US Lost Its Way from Omaha Beach

Exclusive: Visiting Omaha Beach and the nearby American cemetery of World War II dead recalls a moment in time when the United States sacrificed to stop a global epidemic of madness. But Robert Parry discovered that those memories also underscore how the United States has since lost its way.

By Robert Parry

My pilgrimage to the World War II beaches of Normandy was a reminder to me of what the United States meant to the world not that long ago – and the troubling contrast with today.

Before heading to Omaha Beach – the iconic heart of D-Day heroism – I spent several hours at Caen’s World War II museum where you literally descend down an inclined walkway into the murderous madness that engulfed Europe in the 1930s.

It is still hard to imagine that a racist fanatic like Adolf Hitler could gain control of Germany, then one of the world’s most advanced civilizations, and that he could win over enough Germans to undertake various forms of mechanized slaughter.

There was, of course, a long history in Europe of such butchery, from the Roman conquests more than two millennia ago, through the Christian religious wars of the middle of the last millennium to the wholesale killing of World War I.

Indeed, that European tendency to periodically sink into bloody barbarism was the historical backdrop of the American Revolution.

In creating a new Republic, the Founders tried to inoculate the United States from some of those viruses – prohibiting a national religion, restraining the Executive’s war-making powers and cautioning against entangling alliances.

But the more integrated world of the 20th Century made isolationism a difficult approach.

Hitler’s Rise

By the 1930s, Europe had gotten itself into another fix with global implications. The German business elite had decided that Hitler was the man who could stop the rise of Bolshevism and regain some of Germany’s lost pride and territories from World War I.

Great Britain and France made some appeasing gestures toward Hitler by restoring land that had been stripped from Germany, but that only encouraged Hitler’s megalomania.

Soon, Hitler’s aggression against Poland pushed matters too far, shoving Europe into yet another war. France soon fell to Germany’s military might and Great Britain struggled under an unprecedented aerial bombardment focused on civilian targets.

Quietly assisted by President Franklin Roosevelt, Great Britain withstood the air campaign, causing Hitler to turn his attention to the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Germany’s fascist allies in Japan were expanding their own empire and chafing against American power in the Pacific. After Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered the war against Japan and its Axis allies.

As the war expanded, so did the carnage, both involving armies and civilians.

Under the cover of war, Hitler advanced his genocidal goal of exterminating European Jews, whom he used as scapegoats for Germany’s troubles. The Nazis’ use of roving execution squads gave way to the construction of industrial-style killing factories.

The future of humanity looked exceedingly bleak.

However, by 1944, Hitler’s forces had suffered a devastating defeat at Stalingrad and were getting driven back by the Soviet Red Army on the eastern front. The United States and Great Britain had mounted a successful invasion of Italy, but progress northward was slow and bloody.

A Western Front

The world’s attention turned to the coast of France, where an amphibious assault was anticipated, though the Germans were unsure where. The assault came on June 6, 1944, along the Normandy coast farther west than Hitler had expected.

British and American forces carried out the major landings, with other allied countries and resistance movements contributing what they could.

The U.S./British high command considered the most important landing sites as those designated Utah (for the Americans) and Gold, Juno and Sword (for the British).

But the commanders feared that there was too much territory between those principal targets, so an American landing was also ordered under the bluffs of what was designated Omaha Beach.

As the invasion got underway, the landings at Omaha Beach proved particularly bloody with some 3,000 American troops dying in a desperate struggle to overcome well-entrenched Germans controlling the high ground.

Finally, Allied beachheads were established and the Germans were driven back, but the fighting across Normandy raged for more than two months. The losses were heavy on all sides.

Victory at Last

By the spring of 1945, the Red Army from the east and the U.S./British forces from the west had put an end to Hitler’s Third Reich. The crazed dictator committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.

The defeat of German fascism also stopped Hitler’s extermination plans, though not before nearly six million Jews and many other “undesirables” were put to death.

A year later, the Nuremberg Tribunal punished some of Germany’s leading war criminals and established what were to be principles for a future peaceful world.

A visit to Normandy is a reminder of how important the United States was in stopping the madness.

The most lasting reminder of this American contribution is the cemetery at St. Laurent-sur-Mer, where more than 9,300 U.S. servicemen are buried under row upon row of white crosses and the occasional Star of David.

After the war had ended, the American dead were collected from across much of Europe. Their families were given the choice of repatriating the bodies or having them interred at this American cemetery near where they had died, including many with the date June 6, 1944.

The cemetery, which overlooks a section of Omaha Beach, has become a point of pilgrimage for many Americans, although during my visit on Aug. 5 there seemed to be even more French visitors paying their respects than Americans.

The whole Normandy region retains an appreciation for Americans, unlike some other parts of France where Americans often find the French standoffish or haughty. Today, the long sandy stretch along Normandy’s north coast is still called Omaha Beach in honor of the Americans who died there.

