We Didn’t Go It Alone in 1944
by Christopher Endy on Jun 1, 2004
In the spring of 2003, French protesters marched in huge numbers against U.S. policy in Iraq. Irate Americans renamed French fries “freedom fries” and accused the French of cowardly betrayal for refusing to follow the White House into war. Now, with a chance to repair American-French relations, Presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac will meet June 6 on Normandy’s beaches in northern France.
On D-Day’s 60th anniversary, they will honor the thousands of American and other Allied soldiers who gave their lives there in 1944. As Americans remember their war heroes, they should also seize this opportunity to break from their go-it-alone approach to world affairs. The parochial lessons that Americans have drawn from World War II paved the way for the dangerously unilateral policies now causing so much trouble in Iraq.
When it comes to remembering World War II, Americans should be more like the French — yes, the French. French memories of the war are more inclusive and accurate than our own. Americans have lost sight of the fact that even World War II’s “greatest generation” could prevail only with substantial help from its allies, including the Soviets, British, Canadians, Chinese and many others. When Americans ignore this lesson, as they have in Iraq, the result is a world that resents, rather than admires, the United States.
Admittedly, French leaders in the past have also been guilty of narrow thinking. On the D-Day anniversary of 1964, French president Charles de Gaulle, leader of the anti-Nazi Free French forces during World War II, went out of his way to snub Americans. A nationalist who pursued diplomacy independent of Washington, de Gaulle angered Americans by announcing that he was too busy to attend anniversary ceremonies in Normandy. In a vain attempt to show that the French liberated themselves, he only attended events that year in which his Free French troops had played a major role.
But most French have drawn more informed lessons from D-Day and World War II. Since de Gaulle’s time, French politicians and historians focus less on French resistance to Germany’s wartime occupation. They instead acknowledge the once-taboo topic of French collaboration with the Nazis’ genocidal agenda.
Unlike Americans, the French also commemorate all fronts of the European war. During the Cold War, members of the large French Communist Party celebrated the pivotal Soviet victory over the Nazis at Stalingrad. They noted, accurately, that the Soviets inflicted the vast majority of German casualties and that, without Soviet sacrifices on the Eastern Front, D-Day would not have succeeded. The popularity of Steven Spielberg’s “Il Faut Sauver le Soldat Ryan” in 1998 also suggests widespread appreciation for the sacrifices of American soldiers. Even today, you can ride the Paris subway from Metro stop Stalingrad to another named after Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This emphasis on World War II as a multilateral victory helped the French draw the right historical lessons last year when they pushed for a broader international coalition to resolve the Iraq crisis.
In contrast, American memories of World War II remain as unilateral and myopic as recent U.S. foreign policy. Rather than even considering the battle of Stalingrad, Americans simply assume D-Day to be the European war’s clear turning point. Sadly, Americans rarely see the movies about World War II created in France or other nations.
On the Mall in Washington, the new war memorial minimizes the sacrifices of other nations. American veterans of the war surely deserve a grand monument. But would it really be a disservice to their memory if the memorial also reminded us that these soldiers fought as part of a truly international coalition?
Like de Gaulle, Americans have also selfishly used D-Day as a political weapon. For many Americans, D-Day symbolizes not so much transatlantic partnership but rather France’s perpetual moral obligation to the United States. This arrogant logic of never-ending French indebtedness appeared last year when American supporters of the Iraq war pointed to the U.S. military cemetery in Normandy as the ultimate rebuttal to Chirac’s independent diplomacy.
De Gaulle’s boycott in 1964 was narrow-minded, but so too is the way Americans selectively remember the war as an “American” triumph. The history of World War II ought to teach the need for strong alliances. Yet the United States rushed into war last year in defiance of world opinion and without most of its key allies. This unilateral action weakened U.S. alliances and created further anti-American resentment in the Middle East, which has only weakened American security.
The narrow lessons Americans draw from World War II breed overconfidence. Last year, these perceptions misled Americans into believing that they could easily go it alone in Iraq. Americans would be wiser and safer if they used D-Day’s 60th anniversary to celebrate not just their “greatest generation” but also their greatest multilateral moment.
Christopher Endy, author of "Cold War Holidays: American Tourism in France" (2004), is a writer for the History News Service and a historian at California State University, Los Angeles.