Since World War II, American power and leadership have been an unmatched force for the defense of freedom around the globe. For seventy years, presidents both Republican and Democratic have shared a dedication to maintaining American power and leadership. President Obama has abandoned this bipartisan tradition, choosing instead to “lead from behind” as he abandons America’s allies, appeases our enemies, and apologizes for this great nation.
Now the former vice president and his daughter, former deputy assistant secretary of state Liz Cheney, team up to explain how President Obama has drastically broken with the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that enabled America to prevail in World War II, to win the Cold War, and to triumph in the first decade of the War on Terror. The Cheneys reveal the damage done by President Obama’s policies and demonstrate how his unwillingness to defend and protect American power has weakened the nation and diminished the ability of future presidents to defend us.
Finally, the Cheneys chart a path forward to restoring American power and strength, explaining what must be done to reverse course, to fight and win the war on terror, to rebuild our military and reassure our allies that they can once again rely on American leadership. A critical, frank, and much-needed touchstone, Exceptional should stand as a guiding principle for the potential presidential candidates in 2016—and for policymakers today and beyond.
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About the Author
Liz Cheney served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. She also served in the State Department and at the Agency for International Development under President George H.W. Bush. She is an attorney and specialist in US Middle East Policy. She is a national security policy contributor for Fox News and is the founder, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, of the Alliance for a Strong America, a non-profit organization dedicated to education and advocacy on behalf of a strong national defense. She is married to Phil Perry, and they have five children.
Read an Excerpt
You have completed your mission with the greatest victory in the history of warfare. You have commanded with outstanding success the most powerful military force that has ever been assembled. . . . You have made history, great history, for the good of all mankind.
—GENERAL MARSHALL LETTER TO GENERAL EISENHOWER, MAY 7, 1945
On the president’s plain wooden desk were half a dozen microphones, two newly sharpened pencils, a note pad, and a pack of Camels. A small audience, including actor Clark Gable and his wife, Carole Lombard; the president’s mother, Sara Roosevelt; Secretary of State Cordell Hull; and other cabinet members, had gathered. It was the sixteenth fireside chat of FDR’s presidency, December 29, 1940. The mood was somber and the room was hot as the president arrived. “My friends,” he began, “this is not a fireside chat on war. It is a talk on national security.”
Most of Europe had fallen to Hitler. Britain stood alone. Without America’s aid, she might not survive. Recalling the economic crisis of 1933, Roosevelt said the same “courage and realism” would be required to face the rising threat to America’s security. “Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock,” Roosevelt said, “has our American civilization been in such danger as now.” Declaring his intent to keep the nation out of “a last-ditch war,” Roosevelt went on to describe why the security of the United States depended upon the defense of Great Britain:
They ask for the implements of war, the planes, the tanks, the guns, the freighters, which will enable them to fight for their liberty and for our security. Emphatically we must get these weapons to them in sufficient volume and quickly enough, so that we and our children will be saved the agony and suffering of war which others have had to endure.
Referring to those who argued for appeasement, Roosevelt pointed to the experience of the past two years, and said it had proven that negotiations with Hitler were futile:
No nation can appease the Nazis. No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it. There can be no appeasement with ruthlessness. There can be no reasoning with an incendiary bomb. We know now that a nation can have peace with the Nazis only at the price of total surrender.
To do what was required, America must discard “business as usual” and turn its full productive power toward producing the armaments needed for the defense of freedom. No strikes or lockouts, no concern about postwar surplus plant capacity or the desire for luxury goods must be allowed to stop America doing what the world required. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us, this is an emergency as serious as war itself.”
Roosevelt’s determination to mobilize the nation was crucial to the success of the effort he knew we needed to mount. It had not been an easy or clear path getting to this point. The American people were war-weary and isolationist sentiment was strong. In the aftermath of World War I we had demobilized and retreated behind our oceans, hoping, as George Washington had advised, to avoid entangling our “peace and prosperity” in the fortunes of Europe. While we were turned inward, Adolf Hitler began his Blitzkrieg.
ON THE EVENING OF Thursday, August 31, 1939, General George C. Marshall dined at the home of Supreme Court justice Harlan Stone. Marshall was to be sworn in the next morning as Army chief of staff. The dinner guests gathered in the elegant brick home at 2340 Wyoming Avenue in Washington, D.C., during a time when one grim report from Europe followed another. Eighteen months earlier Hitler had annexed Austria. Thirteen months earlier he had taken the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Six months after that, despite the promises he’d made to British prime minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich, Hitler sent his troops into Prague and took all of Czechoslovakia. Just eight days before the Stones’ dinner party, the Nazis had signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact alleviated Hitler’s concern that he would have to fight on two fronts and allowed him to turn his attention to Poland.
During dinner, Marshall was called to the telephone. Hitler’s troops were massing on the Polish border. Hours later, as Marshall slept in Quarters One at Fort Myer, the second call came. It was 3:00 A.M. German planes were bombing Warsaw. Turning to his wife, Marshall said, “It has come.” Then he dressed and headed for his office in the Munitions Building on Constitution Avenue.
