D-Day and the reopening of America: What history teaches about endgame strategies

Wars are easy to start but harder to finish. The victory that seems at hand, history has amply demonstrated, can slip in a cruel instant from one’s grasp. The formulation of an endgame strategy is a tricky business.

On the 76th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, it’s instructive to look back at the problems the Allied leaders faced and the passionate debate that raged among them as they plotted this unprecedented push toward, as one resigned German general conceded, “the twilight” of the war.

And it’s a particularly piquant history lesson at this unsettling national moment because, while the specifics of the D-Day debate were unique to that war, the broad strategic issues — as well as the political agendas and the temperaments of the leaders making the decisions — resonate across the generations with an edifying interconnectedness. There is commonality in the conflicting pulls of careful timetables and erratic emotions that surround the drives to strike the final blows against goose-stepping hordes in the 1940s and, today, a perplexing, stealthy virus compounded by social unrest and riot in our streets.

The three main Allied leaders of World War II — FDR, Churchill and Stalin — met for the first time in Tehran at the tail-end of November 1943 to sort out their differences over when to initiate “Operation Overlord,” the code name for the invasion of France. It was a knives-out debate.

Stalin was in a rush, “completely and blinded set,” reported Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary. He demanded, as the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov put it, “urgent measures as will ensure the invasion of France by Anglo-American armies.” And there was good reason for his urgency. The Soviet Union had defeated the Nazis in the course of the decisive 162-day battle for Stalingrad that ended in February 1943 but had paid a horrific price: Some 2 million people were killed or wounded in the brutal combat. The beleaguered Russians needed the opening of a second front as soon as possible to divert the Wehrmacht’s focus.

Churchill was well aware of the valiant sacrifices made by Stalin’s forces. He would stand up in Parliament and concede, “It is the Russian armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army.” He also fully realized that the previous May, five months before arriving in Tehran, he and FDR had assured Stalin that the invasion would occur “in the early spring of 1944.” However, informed by new knowledge, new strategic concerns, he now saw things differently.

“This is what happens when battles are governed by lawyers’ agreements made in good faith months before, and persisted in without regard to the ever-changing fortunes of war,” he argued, demanding that certain pre-conditions regarding the Italian campaign and the deployment of landing craft be achieved before the date for the invasion could be set. Sounding very much like a present-day governor who is reluctant to remove restrictions on economies or assembly until there is adequate coronavirus testing, the prime minister’s position was that “We will do our very best to launch Overlord at the earliest possible moment at which it had a reasonable prospect of success.” He was not the sort of leader who’d pick an arbitrary date like Easter to reopen the nation simply because, as President Trump argued, “It’s such an important day for other reasons.” 

It was left, then, to President Roosevelt to finesse a compromise between his two partners in the war. Since Pearl Harbor, American generals had been arguing for a concerted push through the heart of Europe to Germany but, after consulting with the British, they had agreed first to launch major operations in North Africa and Italy. And, no less crucial to his thinking, FDR arrived in Tehran with a visionary political strategy for the governing of the post-war world. He saw a future where peace would be enforced by “Four Policeman” — the U.S.S.R, the United States, Great Britain and China.

Stalin was not very enthusiastic about this partnership, but FDR decided he’d have a chance to change the Soviet marshal’s mind — and, at the same time, fulfill his military advisers’ strategic vision — if he endorsed the plan for an invasion in late spring. And, once the proposal had America’s full commitment, Churchill, although he’d continue to grumble for months afterward, had little choice but to go along.

In the end, Mother Nature forced a delay in the invasion; the June 6 date was, as Churchill would say, “set by the moon and the weather.” Nevertheless, the conversations at the conference were examples of pragmatic deal-making — the sort of presidential leadership reinforced by a guiding vision that will be required today to bring our nation back to vibrant economic and community life.

Also at Tehran (as in more recent days) there were questions about whether remarks were made in jest, satiric barbs thrown out to amuse, or if they were official pronouncements.

At a dinner at the Russian embassy for the Allied leaders, Stalin declared that 50,000 German officers “should be rounded up and shot at the end of the war.” Churchill was aghast. “I would rather,” he announced, “be taken out into the garden here and be shot than sully my own and my country’s honor by such infamy.”

FDR tried to calm the unsteady situation. Perhaps, he joked weakly, only 49,000 could be shot. It was a rejoinder as cringe-worthy as the fatuous attempts by present-day medical experts to walk back statements which have drawn presidential ire.

Churchill had heard enough. He stomped off into an adjoining room. He was sitting in the semi-darkness, alone except for his raging thoughts, when the prime minister felt a heavy pair of hands reach out from behind and grab him by the shoulders. He turned to see a grinning Stalin. The marshal insisted he’d been “only playing.” But Churchill wasn’t convinced — just as many Americans today remain persuaded that the president’s suggestion to ingest disinfectant to kill the coronavirus was more genuine than sarcastic, as Mr. Trump later scrambled to explain.

Despite the tumult at Tehran, the Allies were able to establish the foundational plan for D-Day and to set in motion the events that brought the war in Europe to its end. One can only hope that with a similar practicality, guided by a similar sense of vision, present-day leadership — the decision makers in the federal and state governments — also will be able to put aside their differences and formulate a reasonable plan to bring the nation successfully to the other side of its battle against both a raging pandemic and inflamed racial tensions.

The 4,414 Allied soldiers who were killed on D-Day did not die in vain. And it will be tragic if the courage and sacrifices of the soldiers in the frontline of combat against today’s pernicious virus — doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, take-out deliverers — are for naught.

Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His latest book, “Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin,” was published June 2 by HarperCollins.

Tags Allies of World War II Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 D-Day Donald Trump Franklin D. Roosevelt George Floyd protests Joseph Stalin Winston Churchill World War II

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