Editor’s Note: William I. Hitchcock, the Randolph P. Compton Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, is the author of “The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s” (Simon and Schuster). The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Seventy-four years ago this week, 132,000 soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy, France in the greatest amphibious and air invasion ever attempted in wartime. June 6, 1944 stands out in our collective memory as a day of enormous personal heroism and sacrifice, and it will always be a hallowed date for Americans as well as for the French people, for whom D-Day marked the start of their liberation from Nazi tyranny.
In 2018, however, the D-Day story carries even more power and weight because we live in a political climate that denigrates the very sources of strength that made the D-Day invasion such a dramatic success.
Take Big Government. In today’s political parlance, nothing could be worse than the bloated, inefficient federal government. Ronald Reagan built his career using the tag line: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” President Trump has mocked government, waging war against law enforcement and calling Washington a “swamp.”
In 1944, government was not the enemy, it was the organizing force that won the war. The United States Armed Forces that fought and won World War II provide an enduring example of what good government can do. During the war, 16 million Americans put on a uniform. Americans paid high income taxes, rationed their food, worked in government-funded industries and sent their sons to die overseas to defend freedom. Being an American in 1944 meant working with fellow citizens, sharing sacrifices, and honoring the nation above individual needs.
That is the spirit of D-Day. The greatest generation could not have done it alone.
President Trump has made it fashionable to deny the value of having allies, but D-Day reminds us that we are at our best when we stand together with our friends. On June 6, 1944, more British Commonwealth troops landed on the Normandy beaches than Americans. The commander of the ground forces that day was a Brit, General Bernard Montgomery, as were the commanders of the naval and air forces on that day. Victory over the Germans in France that summer came only through close partnership with our British and Canadian allies who fought and died alongside American boys to defend freedom.
Finally, on D-Day, we should recall the essence of leadership. Brow-beating, bullying, and sneering at political opponents is no way to motivate men to face the trial of combat. The Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, knew this well. He had been sending American men to die in battle since the landings in North Africa in November 1942. But the invasion of France was by the far the biggest and most risky operation the forces under his command had ever attempted. With a single command from him, a gigantic armada of over 6,000 ships would be sent across the churning waters of the English Channel into the teeth of the German defenses and a shoreline strewn with barbed wire, mines and machine gun nests. Eisenhower held the lives of his men in his hands.
Ike spent the hours before the invasion at the Greenham Common airfield in southern England, from which the men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions would mount their planes and fly into the night sky on the way to France. He casually chatted with them, asking them where they were from, talking of fishing, and home.
Eisenhower knew that the operation could fail. As the Supreme Commander, any failure would be his fault, and his alone. He was prepared to take full responsibility for it. The night before the landings, he jotted down a small note on a slip of paper so it could be ready to hand to the press in case of disaster. “Our landings,” he wrote, “have failed. … 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.” Ike understood the essence of leadership. It was the job of the leader to accept the blame for failure, and to give praise to the heroism of the common fighting man.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, takes all the credit, personally, for any positive news, such as good employment numbers or the stock market, even when he benefits from the work of his predecessor. But he adamantly refuses to apologize for his numerous gaffes, insults and misstatements.
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D-Day was a day of greatness for America, but its success depended upon certain virtues of a noble people. In World War II, the American government and its leaders brought citizens together in a common enterprise of immense complexity and sacrifice. Americans fought alongside allies, British and Canadians who burned no less fiercely in their desire to defeat Hitler’s monstrous Third Reich. And American leaders understood the importance of humility and decency, and offered moral examples to the world. D-Day is not just a date in the history books. It reminds us of who we once were, and could become again.