“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.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.”
This is an excerpt from the letter General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, wrote 75 years to the day that I write this. He never sent it. The invasion, of course, was successful.
Had it not succeeded, we don’t really know where the arc of liberal progress would have landed. History tells us that it’s not likely Nazi Germany would have been able to hold Europe forever. No one ever has. The Allies would have sued for peace eventually. Hitler may have lived and anchored a fascist hold out in Europe.
Perhaps the Russians would have gotten to Berlin on their own and the iron curtain may have fallen as far west as the shores of Normandy. More likely, they would have simply outlasted the Nazis at Leningrad. Or burnt Moscow to the ground and let the cruel Russian winter do the rest as it did to Napoleon. Whatever counter history might have played out, it’s reasonable to say that Europe, as we know it today, would be quite different. And so would the world.
We’ve learned a few things over the last 75 years. And forgotten some things too. Modern liberal societies don’t try to conquer each other. And so there’s value to the spread of liberalism. But we also know it’s not the predestined end state for all peoples. The world does not simply move towards liberal progress. And so where it has, it takes commitment to keep it. A willingness to believe in it. And a will to fight for it.
75 years ago, the fate of liberal society was on trial. And the case was being argued on the backs of the sons of the free world as they went over the beaches in Normandy. It was, and still is, the largest military landing force the world has ever seen. And it was fighting for the greatest cause. To prove that the free peoples of the world would fight to stay that way. It was the answer to Lincoln’s plea on the battlefield at Gettysburg. That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
With a collective will that seems all but impossible today, we insisted that it survive. And through the iron nerve of men willing to do the unimaginable, and a collective will of a people that mobilized resources at a scale never before seen in history, it did.
Operation Overlord broke the back of fascism in the West. And it stayed broken. It was the type of victory our people look to in order to validate our way of life. My children’s great grandfathers went over the beach and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. And they know it. Because D-Day is an American hero story.
People need a hero story.
For the past 75 years, our society has marched forward towards equality, abundance and relative peace. Our wars have been voluntary. The rights we promised have been expanded. Our standard of living is the highest in the history of our species.
There is no shining past to look upon that is brighter than what we have today. The march has been forward. Imperfect. Incomplete. And riddled with the type of backsliding that takes effort and activism to get through. But forward nonetheless. Forward from the brink of catastrophe.
Forward for 75 years.
Today we’ll tell the stories of a time when it was all in question. And I hope we take the message meant to come from that type of storytelling. We had to fight for what we have. And so we should expect to fight to keep it.