fire. Had there been a failure on D-day, it would have taken the Allies months to plan and prepare another attempt.
What would have happened after a failure can only be guessed, but it seems safe to say that democracy would have been in big trouble.
Obviously there was still a long way to go to final victory, with critical battles to come, beginning with the June/July Battle of Normandy and including the Battle of the Bulge. But those battles would not have taken place without the success of D-day. To indulge in a bit of hyperbole, it was wind and waves that saved the world for democracy.
To bring this essay down to “the moment of the century,” rather than just the day, that moment came when General Eisenhower said, “O.K., let’s go,” and launched the invasion.