General Eisenhower’s D Day Announcement: The Words that Launched Ten Thousand Ships

General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inspiring “Order of the Day” launched the D Day invasion on June 6, 1944. At the same time, he wrote a second message in case the operation involving 150,000 Allied troops failed. Seventy years later, Eisenhower’s words and his approach to communications management remain a model for public officials.

In the hours before D Day, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower considered his public words carefully. He sought just the right language to launch the Allied invasion of Europe with more than 150,000 troops. The resulting message was his often quoted “Order of the Day,” which stands today as an innovative and inspiring piece of writing. The tone was rousing without understating the grave risk being undertaken: “Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. … I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”

Some scholars have singled out lines from this document to represent one of Eisenhower’s greatest speeches (Zongker, 2013): “The tide has turned. The free men of the world are marching together to victory!”

At nearly the same time, he also composed a second note in which he accepted blame for failure of the invasion: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

It is interesting to compare the tone of these two messages and to examine them as examples of crisis management. The first message does not focus on Eisenhower’s role so much as the role of the individuals of the invading force. Although it makes use of first person, the language is very “you centered” in reaching and acknowledging his audience—the men bound for the beaches, manning the ships, or making parachute jumps behind enemy lines.

In the second document, which was handwritten and tucked into his billfold (Smith, 2012), Eisenhower takes full blame for the failure of the invasion. In that text, the responsibility for the setback falls squarely on his shoulders so that there can be no doubt that the troops did their part. Although the second message was never needed, it does reflect Eisenhower’s extreme self-doubt in the hours leading up to the attack. At one point after giving the order to launch the invasion, Eisenhower was actually overhead to say, “I hope to God I know what I’m doing” (Wukovits, 2006, p. 118).

D Day invasion news posted in Times Square, June 6, 1944. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PHOTO.

For a number of reasons, ranging from ego to superstition, a different general might deliberately avoid writing a message acknowledging defeat ahead of a major military operation. But the man who had overseen the planning of Operation Overlord liked to be prepared for all contingencies.

In these messages, it becomes clear that the general understood that the invasion of Europe required more than intense planning and favorable weather, but also effective public announcements to set the stage for success—or to accept the blame for defeat and a devastating number of casualties. The grandiloquent tone and language were not without precedent. After all, World War II was an era of powerful political rhetoric from democratic world leaders such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, both of whom were master orators. The chilling exhortations of fascist leaders had an equally powerful (and perhaps mesmerizing) impact on the populations of the Axis nations. While World War II was fought with planes and ships and guns, it can in many ways be framed as a war of words and ideals between vastly different world views.

Eisenhower took great care in crafting these historic public announcements (though one was held in reserve) and these written statements ultimately contributed to the success of the Normandy invasion, while also taking into account the possibility for failure. It is interesting that Eisenhower’s “Order of the Day” concludes by invoking God’s blessing, which in this case went beyond a bland public invocation to call attention to the fact that the outcome of the invasion was far from decided but would be left in many ways to fate. Certainly, Eisenhower’s formal rhetoric and self-aware language matched the importance of the event.

Years later, Eisenhower’s most famous presidential speech would be his warning against the military-industrial complex. It is a speech made with the luxury of hindsight that victory in World War II enabled. In comparison, his D Day message is freighted with the very real possibility of defeat, and it takes place at a time when the failure of the military would have dire consequences. He is not criticizing the military or warning against it, but placing the hopes of all in the success of the military in defeating Nazi Germany.

As a military and political document, some parallel can be made to a similar pronouncement made by Union President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” during the Civil War, which strikes a similar tone of humility while using grandiloquent language and calling attention to the individual sacrifices made on the battlefield.

Although the invasion of Normandy took place 75 years ago, Eisenhower’s understanding of the need for effective public communication (and his willingness to accept personal blame) set a standard that public figures may still be guided by today.

References

Smith, J. (2012). Eisenhower in war and peace. New York: Random House.

Wukovits, J. (2006). Eisenhower: A biography. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Zongker, B.  (2013, June 7). Ike’s D-Day words draw new notice. Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from http://www.philly.com

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