Three miles to the east, across the Potomac River, another call had come in. America’s ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt, had a message for President Roosevelt from the ambassador to Poland, Anthony Biddle. The German invasion had begun. “Well, Bill,” the president responded to Bullitt on hearing the news, “it has come at last. God bless us all.” Then he reached for a pencil and paper and made these notes of the call:
The President received word at 2:50 am by telephone from Ambass. Biddle through Ambass. Bullitt that Germany has invaded Poland and that four cities are being bombed. The Pres. directed that all Navy ships and Army commands be notified by radio at once.
Sept 1, ’39
The Germans had assembled a massive force of sixty divisions, more than 1.5 million troops, for the invasion of Poland. Thousands of tanks and armored cars poured across the Polish frontier as German planes bombed cities, roads, railroads, munitions depots, and columns of fleeing refugees. Warsaw fell on September 27. The last Polish force was defeated on October 6. The Poles had been able to hold out against Hitler’s onslaught for only a few weeks—and Poland’s army was significantly larger and better equipped than the United States Army of 1939.
When George Marshall became Army chief of staff, America’s army was slightly smaller than Romania’s. Demobilization in the aftermath of World War I, fueled in part by strong isolationist sentiment, had ensured America’s standing army was insufficient in size, skills, equipment, and resources to adequately defend the nation. In the summer of 1939 there were only approximately 174,000 enlisted men in the Army. Not a single infantry division was near its combat strength and there were no armored divisions. There were 1,175 planes. Those who were lucky were training with 1903 Springfield rifles. Other units, lacking resources to purchase actual weapons, studied blueprints and drilled with wooden machine guns. Speaking to a joint meeting of the American Military Institute and the American Historical Association at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, December 28, 1939, General Marshall announced that the Army was “probably less than 25% ready for immediate action.”
Building and equipping a force capable of defending the nation would require money and time. Marshall wanted the American public to understand that expenditures on defense could not be delayed. In an interview in the New York Times in May 1939, he listed the items the Army needed most urgently. This included “planes, semi-automatic rifles, light machine guns, modernized artillery, anti-tank cannons, heavy-caliber guns,” and gunpowder. “Every one of these items,” Marshall said, “requires a year or longer to produce. A billion dollars the day the war is declared will not buy ten cents’ worth of such material for quick delivery.”
The situation had not improved much when, five months later, at dawn on May 10, 1940, Hitler launched an assault into Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, heading for France. The next morning, Saturday, May 11, General Marshall arrived for a meeting in the office of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau knew additional resources were needed for defense and he was frustrated that requests for funding were arriving on the president’s desk in a one-off fashion. He wanted to see the big picture and knew Marshall was the man to draw it for him.
As Marshall detailed everything that was needed immediately, including significant increases in funding for additional men and equipment, Morgenthau encouraged him not to hold back. “I don’t scare easily,” he said a few hours into the meeting, “and I am not scared yet.” Marshall responded that the overwhelming need “makes me dizzy.” Morgenthau told him, “It makes me dizzy if we don’t get it.”
With Marshall at his side, Morgenthau placed a call to Colonel Edwin “Pa” Watson, Roosevelt’s trusted military aide. He explained that Marshall had been asked to go up to Capitol Hill on Monday, May 13, to give “confidential figures” of what the Army needed. Morgenthau wanted Marshall to see the president first. Watson agreed to make time for them on the president’s schedule. When Marshall and Morgenthau arrived at the White House on Monday morning, both knew they were about to have a make-or-break meeting.
Morgenthau began by detailing the case for the massive and urgent buildup Marshall needed. He also urged the president to establish a civilian body to oversee the industrial mobilization required to arm America and her allies. The president wasn’t convinced. After unsuccessfully attempting to sway Roosevelt, Morgenthau told him, “Well, I still think you’re wrong.” “You’ve filed your protest,” Roosevelt said.
Sensing that he was in serious danger of losing the argument, Morgenthau asked the president if he would at least hear directly from General Marshall. “Well, I know exactly what he would say. There is no necessity for me hearing him at all.” General Marshall realized it was a desperate situation, “catastrophic in its possibilities.” Years later, Marshall explained, “I felt he might be president, but I had certain knowledge which I was sure he didn’t possess or which he didn’t grasp.”
Marshall was a formal man, with the highest regard for the chain of command and for civilian control of the military. He declined invitations to socialize with the president, not wanting to become too familiar with the commander in chief. It was only because he believed the future of the nation might be at stake that he was able to do what he did next.
As General Marshall recalled later, when Roosevelt was ending the meeting, Marshall walked over to him, “stood looking down at him and said, ‘Mr. President, may I have three minutes?’ ” Perhaps startled by Marshall’s directness, Roosevelt replied, “Of course, General Marshall, of course.”
Marshall began by supporting Morgenthau’s argument that the president should appoint a civilian organization to oversee the industrial side of mobilization. Roosevelt had said it was unnecessary because he was dividing the duties between Morgenthau, presidential advisor Harry Hopkins, and himself. To demonstrate the untenable nature of this plan, Marshall described the lunch he’d had with Morgenthau at the Treasury Department the previous week. Even though Morgenthau had given instructions that the two of them not be bothered, they were interrupted three times on the matter of closing the New York Stock Exchange. Morgenthau had simply been trying to “understand the enormity of our situation regarding military preparedness and he wasn’t even allowed to do this,” Marshall said. He told the president that “none of you are supermen and Mr. Morgenthau has no more chance of managing this thing than of flying.”
