What History is For

Eisenhower’s D-Day failure message

Posted on June 17, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We just celebrated another anniversary of D-Day, and rightly so. We also honor the role of General Dwight Eisenhower in leading the successful invasion.

But the way people use that term, “leader”, is often not quite right. They mean to say that Eisenhower played the key role in inspiring the men, and that his example was so inspiring they were bound to succeed. Or that Eisenhower had the courage to grab a brief and tenuous window of good weather when others hesitated or had doubts.

Let’s define what made Eisenhower a hero, and a leader. Eisenhower was not solely responsible for the success of Operation Overlord. Planning had been going on for a full year before he was given command of the invasion force. Thousands of Allied officers drilled and trained hundreds of thousands of soldiers for months before June 6, 1944. Weather forecasters were tasked with predicting when the notoriously stormy English Channel might be quiet enough to launch the myriad small boats carrying the soldiers. As commander of all Allied forces in Europe, Eisenhower was kept apprised of this preparation, but of course he did not personally carry it out, or even lead it in the sense of having those thousands of people report directly to him. The hundreds of thousands of people who carried out the D-Day invasion include heroic practitioners of leadership that we will never know about. They will never be famous. Their contributions have sunk to the seabed of history.

Instead, it is Eisenhower who was the visible “Leader” who gave the order to launch the assault, and the Great, Victorious Leader who announced the success of the operation. As commander, he could do so.

And, like any single person in a position of high authority, if the risky invasion had failed, Eisenhower could have passed the blame to any dozen of the high-ranking men just below him in the chain of command. He could have blamed the weather forecasters, the ship pilots, the equipment, the choice of landing site, etc.

Instead, Eisenhower, using every reserve of courage in the face of an operation that stood a very good chance of failure, wrote a remarkable message to be delivered in that event.

failure-message

It reads:

Our landings in the

Cherbourg – Havre area

have failed to gain a

satisfactory foot hold and

^I have withdrawn the troops have been 

withdrawn. This particular

operation My decision to

attack at this time and place

was based upon the best

information available and

The troops, the air and the

Navy did all that [crossed out]

Bravery and devotion to duty

could do. If any blame

or fault attaches to the attempt

it is mine alone.

When people transcribe this message, they usually leave out the words Eisenhower crossed out. But those are the most important words in the message. They remove passive-voice constructions that would have let Eisenhower quietly shift the blame for failure onto anyone that the world wanted to blame. Instead of writing that the landings has failed “and the troops have been withdrawn”, he writes “I have withdrawn the troops.” He reiterates his agency and his responsibility, changing “this particular action” to “My decision to attack”. It’s his action that has failed, his decision that was wrong, his responsibility to tell the world that he has left it in terrible peril.

Eisenhower deliberately states that the troops, pilots, and sailors did their utmost. “If any blame or fault attached to the attempt it is mine alone.” That’s how he ends the message. That’s the last thing he wants people around the world to remember.

Never were edits to a handwritten message so moving, or so revealing of a person’s character. Eisenhower understood that being a commander did not mean being above the fray, above the chaos of battle, but owning it. He allowed others to make decisions, to train, to analyze, to recommend. He knew he needed their expertise. But he also knew that, in the end, he had been made commander of Allied forces in Europe for the sole purpose of leading the D-Day invasion, and that “leading” meant inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to lay down their lives. Veterans of the invasion talk about how they were told they could only trust in God or luck to survive once they landed; no one was under any delusions that an overwhelming number of the men attacking would not die, most of them instantly.

The only way for Eisenhower to accept that kind of responsibility, and to honor that kind of bravery and sacrifice, was to give the forces all the credit if they were victorious, and himself all the blame if they were not. It was the least he could do, though of course the consequences of owning that failure would have been tremendous for him.

As we move on through the 21st century, let’s remember the lesson Eisenhower teaches us here, that leadership is about helping to make it possible for others to make change in the world, and that often the only way to do that is to understand yourself as successful only if they are, and not to blame others for letting you down. Eisenhower led the D-Day invasion because he took responsibility for actions he did not entirely control, for the efforts of hundreds of thousands of other people, in order to inspire those actions and efforts and to earn them. He was with the invasion force in every way.

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Eisenhower’s message to the troops before D-Day, June 6, 1944

Posted on June 5, 2019. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , |

We interrupt our continuing series on the Federalist debates to honor the anniversary of D-Day. We’ll start with an important and inspiring document: the “Order of the Day”, or the message Eisenhower had read aloud to all 175,000 of the Allied soldiers, medics, and personnel about to leave the British shore and sail to Normandy.

