History looks inevitable in the rear-view mirror. But when the United States and its allies were poised to invade Europe in June 1944, Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower had no crystal ball.
Shortly before the Normandy invasion, Eisenhower prepared an announcement of defeat he hoped he would never have to release:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available.
“The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Failure in Normandy remains a chilling scenario. Had Adolf Hitler’s ferocious Wehrmacht succeeded in pushing the American, British and Canadian armies into the sea, the war — and the peace — would have unfolded differently, in catastrophic ways.
Nazi Germany would have bought time to continue its torture of Europe. Hitler and Josef Stalin would likely have wasted millions of additional lives throwing conscripted young men at each other in vast battles followed by the usual mass starvation of prisoners of war.
It’s hard to imagine Germany ultimately winning against the growing strength of the Red Army and America’s looming atomic bombs. But it’s easy to imagine Stalin projecting Russian power through Western Europe after Germany’s collapse, perpetuating reigns of terror and producing a far more dangerous Cold War.
The world was spared those scenarios by the men who stormed Normandy 70 years ago today, thousands of whom died in the course of D-Day’s fateful hours. No one has an exact tally of the Americans killed on that single day, but it is far greater than the roughly 2,300 Americans lost over the entire 13 years of the war in Afghanistan.
As we remember D-Day today, we should also remember the many other monumental battles — and sacrifices — that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
The troops who marched or leaped into those battles were young and strong, many of them teenagers. Those who still survive are in their 90s, many of them getting around with wheelchairs and walkers.
They are passing quickly. Today is the last major commemoration all but a handful of them will see. Soon the rest of us will have to depend on documentaries and such movies as “Saving Private Ryan,” whose opening scene offers a hint of the carnage and terror the soldiers of Normandy waded into.
Without the extraordinary sacrifices and valor of those soldiers, it all could have ended differently. The world owes them its gratitude.