Marshall then detailed the needs of the Army. At that moment, when the Germans had two million men marching through Western Europe, the United States could dedicate only 15,000 men to combat. Weapons, rations, ammunition, housing—everything was needed. Finishing his presentation, which had exceeded the three minutes he asked for, Marshall summed up the stakes, telling the president: “If you don’t do something . . . and do it right away, really do it today, I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country.” Stunned, Roosevelt told Marshall to come back the next day to discuss details of the supplemental Army appropriation he needed.
On Thursday, May 16, 1940, Roosevelt appeared before Congress and asked for $896 million, including $546 million for the Army. Marshall had gotten nearly everything he’d asked for. It was only the beginning.
Ten days later the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the continent of Europe began. Deployed in an effort to defend France from the coming German onslaught, the British force, along with more than 100,000 French troops, had been driven back to the sea. A race began to try to save the lives of 335,000 men trapped near the French town of Dunkirk. On June 4, 1940, Churchill described the action to the British Parliament:
The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lay immediately ahead.
Although Churchill knew the miracle of this deliverance, he also knew this wasn’t a victory. “Wars,” he said, “are not won by evacuations.”
Nor could this war be won without America. Demonstrating the courage and fortitude that would inspire generations for the duration of the war and beyond, Churchill told his people:
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.
Although the men of the British Expeditionary Force had been successfully evacuated, their weapons, ammunition, and vehicles had been lost. Only the United States had the ability to resupply Britain’s forces. Roosevelt ordered it done. Shipments of weapons and matériel began flowing across the Atlantic. Churchill, in his war memoirs, wrote of this transfer of weapons for Britain’s defense: “All of this reads easily now, but at that time it was a supreme act of faith and leadership for the United States to deprive themselves of this very considerable mass of arms for the sake of a country which many deemed already beaten.”
As France fell, the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic raged on. Hitler’s forces attacked England from the sky and launched assaults against Allied shipping on the seas. Britain’s refusal to surrender in the face of the relentless German barrage led Ronald Reagan years later to describe this as a time when the British Isles were “incandescent with courage.”
Britain fought on while her needs grew and her ability to pay dwindled. On December 9, 1940, Roosevelt was on board the USS Tuscaloosa in the Caribbean when he received a letter from Churchill, “one of the most important of my life,” Churchill later said. It began with a survey of where the war stood as 1940 came to an end, and a description of the threat facing Britain:
The danger of Great Britain being destroyed by a swift, overwhelming blow has for the time being very greatly receded. In its place there is a long, gradually maturing danger, less sudden and less spectacular, but equally deadly. This mortal danger is the steady and increasing diminution of sea tonnage. We can endure the shattering of our dwellings and the slaughter of our civil population by indiscriminate air attacks. . . . The decision for 1941 lies upon the seas. Unless we can establish our ability to feed this Island, to import the munitions of all kinds which we need, unless we can move our armies to the various theaters where Hitler and his confederate Mussolini must be met, and maintain them there and do all this with the assurance of being able to carry it on till the spirit of the Continental Dictators is broken, we may fall by the way, and the time needed by the United States to complete her defensive preparations may not be forthcoming.
To meet this challenge, Britain would need “not less than three million tons of additional merchant shipbuilding capacity . . . Only the United States can meet this need.” Churchill also sought an additional 2,000 aircraft per month and significant increases in U.S.-supplied small arms, artillery, and tanks. “When the tide of Dictatorship begins to recede,” Churchill explained, “many countries trying to regain their freedom may be asking for arms, and there is no source to which they can look except the factories of the United States. I must therefore urge the importance of expanding to the utmost American productive capacity for small arms, artillery and tanks.”
Finally, Churchill turned to the topic of finance. “The moment approaches,” he told Roosevelt, “when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies.”
By the time he arrived back in Washington a week later, FDR had devised Lend-Lease. Britain would receive loans of the equipment she needed. FDR called the press into the Oval Office on December 17 and explained the program this way:
Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me fifteen dollars; you have to pay me fifteen dollars for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want fifteen dollars. I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.
America would lend or lease equipment to the British because, as Churchill wrote, “our continued resistance to the Hitler tyranny was deemed to be of vital interest to the great Republic.” This decision was, he later told Parliament, “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.”
WITH HIS “ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY” fireside chat to the nation on December 29, 1940, President Roosevelt was building public support for Lend-Lease. Widely admired as the program would be in retrospect, many of his fellow Americans at the time sharply disagreed with it.
Aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, a leader of the isolationist cause, declared that he opposed Lend-Lease because arming the British would serve only to prolong the war. Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1941, he described the devastation he believed the policy would cause:
An English victory, if it were possible at all, would necessitate years of wars and an invasion of the Continent of Europe. I believe this would create prostration, famine and disease in Europe—and probably in America—such as the whole world has never experienced before.
Ignoring recent history on the continent of Europe, Lindbergh went on to explain, “This is why I prefer a negotiated peace to a complete victory by either side.”
