As I age, my appetite for history increases. It may be that as I find this world increasingly difficult to understand, I retreat to people and places that seem simpler. History books are kinder to the players than the nightly newscasts, so it may be easier for the optimist in me to find the admirable by looking backward instead of around. Most of all, history focuses on things that turned out to be important, providing an escape from the tedious clutter of every day life. Whatever the reason and by happenstance, I just finished Michael Korda’s celebrated biography of Dwight Eisenhower on that warrior’s most important anniversary. My thoughts are an inadequate paraphrase of the book, which I heartily recommend.
Precious few of the men Ike commanded on D-Day remain with us and his presidency sometimes serves only a placeholder between Roosevelt and Kennedy. But given that our would-be leaders spend so much energy decrying America’s place in the world and arguing the use of American might, we could do worse than paying close attention to life lessons from our most unassuming hero.
If one had to pick a single moment when America took command of the world’s stage, June 6, 1944, would be the day. While the invasion was an “Allied” effort in the full sense of the word, there was a reason an American commanded it. For close to a year the southeast corner of England had become our 49th state, swarming with 3,000,000 “Yanks.” The invasion would have been only a Churchillian daydream without the immense output of American industry. While it would take a year of bloody fighting to reclaim Europe’s terrain, the sky and the seas were already ours, again the balance having tipped largely from American factories and manpower. Brilliant intelligence work and espionage measures had given us the advantage of at least partial surprise.
Ike enjoyed these advantages because he was, without any formal training, the consummate diplomat. When the war began, Ike had just been promoted to Colonel after a career as a staff officer who yearned for command. Four years later he had leapfrogged thousands to become the Supreme Commander. Of course, Ike was no ordinary staff officer; he could never get his own command because the powers that be, MacArthur among them, thought Ike far too valuable to let him serve elsewhere. This lifetime of working for other people combined with his innate human decency, created in Ike someone everybody could trust. In a very real way during the build-up before June 6th, America had invaded England. Perhaps Ike’s greatest gift was to make that invasion benign, ensuring full cooperation among the Allies.
As many advantages as he stacked on his side, there was one variable that was more powerful than the Allied and Axis forces put together. Mother Nature reigns undefeated and as the start time drew close, it looked to be our biggest foe. The combination of tides and lighting needed for the attack to succeed was present only for a few days each month; logistically the attack had to come in the summer. So there was immense pressure to “go.” On the other hand, weather that rendered amphibious landings impossible and naval bombardment imprecise was a recipe for the greatest of disasters. Ike was a naturally cautious commander who had passed on the May opening for the assault based on the weather and it looked like June would fall by the wayside for the same reason. Still, he listened closely as his weather forecaster–a lowly major– told him that there would likely be a short break in the conditions on June 6th that would allow for the attack. After close questioning of the very nervous major, Ike took a deep breath and issued the order.
Throughout history, conquering generals have used war to perpetuate their own glory. Had it been Patton or Montgomery in charge, no doubt their attention the night before would have turned to their individual place in history, each carefully crafting an order of battle designed to display genius. Eisenhower, however, did not spend the eve of the invasion cementing his reputation. Instead he raced from base to base, desperately seeking contact with the men he would send to battle. Ike spent particular time with the airborne paratroopers and glider crews who would soon attempt the most audacious nighttime airborne operation ever launched. As in the picture, Ike was full of fire for the men, exhorting them with the import of their task, comforting them with the fact that no army had ever been better trained. As he climbed into the jeep after each stop, however, Ike’s driver saw what the men could not.Tears streamed down the commander’s face because he knew he was sending many of those men to their death.
Ike penned one document on June 5, 1944. He kept in his breast pocket throughout the next several days. It was a simple statement that contemplated the unthinkable. Ike had written what he would say when the invasion failed. In the statement he took total responsibility for the failure and praised the valiant efforts of the fallen and the retreating. Of course, Ike never had to broadcast or publish his words. Just writing them down, acknowledging one own’s inadequacy when literally the entire world depended on you, was vintage Ike.
While Roosevelt may have been viewed as one of the Allied leaders, a first among equals, his successors in the Oval Office have all held the title of “the most powerful man on earth.” The success of the assault on June 6, 1944, assured that transition. If one holds the view, like I do, that the exercise of American power is usually and generally a good thing for the world, today serves as a reminder of why. America works best when led by someone who affirms the value of all who contribute to the cause of freedom; when leaders act based on facts rather than agenda; when rulers feel a deep commitment to their followers and when the powerful hold themselves accountable to the powerless.
75 years is a long time and the blink of a historian’s eye. Hopefully, tonight you can still see through those horizons a good man and a great nation.