Acclaimed historian John McManus began his book The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach with these words: “Desperate. Hellish. Disastrous. Catastrophic. Traumatic. Shocking. Bloody. Anyone who was at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 … is likely to have used one or more of those powerful words to describe it. At Omaha Beach, the stakes were so high, and the fighting so bitter, that the very name involves something legendary, even iconic.”
McManus reminds us that continuing to explore the events around that invasion reveals much about what has shaped our role in wars to come. With the help of years of research and personal interviews with those who fought, the author shares his thoughts with the Post’s West Coast editor.
Jeanne Wolf: As the war in Europe raged on, our country was strongly isolationist. Was D-Day, at least symbolically, a watershed moment where we began our commitment to becoming a leader of Western Europe and the free world?
John McManus: It was really one of the key moments for America in World War II as it ended our determination not to get deeply involved. I really think that a great realization happened after the fall of France in 1940. It was stunning. I think that most Americans felt that at that point, “Well we don’t want to be in the war formally just yet, but we better get ready.”
This soon led to a shift in outlooks, a shift in values and perspective toward more of an American involvement in Europe, and more internationalism. And D-Day was the logical outgrowth of such thinking.
JW: It’s not too much to say that one day made such a momentous change?
JM: No. What’s so compelling about the Normandy invasion is that there aren’t that many actual single dates in history like that which you could look at and say, “Wow, this is a day that you know that sets the tone for decades.” D-Day was definitely one of those days. I mean there was so much on the line if the invasion failed. For America, it was kind of an emblematic commitment because D-Day was the first day of almost a year of very heavy fighting. From that day forward, the campaign to defeat Nazi Germany would be about two-thirds American in terms of manpower and especially material power. There was an enormous blood-cost.
JW: In planning the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower was named the leader. Why was an American in charge of a war that had already been going on for five years? And did this foreshadow our leadership role in Europe?
JM: There was no doubt that an American would be in charge of Operation Overlord because only one country out of the Western coalition could lead this invasion and, more importantly, the campaign that followed. If we pull the lens back further from an American point of view, D-Day was just one of our massive operations going on globally at that point. There were huge operations in the Pacific and the bombing campaign of Germany. All of this stuff was happening, so it was like, “Wow, look what America is capable of.” We had become a military and economic superpower. That’s why the Normandy invasion was not possible until 1944, because among the Western countries, only the United States really had the kind of power to lead the invasion and the subsequent campaign. What you’re seeing there is the beginnings of NATO. I think there was no question there would be an American commander.
What the American people always have to ask themselves is: “Is this worth it?” It is a very serious question.
JW: There’s a lot of talk today about “wasting money” on military support of other countries and, more specifically, the cost/benefit of supporting NATO and whether we’re paying too much or whether others aren’t paying their fair share. But some argue that the benefit of allying with Europe, even at great cost, is priceless.
JM: A hundred and ten thousand Americans died in World War I. World War II was even bloodier. Then we went through a decades-long commitment to protecting Europe through the emblem of NATO during the Cold War and even beyond. There’s bound to be some weariness and bound to be waste, and when we have so many social problems in this country, a lot of people are quite rightly thinking, Well, shouldn’t we be worried about those too? But the world is a small place. What happens in Europe tends to really matter for us too, and that hasn’t changed. So the Americans have been going round and round with their NATO allies for decades about whether we’re carrying too much of the cost and the responsibility. It’s not a new issue.
JW: Because not helping can be so disastrous?
JM: Just think, what if Europe became a key part of the world that was hostile to the United States and its values. What would that mean for the hundreds of thousands of lives that the U.S. expended to make sure Europe was free in World War II and the millions, yes millions, of lives that were affected by the Cold War. It is a question of whether America really represents freedom internationally or if it’s not as important to us.
JW: Aren’t we the world’s police force, in a sense, protecting civilization every day?
JM: Whether you like it or not, there’s a lot of truth in that. And whether you’re a soldier or not doesn’t matter because the American people are ultimately paying for a lot of this in so many ways. So yeah, it affects you whether you know it or not, and that’s part of what I tell all my students. It’s certainly in your interest to know more and understand more because you’re affected by this.
JW: The debate goes on. Is our engagement — in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, even Iraq — is it on moral grounds? Or is it self-interest?
JM: I think the answer is “yes” and “yes.” It’s both. You had that even after World War I. The American government told us we were fighting to save the world for democracy, and actually what we saw was that there was a lot of hardcore economic value there, too. Well, welcome to American conflict around the world, because it’s the same thing as it was in World War II and the Cold War. It’s the same thing in Iraq or the Korean War or wherever it might be. But one theme you do see as a historian in a lot of these places is that when the Americans go, and they’re willing to stay in for the long haul, you tend to see a kind of better country come out of that. I’m alluding obviously to Germany, Japan, Korea — you do tend to see this. Or, when the Americans leave — Vietnam would be a really good example of another kind of outcome. So what the American people always have to ask themselves is: “Is this worth it?” It is a very serious question. I would never say otherwise. D-Day is just one example of that. There’s always a tremendous blood investment. The title of my book comes from Colonel George Taylor, who was commanding the lead assault at Normandy and said to his men, “Only two kinds of people are going to be on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now get moving.”
JW: We hear all the time that those who fought the battle of D-Day were members of what has been called the “greatest generation” — men willing to stand up and sacrifice for the greater good. How do you explain that spirit?
JM: There was definitely an understanding of how crucial D-Day was and that it had to succeed. But I think what really caused them to go on is a kind of a camaraderie. All the higher-minded patriotic stuff that they may feel after you get through about 80 layers of cynicism is not why people really fight. They fight because of the guys next to them. I talked to survivors who explained that they thought in the midst of the chaos, I know a lot of people are relying on me. I’ve got to do my part. And that kept many of them continuing to risk their lives.
JW: In the end, wasn’t it easier to fight that battle on Omaha Beach and the war because we had the moral clarity of being on the right side?
JM: World War II is unique in that it is a mass participation war, though, believe it or not, two-thirds of those who served were draftees and only one-third volunteers. Still, it was a popular war. And that’s very rare in American history. Most of our wars have either been or become incredibly unpopular with some Americans. But World War II was a linear war; you could look toward a concrete series of steps that would lead you to victory. It was a war that was waged against nation-state actors whom you could identify and fight — and fight to victory. And it’s one of the rare times in American history where both parties came together on this idea — well, let’s work together toward the victory.
John McManus’ newest book is Fire and Fortitude: The U.S. Army in the Pacific War, 1941-1943, July 30, 2019.
This article is featured in the May/June 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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