Three days ago our nation observed the 75th anniversary of the invasion of the beaches of France by Allied Expeditionary Forces on June 6, 1944. It was unprecedented in its bold ambition, with equally high stakes. The U.S. and its allies were not the superior force numerically, and success depended in large part on deceiving Adolf Hitler and his generals as to the actual landing site.
The planning for this decisive battle was incredibly complex and detailed. The logistics were likewise mind-boggling, involving thousands of ships, vehicles, planes, and men. Fortunately for the Free World, it succeeded. What if something of this magnitude became necessary today? Could we do a D-Day, or something as big, in 2019?
More than just having a large well-equipped army is required. Let’s look at some of the other factors involved in such an undertaking. One was presidential leadership. Franklin Roosevelt was approaching an unprecedented fourth term in office. He was unquestionably a highly popular president, and one who made many difficult choices.
Our last four presidents have been elected by a bare majority or even a minority of the popular vote. Wars fought under these presidents off and on for 17 years have been inconclusive at best. Managing a D-Day-sized mission would indeed be a tall order for a modern-day president.
The nation’s struggling depression-era economy was jump-started by World War II. Sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not, national assets were redirected from the private sector to the public sector in support of the war effort. The U.S. could produce tanks and bombers faster than the Axis could destroy them. Productivity was a huge part of the D-Day victory and ensuing push.
Our economy is doing well these days, according to most indices. How would it react to nationalization? Would Detroit stop building cars, as it did in the war years? Would Apple help crack diplomatic codes? Would our corporate CEOs subordinate their bottom line when necessary to drive a wartime economic engine, rearranging their priorities to support national priorities? Would capitalists play well with the military these days?
D-Day required the expenditure of human resources on a scale never before imagined. It was dwarfed only by the immense loss of life in the war itself, including millions of civilians as well as soldiers. Yet American men signed up as soon as they were of age, many before. Women found ways to get close to the war in factories, as nurses, as WACS, and as pilots ferrying planes to the front. Kids collected scrap materials for the war effort. People grew victory gardens. Would that altruism be replicated nationwide today?
Was the greatest generation also the last generation of its kind? Today, reviving the draft would be an uphill battle. Unfortunately, the need to do so might appear quite suddenly, and lead time could be very short. Recall that it took about 13 months of preparation for President George H.W. Bush to integrate reserve and active forces to undertake Desert Storm, which involved tiny Kuwait invaded by only a single country, Iraq.
How many young men and women are both physically fit and willing to die for their country, beyond our small volunteer army? For D-Day to happen, it took over 3 ½ years of millions of individual commitments born of love of country.
These are some of the tangible differences, but there was an intangible advantage favoring the U.S. and its allies in 1944. D-Day was, as General Dwight Eisenhower termed it, a “great crusade” to liberate the peoples of the many subjugated nations of Europe. America was fighting for a noble cause, the cause of world freedom, and the overthrow of Nazi tyranny. There was broad agreement in this country that America was on the side of right.
In a more nuanced 21st century, such agreement is much more elusive. Truth is malleable. “Right” is a matter of opinion, not absolute certainty. How unified would a D-Day effort be in 2020, an election year? Which of many candidates would best build a consensus of doing what is “right” for the country over political party?
While we struggle to imagine mounting an effort of D-Day proportions today, let’s not discount it out of hand. Since World War II, America has done some truly amazing things. We met the challenge of communism and outlasted the U.S.S.R. while avoiding nuclear war. We resolved to go to the moon in a decade - and planted the American flag there. We led a coalition of allies to repel overt aggression by the Chinese in South Korea and later drove Iraq from Kuwait. We have been the one consistent resource for the world in times of natural disaster. With the exception of the last, however, all those events occurred in the 20th century, mostly under the supervision of “the greatest generation.”
If sometime in the 21st century we should be called upon to answer a D-Day-sized challenge, how will history record our response? Will we have the right leadership? Will we have the confidence that we are in the right, along with the strong resolve to act on that confidence? In short, do we still have the right stuff?
Gene G. Blair has been a resident of Huntsville for 39 years. He is retired from the Criminal Justice Center at SHSU, and is also retired from the U.S. Army. He is a director on the Executive Board of CASA of Walker, San Jacinto, and Trinity counties.