But those who supported the president’s policy made their case, too. In June 1940, Life magazine tried to dispel the notion held by many that our oceans would protect us, by showing how distances had shrunk in the age of airpower. “Life Flies the Atlantic: America to Europe in 23 Hours by Clipper,” proclaimed the opening article. Hitler’s march across Western Europe was covered extensively in reporting headlined, “German Conquest Threatens the World.” In the cover essay, columnist Walter Lippmann addressed the issue head-on:
It is manifest that in seeking to separate ourselves from the great wars of Europe, we cannot rely on the Atlantic Ocean. . . . Oceans are not a barrier. They are a highway. Across the oceans all the empires of modern times have gone forth and have conquered.
One of the most eloquent statements of the case against isolationism came in the form of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, published in the New York Times on June 14, 1940. Titled “There Are No Islands, Any More: Lines Written in Passion and in Deep Concern for England, France and My Own Country,” Millay’s poem captured the weakness of the isolationists’ assertions:
Dear Islander, I envy you:
I’m very fond of islands, too;
And few the pleasures I have known
Which equaled being left alone.
Yet matters from without intrude
At times upon my solitude
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No man, no nation, is made free
By stating it intends to be
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh, let us give, before too late,
To those who hold our country’s fate
Along with theirs.
Millay wrote that France’s and England’s challenge was also ours—and that of all liberty-loving people. The question was, “Can freedom stand—must freedom fall?”
Oh, build, assemble, transport, give,
That England, France and we may live,
Before tonight, before too late,
To those who hold our country’s fate
In desperate fingers, reaching out
For weapons we confer about
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Lest French and British fighters, deep
In battle, needing guns and sleep,
For lack of aid be overthrown,
And we be left to fight alone.
Neither England nor we would be left to fight alone. On March 11, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Lend-Lease into law. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On December 11, 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States. The isolationists’ position crumbled in the face of the reality of the German and Japanese killing machines.
Winston Churchill set sail for America on December 13, 1941, aboard HMS Duke of York. Delayed by storms at sea, Churchill’s party of eighty didn’t arrive at Hampton Roads, Virginia, until December 22. From there, they flew to Washington. It was night as the plane approached America’s capital city. Europe’s cities were under blackout orders. Churchill’s aide Commander C. R. Thompson recorded the sentiment in the plane as the passengers saw the lighted city below:
Those in the plane were transfixed with delight to look down from the windows and see the amazing spectacle of a whole city lighted up. Washington represented something immensely precious—freedom, hope, strength. . . . My heart filled.
Over the course of the next three weeks, the British and American chiefs of staff met twelve times to begin planning the Allied war strategy. The two most significant decisions taken during these sessions were that there must be a single commander in each theater of the war with authority over all the Allied forces in that area, and that Germany must be defeated before the Allies turned their attention to Japan. In light of the blow struck by Japan at Pearl Harbor and the demand by the American people for a response, it was no small matter for Roosevelt and his military commanders to agree to focus on defeating Germany first. British historian Andrew Roberts has called this decision “one of the greatest acts of American statesmanship of the twentieth century.”
On December 26, 1941, Churchill addressed a joint session of Congress. Interest in the speech was intense. Congressmen returned to Washington from the Christmas recess. A thousand attendees filled the galleries. Five thousand more waited in the rain outside the Capitol. They weren’t disappointed.
Speaking of the long road ahead, of the trials and tribulations Britain and America would face together, Churchill reminded his audience that the task in front of them was “the noblest work in the world,” for it was defending “the cause of freedom in every land.” And he had no doubt of the outcome:
Sure I am that this day, now, we are the masters of our fate. That the task which has been set us is not above our strength. That its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our cause, and an unconquerable willpower, salvation will not be denied us. In the words of the Psalmist: “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings. His heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord.”
He also noted that there had been good tidings that year, and the greatest of these was that “the United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard.”
A week later, Time named Franklin Roosevelt Man of the Year for 1941. Of Churchill, who’d been Time’s Man of the Year in 1940, the editors said he was “a man of the year, of the decade, and, if his cause won, of all time.” Though Roosevelt hadn’t yet led his nation in combat, Time chose him as Man of the Year because “the use of the strength of the U.S. had become the key to the future of the war, and Franklin Roosevelt was the key to the forces of the U.S.”
The day after Churchill set sail from England, another of the great men who would be indispensable to the Allied victory arrived in Washington. Colonel Dwight Eisenhower reported to General Marshall in his office in the Munitions Building on Sunday, December 14, 1941. Marshall spent twenty minutes outlining the situation the United States faced in the Pacific. Then he asked Eisenhower, “What should be our general line of action?” Eisenhower asked for some time to consider his response, went to his new desk in the War Plans division, and returned a few hours later to tell Marshall:
General, it will be a long time before major reinforcements can go to the Philippines, longer than the garrison can hold out with any driblet assistance, if the enemy commits major forces to their reduction. But we must do everything for them that is humanly possible. The people of China, of the Philippines, of the Dutch East Indies will be watching us. They may excuse failure but they will not excuse abandonment. Their trust and friendship are important to us. Our base must be Australia, and we must start at once to expand it and to secure our communications to it. In this last we dare not fail. We must take great risks and spend any amount of money required.
Marshall agreed with Eisenhower’s assessment and told him, “Do your best to save them.”
