Lessons of D-Day, 70 Years Later: The Arsenal of Democracy, Then and Now

It takes nothing away from the courage and valor of the American troops who landed at Normandy on D-Day to say that their ultimate victory was a forgone conclusion. Yes, US GI’s still had to fight it out, all the way from the English Channel to the Elbe River, and they fought bravely. Yet their triumph had already been guaranteed, thanks to the vast war-production resources of the United States. Indeed, if we learn all the lessons of D-Day, including the value of an “Arsenal of Democracy” on the homefront, we will gain greater understanding of what it takes to win our wars in the future.

Reporting from newly liberated French territory, here’s how the great war correspondent Ernie Pyle described the fleet that put Allied troops ashore on D-Day:

As far as you can see in every direction the ocean was infested with ships. There must have been every type of ocean-going vessel in the world...the greatest armada man has ever seen. You simply could not believe the gigantic collection of ships that lay out there waiting to unload.

There’s an old saying: “Quantity has a quality all its own.” That is, sufficient mass makes all the difference.

Watching the re-enactment of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach in the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, one is humbled, and then reminded, of the great bravery and resourcefulness of the US Army GI. It was at Omaha, and a thousand other battlefields across the world, that Americans of that era earned their undying honorific:“The Greatest Generation.” 

On the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan described another heroic battle on that same day, the storming of Pointe du Hoc by the men of the Second and Fifth Ranger Battalions:

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers -- the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.

On D-Day alone, the American and Allied forces suffered some 12,000 casualties, including 4,414 confirmed dead. And the outcome of the battle was no certainty; that afternoon, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation in a radio broadcast, reminding his listeners that even if we fell short in this specific mission, we would fight on and prevail. As FDR put it, “Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.”

Yet by the end of that Longest Day, the mission had been accomplished: We had our beachhead. We were ashore in France, less than 300 miles from Germany. On that day, we had landed 160,000 troops; within six weeks we had landed 1.45 million. This was five times the strength of the defending Germans in France. And at the same time, the Allies were also advancing in Italy; Rome had already been liberated on June 4. And the Soviets had entered Poland. Meanwhile, overhead, American and British bombers were flattening Nazi factories.

D-Day was an epic of courage, to be sure, but it was also a triumph of many dimensions. Under the leadership of SHAEF Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the US had done many things right; it had maintained operational security, even as sailors and troops trained ceaselessly for the amphibious assault. Indeed, thanks toOperation Fortitude, we had fooled the Germans into believing that we might land everywhere but Normandy, thus keeping their forces dispersed. 

But perhaps most of all, our victory was forged on the homefront. Back in Pittsburgh and Burbank, we created a movable storm of aluminum and steel, which we then flew or shipped over to the battlefront. And so in the skies over France, the US enjoyed near total air superiority—made in the USA.

It was the P-51 “Mustang” fighter, introduced in late 1943 as a bomber escort, that had turned the tide in the air. The “fighter sweep,” an operation conceived by Gen. Jimmy Doolittle—the man who had led the daring B-25 raid over Japan in 1942, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor—did its job: The P-51s swept the skies of German planes. Indeed, the US built 15,000 P-51s, part of an American aerial armada that totaled 310,000 airplanes. That was almost triple the German production. Doolittle summed up the strategic dynamic: “You can’t lose a war if you have command of the air, and you can’t win a war if you haven’t.” 

In fact, the roots of American superiority went back decades. Billy Mitchell was a famous—as well as obstreperous—advocate of air power. As early as World War One, he could see that aviation would transform both land and naval warfare; Mitchell was ultimately vindicated, posthumously, by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which shudderingly proved that planes could sink ships.

And according to University of Minnesota historian Vernon W. Ruttan, the military’s institutional support for American aviation, even in peacetime, was decisive: 

The U.S. military has been intimately involved in aircraft development since the Army Signal Corps purchased its first plane from the Wright Brothers in 1907. Procurement of military aircraft and support for aeronautics research and development have been the two principle instruments used to support the development of the aircraft industry. 

The aircraft industry is unique among manufacturing industries in that a government research organization was established to support research on technology development for the industry. By the mid-1920s research conducted or supported by the National Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) was beginning to have a major impact on aircraft design and performance. Most of the early advances that resulted from NACA research and development were “dual use” – applicable to both military and commercial aircraft. Every American airplane and every aircraft engine that was deployed in World War II had been tested and improved by NACA engineers.

Moreover, air power had an enthusiastic champion in FDR. As assistant secretary of the Navy during World War One, Roosevelt had seen the Marines in combat in France, and come away with the conviction that the machine gun and barbed wire had changed ground-fighting forever. In the future, aerial bombardments were a superior way to fight over infantry charges. And so he overrode his commanders, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, to focus on building up US air power. And it was FDR, too, who heeded the advice of Albert Einstein and pushed past bureaucratic inertia to speed the production of the atomic bomb—dropped by the new B-29 bombers. 

Of course, US military strength extended to all the branches of the armed services. We also built, for example, 27 aircraft carriers, plus another 110 escort carriers and 100,000 tanks. Roosevelt, who had earlier coined the phrase, “arsenal of democracy,” laid out a vision of super-abundant war production in his 1942 State of the Union address, less than a month after Pearl Harbor:

It will not be sufficient for us and the other United Nations to produce a slightly superior supply of munitions to that of Germany, Japan, Italy, and the stolen industries in the countries which they have overrun.

The superiority of the United Nations in munitions and ships must be overwhelming—so overwhelming that the Axis Nations can never hope to catch up with it. And so, in order to attain this overwhelming superiority the United States must build planes and tanks and guns and ships to the utmost limit of our national capacity. We have the ability and capacity to produce arms not only for our own forces, but also for the armies, navies, and air forces fighting on our side.

And that’s what has happened. The story of vital American military production in World War Two has been ably told many times, including, recently, by Arthur Hermanand Maury Klein.

Indeed, to read those books today, in light of recent events, is to leave open a haunting question: Could we do it again?

That is, as we look back to the victories of seven decades ago, do we have the same political, industrial, and, yes, moral resources that supported the Greatest Generation? If the answer is “no,” then how can we expect our armed forces to perform as well as they did back then? Moreover, do we really think that all the burden should be on our warriors, and not on us? Can we truly say that we have their backs?

To see a movie such as Lone Survivor, chronicling combat in Afghanistan, is to be reminded of the undaunted courage of America’s fighting forces, even now. (So sure, when our armed forces are then confronted with the sorry spectacle of Bowe Bergdahl, that has to be disheartening; during World War Two, deserters were executed.) 

Yet the problem is deeper than that. The Arsenal of Democracy of the 1940s has been mostly outsourced overseas, and what manufacturing remains here in the US is now under siege by EPA regulators because of its alleged “carbon footprint.”

In fact, we now import military parts from China, which doesn’t make any sense at all. During the 1930s, as we confronted the prospect of war with Germany and Japan, we were not relying on any other country for materiel. Yet today we worry, without doing much about it, that the Chinese are selling us counterfeit (and inferior) computer chips. And oh yes, the Russians now have a devastating chokehold on what remains of our manned space program. In other words, in any possible coming conflict, we face the prospect that we have lost the commanding heights.

Surveying this systemic dereliction of duty, what should we be thinking? Do we really think that this is how we keep faith with the legacy of the Greatest Generation? That is, with their sacrifices, and their achievements, at Normandy and so many other battlefields?

And do we really think that we, today, are on a sound course for our future? Learning the lessons of our past victories, and applying those lessons to our own time—that’s the most fitting tribute to the heroes of D-Day.


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