This version comes to us from the Kansas History Gateway, which is fitting since Dwight Eisenhower moved from his birthplace of Denison, Texas to Abilene, Kansas at the age of two with his family.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

SIGNED: Dwight D. Eisenhower

 

 

The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere did cross the Channel with that force. All eyes would be on Normandy, including Nazi eyes; the Nazis did indeed fight savagely. You can see actual footage of the landing at the Smithsonian website–begin at 16:31. The first transport vessels approach the shore at 19:59 and all you can hear is cannon fire. At 21:34 you are inside one of them, and the faces of the men as they listen to the barrage they are about to enter are profoundly moving. One American chews gum, and the sense that he is consciously enjoying this innocent pleasure for the last time is hard to escape. The Nazis prepare. At 23:29, the first transports land.

If ever human beings fought for a noble cause, this was it. And Eisenhower’s message bring them on to victory is deeply stirring, But on June 7, we’ll post a different message from Eisenhower, that we find even more inspiring. Stay tuned.

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Veterans’ Day 2018: In defence of liberty

Posted on November 12, 2018. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

This Veterans’ Day, we offer a photo from a high school in America that was embellished by students as a repudiation of a hate crime was committed at the school (in the form of swastikas, anti-Jewish and anti-gay slogans spray-painted on the walls one night).

The current students’ annotation of the WWI memorial on the front of their school was a just and fitting tribute to the students of 1916-1918 and what they fought for:

Defence of liberty close-up

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Should we ever compare modern situations to Hitler’s fascism?

Posted on November 9, 2018. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Good historians are extremely cautious about comparing problems–even very serious ones–to Nazism. Claiming that someone is “like Hitler” or “as bad as Hitler” cannot be done lightly. The enormity of the crimes committed by fascists in Europe before and during WWII is so overpowering that a slipshod or weak comparison diminishes both the horror of the Nazis and the credibility of the warning one is trying to raise in the present day.

So we were cautious when we heard about this short video by Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale, that’s been going around. But we feel it is on target, and so we link you to If you’re not scared about fascism in the U.S., you should be.

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Truth v. mythologizing the past

Posted on August 16, 2018. Filed under: Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We were reading an interview with Jason Stanley, who has a new book out called How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Of course when he mentioned truth v. myth, the HP’s bat senses were alerted:

Q: Anti-intellectualism has been present throughout much of American history. How is the kind of anti-intellectualism linked to fascist ideas different? Or is it the same?

A: Our suspicion of elites and what could be seen as anti-intellectualism can be healthy at times; we can see the American philosophical traditions of pragmatism and empiricism in this light, which can in fact serve as counterweights to the grandiose myths of fascist politics. But even this version has proven to be a weakness, one that makes us more susceptible to being manipulated politically. We have seen this play out in the case of climate change, where essentially apolitical scientists were successfully demonized as ideologues. We also have a history of what I think of as more classically fascist anti-intellectualism.

Fascist anti-intellectualism sets the traditions of the chosen nation, its dominant group, above all other traditions. It represents more complex narratives as corrupting and dangerous. It prizes mythologizing about the nation’s past, and erasing any of its problematic features (as we see all too often in histories of the Confederacy and the Reconstruction period, or of the treatment in history books of our indigenous communities). It seeks to replace truth with myth, transforming education systems into methods of glorifying the ideologies and heritage of the members of the traditional ruling class. In fascist politics, universities, which present a more complex and accurate version of history and current reality, are attacked for being places where dominant traditions or practices are critiqued. Fascist ideology centers loyalty to power rather than truth. In fascist thinking, the university is simply another tool to legitimate various illiberal hierarchies connected to historically dominant traditions.

If readers of the HP know anything, it’s that history is complex. That’s why we end up writing so many 12-part series on what seem like the simplest events. Anyone looking for a quick fix on the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon we all read in college or high school, or on the Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, or “Who was Anne Hutchinson?” will look in vain for the “short version,” the crux of the argument, in the first 3 or even 4 posts. A lot of context has to be set to make sense of that crux when it does come.

So while the words “Welcome to our series on…” may strike boredom or terror in the hearts of HP readers, we feel that in the end that careful and thorough setting up of a problem or question or person or event is necessary. That’s all we have to say here.