It wasn’t possible to save the Philippines in 1942, despite Eisenhower’s herculean efforts to direct men and matériel to the Pacific Theater. As Japanese aims in the Pacific became clear, and as America’s European allies urged that planning go forward for the “Hitler First” policy, Eisenhower increasingly recognized the importance of fighting in Europe. He wrote his thoughts on a memo pad on his desk:
We’ve got to go to Europe and fight . . . if we’re to keep Russia in, save the Middle East and Burma; we’ve got to begin slugging with air at West Europe; to be followed by a land attack as soon as possible.
On June 8, 1942, Marshall sent Eisenhower to Europe to command all American forces in the European Theater.
The great debate between the Allies in 1942 and 1943 concerned the timing of a cross-channel invasion of Europe. All knew it had to be done. American planners wanted it done soon. Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, whose nonaggression pact with Hitler had proven to be worth as much to him as the Munich agreement had been to the Czechs and the British, was now fighting for his nation’s survival. It was crucial to the Allied cause that Stalin’s forces continue to engage the Germans. It was crucial to Stalin that the Allies open a second front soon.
The British did not believe the Allies were ready for an invasion of Europe and instead urged that we fight Hitler’s forces in North Africa. The American military planners saw North Africa as a diversion and wanted to move more quickly to confront Hitler in Europe. President Roosevelt sided with the British. He realized he could not overcome their reluctance, and he recognized the North Africa operation offered the best option for engaging Hitler’s forces in the near term. On November 8, 1942, Operation Torch was launched when U.S. and British forces landed in Morocco and Algeria. By May 1943, after defeating the Axis forces in Tunisia, the Allies had prevailed.
As historian Rick Atkinson has noted, it was more than territory that we gained in our first campaign against the Wehrmacht:
Four U.S. divisions now had combat experience. . . . Troops had learned the importance of terrain, of combined arms, of aggressive patrolling, of stealth, of massed armor. They now knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled, and machine-gunned, and to fight on.
The North Africa campaign had changed Eisenhower, as well. To the skills that made him a supremely valuable staff officer, he had now added the experience of command.
The period 1942–43 also brought victories for the Allies in the Pacific. The most important of these occurred in June 1942 at the Battle of Midway. The Japanese sent a massive fleet, including four aircraft carriers, to attack the American base on Midway. The Americans, having broken the Japanese codes, knew of the planned attack and prepared to prevent it. Admiral Chester Nimitz deployed three American carriers—Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown—to defend the island. In a surprise attack, planes flying from these ships were able to destroy three of Japan’s four carriers. A fourth Japanese carrier, Hiryu, was also destroyed but not before planes launched off its deck severely damaged the Yorktown, which was sunk the next day. The battle was a decisive victory for the Americans and inflicted severe losses on the Japanese. It changed the course of the war in the Pacific and set us on the path to defeat Japan.
IN THE SPRING OF 1944, Eisenhower had moved his headquarters from London to Portsmouth, on the southern coast of England, to be close to the main embarkation point for the Allied invasion of Europe. He had set D-Day for June 5, and had been meeting twice daily with his weather experts and his chief commanders. When the team gathered at 0400 on June 4 the weather report called for high winds, rough seas, and thick cloud cover. Eisenhower postponed the attack. Ships that had been loaded and launched had to return to port and make themselves ready to launch again in twenty-four hours.
The next day, Eisenhower’s meteorologists told the assembled team that there appeared to be a small window of good weather beginning on June 6. Storms were likely to follow, raising Eisenhower’s concern, as he later wrote, that the Allies might land “the first several waves successfully and then find later build-up impracticable, and so have to leave the isolated original attacking forces easy prey to German counteraction. However, the consequences of the delay justified great risk.” Among the consequences Eisenhower was particularly concerned about were the safety and morale of the troops already aboard ships, “poised and ready.” He gave the order to go.
Successful amphibious landings in North Africa, Sicily, and Salerno had given the Allies valuable experience, but those coastlines had been unfortified. The endeavor to land on the continent, breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, and establish a foothold through which to supply the invading forces was unlike anything that had ever been done. In the days after the invasion, Time reported that “the plan had grown to a complexity of detail incomprehensible to the civilian mind.” The Navy’s invasion plans were 800 pages long and a full set of naval orders weighed 300 pounds. Yet the Allies’ objective was clear, as were Eisenhower’s orders from the combined chiefs of staff: “You will enter the continent of Europe, and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.”
If the Allies had been thrown back to the sea, the consequences would have been devastating. Millions of additional lives would have been lost, and there would have been a struggle for domination in Europe between Hitler and Stalin. In an interview in 1994, historian Stephen Ambrose explained the significance of D-Day:
You can’t exaggerate it. You can’t overstate it. This was the pivot point of the twentieth century. It was the day on which the decision was made as to who was going to rule in this world in the second half of the twentieth century. Is it going to be Nazism, is it going to be communism, or are the democracies going to prevail?
The essence of what the Allies accomplished on D-Day is captured in two photos. The first was taken from inside a Higgins boat as American GIs disembarked, laden with their backpacks and weapons, heading through the surf toward Omaha Beach. The silhouette of each soldier reminds us that it was individual men whose heroism that day saved civilization.
The second photo was taken from the heights above Omaha Beach at the end of the day on June 6, 1944. Thousands of Allied men, ships, trucks, and tanks fill the image, stretching to the horizon. The results of the massive American mobilization and production effort of the previous four years can be seen pouring onto the continent of Europe. In an oral history, John Reville, who was a lieutenant with F Company, 5th Ranger Battalion, recalled being on top of the bluff with his runner, Private Rex Low, at the end of that day of days. “Rex,” Reville said, pointing out at the thousands of ships filling the English Channel, “take a look at this. You’ll never see a sight like this again in your life.”
