General Eisenhower had borne the burden of command for years. He smoked then. Some four packs a day. He had to deal with military prima donnas like Gen. George Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Critics in the press reminded readers that Ike had never commanded troops in battle before. He had to stroke the forever suspicious Soviets. And then, there were the Germans. Fully 85% of all the U.S. war effort was going into fighting the most formidable military force in history.
Ike prepared a short statement for use in case the D-Day landings had failed. It’s instructive in our time to look back at how this Supreme Commander planned to meet defeat. This statement was never used:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Where might Eisenhower have learned such a lesson in leadership? He was a serious student of history, especially military history. He had been stationed near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania as a young training officer during World War I. (He was considered so talented at training others that he could not be spared to go to the trenches himself.)
Clearly, Ike knew the record of the great Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. He knew how Gen. Robert E. Lee reacted to the disaster of Pickett’s Charge. Lee met the shattered remnants of Pickett’s division as they straggled back from their failed assault on entrenched Union troops at the Copse of Trees. Forever after, that bloody battlefield would be known as “The High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” His hat off, General Lee sadly met his beaten troops.
“It’s all my fault,” their Marse Robert told his men on that sweltering July afternoon in 1863. He repeated the sentiment to a British observer, Col. Arthur Fremantle, and offered his resignation to the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis.
Ike knew that history. Happily, Gen. Eisenhower never had to issue a statement claiming responsibility for a military disaster. Once ashore on that bloody June 6, 1944, the Allied forces moved haltingly inland. The hedgerow country of Normandy proved to be a far greater obstacle than pre-invasion planners had reckoned. And the Germans stubbornly resisted.
The bocages were a series of barriers to tank and truck movements. These barriers were the result of a thousand years of farming and tillage by Norman peasants. In that decisive summer, they enabled the retreating Germans to make every kilometer count.
In the end, however, the gritty courage of American and Allied troops wore down German resistance. And the Americans brought to bear their almost limitless resources.
President Roosevelt had called America “the Arsenal of Democracy.” The results of wartime production show why that phrase so aptly captured America’s economic muscle.
British-born author Alistair Cooke in The American Home Front: 1941-42 related these stunning facts:
Britain trebled its wartime output between 1940 and 1945, a ratio surpassing both Germany and Russia, who doubled theirs, though Japan excelled with a fourfold increase.
And America? America stepped up its war output a staggering twenty-five times.
D-Day contains innumerable lessons in leadership and responsibility, in devotion to duty and in sacrificing for freedom. We certainly know that all of those men who left those landing craft under heavy fire that day did their duty.
In 1975, as Saigon fell to the Communists and Americans watched as their ambassador to South Vietnam was lifted by helicopter from the roof of our embassy, the U.S. flag tucked under his arm, President Ford said “this is not a day for recriminations.” Ronald Reagan countered, asking: “What better day?”
There are questions we can apply to our leadership today. For example, where was the Commander-in-Chief on the night of September 11, 2012, when our people were killed in Benghazi? We still do not know.
On a more prosaic level, we do not know who has been held accountable for the failure of the ObamaCare rollout. Or for that matter, who has claimed responsibility for the Election Day crash of Mitt Romney’s vaunted computer program, ORCA. That system had been touted as the answer to the Obama voter turnout machine.
As avoidance of responsibility and blame shifting become characteristics of our nation’s political and corporate life, more defeats and disasters become unavoidable. That’s why there is merit in studying the past.