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We are in the very midst of a Revolution: John Adams sets American hearts racing

Posted on July 19, 2018. Filed under: Politics, Revolutionary War, The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Even at a distance of centuries, the words of John Adams inspire us with zeal to uphold the founding principles of this nation.

In a letter to his friend Judge William Cushing, dated June 9, 1776, from Philadelphia, where Adams was attending the Continental Congress as a member of the delegation from Massachusetts, Adams describes his work in the Congress, which has replaced his old work as a lawyer traveling to courts on the Eastern Circuit, in language that is stirring without being stiff, labored, or seemingly very different from Adams’ usual mode of expressing himself, as he calls no special attention to it—we decided to highlight that language ourselves, in bold. But the words themselves make any reader or hearer sit up and take notice:

It would give me great Pleasure to ride this Eastern Circuit with you, and prate before you at the Bar, as I used to do. But I am destined to another Fate, to Drudgery of the most wasting, exhausting, consuming Kind, that I ever went through in my whole Life. Objects of the most Stupendous Magnitude, Measures in which the Lives and Liberties of Millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before Us. We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations. A few Matters must be dispatched before I can return. Every Colony must be induced to institute a perfect Government. All the Colonies must confederate together, in some solemn Compact. The Colonies must be declared free and independent states, and Embassadors, must be Sent abroad to foreign Courts, to solicit their Acknowledgment of Us, as Sovereign States, and to form with them, at least with some of them commercial Treaties of Friendship and Alliance. When these Things shall be once well finished, or in a Way of being so, I shall think that I have answered the End of my Creation, and sing with Pleasure my Nunc Dimittes, or if it should be the Will of Heaven that I should live a little longer, return to my Farm and Family, ride Circuits, plead Law, or judge Causes, just as you please.

Why would Adams describe his history-making work in the Congress as “Drudgery of the most wasting, exhausting, consuming Kind”? Because it is! That’s the great lesson to take from this. If you want life, liberty, perfect government, political freedom and independence, sovereignty, and the pursuit of happiness, whatever it may be (for Adams it was to return to his farm and family and law practice), you have to be prepared to work hard for it.

Lately there’s been a push in the U.S. to restrict working for all of those things to the military—a message that only military service makes all of those things possible, that fighting wars alone protects those things we hold dear in America. But that is not the case. Wars are rare compared with the daily struggle that must be endured in local, state, and federal government, in the justice system, in schools and in law enforcement, to uphold, defend, and preserve the life, liberty, and happiness we define ourselves by in this country.

So let’s all do that wasting, exhausting, consuming, and often thankless work that answers the end of our creation. Let’s remain in the midst of a revolution.

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The Restless Wave–a great excerpt

Posted on June 2, 2018. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , |

We’ve had our issues with John McCain over the years (see “Country first–but first” and “Bad History: John McCain as Holden Caulfield”) but we heard an excerpt from his new memoir, The Restless Wave, of one of the chapters he read as an audio book on the radio and we were stirred:

Before I leave, I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations. I’d like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different. We’re citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one. Even in times of political turmoil such as these, we share that awesome heritage and the responsibility to embrace it. Whether we think each other right or wrong in our views on the issues of the day, we owe each other our respect, as so long as our character merits respect, and as long as we share for all our differences for all the rancorous debates that enliven and sometimes demean our politics, a mutual devotion to the ideals our nation was conceived to uphold that all are created equal and liberty and equal justice are the natural rights of all. Those rights inhabit the human heart, and from there though they may be assailed, they can never be wrenched. I want to urge Americans for as long as I can to remember that this shared devotion to human rights is our truest heritage and our most important loyalty.

That is advice we would like to see all Americans take to heart, as we do. There’s little we can add to this statement. Instead, we’ll be uncharacteristically short and close with one more quote from McCain:

Moral values are not conceptual artifacts, to be manipulated at will and imposed by fiat; they live and thrive in the midst of interconnected practices and historically validated norms.

In other words, that’s the hard work that makes America great, when it is great. Let’s all keep our shoulders to that wheel.

 

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Virtual visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Posted on May 29, 2018. Filed under: Civil Rights, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

There’s a great article on the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama that gives a full description and photos of this long-overdue addition to American memorials.

Known informally to most people as the lynching memorial, the NMPJ is part of an effort to officially commemorate and honor heroic actions of black Americans to gain their full civil rights as promised in the law. Here’s an excerpt of the article:

There are dozens of markers or monuments to the Confederacy in Montgomery, but it was not until the 1990s that the fuller picture of the state’s heritage was recognized, and even longer for some other Southern states.