June 6, 1944, was a day when America’s greatness was on full display, from the unparalleled heroism of the soldiers who stormed the beaches; to the ingenuity of men like Andrew Higgins, who invented the landing craft that made the invasion possible; to the courage and fortitude of the Rangers who took the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc; to the business leaders like Bill Knudsen and Henry Kaiser who had driven American industry to turn out the thousands of ships and planes necessary to win the war; to the commanders like Marshall, Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley who built the force and planned and commanded the invasion. The world had never seen anything like it.
And on that day, the eyes of all the world were on the coast of France. First news of the invasion broke overnight while most Americans slept. By 4:00 A.M. “every church was lighted and in every church people prayed,” Time reported. As the nation awoke to the news, the mood across the land was solemn:
There was no sudden fear, as on that September morning in 1939 when the Germans marched into Poland; no sudden hate, as on Pearl Harbor day. This time, moved by a common impulse, the casual churchgoers, as well as the devout went to pray.
At 10:30 A.M., families knelt together by their radios as President Roosevelt led the nation in prayer:
Almighty, God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
American GIs fighting on other fronts were gripped by the news, for they knew the way home led over the beaches of France. And in Amsterdam, one young fifteen-year-old girl tracked the movement of the Allied forces, hour by hour, through BBC broadcasts over her wireless. In her diary, she wrote:
My dearest Kitty, “This is D Day,” the BBC announced at twelve. The invasion has begun! This morning at eight the British reported heavy bombing of Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre, Cherbourg, as well as Pas de Calais. . . . According to German news, British paratroopers have landed on the coast of France. . . . BBC broadcast in German, Dutch, French and other languages at ten: The invasion has begun!
Anne Frank and her family dared to hope the news meant the liberation was at hand. “A huge commotion in the Annex!” she wrote. “Will this year, 1944, bring us victory?” No one could know, but the prospect gave them courage. “Where there is hope, there is life,” Anne wrote.
Anne Frank and her family were arrested in their annex on August 4, 1944, before the liberation came. Anne and her sister, Margot, were taken to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne died in the early spring of 1945. The British liberated the camp on April 12.
LIEUTENANT FRANCES SLANGER AND three other U.S. Army nurses waded ashore on D-Day plus four. Over the next five weeks they cared for more than three thousand wounded and dying soldiers. In her tent one night, as she thought about all she had seen, Frances wrote a letter to Stars and Stripes honoring the American GI:
To every GI wearing an American uniform—for you we have the greatest admiration and respect. . . . We have learned a great deal about our American soldier and the stuff he is made of. The wounded do not cry. Their buddies come first. They show such patience and determination. The courage and fortitude they show is awesome to behold.
Frances did not live to see her letter published. She was killed the next night when a German shell ripped through her tent.
Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1913, Frances, together with her mother and sister, secured passage on a ship bound for America in 1920. They were Jews hoping to escape persecution and build a better life. As a young girl, Frances sold fruit on the streets of Boston with her father and dreamed of becoming a nurse. In 1937 she graduated from Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing.
Frances kept a scrapbook, as did many young girls in those days. In one of hers, she copied this:
There was a dream that men could one day speak their thoughts. There was a hope that men could stroll through the streets unafraid. There was a prayer that each could speak to his own God. That dream, that hope, that prayer became America.
FORTY YEARS AFTER D-DAY, President Reagan stood at Pointe du Hoc where American Rangers had secured the cliffs. Looking out at an audience filled with veterans of the landing, he said:
Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are the men who in your “lives fought for life . . . and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or the next. It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
In the Normandy American Cemetery, above Omaha Beach, 9,387 Americans are buried, young men who gave all. The inscription in the central colonnade at the cemetery is a tribute to them and to all the Americans killed fighting to liberate Europe and preserve our freedom: “This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valor and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.”
VICE PRESIDENT HARRY TRUMAN was presiding over the United States Senate at 4:45 P.M. on April 12, 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in his cottage at Warm Springs, Georgia. Unaware of Roosevelt’s death, Truman recessed the Senate at five o’clock and headed through the Capitol to a meeting with Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn in his hideaway office, the “Board of Education.” When Truman arrived, Rayburn told him he had a message to call the president’s press secretary. Steve Early asked the vice president to come immediately to the White House. Two hours later, Truman was in the Cabinet Room being sworn in as president of the United States.
He’d been vice president for eighty-nine days, and in that time he’d met with President Roosevelt three times, once when they were being inaugurated on January 20 and twice in the Oval Office with members of the congressional leadership. Truman had no office in the West Wing and rarely used the vice president’s ceremonial office in the Capitol building, preferring instead to continue working out of his Senate office in Room 240 of the Senate Office Building. Of his time as vice president, Truman said, “I enjoyed my new position as Vice-President, but it took me a while to get used to the fact that I no longer had the voting privileges I had enjoyed for ten years as a senator.” Indeed, Truman had lost virtually all his power—he could no longer vote in the Senate, and he had no role in Roosevelt’s White House.
