True and false in Obama’s D-Day speech

Jun 7, 2009

Soviet flag flies above the German Reichstag, May 2, 1945. More than 27 million Soviets were killed in World War II.

“So when the ships landed here at Omaha [Beach], an unimaginable hell rained down on the men inside,” President Barack Obama said as he spoke in Normandy on June 6th, the 65th anniversary of “D-Day.”

This was certainly true. On that day in 1944, U.S., British and Canadian forces landed on the coast of France, opening the western front against Nazi Germany and its Axis allies in World War II. From the cliffs overlooking the beach, dug-in German troops and artillery, as well as airpower, pounded the soldiers coming ashore, many of whom never made it out of the landing craft. So intense and devastating was the fire, whether or not the Allied troops would be able to hold a beachhead was in doubt throughout the day.

An estimated 9,000 soldiers of the 175,000 Allied invasion force, and 3,000 out of 250,000 Axis troops in Normandy, were killed on D-Day. Despite taking very heavy casualties, an Allied foothold was secured on the French mainland and was quickly expanded eastward.

But much of the rest of Obama’s speech was nothing more than resurrected Cold War propaganda, in which he characterized D-Day as not only the decisive turning point of World War II, but of the entire 20th century:

“Had the Allies failed here, Hitler’s occupation of this continent might have continued indefinitely. Instead, victory here secured a foothold in France. It opened a path to Berlin. It made possible the achievements that followed the liberation of Europe: the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, the shared prosperity and security that flowed from each.

“It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide.”

Soviet resistance breaks the back of Hitler’s army

In reality, the decisive battles of World War II were fought not on the Western Front, in North Africa or the Pacific; they were fought inside the Soviet Union. Destruction of the Soviet Union was the number one objective of Hitler and the Nazi war machine. Through most of the war, 80 percent of Nazi divisions were deployed inside the USSR.

The Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-1943 was the single, most decisive battle of the war. Not only was the Nazi army’s advance stopped, but their Sixth Army was surrounded and totally destroyed. Stalingrad was also the bloodiest battle in world history, with more than 1.5 million casualties—800,000 on the German side and 700,000 on the Soviet side. The battle raged for months, most of the time in sub-zero temperatures.

A few months later, in July-August 1943, the largest tank and artillery battle in history saw the Soviet forces inflict another devastating defeat on the Nazi military. At Kursk, 900,000 German troops, with 3,000 tanks and 2,110 aircraft attacked 1.3 million Soviet forces with 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery guns and 2,800 aircraft. The Soviets lost over 500,000 soldiers at Kursk—more than the combined U.S. military deaths in both the European and Pacific fronts.

In the summer of 1944, the Soviet Red Army destroyed two major Nazi army groups made up of 2 million soldiers. By fall, the Red Army was beginning operations that would liberate Eastern Europe from the fascists.

The war in Europe would continue until May 1945, with much heavy fighting and millions more—soldiers and civilians—killed and wounded.

Obama’s assertion that “Hitler’s occupation of this continent might have continued indefinitely” if Allied forces had not succeeded on D-Day lacks all credibility. By June 6, 1944, Germany’s eventual defeat was assured thanks to the massive defeats it had suffered on the eastern front. Many scenarios for how the war might end still existed, but continued Nazi occupation of Europe was not one of them.

While they had received some supplies from the United States, the Soviets had to bear the full force of Nazi terror virtually alone. Since 1942, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had been pressing U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to open the western front. And since 1942, Roosevelt and Churchill had promised to do so—and then stalled.

Meanwhile, the USSR’s losses mounted by the millions, and then tens of millions. At war’s end, the number of Soviet citizens killed exceeded an appalling 27 million, roughly half military and half civilian casualties. U.S. deaths in war were 400,000.

What finally made the June 6, 1944, Allied landing urgently needed, from Washington and London’s point of view, was the prospect that the Soviet Union might very well defeat and destroy Nazism and liberate all of Europe by itself. In a world where anti-fascist revolutionary currents were rising across Europe and Asia, this was viewed as a grave threat to capitalism’s future existence.

Obama’s D-Day speech honors a long tradition among leaders of the Western capitalist powers of rewriting history to their own ends. But for those interested in an objective appraisal of history, the tremendous sacrifices of the Soviet people in the struggle against fascism will be remembered as nothing short of heroic.