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June 6, 2024

Remembering Operation Overlord on its 80th Anniversary

With Dr. Chris Schlect

“Under the command of General Eisenhower, allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”

This notice, dispatched eighty years ago today—June 6, 1944—informed the people of the free world that one of the greatest military operations in history was underway. The notice, “Communique no. 1,” was released to the press and radio from the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. We mark this anniversary as a day to remember.

Given my own proclivities, I cannot help but think about Operation Overlord in relation to other invasion forces that were deployed across the English Channel. My mind races back to Julius Caesar, who first led troops across the channel, and then to Emperor Claudius, who crossed the channel a few decades later and turned the island into the Roman province of Brittania. Later came bands of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons, who crossed the channel, displaced the Britons, and established the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy. Then came the Vikings, who menaced the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Later, in 1066, William, Duke of Normandy—a descendant of Viking invaders—launched an audacious expedition across the channel. He menaced the people on England’s southern coast, turned women and children out of their homes, and drew into battle his rival claimant to the throne. Following his victorious battle near Hastings, this military expedition across the channel, the Norman Conquest, set the stage for the 100 Years War and its many channel crossings that gave rise to jokes about French people. I could go on, but my point is this. When historians rightly note that Operation Overlord was a larger enterprise than any other military expedition to cross the English Channel, that's really saying something because the Channel has witnessed many, many important military crossings.

One of the most fascinating ways to relive the day is to listen to the radio broadcast that informed Americans back home that the invasion was underway. Here is a link to NBC's broadcast from 80 years ago. It reveals as much about communications technology and the flow of information as it does about the event.

Do not let this anniversary pass without taking a moment to reflect on that certain kind of pluck, which is expressed better as fortitude.

It takes a certain kind of pluck to motor across the waters of the English Channel, spill out into the water, laden with gear, and wade up onto a beach—when all the while, Germans are shooting at you from the cover of their concrete bunkers. Their job was to run at those Germans. Had it been you on that day, would you have what it takes? Most of us won’t ever know. This is among the legacies passed down to us from those men: because of their actions on June 6, 1944, and in the months following, neither you nor I will ever need to face a test like what they endured. Do not let this anniversary pass without taking a moment to reflect on that certain kind of pluck, which is expressed better as fortitude. Fortitude, one of the cardinal virtues, is a posture of contempt for toil and, ultimately, contempt for death. Of course, fortitude was solemnized as a virtue on the cross of Jesus Christ. Vergerio put it well when he said, “We ought not to fear that we have perchance lived too little, but rather that we have lived too little of the life we have lived.”

This anniversary is not just about fortitude. It is about fortitude at a particular moment in time. I find it interesting that many of the college students I have taught over the years, whether at Washington State University or at New Saint Andrews College, did not realize that the Nazis had actually taken over Europe, nor were they aware that, by June of 1944, the European continent had been under Nazi control for four long years. Some students are surprised to learn that the Allies were losing through the early years of the war. Most have heard of “D-Day” from passing references in popular culture, yet they have no sense of the surrounding context that would give it any significance. On the upside, most students know enough to associate D-Day with bravery and victory, which is a good place to start, but it’s only a start. Today marks the eightieth anniversary of fortitude playing out at an important moment in time.

Some students are surprised to learn that the Allies were losing through the early years of the war. Most have heard of “D-Day” from passing references in popular culture, yet they have no sense of the surrounding context that would give it any significance.

With the D-Day invasion, the Allies established a “second front” in the European war against Germany, which was under Nazi leadership at the time. Since the fall of Paris in 1940, the Nazi war machine had been able to focus its power on the eastern front. Our Russian allies took the brunt of it, and they suffered dearly. Their leader, Joseph Stalin, had urged Churchill and Roosevelt to invade Western Europe back in 1942; such an invasion would have forced the Nazis to divert some of their resources away from the eastern front and thereby relieve some pressure from the Russians. Stalin was angered when an invasion didn't come in 1942, and his anger turned to rage when a second front again did not come in '43. These tensions over the second front are where I place the beginning of the Cold War, a global standoff that persisted until 1991.