The nation was in the midst of the largest war in history. America had, in Truman’s words, “created military forces so enormous as to defy description.” Yet there was no question but that we would have a peaceful passing of the control of this mighty force from one civilian to another. In fact, Truman noted, “When the nation’s greatest leader in that war lay dead and a simple ceremony was about to acknowledge the presence of his successor in the nation’s greatest office, only two uniforms were present. . . . This passed unnoticed at the time, and the very fact that no thought was given to it demonstrates convincingly how firmly the concept of the supremacy of the civil authority is accepted in our land.”
Forty-six hundred miles east, the American generals commanding the Allied forces in Europe despaired. Earlier that day, Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley had come face-to-face with evil when they visited the Nazi concentration camp Ohrdruf-Nord, the first camp to be liberated by the Americans. Eisenhower wrote to General Marshall upon his return from the camp:
The things I saw beggar description. . . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were overpowering. . . . I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.
Now the three generals learned their commander in chief was dead. The man replacing him, a virtual unknown, would have responsibility for waging a global war on two fronts, a more massive military effort than any before in history. His generals did not know whether he would be up to the task.
Twelve days after Roosevelt’s death, the new president learned of a project under way in the New Mexico desert that would ultimately bring an end to the war: the Manhattan Project, an effort to develop an atomic weapon. On Tuesday, April 24, Truman received a note from Secretary of War Henry Stimson: “I think it is very important that I should have a talk with you as soon as possible on a highly secret matter.” The subject was of such import, Stimson wrote, “that I think you ought to know about it without further delay.” At the bottom of the note, Truman wrote, “Put on list tomorrow, Wed. 25. HST.”
Secretary Stimson and General Leslie R. Groves, leader of the Manhattan Project, briefed Truman at the White House at noon on April 25, 1945. Stimson had prepared a memorandum for the president that began, “Within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.” Stimson wanted to ensure that Truman was fully briefed on every aspect of the program, its current status, possible implications of the use of the weapon, and safeguards for its oversight in the future. Truman agreed to his request that a committee be established to provide recommendations on these and other issues relating to an atomic bomb.
On June 1, 1945, the committee, after meeting with members of its scientific advisory panel, including Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, issued three recommendations:
1. The bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible.
2. It should be used on a dual target—that is, a military installation or war plant surrounded by or adjacent to houses and other buildings most susceptible to damage, and
3. It should be used without prior warning [of the nature of the weapon].
In the years since America dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a number of arguments have been made concerning alternative courses of action. Some have said, for example, that the United States should have alerted the Japanese that we had a devastating new weapon and then conducted a test for them to see. What if we had announced a test and then it had failed? The damage to Allied morale and the consequent improvement in Japanese morale would likely have extended the war. What if we had alerted the Japanese to the location of the test and they had moved American POWs there? The Japanese had not surrendered following the massive firebombing of their cities with death tolls in the tens of thousands. Nor did they surrender after an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The argument that a test firing would have convinced them to surrender ignores historical fact.
Others have argued that the loss of life caused by the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was simply too great, and, therefore, the United States was wrong to deploy this devastating new weapon. This line of thinking ignores the reality of the much greater loss of life that would have occurred had the United States not used the bombs and instead been forced to invade the Japanese home islands.
Island fighting in the Pacific had been brutal. Japanese soldiers were fighting to the death and taking thousands of our men with them. A captain in military intelligence, Charlton Ogburn Jr., recounted the fighting for historian David McCullough: “We had only too abundant evidence in those days that surrender was excluded from the Japanese ethos. Thousands of our Marines and soldiers had died rooting Japanese from their foxholes and bunkers when they were perfectly aware that their situation was hopeless.” Not one Japanese unit had ever surrendered, and we weren’t yet fighting on the home islands.
The experience weighing most heavily on the minds of President Truman and General Marshall as they planned for the invasion of Japan was the battle on Okinawa. It had taken three months of heavy combat for the Americans to defeat the Japanese forces on the island. We had lost 12,000 American service members killed and 38,000 wounded or missing. On the Japanese side, the casualties were much higher, with more than 100,000 killed.
Plans for an invasion of the Japanese home islands called for an amphibious landing of 766,700 troops in the fall of 1945 on the island of Kyushu. Using casualty rates on Okinawa as a guide, planners anticipated we would lose more than 250,000 men on Kyushu alone. American planners knew that the fall of Kyushu was unlikely to lead to the surrender of Japan. In light of the fierce Japanese determination to fight on, their ongoing efforts to mobilize the entire population, and the fanatic desire of their generals to confront and defeat the U.S. force on the homeland, American planners knew that, after taking Kyushu, we would have to invade the mainland. “General Marshall told me,” President Truman wrote of this prospect, “that it might cost half a million American lives to force the enemy’s surrender on his home grounds.”
The use of the atomic bombs saved not only American lives, but hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives, as well. Even after the devastation wrought at Hiroshima, the Japanese war council was deadlocked as to whether they should surrender. The war minister, General Korechika Anami, urged that the Japanese fight on. “Would it not be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed like a beautiful flower?” the general asked. Then word came that a second bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and the war council was adjourned. The decision was left to Emperor Hirohito, who was not willing to sacrifice the nation.
