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^I have withdrawn the troops have been 

withdrawn.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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A word on prejudice from Quiet, Please

Posted on October 23, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We at the HP are big fans of the old radio show Quiet, Please. It was a mix of fantasy and horror that we feel sure the creators of The Twilight Zone must have known about. Quiet, Please didn’t have a long run—just two years, from June 1947 to June 1949—but many of its episodes are gripping. We were listening to one called “Not Responsible after 30 Years” about two men who travel back in time through druid stones to Roman-occupied Britain, and while it was a pretty average story something came on at the end that we never expected: a PSA on prejudice.

The narrator of all the stories, Earnest Chappell, delivered this message on June 14, 1948:

Tonight’s Quiet, Please show was especially written for your enjoyment, with the hope we would please many people with many different tastes for many different reasons. You like Quiet Please for one reason, and you for another. And that’s just as it should be. For we in America aren’t stamped with a mold—we have our differences. Differences in tastes and talents, in hopes and ambitions, in color and creed. Our American differences have resulted in a variety of contributions which have made our country great and kept us free.

Today as America seeks to establish peace in the world and to continue prosperity at home, our differences must not divide us or hamper our efforts.

On this Flag Day of 1948, let each of us pledge to wipe group prejudice out of our lives by meeting every American as an individual.

It’s terrific to hear this message from 1948; it is a reminder that as the U.S. stood at the pinnacle of the free world after WWII, there was a strong effort to live up to our founding principles of liberty and justice for all, born of the consciousness that the whole world looked up to us for leadership into a democratic future. It was this feeling that gave new momentum to the civil rights movement in our country. It was this feeling of a mandate that led even a minor radio show focused on fantasy and horror to feel the necessity of stepping out of character to reach out to its listeners with a message of equality and a call to action.

And it’s a message we need to hear today. For all those Americans who want to go back to some imagined past, in their grandparents’ day, when America was great and strong and perfect, let’s remember that that past was not all-white. It was not all-male. It was not all-Christian. It was not all-native born. It was, as it always has been, a nation of differences, and that is what has always made us great in those times when we have been great.

Let’s take up the charge of 1948 and say that today, let each of us pledge to wipe group prejudice out of our lives by meeting every American as an individual.

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The World Wars on the History Channel; or, all in one and one subbed in for all

Posted on June 4, 2014. Filed under: Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our short, indeed two-part series on the History Channel’s new series The World Wars. In the first part of our mini-series, we looked at the shortcomings of both “great man theory” history and misogyny. Here, we focus on a main theme of Episode 1 that we can’t quite live with: the radicalization theory.

We are told repeatedly that Hitler was radicalized by his experiences serving as a private in WWI. The same claim is made about Mussolini, but not as often, as he only makes two brief appearances. Both men, but especially Hitler, saw brutality, random violence, pointless and awful death, and other horrors of war, and then Hitler had to suffer through his country’s defeat and surrender (or, as he saw it, its sure victory and inexplicable surrender). All this changed him from an anonymous putz to a demonic fascist.

The problem with this is twofold: first, millions of soldiers had the same experience of the horrors of war but did not turn into monsters; and second, war horror is not a logical explanation for what Hitler became and did. Many men wrote about their horrible experiences in the war afterward. They all suffered in the same way Hitler did. Many of them questioned the social and political status quo, and gave up on religion. But they did not all become fascists overthrowing governments and using murder to establish power. So to repeatedly show Hitler taking in the horrors of war is not adequate as an explanation of his evil. There was something about Hitler’s mind and character that allowed him to drift into fascism, and while that something was present before the war, it really flowered after the war.

The best part of Episode 1, which is really well done, is the sequence after the war showing Hitler begging for work from the army and being sent to monitor a podunk political leftist group, mostly just to get him out of the army’s hair, and sitting there at the meetings, defensive and wary, until he begins to be drawn in, correcting the speakers’ arguments and becoming a leader. The response of the men at the meetings is very natural: here is a man who wants to stand up for Germany and assert its virtues and innocence of war guilt at a time when the whole world is making Germany a pariah among nations. Here is a man who has patriotism and confidence—two things that were very scarce in Germany after WWI—who makes us feel good about our own personal participation in the war and status as war veterans. He’s not suggesting holocaust at this point. He’s just asserting the right of Germans to be proud of being German. At that point, that was a radical but not morally repellent stance. It’s clear that Hitler progressed from this neutral status to his warped plans for a bigger and better Germany that involved the goals of patriotism driven to an illogical extreme of imperial conquest and genocide.

What shaped Hitler was not so much the war as its aftermath. If he had been selling fascism in the trenches he would have been rejected. But in the 1920s, there were men and women who were ready for radical ideas, and willing to be radicalized, as a sort of wild pendulum swing from overwhelming shame to unthinking pride, and all of it based on national identity turned into racial identity. Hitler was not interested in fascism in the trenches, and not even thinking about it when he first attended the political meetings. But he got the idea from the times after the war, and then his personal chemistry and mindset allowed him to take it to undreamed-of levels.

