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D-Day: What It Meant

June 2024
15min read

A soldier who landed in the second wave on Omaha Beach assesses the broadest implications of what he and his comrades achieved there

On the morning of June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied troops waded into the waters off Omaha Beach at Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France, in what was to become the largest seaborne invasion in history. National Archives

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:

“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.

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.

That D-Day could have been an Allied defeat with farreaching consequences was a decidedly human probability. The generalized American soldier who was left, at the start of this essay, caught in the shambles of death and destruction on Omaha Beach would have been justified in thinking that the battle there had been lost. This thought also plagued Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding the American ground forces. In his autobiography General Bradley wrote that from reports he received around midday of the carnage on Omaha, he had to believe that the assault there “had suffered an irreversible catastrophe.” He wrote that at the time he privately considered shifting further landings to the American Utah Beach on the right and the British beaches on the left. Later in the afternoon, with reports of the attack moving inland, he gave no more thought to evacuating Omaha.

The “what ifs” of a lost Omaha are all ominous: an attempt to evacuate under fire would have been more costly in landing craft and casualties than the initial assault. Shifting the troops and equipment of the entire Army corps destined for Omaha to other beaches that were already crowded would have raised confusion to the level of chaos. A German counterattack, which never came, would have accomplished the same havoc as an ordered withdrawal. The loss of Omaha would have left a gap of some twenty miles between Utah and the British beaches.

The German high command was slow in identifying the June 6 assault as the Allies’ main effort and in assembling the first-class panzer and infantry divisions that it had available to contain and repulse it. Even so, it is highly unlikely that the gap in the Allies’ line would not have been quickly discovered and exploited to flank the adjoining beachheads. As it was, with Omaha Beach won, the situation of the Allies remained serious. Attacks beyond the beachheads were brought to a slow and bloody crawl by stiff resistance in the difficult hedgerow terrain. The British objective of taking the important communications center of Caen on the first day was not accomplished until six weeks later. General Bradley observed in his autobiography that had Hitler launched the forces he had available within the first week of the invasion, “he might well have overwhelmed us.”

The “human probability” that D-Day could have ended as a Dunkirk, or as did the amphibious assault on Gallipoli in the First World War, is too real to be disregarded. Had it happened, Pandora, that well-known packager and purveyor of disasters, would have had a memorable day. The immediate military ill would have been the reduction of Germany’s three-front land war to two fronts. Then the major part of their sixty-one divisions, including eleven panzer, stationed in France and the Low Countries, could have been shifted with small risk to both the Eastern Front confronting the Soviet Union and Italy confronting the Western Allies.

The Eastern Front stretched at the time from the tip of Finland south to the tip of Greece, well away from Germany’s eastern border. In Italy the Allies had taken Rome but were faced with continuing the slow, costly attacks up the mountainous spine of the Apennines.

Even with the major reinforcements made available by repulse of the invasion, it is unlikely that the German Army could have repeated its great offensives of the early war. But that it could have stalemated both fronts is a probability well within the human range.

Churchill, before the invasion, called it “much the greatest thing we have ever attempted.” Defeat would have been crushing to Britain, in both military losses and morale. America would have made good its own losses but would have had to brace for a longer, more costly war, and largely alone. The effect on Germany, of course, would have been a revival of faith in Hitler. It would also have provided time to produce new weapons that would have had dramatic effect on the war right up to its final exclamation point: the atomic bomb. On D-Day this bomb was some fourteen months away from its first appointment in Hiroshima.

Time is more of the essence in war than in any other destructive endeavor. Given fourteen months, Hitler’s Germany would certainly have been into mass production of the jet plane, ballistic missiles capable of wreaking great damage on Britain, and ground-to-air missiles that could destroy bombers by tracking the heat from their engines.

These were not really “secret” weapons. Allied intelligence knew of them and sought to destroy their development and production sites by heavy bombings, none of which was entirely successful. In Britain and in America the jet engine was in development, but not up to the German stage of production. Shortly after D-Day the first rocket missiles, the V-I, were launched against England. Had their launching sites not been overrun by the invasion, the V-I and the much more advanced V-2 would have done incalculable damage to British industry and morale. Forereach in weapons systems has changed the course of battles and of wars.

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.

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