This points to a wider context for D-Day. The whole enterprise signals the ascendancy of the United States in world politics. By the time of the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944, it was clear that France and Britain could not take down the Nazis on their own. Everybody knew it. But jeepers, weren’t these the great colonial powers that, for two centuries leading up to this time, had extended their influence across the globe?! Now they were in a life-and-death struggle against the Nazis, and they were losing. These years of struggle ultimately forced Britain and France to yield up their colonies so they could survive and keep their home fires burning. From this wider perspective, D-Day was a portent of things to come. Soon thereafter, the French withdrew from their colonial holdings in Southeast Asia and West Africa, and the British released their hold on commonwealth nations across the globe. The United States stepped in.

In less than a decade after D-Day, the United States was once again throwing its military power to support France, and once again under Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership. This time it was the French-Indochina War. In 1954—exactly ten years after Operation Overlord—the US-backed French lost at Dien Bien Phu. The French pulled out of southeast Asia, bidding a final farewell to their long tenure as a colonial power in the region. As the French pulled out, the United States stepped in. In many respects, the proud memory of D-Day blinded us such that we could not understand new realities. Today, we see in hindsight what we could not understand at the time: that the Vietnam conflict was far different from the conflict in WWII. Whereas Hitler and Hirohito presided over modern technological powers, Ho Chi Minh led what Lyndon Johnson referred to as “a piddling piss-ant little country.” We know what came of it.

Also, within ten years of D-Day, Britain was losing its grip on Iranian oil. So again, the United States, again under Eisenhower’s leadership, deployed the CIA to overthrow a democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran. (The CIA, like Ike himself, was a legacy of WWII.) In the Iranian Prime Minister's place, we installed a hereditary monarch—the Shah—named Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This set the stage for the 1978 Iranian revolution and the bitter tensions we still experience with Iran today. God help us all if Iran becomes a nuclear power.

And then there’s the coup the Eisenhower administration staged in Guatemala—once again, by means of the CIA, and once again, just ten years after D-Day. Today, we are still navigating the political and social instabilities of Latin America.

We need to inspire our children to emulate their fortitude in times of trial, especially when it counts.

Coming back to D-Day itself, the story is clear. The leaders and soldiers of Operation Overlord are heroes who were fighting for good against evil in a global conflict. We need to remember them, honor them, and keep telling their story. We need to inspire our children to emulate their fortitude in times of trial, especially when it counts. And yet...

My students know how I am drawn to the complexities of history, and thus, I also see a cautionary tale for us in D-Day’s legacy. The lesson is this: not all deployments of US forces are another Operation Overlord scenario. In the wake of D-Day, we in the United States displayed an unhealthy tendency to color all our geopolitical dealings with a D-Day-shaded Crayola when, in fact, we should have been pulling different crayons out of the box. Or, to change the metaphor, as we basked in the shadow of D-Day, we stepped away from bright sunlight that might have helped us to see ourselves and our surroundings a little more clearly. The cautionary lesson of D-Day’s legacy is that we in the United States mistakenly imagined that most other situations would be pretty much like D-Day. We assumed, first, that every hot spot around the world has more to do with geopolitics than local concerns; second, that the United States always knows who the good guys are and stands up for them; and third, that the power of the United States will always prevail. These assumptions are wrong.

D-Day also presents us with an object lesson that corrects these misunderstandings. For D-Day shows us what it looks like when we get it right. The memory of D-Day reminds us of the virtue of fortitude. That’s all the more reason to keep that memory alive. Something important happened eighty years ago today.

Christopher Schlect, PhD, is a Senior Fellow of History at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, where he serves as Head of Humanities and Director of the College’s graduate program in Classical and Christian Studies.