So we’re not buying the idea that The World Wars episode 1 so consistently urges on us, that it was war that made Hitler. It was peace: Hitler was radicalized by a peace he could not accept. If the war made Hitler, it should have made tens of thousands of Hitlers, all over the world, in England and France and the U.S., and perhaps Belgium in particular. Fascism should have swept the world and become the dominant form of government. There should never have been a WWII. Japan was on the Allied side in WWI, experienced no fighting on Japanese soil, suffered few causalities, and should therefore have been safe from fascism after the war. But that was not the case. The fascism that characterized the 1920s and 1930s was a force many decades in the making that was set free to grow in the despair and political chaos and opportunism of the postwar period.

We end our analysis of The World Wars here; we can’t hang on for two more episodes. But if you watch them, let us know. Send a comment and tell us what happened. We’re indebted to an HP reader for recommending we watch Episode 1. (The History Channel is not really on our radar, as it is rarely devoted to history.) We’d love to find out that the series improves, but we’ll leave it to you to let us know.

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Were Americans really isolationist before WWII?

Posted on January 9, 2012. Filed under: American history, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

There are a few things you will read almost without fail in any history of the U.S., from textbook to blog: the Puritans had a strong work ethic; Americans were the underdogs in the Revolutionary War, Andrew Jackson was a champion of the common man; Mary Todd Lincoln was insane; and Americans were isolationists before each of the World Wars. Generally, the more you read about any “given” subject, the less certain you become of the common knowledge dispensed about it, and sometimes you do a complete 180, realizing that the traditional take on a historical moment is just not true. That’s where Truth v. Myth comes from, and that’s what we’re looking at here.

American isolationism is a tricky topic. Generally, the cult of American isolationism has been built on these cornerstones: the lack of political action taken against Germany by the U.S. government until war was declared; Americans’ over-arching concern with the domestic economy during the Depression, which precluded any real or sustained interest in foreign affairs; and Roosevelt’s struggles to get Congress to authorize material support for Britain from 1940-1941.

The first and last of these concerns official government action; the second addresses the man in the street. They are often connected by saying, The man in the street did not want war with Germany and so the government tried to stay out of it. Only when Pearl Harbor was attacked did Americans rise up and demand war, and so Congress declared it.

But it’s clear when you study the U.S. in the interwar period that there was no single, national opinion on Europe and whether to intervene in German policy. The majority of Americans were concerned about what was happening in Germany; the increasingly oppressive and criminal policies the Nazi government introduced from the start of its rule in March 1933 were fully covered in the U.S. press, and that coverage alarmed and angered many Americans. More Americans had ancestors from Germany than from any other European nation, so millions of German-Americans were outraged at what they considered to be the Nazi destruction of German culture and civilization. Other Americans worried that Germany would provoke another war in Europe—not simply because they didn’t want the U.S. to fight another war, but because the  struggling U.S. economy needed a strong European export market. Communist and Socialist Americans were united with Democrats and Republicans in decrying the rise of fascist dictatorship. And Jewish Americans spread the word of the growing persecution of Jewish Germans through every available outlet.

So we see that there was a great deal of concern and anger about the Reich and its policies, and there was also real activism against Nazi Germany. Jewish Americans led the way, in particular Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, who organized an anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1933 that drew 25,000 attendees. In the depths of the Depression, Wise called for an economic boycott against Nazi Germany that was supported by the American Federation of Labor and the International Trade Union Congress as well as the Jewish Labor Committee. The determination to isolate and attack Nazi Germany thus cut across religious lines.

Why didn’t the U.S. government act against the Nazis if so many Americans were against Germany? That is a very complex topic for another post (and has been addressed in many books), but suffice it to say, for here, that there were several factors at play: the government did not want to provoke another war if there was a diplomatic solution; the government did not receive any real support from any European nation for ostracizing Nazi Germany; and, significantly, the government, like most governments in Europe, simply did not believe that a government so oppressive, so cartoonish, so ridiculous and unstable, could possible last very long. Just as the Founders wrote slavery protections into our Constitution because they felt certain that slavery could not possible endure for very long in our democracy, so the U.S. (and Europe) continued to maintain as normal a relationship as possible with Nazi Germany, certain that it would quickly fall apart or be destroyed by an uprising of the German people.

In the meanwhile, Americans who also could not believe the Nazi regime would last did not ignore the growing threat. Local newspapers in big cities and small towns published the criminal actions of the German government. Many people with relatives in Germany worked to get them out of that country. Jewish Americans continually broadcast details of the emerging Holocaust. And, as we’ll see in the next post, there was an extraordinary demonstration against Hitler on March 7, 1934, that infuriated Germany and impacted relations with the U.S.

Next time: Hitler on trial in Manhattan

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