If D-Day Failed, Eisenhower Was Ready To Take The Blame

As the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaches NPR's Scott Simon talks to presidential historian Michael Beschloss about the letter Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, just in case the operation failed.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Seventy years ago next week, about 2 million soldiers, sailors and airmen - many of them not much older than schoolboys - masked in the south of England to undertake the largest invasion of all time.

Each soldier received an order of the day from the Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, that said, the eyes of the world are upon you, the hope and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.

But the weather was rotten. The enemy across the English Channel had been dug in for four years and had ringed Europe with steel. The stub of a pencil and a simple notepad, General Eisenhower wrote a statement to be released if the invasion was turned back. Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I've withdrawn the troops.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 the bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone - and he underscored mine alone.

Michael Beschloss joins us in our studios. He has written nine books on presidential history, including "Eisenhower: A Centennial Life." Michael, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure thing, Scott.

SIMON: What do you think gets revealed about Ike in this letter?

BESCHLOSS: This is someone who, unlike some of the caricatures of some generals, knew exactly what the consequence of his command decision was going to be, even if it was a successful landing. He knew that there would be thousands of young people who were killed, and he would have this on his conscious for the rest of his life.

SIMON: Let me ask you about and edit he apparently made. At first he began the second sentence with, this particular operation, crossed that out and wrote in, my decision to attack. What does this say about him?

BESCHLOSS: He didn't want to suggest - especially if it turned out to be a success, that this was all his doing. He knew that this was a joint decision, except for in the case of the timing. He had to decide between basically two moments. One was the day that he finally decided to authorize the invasion, the other turned out to be about 13 days later, one of the biggest storms in the history of Western Europe and almost certainly would have doomed that assault.

SIMON: When he became president in the 1950s, Eisenhower was often ridiculed as being doddering, almost incomprehensible, certainly night not eloquent like Adlai Stevenson or John Kennedy, who would succeed him in the White House. In fact, though, from historian's view, did Dwight Eisenhower write well and effectively?

BESCHLOSS: He wrote extremely well - wrote his own memoir of World War II crusade in Europe - wrote it in about two months and did so without a battery of ghostwriters. Especially when it was a subject that he cared about he, spoke extremely well.

SIMON: We've all seen "The Longest Day," we've seen "Saving Private Ryan," we know how the war turns out. But what were the possibilities 70 years ago for the failure of the D-Day invasion?

BESCHLOSS: You know, Scott, sometimes we look backwards and see history as inevitable, so people just assume that D-Day was going to end with a triumph that it did. That was, by no means, clear to Eisenhower the day before. And you can darkly imagine that even without a storm, that that assault which began with these guys just going up those cliffs against, you know, Natzi fortified Europe - that was one of the most important days of the 20th century - much harder to imagine the allies winning World War II, at least as early as they did.

SIMON: Michael Beschloss, presidential historian. Within less than a year though, allied forces would drive into the heart of Germany from the West while Soviet forces came from the East. May 7, 1945, Dwight Eisenhower told Sergeant Susan Hibbert to send a signal to the war office in London - the mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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