What's the risk of forgetting D-Day?

DVIDSHUB/via Flickr
June 4, 2014

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when 150,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers landed in Normandy and invaded Nazi-occupied France. It was a key turning point in the war and the Allies claimed victory less than a year later. Barry Strauss, a history professor at Cornell University, thinks the gravity of that day is being lost on Americans. Morning Edition host Monica Sandreczki talked with Strauss about D-Day’s continuing relevance.

Morning Edition : Dr. Barry Strauss, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Barry Strauss : You’re very welcome.

ME : I think there can be this American thought about D-Day as this pure triumph and like this triumph over evil.

BS : Well, that’s a good point and you know, that’s a really interesting point because now, we think of D-Day as, like you say, absolutely good vs. evil. We know all the horrors of Nazism and we know exactly what it was all about, but you know, at the time, it wasn’t quite so black and white. And, remember there was a huge isolationist movement in the United States, convinced that the U.S. should not get involved in WWII, that it was not our problem and not our quarrel. And although the Roosevelt administration and the president himself dearly wanted to get involved and help Britain, they really didn’t feel they could do so without a clear argument to say to the American people “we have no choice but to get involved.” The irony is, as much as Roosevelt really cared primarily about Europe, WWII began for the US in the Pacific and it was only after Japan attacked the US that Germany declared war on the US, even though the US had been engaged in undeclared warfare with the Germans in the battle of the Atlantic before Pearl Harbor. So, you know, to look at D-Day as good and evil, as pure good and evil, I understand why people would do that, but I think the reality is that not even WWII looked like absolute good and evil at the time. The reality of the world is much more complicated and people have to make imperfect choices in a very difficult world. So I think that’s a really good point that we have to realize at the time, things were not quite so stark, the choices were not so stark as they appear now.

ME : How do we keep this from becoming American myth?

BS : I think through education. We have to educate people to something of the reality of what the world is like, what foreign policy is like, what war is like, what adult-sized choices are like. You know, in my business, in education, military history is not necessarily subject no.1 in the Academy. You can probably find more interest in military history if you go to book stores or if you look at things like the military history channel or the history channel, more interest there than if you look at the course offerings of the major universities and on some level, that’s fine because popular history’s good, but on another level, it’s really a lost opportunity because we academics can do is that we can look at things in their complexity. I don’t mean to be belittling people who are non-academics, but I think academic study does allow a chance to put things other the microscope and look at things more complexly. So, I’d like to see us have more study of war conflict, military history in the academy as a way of making people more realistic about the past and what our challenges will be in the present and the future.

ME : It’s been 70 years since D-Day. But, it seems like it would be so simplistic to relegate it to the history books. What is D-Day becoming for us?

BS : D-Day is becoming a symbol of a time that once was and is forgotten. I’m not sure about how much it means to young people anymore. It meant a lot to me when I was growing up because my dad was in the US Army in World War Two and he was actually in the battle for Rome which took place the same time as D-Day, so it’s always seemed like an important anniversary for me. But, I fear that it’s receding in the popular consciousness and becoming something associated with a disappearing generation.

ME : What do we stand to lose in having it recede like that?

BS : I mean of course, on the whole, in virtually every way it’s better to grow up in peace than grow up in a time of war, but the one advantage, the only advantage I think of remembering war and thinking of it as a reality is that it prepares you for the next one and it prepares you to avoid the next one. I think the danger of forgetting about D-Day and thinking about it as just a part of history and not a part of our own lives is that we’ll be complacent about the danger of another war. Sadly, a year or so in Ithaca we lost a Marine and I remember that when they brought his body back to Ithaca for the funeral, there was just a, you know there was a big emotional moment for a small town. And we’re lucky that we don’t have to have more of those moments and we don’t want to have more of those moments. And, we want to keep engaging in a foreign policy that will make them less likely rather than more likely and I hope that that’s a lesson people can take away from D-Day. Though, as I said, I rather fear the mythic quality of it all will absorb the actually reality.