June 6, 2013
President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation on this day in 1944. He spoke of the invasion of Normandy that had been proceeding since the pre-dawn hours. FDR also offered a prayer to the nation, and to the world. “Thy will be done,” the president intoned in his rich baritone. He spoke of re-dedicating ourselves to “faith in Thee…faith in our united crusade.”
His language was informed by the biblical cadences of the King James Version and echoed the uplifting style of The Book of Common Prayer. Columnist George Will has said of the BCP that is gives us our very idea of stateliness. And President Roosevelt, who had heard those lines since childhood, gave to his address a stately quality that inspired millions.
Compare Roosevelt’s speech with the dull, flat statements of leading figures of both parties today and we realize what we have lost. There is much in FDR’s Prayer. But this day should remind us of the kind of leaders we had then.
In those long-ago years, politicking for the White House did not begin in Iowa and New Hampshire years before the quadrennial election. Still, it was 1944, and even though he was very ill, President Roosevelt believed he had to carry the war through to victory.
If the D-Day invasion had failed, so in all likelihood would the presidential prospects of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Then, his remarkable and unprecedented three-term tenure in the White House would have ended in defeat—in the hedgerow country of France and at the November ballot box. Roosevelt had staked his political life and his place in history on this invasion.
So had General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was just a colonel when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack just two and a half years earlier. Through the war, however, when the U.S. armed forces expanded from a few hundred thousand to twelve million—one in 11 Americans then being in uniform—”Ike” rose in rank like a rocket.
On this D-Day, Ike was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe—SCAEF. He would wear five stars on the trim “Eisenhower jacket” he had designed.
We can surmise what would have been FDR’s political fate had the D-Day invasion failed. But what about Ike? He could well have expected to be replaced. Possibly by General of the Army George C. Marshall. Maybe even by “Old Blood and Guts,” Gen. George Patton.
Knowing this, Ike drafted a communique for release in the event of a failed invasion. Eisenhower biographer Carlo D’Este provides this insight into the character of our SCAEF.
“Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
This is what American leadership once produced. In the past months, we have seen scandal pile upon scandal in our government. High ranking officials tell Congress “What difference does it make?” Others take the Fifth Amendment or seek to place the blame on their subordinates. It’s Cincinnati’s fault, they tell us.
We cannot think of D-Day without thinking of victory, for sure. But we remember the losses, not only of the brave soldiers who gave their all that day, but also of the lost leadership we once had.