“There was not a historic marker of where Rosa Parks was arrested,” says Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism. “There was not a historic marker where John Lewis was beaten up as one of the Freedom Riders.”

Alabama now markets its civil rights trail, and Montgomery embraces a complicated story that can be summed up on a downtown block that has the site of a slave market, the department store where Rosa Parks got on the bus, and the building where the telegram was sent to instruct Confederate troops to fire on Fort Sumter.

“You’re talking about two of the most significant movements in American history literally a block apart,” says Sentell.

But he says no attraction has taken the point of view visitors will encounter at the National Peace and Justice Memorial.

“Most museums are somewhat objective and benign,” Sentell says. “This one is not. This is aggressive, political. … It’s a part of American history that has never been addressed as much in your face as this story is being told.”

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Again, Washington was not a murderer: adieu at last to Adam Ruins Everything

Posted on May 24, 2018. Filed under: Historians, Revolutionary War, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode focuses on the concluding statements.

Disillusioned narrator: So George Washington was a wealthy elitist and murderer who led drunks into battle against their will to fight for a cause they could not care less about.

Adam: No, you’re exaggerating! The modern myth is designed to inspire us, and that’s valuable. It just blinds us to more important truths.

…this is pretty staggering, considering that earlier in the very same episode Adam Conover said, and we quote, “Support for the war effort was so minimal that Washington resorted to killing his own men just to keep his army of bribed, drunk, confused, and impoverished colonists together to fight for a cause they had no interest in defending–economic freedom for wealthy elites.”

You can’t claim someone was a liar and a murderer, then make a faint attempt to undo it without undoing it just to conjure up a “learning moment.” The episode did say everything the disillusioned narrator claims it did.

Beyond that, what on earth does it mean to say that myths are meant to inspire us, and that’s valuable? What on earth does it mean to say that and then immediately say that these myths blind us to important truths? The writing veers at this point from faulty and harmful to just plain incoherent.

And why? What’s the point of it all? The show has the classic problems of the uninformed, reckless, and non-thoughtful critic: it peddled myths in the name of truth, and chose to denigrate a truly heroic leader in American history with half-cited, mis-cited, and some just plain imaginary sources just to grab viewers’ attention. It fell for the common wisdom that cynicism is always smarter than belief. And it traded on its own reputation for doing research and presenting truth in a way that is either unbelievably lazy or unforgivably cynical.

The end result is that most viewers of the show will walk away depressed about American history, convinced that our founding principles are nothing but a pack of lies. They will join those who believe that attacking America as hypocritical is somehow doing good, and increasing justice in the world.

There are certainly terrible passages in our national history. The Revolutionary War was not one of them. Want to read some truth? Check out Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution, by actual historian Benson Bobrick. Or just read what the men and women who fought for our liberty actually said–all of it, not just cherry-picking to find what you want, to satisfy your prejudices. That’s the only way not to ruin everything.

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The myths are coming! The myths are coming! Adam Ruins Everything gets it wrong about Revere

Posted on May 12, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Part 6 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode wraps up the close-read of one pretty miserable half-hour of fake history.

The show takes on the myth of Paul Revere… except there isn’t really much harmful myth here to be tackled. The two things most Americans remember learning about Revere’s ride are that two lanterns in the Old North Church signaled the British army setting out by sea (see our post “What did ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ mean?”); and that Revere cried out “The British are coming! The British are coming!” as he rode.

ARE tells us that Revere himself never saw the lanterns, which is true. He was alerted to British troop movements by the network of Patriot spies active that night of April 18, 1775. From where Revere waited in Charlestown—where the British would come ashore if they took the sea route (which they did)—he could not see the signals.

The show tells us Revere didn’t say “The British are coming!”  but “The Regulars are coming!”, but of course gets the reason why wrong. It incompletely cites “Jennie Cohen, History, 16 April 2013,” and once again we had to do our own research to find the article, “Eleven things you may not know about Paul Revere,” which says this:

Paul Revere never shouted the legendary phrase later attributed to him (“The British are coming!”) as he passed from town to town. The operation was meant to be conducted as discreetly as possible since scores of British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Furthermore, colonial Americans at that time still considered themselves British; if anything, Revere may have told other rebels that the “Regulars”—a term used to designate British soldiers—were on the move.