At 7:35 A.M. on Friday, August 10, 1945, Radio Tokyo began broadcasting the message. Time reported “it was picked up by listening monitors on the Pacific Coast and teletyped to Washington.” Harry Truman was in the White House residence when he received a dispatch from the War Department. “In obedience to the gracious command of His Majesty the Emperor,” the message read, “. . . the Japanese Government are ready to accept the terms enumerated at Potsdam on July 26, 1945,” provided the emperor remained on his throne. Twenty-seven hours after our stations first heard the Tokyo transmission, we sent one back:
From the moment of surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the supreme commander of the Allied powers, who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate the surrender. . . . The ultimate form of government of Japan shall, in accordance with the Potsdam declaration, be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people. The armed forces of the Allied powers will remain in Japan until the purposes set forth in the Potsdam Declaration are achieved.
It took seventeen hours for the American response to reach Japan, through official diplomatic channels. And then the world waited. Finally, three days later, at 7 P.M. on Tuesday, August 14, 1945, President Truman called reporters into the Oval Office:
I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese Government in reply to the message forwarded to that Government by the Secretary of State on August 11. I deem this reply a full acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration which specifies the unconditional surrender of Japan.
The assembled White House reporters broke into cheers.
Those who argue America was wrong to use the atomic bombs must explain how President Truman, in the aftermath of the carnage that would have resulted from an invasion of the Japanese mainland, could have explained to the American people that we had a weapon that would have ended the war and he had failed to use it. The men responsible for the development of the atomic weapons and the decision to use them were fully aware of the gravity of the choices they were making. Writing in 1947, former secretary of war Stimson explained it this way:
My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped raise. In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us, I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.
ALBERT HALL IN LONDON was hung with American flags, the flags of all forty-eight states, and, over the stage, a huge portrait of Abraham Lincoln. A spotlight shone on an American eagle. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1944, months before the Allied victory, and yet the tide of the struggle had turned. The torch of leadership of the free world had passed. High representatives from the British and American governments were in the audience. American ambassador John Winant’s speech was scheduled to be the last. But suddenly, Time reported, “a stubby, balding figure, known to all, marched down the center aisle.” To roaring applause, Churchill took the stage and addressed his American allies:
It is your day of thanksgiving and when we feel the truth of the facts that are before us—that in three or four years, the peaceful, peace-loving people of the United States, with all the variety and freedom of their life, in such contrast to the iron discipline which has governed other, many other communities, that in three or four years the United States has in sober fact become the greatest military, naval and air power in the world, that—I say to you—in this time of war is in itself a subject for profound thanksgiving.
Exactly when America became the world’s predominant power is the subject of some debate. On December 27, 1941, the Australian prime minister John Curtin signaled a shift when he said in an article in the Melbourne Herald:
Without inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. . . . We shall exert all our energies to shaping a defense plan with the United States as its keystone.
Others point to the operations in North Africa as the key historic moment. Historian Rick Atkinson put it this way:
From a distance of sixty years, we can see that North Africa was a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power—militarily, diplomatically, strategically, tactically. Along with Stalingrad and Midway, North Africa is where the Axis enemy forever lost the initiative in World War II. It is where Great Britain slipped into the role of junior partner in the Anglo-American alliance, and where the United States first emerged as the dominant force it would remain into the next millennium.
William Manchester pointed to the year 1943—a year of Allied summits—as the period when “the torch of leadership passed from the British Prime Minister to the American President, and both men knew it.” America, by that time, “was putting more men and matériel into the conflict and American generals . . . would be commanding the combined forces in the great battles ahead.” From 1943 on, no one doubted FDR was “commander of the Allied Armies and Navies.”
Historian Andrew Roberts says that, although the truth was evident sooner, the moment when America was confirmed as the “leading power of the western Alliance” came on July 1, 1944. In the aftermath of the D-Day landings, the Americans favored invading the south of France on August 15, but the British wanted to “cross the River Po, advance on Trieste and push into the Balkans in September.” A deadlock ensued with Churchill finally appealing the British case to Roosevelt, who rejected it. “The baton had passed from hand to hand,” Roberts wrote, “reluctantly and not without bluster, but neither was it wrenched from Britain’s grasp. Churchill was to be the last British leader of the Free World.”
IN NOVEMBER 1944, AS the Allied forces pushed through Europe toward Berlin, Eisenhower reminded all Americans that peace and freedom come at a price. “To get peace,” he said, “we have to fight like hell.” And we did.
America had deployed the greatest military force the world has ever known to secure freedom and to defeat tyranny. We had transformed ourselves, in the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “from a situation of appalling danger to unparalleled might in battle.” The armed forces George C. Marshall built fought, as Life described it, “along supply lines extending 56,000 miles around 360 degrees of longitude, and from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Arctic Sea.” We liberated millions and achieved the greatest victory in the history of mankind, for the good of all mankind. America—the exceptional nation—had become freedom’s defender.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Yes, We Are Exceptional 1
Part 1 The American Century
1 For the Good of All Mankind 9
2 Freedom Victorious 43
3 Dawn of the Age of Terror 91
Part 2 The Era of Obama
The Apology Tour 123
4 Ending Wars 131
5 Appeasing Adversaries 171
6 Disarming America 207
Part 3 What Must be Done
7 Restoring American Power 231
Epilogue: The Last, Best Hope of Earth 257