D Day: Mythology of America as Liberator Feeds Trump’s Militarism

June 9, 2019

It was the Soviet army that broke Hitler's back at Stalingrad, but the myth that the American army liberated Europe, serves aggressive U.S. policy, including Trump targeting Iran - historian Peter Kuznick joins Paul Jay

It was the Soviet army that broke Hitler's back at Stalingrad, but the myth that the American army liberated Europe, serves aggressive U.S. policy, including Trump targeting Iran - historian Peter Kuznick joins Paul Jay



D Day: Mythology of America as Liberator Feeds Trump’s Militarism

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion with Peter Kuznick about the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and ask him whether or not D-Day really was the day the battle that broke the back of German militarism, German fascism.

Peter joins us again. Peter is a professor of history and the director of Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He’s the author of The Untold History of the United States, co-written with Oliver Stone, as well as Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, Peter, let’s pick up the conversation.

So so the narrative we all mostly learn in schools is D-Day was this heroic battle fought by tens of thousands of Canadian, British, American soldiers, and I started with Canadian because that’s where I was. But was it? No doubt it was a tremendous battle, and no doubt thousands of people died. But was it the battle that broke the back of Naziism?

PETER KUZNICK No. It was a tremendous battle. I’m surprised that you say you learned that the Canadians were actually there on that day.

PAUL JAY That’s because I grew up in Canada.

PETER KUZNICK The Americans don’t know that the Canadians were there. The Americans don’t even know that the British were there. And if you look at the films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, the Canadians and the British still weren’t there. This was the United States fighting singlehandedly to defeat Germany in the war.

So I’m not sure what your father was doing there that day, but as we know, the reality is that this was very much a joint operation; that the British and the Canadians in some ways played a greater role at Normandy than the Americans did, in terms of the number of troops, in terms of the landing craft, in terms of the number of beaches hit.

So it’s part of the American mythology. It’s a crucial element of American mythology. And I’m sorry you’re trampling on it by bringing the British and the Canadians into this.

PAUL JAY Sorry to let a historical fact get in the way of a good narrative.

PETER KUZNICK And it’s a great narrative, and it’s a heroic narrative. At least the United States is intervening in an aggressive way to stop fascism. That’s a good thing. I wish the Americans would do more of that now rather than coddle many of the fascist forces around the globe today.

But it was a very important day, and a very important turning point. But it was not the decisive turning point in World War II.

PAUL JAY So what was?

PETER KUZNICK What we have to remember is that throughout most of World War II, the U.S. and the British faced 10 German divisions combined. The Soviets were facing more than 200 German divisions. The Germans lost approximately 1 million men on the Western front. They lost 6 million on the Eastern front. There is reason why Churchill said the Red Army tore the guts out of the German war machine. However, that’s not what Americans learn. But the reality is that the Soviets defeated the Nazis with aid from the Americans and the British and the Canadians and others. It was a vast coalition. But the ones who did most of the fighting and most of the dying were the Soviets. The Americans lost about little more than 300,000 in combat and 400,000 total in World War II. The Soviets lost 27 million. 27 million. Even now in the public opinion surveys, Americans are asked who won the war in Europe. 11 percent said the Soviets won the war in Europe. The Europeans have come in a little bit better. Maybe 15 percent understand that the Soviets won the war in Europe. In France, in a survey taken in May of 1945, when they were asked who won the war in Europe, 57 percent said the Soviets did. Now it’s under 15 percent who say the Soviets did.

So what’s happened is history has fallen into this deep black hole, and that’s been reinforced by the patriotic drivel in the post-war period. Again not to diminish the tremendous achievement and the heroism and the sacrifice at D-Day or in Europe in World War II. But again, we’ve got to go back to this history. As you said before, the Soviets were asking the West to intervene to stop Hitler repeatedly. They finally gave up and signed the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. And then Stalin fell into this delusion–Stalin, who never trusts anybody, seemed to trust Hitler that the Germans were not going to invade. And Stalin was caught with his pants down in June of 1941 when the Germans finally did invade. And they almost succeeded. But the Soviets resisted. And then the big battles occur.

Late 1931, the Battle of Moscow, the Germans came very close to taking Moscow. But the Soviets resisted. But the big battle, the real turning point, is the Battle of Stalingrad. And that begins in August 1942, and ends in February of 1943. And the casualties there were horrific. We’re talking about over a million Soviet casualties, perhaps half a million Soviet dead, several hundred thousand Germans dead. And after the Soviets defeat the German army and Paulus surrenders his 91,000 remaining troops in February 14 of 1943, Hitler says the gods of war have gone over to the other side. And that battle is followed by the Kursk battle. The big tank battle at Kursk. And from there the Soviets were on the offensive, and they were marching through Eastern Europe and Central Europe, and making their way to Berlin.

But the American narrative and the Russian narratives are totally different in World War II. For the Americans, the war begins at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. And then there’s some battling in North Africa and the underbelly, and Italy. But the real war for the Americans begins June 6, 1944, with the invasion of Normandy with D-Day. Then the Americans singlehandedly defeat the Germans and marched straight into Berlin. And the Americans win the war in Europe. That’s a very, very unfortunate and dangerous myth that has been perpetrated. And if you listen to Trump’s words, again, in England, again he’s reinforcing that myth about the Americans leading the way to the liberation of Europe. That’s not the reality. The reality was the success at Normandy is largely due to the fact that the Germans were already weakened badly by that point, because they had been taking a pummeling, and they were in retreat across Europe ahead of the Russian Army, ahead of the vast Red Army, which was then liberating the concentration camps. And part of the reason why the Russians were so full of rage and committed the atrocities they did against the Germans when they took Berlin was because they had seen the German atrocities in the concentration camps, because they had seen what the Germans had done to the Russians throughout that, before the Russians turned the tide.