Going west from Omaha Beach toward Utah Beach, there are other tributes to the American liberators.

In the little village of Sainte Mere Eglise, a dramatic moment is recalled from the 82nd Airborne’s assault on the night of June 5, 1944, when paratrooper John Steele’s parachute got entangled on the church steeple and he played dead for hours before being disentangled and taken down.

Looking up at the church today, a replica of Steele and his parachute are there. Inside the church, a stained-glass window commemorates the American paratroopers, whose death toll of about 4,000 was even higher than the fatalities at Omaha Beach.

A Dark Turn

While war should never be romanticized – and U.S. history is replete with its own acts of bloody inhumanity – it is difficult for an American to come away from a visit to Normandy without a lump in one’s throat about the necessary, if brutal, actions that occurred here.

Something truly evil had gained a powerful foothold in the world and had to be stopped. But the tragedy is also what happened next, how the United States became corrupted by much of the same viciousness that the Nazis and their Axis allies had unleashed.

Over Germany and Japan, the Allies undertook their own terror bombings of civilian centers, such as Dresden and Tokyo. On Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, President Harry Truman chose to drop atomic bombs on two nearly defenseless Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rather than negotiate a peace with Japan.

After World War II, the United States engaged in a fierce competition with its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, again rebuffing possible openings for accommodation. Opting for a new kind of empire, the United States even collaborated with ex-Nazis and similarly brutal fascists in the Third World.

In Indochina, the U.S. military killed in the millions, and in Latin America, Washington allied itself with vicious dictators trained in the dark arts of assassination and torture.

To feed the national hunger for energy, American leaders sided with authoritarian leaders across the Middle East, just as long as those despots ensured a steady supply of oil.

Part of the Problem

Instead of seeing the Americans as liberators who were part of a solution, many people around the world came to view Americans as just the new imperialists on the block, as part of the problem.

When U.S. interference in the Middle East and Central Asia led to the emergence of al-Qaeda and its 9/11 attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush told the confused American public that the terrorists simply “hate our freedoms.” Many Americans were then duped into believing that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11, even though no Iraqis were involved in those attacks.

Thus, a majority of Americans enthusiastically supported Bush’s unprovoked invasion of that Arab country, a violation of the Nuremberg Tribunal’s prohibition against aggressive war.

Some Americans were caught up in a frenzy of waving the American flag; others unfurled the Christian banner or the Star of David for a renewed “clash of civilizations” with Islam. Bigotry against Muslims has become an accepted part of political thought across much of the U.S. heartland and is eagerly promoted by the still-influential neoconservatives.

Today, the United States seems to be leading the world into a new Dark Age, where science and fact are forced to take a back seat to religious and ideological beliefs, where free-market extremism mixes with jingoism, militarism and Christian fundamentalism.

Tea Party Madness

America’s most prominent “populist” movement, the Tea Party, is remarkable in that its central tenet is to make sure taxes on rich people are kept low and none of their tax loopholes – even for corporate jets – are closed.

Though the Tea Party denies that it is racist – or has any similarities to the old-line fascist parties of Europe – it appears particularly energized by its hatred of America’s first black president, having pushed false claims about Barack Obama’s Kenyan birth.

At its core, the Tea Party seems driven by a profound contempt for the necessity of democratic government as a counterbalance to the excesses of corporate power. The Tea Party amounts to a movement to shift power over U.S. society to corporate overlords.

Most recently, the Tea Party and its Republican allies shoved the United States to the brink of default, making the faith and credit of the country a hostage to right-wing demands for trillions of dollars in spending cuts but no revenue increases.

After the strategy proved successful, with President Obama and congressional Democrats bowing to the spending-cuts-only approach to prevent a default, Republicans gloated over their hostage strategy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said the GOP/Tea Party approach proved the debt-ceiling limit was “a hostage that’s worth ransoming” and had “set the template for the future.”

The cumulative impact of right-wing American policies is also pushing the world toward what may be another cataclysm.

The Right’s anti-government, anti-regulation movement – combined with Ayn Rand’s “greed-is-good” approach to economics – played key roles in Wall Street’s financial collapse in 2008 and the resulting global recession.

Now, the Right’s austerity demands are squeezing the embattled middle class even more, setting the stage for worsening social unrest, which is already provoking renewed racial tensions in Europe and prompting demands for more “law and order.”

Key political forces in the United States seem determined to ignore the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s and force some post-modern “Clockwork Orange” replay of those troubled times.

After spending time in Normandy and recalling the sacrifice that so many Americans made to stop one lethal virus of madness, it is disconcerting to see the United States emerging as a principal carrier of another.