Unfortunately, all wrong. First, Revere didn’t use the term “Regulars” instead of “British” because most Americans still considered themselves to be British, he did so because British soldiers were called Regulars (because they were in the regular army). Revere most likely shouted “The Regulars are coming out” to let people on the road from Boston to Concord know that the army was “coming out” of Boston to attack the Massachusetts Provincial Congress meeting illegally in Concord.

As for the statement that Revere did not actually shout anything, renowned historian of the Revolution in Boston and eastern Massachusetts J. L. Bell references the thrilling story of Revere making so much noise, in fact, as he reached the house of the Rev. Jonas Clark in Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying, that William Munroe, who headed the guard of eight men watching over Hancock and Adams, felt obliged to rebuke Revere:

About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested, that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house. “Noise!” said he, “you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.” We then permitted him to pass.

More importantly, Cohen is wrong about Revere keeping quiet because most Americans were Loyalists who would have turned him in. Earlier in the episode ARE (incorrectly) referenced an article in the online Journal of the American Revolution. If the show’s researchers had revisited this site, they would have found an article by J.L. Bell that would have done two things: told them that most Americans on that road from Boston to Concord were indeed Patriots, and that there is a bigger, actually important, myth to bust about Paul Revere’s ride than what he shouted.

In “Did Paul Revere’s Ride Really Matter?” Bell tells us this:

The biggest myth of Paul Revere’s ride may not be that Revere watched for the lantern signal from the North Church spire, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem described. Nor that he was a lone rider carrying Dr. Joseph Warren’s warning all the way from Boston to Concord. Nor even that Revere yelled, “The British are coming!”

Instead, the biggest myth might be that Paul Revere’s ride was crucial to how the Battle of Lexington and Concord of 19 April 1775 turned out. Rural Massachusetts Patriots were already on alert, especially after they spotted British officers riding west through their towns. Other riders were spreading the same news. Hours passed between the first alarms and when the opposing forces actually engaged, giving Patriots time—more than enough time in some cases—to assemble in militia companies. The broad militia mobilization did not actually stop the British from returning to Boston. Thus, Revere’s warning might not have been necessary to how things worked out at the end of the day.

…Indeed, some militiamen were already active. “Early in the evening” Sgt. William Munroe had mustered an eight-man guard at the parsonage where Hancock and Adams were staying, having heard from a young local named Solomon Brown that there were “nine British officers on the road,” carrying arms.

Furthermore, there were at least four hours between Dawes’s arrival and dawn. The Lexington militia and the people at the parsonage discussed the news from Boston at length. They sent messengers out to other communities. Brown and two other riders headed west to Concord (British officers stopped them). Other men rode east to confirm whether troops were coming along the road from Boston. Capt. John Parker had more than enough time to assemble his men. In fact, at some point between three and four o’clock he dismissed them to catch some sleep nearby.

Concord was already on alert. Revere had brought militia colonel James Barrett a general warning from Boston a couple of days before. The Barretts were already moving the cannon, gunpowder, and other military supplies from their farm to more remote hiding-places.

To be sure, the whole Concord militia didn’t assemble until Dr. Prescott rode into town around two o’clock in the morning. However, as at Lexington, there was a significant stretch of time between the first alert at Concord and when its militia company had to face the British troops. In fact, when those regulars arrived between eight and nine o’clock in the morning, the Concord militia companies pulled back to Punkatasset Hill, a mile north of the town center, before moving to a field above the North Bridge.

Paul Revere didn’t have to keep quiet to avoid being arrested by Loyalists. Bell’s point is that the countryside was already on the lookout for a British attack on Concord, making preparations for an armed confrontation with the Regulars, and in many cases well ahead of Revere.

This fact is so much more important than whether Revere said “the British are coming.” If ART wants to bust myths, why not bust the myth that most Americans did not support the Revolution? Why not use Bell’s article to teach Americans today that hundreds of families in eastern Massachusetts had already fully committed themselves to an armed defense of their traditional liberties by the time the first battle of the American Revolution took place?

The show can’t do that because it is at such pains to debunk the Revolution as a scam and a sham. “Every story we tell about the Revolution is useless,” mourns the fake narrator in  the episode. “Not useless,” says Adam; “just not history.” If ever the pot called the kettle black this has got to be it, coming from a show devoted to presenting myths as real history.

Let’s wrap up next time with what the Puritans would call the “application”—why does it matter if this show gets so much so wrong?

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