Storms and circumstance
Robert Cowley said, “What if is the historian’s favorite secret question. ‘What ifs’ have a genuine value that goes beyond parlor games. They can make history come alive. They can also reveal in startling detail, the essential stakes of a confrontation, as well as its potentially abiding consequences.”
How many of us have ever wondered what if we had taken that other job, or what if we had bought our Vail condo five years earlier, or even more interestingly, what if we had married someone else?
‘What ifs,’ or counterfactuals as they are known, always make for interesting discussions. However, military and geopolitical ‘what ifs’ can take on monumental proportions because sometimes the consequences of seemingly insignificant events can have staggering effects on the future.
Noted historian Stephen Ambrose has written counterfactual histories of events that could have reshaped the world we live in today. In one particular scenario, he postulates what if the notoriously volatile weather over the English Channel had not suddenly abated on June 6, 1944, and the Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower had been forced to call off the D-Day invasion.
The next date for the necessary low tides and full moon would have been June 19. However, as fate would have it, the English Channel experienced its worst storm of the year on that date, so as it turned out, it was June 6 or never.
Had the invasion been cancelled due to weather, it’s almost certain Eisenhower would have been removed as Supreme Allied Commander and thus never have gone on to become the 34th president of the United States ” but that’s a different counterfactual history altogether.
With Ike gone, who would have replaced him? Omar Bradley would have been “tarred by the same brush” and not even considered; George Patton didn’t have the proper temperament, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was unacceptable to the American generals, and George C. Marshall was too valuable to Roosevelt in Washington.
But regardless of who replaced Eisenhower, Allied planners would have been in despair because their only other option was to invade France from the Mediterranean ” a slow and painstaking process of questionable strategic value.
With his channel flank secure, Hitler likely would have moved vital reinforcements to the Russian front and perhaps stalemated or even defeated the Red Army. Then, with the Russians out of the picture, he would have been free to unleash all of his panzers against the Americans and British, greatly increasing his chances of victory.
In another invasion-cancelled-by-weather scenario, Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine might have convinced Josef Stalin that the “capitalists” were more than happy to fight to the last Russian soldier. In this alternative counterfactual, Hitler and Stalin might have re-instituted their Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, leaving Britain and the United States to face the Wehrmacht alone ” not an appealing proposition either.
In either case, because Roosevelt had bet everything on the success of Operation Overlord (the codeword for the D-Day invasion) he almost assuredly would have lost the presidential election to Tom Dewey whose administration would likely have been mandated to pursue the war against Japan more aggressively while we muddled on in Europe.
It’s also not inconceivable that while we “muddled” in southern France, the Red Army, which by then was gaining a measure of the German army and its tactics, might very well have overrun Germany and northern Europe, leaving the Soviet juggernaut positioned at the English Channel.
But regardless of which series of events unfolded, within the context of total war, the U.S. and Great Britain, left without other viable options, would have had little choice but to greatly expand their strategic bombing campaign. And how inconceivable would it have been for atomic bombs to begin exploding over German cities (or Russian armies for that matter) by mid-summer 1945?
“What if” history always gets murky the farther we get from a single event.
Nevertheless something as incon sequential as an early summer storm could have changed the entire complexion of the war and its aftermath, which as we know, formed the underpinnings of the world we live in today.
Today, Iraq presents the world with unlimited possibilities for alternative development, any one of which will have profound consequences for generations to come.
I believed that toppling Saddam was in the best interests of the broader Middle East and the United States. He was a genocidal dictator who used chemical weapons on his own people and started and eight-year bloodletting with Iran.
He invaded Kuwait and created instability throughout the region. But most importantly, reform in the Middle East was impossible as long as he retained power.
Most Americans didn’t buy into Cheney’s “We’ll be greeted as liberators” rhetoric, but at the same time, we did expect the administration to have a strategy to remove Saddam and then stabilize the country afterwards.
Things didn’t turn out that way, leaving us with the dilemma we face today.
Whenever I watch TV and see an amputee returning from Iraq my heart sinks; but at the same time, I’m not so naive as to not understand that further miscalculations in managing the situation there could be disastrous for our country.
On June 6, 1944 the storm clouds over Normandy cleared for about 30 hours. If they hadn’t, the world would look very different today. Today, the storm clouds of war hover over Iraq, and the choices we make today will determine what the world will look like for decades to come.
Butch Mazzuca, a local Realtor and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org