[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a two-book set for the discount price of only $19. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book,Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

 

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10 comments on “US Lost Its Way from Omaha Beach

  1. Ahmad Zaman on said:

    Robert, you’ll need to research into the Koch Brothers because the Tea Party are their creation and the Republicans worship them

    Here’s some references for you [1, 2, 3]

    References:
    1. http://front.moveon.org/it-has-2-heads-8-tentacles-and-wants-to-squeeze-the-world-in-its-powerful-grip/?rc=fb.fan
    2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koch_Industries
    3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_G._Koch

  2. Bob Parry,
    You have a wonderful insight in comparing today’s right wing and Tea Party supporters with past dictators and THEIR supporters.
    Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on the House Financial Committee, pointed out that one way to control the US financial problem is to stop our current wars.He said the US has become the “policemen of the world”, meaning we send in our troops any where to protect our major corporations.
    I could go on with other examples, but you and Mr. Frank have said it all.
    Congratulations on your observations!
    I have been been to Normandy and that part of France.
    It seems so peaceful now, well kept and clean.
    I saw that museum with Ike’s jeep from WW2.
    And I saw those white crosses.
    Our politicians, of all parties, have forgotten History. If you don’t remember History, you are damned to repeat it. This is not the exact wording, but it comes close.
    FDR gave money to the people, gave them jobs, so they could buy any thing from groceries to cars and homes.
    Keep up your great work!
    There are two charities which I began,besides teaching writing full time at the college level, so I have been strapped for finances over the past two decades.
    One deals with missing children, an issue which gets money for some false groups, but such funding finds no children.
    That’s another story.
    Again, keep up your work!
    Respectfully,
    John Gill, Stony Brook, New York (on Long Island)

  3. Joel Parkes on said:

    Dear Mr. Parry -

    My father worked for the WPA for seven years, and enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor. Fought at Leyte, Luzon, and on Okinawa, and made his postwar career as an intelligence officer, retired as a bird colonel and worked for the NSA until his death in 1975. He and my mother are interred in Arlington Cemetery.

    Because of his experiences during the Great Depression with the WPA, my father was a very rare liberal Democrat in the military. He revered both FDR and Truman. He recognized that Vietnam was a war of choice that could not be won, and regarded it as a full-scale betrayal of the American armed forces by American politics. Further, both he and my mother came to hate and loathe the Republican Party. When one of his Republican counterparts at NSA gave him an American Flag lapel pin, my father returned it, saying that he did not need to be a latter day pharisee and perform the equivalent of praying in public so people would know that he was good. He said his service spoke for itself.

    My father would not recognize this country. What the Tea Party calls patriotism, he would flatly call treason. Indeed, it’s hard to see threatening to tank the American economy as anything but that. I think, however, that while he would be disgusted with the Republicans, he would ot be surprised by what they have become, seeing it simply as a logical extension of where they were heading. Rather, he would be bitterly disillusioned by the Democrats, who simply aren’t Democrats any more.

    This is no longer the country my father enlisted to defend and risked his life for. He would be ashamed.

  4. John Puma on said:

    I suggest we have profitably assumed the role of perpetrator of “global epidemic of madness.”

    Well before our “interference in the Middle East and Central Asia” we had proven ourselves worthy of being considered “the new imperialists on the block.”

    The following link is a history of our “interventions” from “destabilization” to frank, extended, totally unjustified and criminal war. Note the accounting stops before 2003, short of some of our national highlights of brutal, enemy-cultivating, depravity.

    http://tinyurl.com/5uy93

  5. Howard Bleicher on said:

    Elected political representatives and their appointees in Washington of both parties do not represent the people or the country as a whole. It is plain to see the breakdown on all levels of American society, due to negligence, malfeasance and just not living up to their elected responsibilities, topped off by really not giving a damn.
    To label the USA as the so called “leader of the Free World” is an insult to the ‘free world’, whoever and wherever they are. Western civilization is such a misnomer!

    Our foreign policy, the murderous wars initiated by these political leaders supported by both democrats and republicans, have murdered millions of innocent men, women and children and to this very day, it continues. We have our military stationed throughout the planet, representing the most inhumane, corrupt, fraudulent planetary Empire, history has ever known. And all, that our equally corrupt American population can do, is become excited about the coming elections, featuring criminals from both major political groups. The rhetoric from their lying lips, once again entrancing an immoral population, bent on having their favorite wrongdoer once again gain power represent their and continue the decay of whatever positive individual and national principles remain here, “in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

  6. America has become the Israel Amos prophesied against for grinding the face of the poor and the Rome of the Apocalypse, proclaiming themselves peacemakers but conducting war. I hope to get my book written before I die, “The Great Separation: church and Christ.” The closer the union with the state, the farther the separation from Christ. What an odd alliance—the Christian Right, duped by Republican promises of restoring Ozzie and Harriet and the Tea Party economic draconians. They are at cross purposes with each other, but the Christian Right is oblivious.

