June 6, 1944

June 6, 1944, D-Day for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy by Allied forces. At sixteen minutes after midnight, three gliders landed in the darkness near Bénouville, France to capture a bridge. It was one of the earliest actions of a vitally important day for Western democracies, and it was commemorated in the epic World War II movie, The Longest Day.

That June day, at strategic points along 50 miles of France’s shoreline, 150,000 soldiers struggled ashore. They were met with a hail of machine gun fire and artillery bombardment. By nightfall, 2,500 soldiers were dead, with another 7,500 wounded.

But the long, slow, and deadly process of reclaiming Europe from the Nazis in Germany and the fascists in Mussolini’s Italy was underway. Before the fascists and Japanese imperialists were defeated, 85 million people would die — about 3 percent of the world’s population in 1940 — making it the deadliest war in recorded human history. More than half the total casualties were in the Soviet Union (26.6 million) and the Republic of China (15 million). The U.S. lost 419,400 people (including civilians).

WWII was the war in which we witnessed the depths of human cruelty in Nazi concentration camps and Japanese death marches. We discovered the horrific effects of carpet bombing in urban areas, which created uncontrollable firestorms that annihilated everything in their paths. We witnessed the only use of nuclear weapons in combat, as ghostly fireballs, giant inverted exclamation marks, surreally punctuated six bloody years of fighting.

In America, we call them the Greatest Generation, the men and women who fought the Nazis and the Japanese at home and abroad. They served the nation and the world well, at great personal cost. The survivors returned home to rebuild their lives and their nation.

But Europe and Asia lay in ruins. Famine and Pestilence, two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, refused to abandon the war-torn fields. Human misery and continued economic collapse threatened to overwhelm nations recently freed from brutal authoritarian rule. To avoid more catastrophe, America offered to help rebuild the infrastructure, economies and, in some cases, the governments of Allies and former adversaries.

The Marshall Plan, named for Secretary of State (and former U.S. Chief of Staff) George C. Marshall, provided $15 billion (approximately $200 billion today) toward rebuilding efforts. America also committed to a new role in world affairs, participating in the United Nations and in military alliances, most notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Tragically, mutual misunderstanding led to tensions between the Soviet Union and its former allies in Europe and America, sparking a Cold War and nuclear arms race that still menaces human civilization.

But from the end of World War II until the middle of the 1970s, America’s — and the world’s — economy flourished. Millions of people were lifted out of poverty, even if many more millions remained mired in hunger and blighted by fear. America, in its quest for security and economic growth, defended an empire that was not infrequently cruel and unjust to the poor at home and abroad. The rapacious cravings of a military-industrial complex, against which President Eisenhower warned, sapped resources away from social investments at home.

America engaged in frequent, but unsuccessful imperial wars, large and small, that began to erode our standing in the world. Even the collapse of the Soviet Union did little to slow our taste for war and preparations for war. Economic inequality ensured a steady supply of soldiers that we sent to secure our empire in faraway places.

Today, economic hardship and nativist sentiments threaten to completely undo the work of the Greatest Generation. A jingoistic slogan of American Nazis in the 1930s, America First, is heard not only among the disaffected on the streets, but from the occupant of the White House. Fascism, the ideology against which the Greatest Generation fought, is on the rise in American and Europe.

Meanwhile, the president is arbitrarily withdrawing America from the world, to the delight of our adversaries and to the dismay of our friends. The entire post-war international structure, which at least kept peace in Europe, is threatened. Uncertainty breeds fear and fear breeds war.

America is wounded and is struggling to rise to her former greatness. And while reducing the size of the American empire is a worthy goal, an abrupt withdrawal from international affairs does not bode well for America or for peace in the world.

The Greatest Generation, the original Antifa, would be sadly puzzled by America’s self-defeat.

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