Winston Churchill had something like D-Day in mind when he spoke about how “the whole circle of avenging nations will hurl themselves at the foe.” The hurling arrived on June 6, 1944, 70 years ago, the United States entering the war in Europe in a big way, leading the largest invasion force ever, landing at Normandy with the aim of liberating the continent from the grip of Nazi Germany.
A year later, the task had been completed, and it amounted to more than a victory in war. A lasting peace came to Europe, one that has faced deep stresses and strains yet has endured, bringing a shared prosperity and enviable quality of life. That achievement deserves attention not just on this anniversary but also in view of Europe and its partner in Washington navigating new difficulties involving Russia and the future of Ukraine.
The advantage that the United States brought to the war in Europe involved an unmatched level of equipment and resources. That is what started coming ashore in the early morning, 150,000 soldiers and 5,000 ships in the invasion. Dwight Eisenhower displayed the right mix of skills as the leader of the allied forces, both keen organizer and handler of large, testing personalities.
Yet worth recalling today is the feat of so many young men who threw themselves on the beaches, knowing that in an instant, fate could be most cruel or over the course of the day deliver that measure of good fortune. The toll was 9,000 dead or wounded, many from the first wave of 25,000 landing.
Paratroopers sent earlier missed their targets. Those in boats suffered heavy bouts of seasickness, survivors recalling that reaching solid ground seemed better, no matter what awaited. For many, fatalism took hold. They concluded they wouldn’t be going back and thus they committed to the larger cause, to pushing forward, their thinking reinforced by the dead floating all around.
They would succeed or fail as one. Which points to one theme that emerges from the many descriptions of the day, how soldiers came together in small numbers amid the chaos and bloodshed to advance the mission. They found ways to overcome the loss of friends and the resistance of the enemy. By the day’s end, the necessary foothold had been gained, the advantage in equipment and resources in position to play its decisive role.
So much is owed to those men who hurled themselves. Many survivors have recalled a haunting silence at the beaches in the aftermath, the depth of the sacrifice and the power of the moment making their impressions. President Obama and fellow leaders, including Vladimir Putin, will gather today to mark the anniversary. They will say the right things. They would do well to think hard about what was achieved that day, the peace brought to Europe and how so many of us benefit.