So what I tell my students, what the Soviets lost in World War II, the loss of 27 million people in World War II is the equivalent of one 9/11 a day, every day, for 24 years that’s what the Soviets suffered in World War 2 the equivalent of one 9/11 a day every day for 24 years, in terms of the number of deaths suffered by the Soviet Union. As John Kennedy says in his tremendous commencement address at American University in June of 1963, he says what the Soviets suffered was the equivalent of the entire United States east of Chicago having been wiped out and destroyed.

PAUL JAY Some people argue that the reason the United States and Britain didn’t open up a second front earlier was because, as we said in part one of this interview, there’s a lot of people within the political and military elites and others that wanted the Germans and the Russians just to fight the hell out of each other. And then, too, the sections of the elites and military, especially in the United States, but even in the UK, that could kind of live with a German occupation of Europe, but they would not live with the possibility–and this is what happened in Stalingrad, in Kursk, as you mentioned. When the Russians start to have the upper hand against the Germans and start marching towards Berlin, there’s people in Washington and in London who do not want the Russians to be coming, the Soviets to be coming. One quote is that they were afraid they might meet them at the English Channel. So they actually open up the second front because they’re concerned more about what would happen with the Soviet Union rather than trying to actually be the one that is the final defeat of the Germans. What do you make of the argument?

PETER KUZNICK I would give more credit to the American leaders than that. This is the 1940s. Americans are on the right side of a war against fascism. We would like to project the kind of mindset of the post-war period back to then. And I don’t think it works. You have to remember that in May of ’42, Roosevelt took the initiative to ask Stalin to send Molotov and a trusted general to Washington D.C. He met there with them. And during that meeting he turns to General Marshall, and he says, can the United States open up the second front before the end of 1942, open up the second front in Europe? And Marshall says yes. And then they issue a proclamation committing the United States to open up a second front.

PAUL JAY So why don’t they?

PETER KUZNICK [Crosstalk] the end of 1942. Churchill initially said he approved of it, but he did not want to have any hand in this at all. He says we don’t have enough transports. We’re not ready, we’re not strong enough. And Churchill drags his feet. Roosevelt decides to go along with the British plan to invade North Africa in early 1943. But the American leaders, military leaders, were furious. Marshall dismissed this as periphery pecking. Eisenhower, who led the operation, said this will go down as the blackest day in history, when we invade North Africa instead of opening up the second front in Europe. There were second front rallies throughout the United States. Bumper stickers, signs. The American people wanted to open up the second front in Europe. Roosevelt I think sincerely did, also, but he calculated we have to get the U.S. involved militarily somewhere in 1943. And if the British won’t go along, we’re not in a position to do what we want to do. So I think-

PAUL JAY Let me interrupt for a second. Do you buy the idea that if Roosevelt and the American military leaders really wanted the second front, I don’t know the history well enough to question it, but they couldn’t force this on Churchill?

PETER KUZNICK You know, I’m not a military historian, so I probably can’t give you the definitive answer to that. But the British were terrified at the thought of confronting the German armies on the land. The British were desperate to preserve the British Empire. That was one of Churchill’s war goals, was preservation of the British Empire. So the effort through the Mediterranean to protect–they wanted to protect the oil interests. They wanted to protect India. And that was clearly what the British were willing to do. Roosevelt and Churchill did not agree on a lot of things during the war. And Roosevelt felt that he needed the British support. Even on D-Day, Paul, it was much more–more British planning and British operation logistically and in terms of troops and transport then it was an American operation. So I think the Americans were still dependent on the British at that point, certainly in 1942. We were gearing up our tremendous vast industrial machine. And by ’43-’44, maybe we could have done this on our own. But we needed the British support early on in ’42 and early ’43 to pull this off.

PAUL JAY So Trump goes to London, makes a point of making this speech we played in part one. What does he make such an issue out of D-Day now? You don’t think it has something to do with all the machinations against Iran, and his attempt, his hope that Britain and Europe will get on board with those plans? Because right now that doesn’t seem to be happening for him.

PETER KUZNICK No, I don’t think Trump cares. Trump will bully them into going along with U.S. policy. He’s going to use trade. He’s going to use sanctions. He’s going to use his bullying to try to cram, ram this down the throats of the Europeans. Europeans are furious with Trump over his Iran policy. Even the British have failed to go along with this. But Trump is still able to achieve much of what he wants to even without the direct support of the Europeans on this.

So I mean, clearly, as you and I have discussed, what the Trump foreign policy people really are concerned about is Iran. From the very beginning they’ve been Islamophobes and Iranophobes, and they wanted to get Korea off the table so they could focus much more on Iran. And that’s the most pressing, immediate danger, is the danger of military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. We know that there are people, not just Bolton and Pompeo, but many others who see this as a much easier target militarily than would–than was Korea. But as our friend Larry Wilkerson has warned, that military action against Iran will be 10 to 15 times as costly as the invasion of Iraq was in terms of the financial cost and in terms of the military cost to the United States. So people better be well aware of what this would actually mean if the U.S. does provoke a military confrontation with Iran.

PAUL JAY Thanks for joining us, Peter.

PETER KUZNICK Thank you, Paul.

PAUL JAY Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.