Interestingly, Hitler’s thinking was mirrored at least in part by those in charge of Western strategy. Without question, a failed invasion of France would constitute a calamity of incalculable proportions for the Western allies. It would takes months—perhaps an additional year—to reorganize and mount a similar endeavor, giving the Germans additional time to prepare. Perhaps worst of all would be the damage to troop morale, along with the corrosive effects on American and British public opinion. The British had little stomach for more years of war, and Americans were habitually impatient, a mordant combination that might have concluded military operations with an armistice instead of a surrender, and before the availability of atomic weapons.
Further, the record of previous amphibious landings was not particularly instructive, though they had been successful—three in Sicily and Italy—but these had been against unfortified coastlines. The attack made by the Canadians in 1942 at Dieppe, a skeletally fortified port in northern France, was a catastrophe. Yet, if the Americans and British were serious about defeating Hitler, the attempt had to be made and it had to succeed, because the alternatives were unthinkable: a continent dominated by two totalitarian powers, or worse, a Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, which would result in Russian domination of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.
Indeed, it is this latter possibility that brings into bold relief the long-term significance of the Allied victory on D-Day, in that the triumph over Nazi Germany in 1944 and 1945 saved Western Europe from being conquered by an equally barbaric Soviet Union. In short, the seeds of the West’s ultimate Cold War victory a half century later were planted on the bloody beaches of Normandy, because in the long run not one but two totalitarian powers collapsed—one in 1945, the other in 1991—as a result of our victory on D-Day. In his simple, direct way, Eisenhower stated it best: “We cannot afford to fail.” He was more prescient than he knew.
A week after D-Day, Ernie Pyle wrote in his column, “Now that it is over it seems to me a pure miracle that we ever took the beach at all.” Rather, make that tens of thousands of miracles, all consisting of heroic young men who formed the backbone of “aroused democracies,” to use the words of Eisenhower again. Men like Lieutenant Robert Mathias, who, by sacrificing his life saved the world—twice, as it were—along with thousands of others who fought and died on D-Day.