D-Day, 80 years later | WORLD
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D-Day, 80 years later

The outcome of the invasion of France was uncertain, and the stakes were unspeakably high

A U.S. Coast Guard landing barge carries soldiers to the shore at Normandy, France, during initial Allied landing operations on June 6, 1944. Associated Press/Photo by U.S. Coast Guard

D-Day, 80 years later
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We often read of the great events of history and consider that their outcomes were inevitable. There is something natural about this tendency. We live in the world that emerged from the outcomes of great contests and wars, and we cannot quite imagine what the world would have looked like had those events turned out differently.

When we think about the greatest amphibious operation in history, Operation Overlord, commonly known as D-Day, it is easy to think that Allied success on June 6, 1944 was a foregone conclusion. We cannot imagine what an Allied failure would have meant in the aftermath. Our tendency to think about history in terms of inevitability leads to another human tendency—to take the outcome for granted, to neglect its continuing significance today, and ultimately to forget the event altogether.

Most of us have seen Saving Private Ryan. The film has become so iconic that it is probably not an overstatement to say that when most people think of D-Day, the images from that film come to mind. It’s a powerful film, but what is lost in the film is the utter uncertainty of the outcome of the operation to those who were witnesses to it. We forget that the planners of Overlord were painfully aware that amphibious landings were notoriously difficult to achieve, and furthermore, that an amphibious landing against fortified beachheads was even more daunting.

Ultimately, Operation Overlord involved an assault on Normandy with 175,000 men with 50,000 vehicles supported by 5,333 ships and 11,000 aircraft. Stephen Ambrose noted in his book, D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, that the achievement of the operation was “as if the cities of Green Bay, Racine, and Kenosha, Wisconsin were picked up and moved—every man, woman and child, every automobile and truck—to the east side of Lake Michigan, in one night.”

The stakes were unspeakably high. After the failure of the last German offensive on the Eastern Front at Kursk in the summer of 1943, Hitler was counting on negotiating a truce with the Soviets once they had advanced as far as Poland. But such a truce was contingent on the ability of the Germans to throw the Allies back into the sea if they dared attempt an invasion of France. 

No operation of such complexity, size, and difficulty had ever been attempted before. And failure was simply not an option. Failure to open a western front against the Germans in 1944 would mean that Hitler could reinforce his armies fighting the Soviets, making a separate Nazi-Soviet armistice more realistic. In short, an Allied failure on D-Day would have made a Nazi domination of Europe a likely probability in the long term. But D-Day was a stunning success. Even Joseph Stalin, hardly an admirer of his British and American allies, had to admit: “The history of war does not know of an undertaking comparable to it for breadth of conception, grandeur of scale, and mastery of execution.”

Perhaps reflection on the events of June 6, 1944, may help stir a sleepwalking America out of its decadent slumber.

How are we to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day? One course of action is to reject the idea that the United States is nothing more than an experiment in racism, degeneracy, and hypocrisy. If the United States is a nation essentially committed to racial hierarchies and white supremacy, why would it go to the lengths it did on June 6, 1944, to eradicate a regime that was actively pursuing a policy of genocide on a racist basis? Instead, we can embrace gratitude to God for giving Allied forces—led by the United States—success in destroying Nazi rule in World War II, and subsequent communist rule in Eastern Europe in the Cold War.

We also must look to our own world situation in the present and learn from the mistakes of the past. In 1940, the year before the United States went to war against the Axis powers, the American military was woefully unprepared. During the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, pacifists had convinced Americans that war itself could be outlawed (see the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928), and isolationists had persuaded the public that Europe could “stew in its own juices.” As a result, the U. S. Army had been whittled down to a mere 190,000 men in 1940.

Today, our forces have been eroded to the extent that our preparedness is sinking to levels not seen since the 1930s. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is calling for an increase in the defense budget to $950 billion, a $55 billion increase, to meet the global threats posed by China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board published a piece on June 2 endorsing Wicker’s proposal, arguing that “the choice is whether to rebuild the military to restore our lost deterrence or face defeat in the war that may be coming.”

Americans today need to get a grip on themselves. The world has always been threatened by dangerous actors, but today things are different. We live in gravely serious times, but our culture is profoundly unserious. Perhaps reflection on the events of June 6, 1944, may help stir a sleepwalking America out of its decadent slumber. Perhaps the men who threw themselves against the Nazi fortifications at Normandy can serve as an inspiration to us today—an inspiration animated by a renewed confidence that we are Americans, that America is a great country, and we have a kernel of moral courage within us yet.

John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.

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