Seventy-eight years ago today, thousands of Americans from all walks of life embarked on one of the most ambitious and courageous missions to rid Europe of the evil and threat posed by Nazi Germany. On that day, it did not matter whether one was Italian or Irish; young or old; Democrat or Republican. All that mattered was that they were Americans, and they had a common enemy.
Of all the gratitude, remembering, and perspective taking that we can and should undertake on D-Day, this year, what is often overlooked about the events of June 6th, 1944 is that the level of collective and unified mobilization required to fight Hitler’s army was inconceivable to most Americans at the time.
It is easy to look back and normalize the widespread unity on D-Day. The fact is that America’s ability to collectively overcome the greatest of odds in the face of unimaginable uncertainty was nothing but extraordinary. Importantly, there are lessons that we can learn to guide ourselves through what seems to be another truly trying and uncertain moment in the Story of America.
In the decade prior to 1944, American society experienced significant stress and upheaval as the Great Depression altered the landscape of wealth distribution and left lower class Americans completely lost and alienated. Simultaneously, racial divisions continued to fester as African Americans became the hardest hit group during the Great Depression – by 1932, approximately half of all African Americans were out of work. To add to the division and discord, there was a significant contingent of Americans who were isolationist and believed in America First policies that prioritized non-intervention, with Charles Lindbergh being the most prominent character.
To put it simply, bringing the institutions and citizenry together to produce a substantive response was not inevitable. What enabled a relatively fractured United States to mount one of the most ambitious and unified responses in the history of nations? Leadership. A clear articulation of an urgent crisis. And a common narrative that bound all Americans together.
With his ability to communicate directly to every American combined with his earnest fidelity to the Union, FDR had to navigate a landscape fraught with isolationism. FDR employed every tool in his administration to urge the American people to care about a rising threat on a foreign continent. He built a case on empathy and spoke to the values of Liberals and Conservatives in the hopes of mobilizing the mighty American potential.
FDR’s leadership was aided by the fact that Nazi Germany represented an imminent and urgent threat with tangible cause for concern. Unlike many modern day problems like climate change, the risk posed by Hitler’s march across Europe underscored what would happen to the Free World, that non-intervention was a non-starter. Importantly, there was a clear understanding of agency; if the American people acted, they could win.
Finally, the various factions of the country had to be sold a common narrative that they could see themselves within. Whether one was working class or an elite member of society, Irish or Italian, unemployed or employed, every American could unite behind a narrative of “good vs evil”. This belief in a common good created the conditions for a widespread mobilization that was resourced from every part of American society.
This understanding behind the conditions that allowed Americans to respond with such courage, bravery, and unity on D-Day and throughout World War II holds three important lessons for our current moment.
The fact is that America is once more being tested. But this time, the greatest threat that America faces comes from within: bitter polarization that is threatening to rip the country apart. While the threat is not as imminent and easy to grasp, the inability for Americans to have dialogues across lines of difference and prioritize problem solving over partisan wins is leaving the United States dangerously vulnerable for years to come. Apathy is increasingly gripping every American. Democracy appears incapable of responding effectively to crises. And rapid technological change that is unevenly affecting Americans is deepening societal cleavages. For the first time since World War II, the American experiment faces another existential threat.
On this anniversary of D-Day, we as Americans must remember the courage of those brave Americans who put aside their differences; who rallied in communities across the country towards a common effort; and most importantly, who understood that their fidelity to the American experiment must rise above all else. As our democracy flounders, we have it within us to inculcate leaders who seek to brandish a new form of unity. Unity that exists not to maintain the status quo, but a unity that speaks to a new vision for America.