One of the most important decisions of the 20th century was also one of the loneliest.
On the evening of June 5, 1944, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, had a choice to make. Thousands of his troops were poised to begin the assault on Normandy, France, the next day. If it worked, it would lead to the end of World War II in Europe.
But the weather wasn’t cooperating. Winds and rain would disrupt the airborne operations and naval and air bombardments that were critical to the success of the mission. The weather officer expected somewhat of a clearing, but this still was no time for an invasion. Eisenhower knew that without effective bombardments, many of the invading forces would be slaughtered by the Nazi machine gun nests when they hit the beaches.
Ike would have preferred to wait, but the invasion had already been postponed once because of the weather, and the tides would not be favorable again until June 19. That was a long time to keep the finger on the trigger. The men would go crazy spending that much time locked up in camp, and delay increased the likelihood that the Germans would learn of the planned invasion.
One by one, the generals gave their opinions. In a variety of accents, some said go and some said wait. And then it came to Eisenhower. He paced, struggling with the decision. After a moment, he said, “OK, let’s go.” His subordinates cheered and then left for their posts, living Eisenhower alone.
It was a firm decision, but not one made with certainty. The next day, he penned a press release to be made public if the invasion failed. “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 that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
We now know that Eisenhower was correct – correct to decide to invade, and correct that some of the invading forces would be slaughtered.
World War II produced its share of legends – blood-and-guts generals like George S. Patton and the regal and glory-seeking Douglas MacArthur, and all deserve their place in history. But when it came time for that fateful decision on June 5, I’m glad it was Ike, the humble common man, who was making it.
Now the United States faces a different kind of enemy – its own fiscal irresponsibility. Unlike World War II, which started with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the national debt is an enemy that attacks our freedom and prosperity from within, slowly and undramatically. It can be ignored for decades, as it already has been.
But instead of confronting this enemy, America is at war with itself. If Republicans and Democrats were Allied armies, then the United States and Great Britain would have killed each other instead of the Nazis.
This time, thank goodness the country doesn’t need soldiers willing to charge through machine gun fire across a foreign beach. What’s needed are statesmen willing to make tough choices – to reduce spending on popular programs, and to raise taxes for the purpose of balancing the budget so that our children and grandchildren don’t have to do it for us.
It needs leaders willing to listen to diverse points of view, to make their decisions based on the best information available instead of relying on rigid orthodoxy, and who accept that it’s OK to be uncertain. We need elected officials who accept that any decision they make will be painful but that delay is unacceptable. We need people in Congress and the White House who are willing to accept responsibility for their decisions and to blame no one else when things go wrong.
The country needs more Eisenhowers.