  7. Joanna Garrett on said:

    I am a relic of the Great Depression and WWII Era. We are fast diminishing in number and it is distressing to know that the history we lived through is not often told as honestly or fairly as Mr. Parry’s account.

    I learned a lot about the political situation in the US at my father’s knee. I mean this quite lietally as I recall quite clearly a political discussion between my father and an uncle while crawling on the floor at the age of 3. They were discussing Al Smith and Tammany Hall. Would Al Smith run for president in 1928? My Dad, a staunch anti-prohibitionist was an admirer of Al Smith who also took a firm stand on prohibition. Dad, not a Catholic himself, was lamenting that the country would not vote for a good man because he was Catholic. I remember his words as: “No Catholic will ever be permitted to sit as president in the oval office.” Of course, eventually a Catholic did and my father lived to vote for him. So we should never get the notion that change in attitudes and values will not happen. It happens constantly and may even be happening now.

    My father, an Ohio farmer with a 7th grade education, was far better versed on the political events of his day than are most people today. A second cousin of Herbert Hoover, he was an FDR democrat and we children became familiar with all those acts and programs (NRA, WPA, CCC, etc.) that FDR (with the help of Eleanor) came up with during those grimmest of economic(Don’t even try to compare today’s deprivations with those of the 1930s.) times. We did not own a radio, or even have electricity in the farmhouse, but we had friends with radios and when FDR gave one of his fireside chats, friends and neighbors crowded into kitchens and parlors all across the nation to listen in rapt silence to every word FDR uttered. The effect of those fireside chats on the nation’s morale is rarely entered into the equation when the Roosevelt years are judged. He was enormously charismatic and he managed to capture and hold the nation’s ear throughout the longest administration in history. Those fireside chats are among my most cherished childhood memories. I am proud to say that I cast my first vote for FDR at the age of 21.

    Whether or not FDR knew in advance that Pearl Harbor was to be attacked, I never knew. What I do remember is that a very isolationist population was galvanized into action almost immediately and any young man accused of draft-dodging need not bother to ask a girl for a date.

    I lost a wonderful young husband, not quite 22, in the Battle of the Bulge. This came just 3 months after losing a beloved 19 year-old brother in France. A cousin was captured early in the African campaign and spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp in Germany where he was so severely beaten that the nerves in his neck were permanently damaged. An uncle also served in Africa and half of my high school graduating class never came back. My home town in Ohio had an extremely high causualty rate. All through that terrible war, our hearts at home were with our husbands, sons, brothers, uncles and friends we knew were fighting for the worthiest cause.

    At home everything was rationed and we saved our coupons for butter, eggs and other essentials and we made goodies to send overseas. Our evenings were spent writing letters. The kind of innocent patriotism and strong family ties that sustained us as we at home made our own quiet sacrifices might not seem “cool” today, but neither do they seem possible today. We have lost our innocence and replaced it with cynicism and suspicion.

    My hope is that, before it’s too late, we will see through all the political distortions, the fabrications and outright deceptions and somehow grow up as a nation and quit our warmongering and the destruction of the only home we have. Then we will find the way to choose the brightest and the best as leaders of a truly democractic nation.

  8. KeLeMi on said:

    I supported Korea and Desert Storm. Most other US military actions I don’t. We should end our World Policeman role. It would save us a ton of money that we could use to rebuild the US. We could use the excuse the British used to give independence to their colonies. We can no longer afford it.

  9. The Oracle on said:

    Great historical analysis.

    While you were relating your trip to Normandy, I remembered a political cartoon about D-Day that I saw in the months before Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Scott Stantis penned it for a Tennessee newspaper (I saw it in my local one on the editorial page). It showed a view of Omaha Beach from behind one of the LSTs, in which Republicans were wading through the waves heading toward the beach, some falling, while all the Democrats were cowering in the LSTs. I was enraged. I sent off an email to Stantis and the Tennessee newspaper asking WTF!!!! I had close relatives, all Democrats, fight the Nazis over in Europe, and other close relatives, also Democrats, fight the imperial Japanese over in the Pacific. This political “cartoon” smeared all of them in implying that only Republicans fight for our freedoms, for our country. Incredible. Of course, neither Stantis nor the newspaper responded, which increased my opposition exponentially to starting a war in Iraq. Anyone, a Republican, or a newspaper or a Republican flack, willing to sink this low in a partisan “debate” was not anyone I would ever follow or believe.

  10. Hammersmith on said:

    The WWII myths will never die, especially when the likes of Mr. Parry et al. continue to find them useful to prop up whatever point of view. Tellingly, the war mongers who have occupied the White House since are using the same myth to turn the U.S. to an international terror organization.