Remembering the sacrifices that saved us from fascism

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U.S. Army, via Wikimedia Commons

American soldiers recover the dead after D-Day.


It is interesting how Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a descendant of Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite pacifist conscientious objectors,  commanded the invasion of Normandy, France.

Ike called the D-Day operation launched 71 years ago today a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” This, the largest seaborne invasion in history, was the culmination of years of strategic planning by the Americans, Canadians, British.  The British Special Operations Executive orchestrated a massive campaign of sabotage implemented by the French Resistance.

Seventy-one summers have passed since more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline.  More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foothold in continental Europe. The cost in lives was high. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded.  Let us remember that their sacrifice allowed more than 100,000 soldiers to traverse the continent and liberate Europe.

On June 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan, visiting Normandy, stood at the site of the U.S. Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc.  He said: “We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost.

“We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.”

The fate of the world rested on stopping the Axis powers.  Indeed, apart from any military threat, American democracy might not have survived isolation in a fascist world.  Today, there is no doubt World War II was necessary to define, defend, preserve and establish independence and democracy. Few Americans alive today have any idea of what the United States was like during the 1930s and 1940s.  The KKK, the Silvershirts, the Coughlinites and a host of others were trying to bring a form of fascism to the United States.

Were there fascist leaders in the United States?  Was Louisiana Gov. Huey Long a dictator, demagogue or populist with his “Share Our Wealth” program?  Anne Morrow, the wife of Charles Lindbergh, wrote a book in which she called fascism the “wave of the future.” A United States isolated in a fascist sea and suspicious of non-Anglo-Saxons could have instituted an authoritarian or at least a repressive regime even if it called itself antifascist.

In this atmosphere a close friend of Franklin Roosevelt told him, “You will either be the greatest president or the worst president.”

FDR responded, “No, I disagree, the fact is if I do not succeed I will be the last president.”

The D-Day invasion was the turning point in this global struggle for democracy.  In 2004, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day Ike’s son John Eisenhower said, building on his family’s religious heritage, “Not surprisingly, the war that included D-Day had made a pacifist of the man who bore the responsibility of commanding it.” Ike once said, “What separates me from other pacifists is: I hate the Nazis more than I hate war.”

If Eisenhower suspended his theological/philosophical beliefs about pacifism for a military career that led to his commanding the D-Day invasion, it was an acceptable sacrifice for “making the world safe for democracy.”

Sacrifice is the act of giving up something that you want to keep, especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone. The word sacrifice is seldom used in contemporary culture. Let us be mindful today of all the sacrifices made by everyone who played a role in making the D-Day invasion as successful as Eisenhower had planned.

On the campus of the Masonic Village in Elizabethtown is a six-acre veterans memorial.  The centerpiece is a Doric temple with these words inscribed above the entrance: “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.”

Today we celebrate the victory of the D-Day invasion but we must remember the struggle for independence and democracy is a constant battle.

Jean-Paul Benowitz, director of student transition programs and assistant director of academic advising at Elizabethtown College, also serves as an adjunct professor of history at the college.



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