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D-Day Can Teach Lessons on Gaza

graffiti on a wall

Graffiti reading "free Gaza" and part of the pro-Palestinian slogan "From the river to the sea" were painted on a wall on the campus of Portland State University, in Portland, Oregon in April. (JOHN RUDOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Mark L. Cohen By Tuesday, 21 May 2024 08:57 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

As we celebrate the Allied May 8, 1945, victory in Europe and prepare to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, Normandy landing, there are lessons to be learned.

To gain insight on events — especially the war in Gaza, where human suffering has dominated headlines and media coverage for months — it can be illuminating to take a different look: a look through the lens of history, because what people have done is an important clue as to what people can do.

Let's go back to the Second World War and, more specifically, August 1944 — a point in time when the suffering might have been stopped. Paris had been liberated and American combat deaths were limited to fewer than 30,000 with the German army bearing the heavy toll of millions of military and civilian lives lost, both on the Western front and at the hands of the Soviet Union.

Just two months earlier, the Normandy landing established that Germany no longer had a stranglehold on the European continent. Furthermore, there existed a movement in Germany to change leadership, culminating in the July 1944 Operation Valkyrie to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

So we stop and think.

What if there had been a cease-fire in August 1944, leading to an end to the war?

Imagine a groundswell across American campuses, pressuring the government for a cease-fire. Leading scholars, particularly in military strategy and history, would forecast the dire consequences of prolonging the conflict, predicting millions more casualties.

We could imagine the chants: "Germany has suffered genocidal attacks with millions dead" and "The time has come to let them have the land from the Rhine to the Seine."

There would be some Nazi banners appearing in the crowds, claiming that France stole Alsace-Lorraine from Germany after the First World War. Posters would speak in a script painted in red of the hundreds of thousands if not millions of German families starving and ridden with disease.

Such a movement would have been all the more plausible because by this time, America and American lives were no longer under threat from Germany, and the United States needed to focus its military on the war with Japan.

We can see after the war how right the dismal forecasts were. From August 1944 until the victory in Europe, millions more German lives were lost and America counted approximately 150,000 war dead.

There was no cease-fire. There was no call for a cease-fire. There was not one demonstration on any one college campus calling for a cease-fire.

What lessons can we learn from this 20th century perspective?

Wars are ugly, painful, and very often — or one might even say always — result in deaths that could have been avoided.

Nevertheless, it was not really conceivable that the Allies would have ceased their fire even if Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had faced massive opposition to the continuation of the war.


Because the Nazi project — beyond geographical expansion — was to annihilate Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and races considered inferior and to persecute and subjugate peoples and nations.

And even if in reality a cease-fire would have saved millions of lives, when a country is attacked, it is always too easy to shout that it should lay down its arms and not retaliate. Even if retaliation which, as noted often by the figures above, can be cruel.

Today in the case of the war in Gaza, the world should now understand the danger to civilization as we know it that comes from what Hamas did on Oct. 7 and, moreover, what Hamas has decided to continue to do, which is to repeat over and over the slaughter, torture, and rape of innocent civilians and to destroy Israel.

And we can rightfully expect that this understanding would have reached university campuses, the place where students are prepared to become leaders of our next generations.

It should not be forgotten, however, that the evident absurdity to call for what would be a unilateral cease-fire should never obscure or lessen our empathy for victims of war, whether the millions of innocent civilian victims of World War II or Palestinians who are suffering in Gaza.

Nor should it discourage an effort to stop war through international economic and political pressure if it is directed against the true aggressor and, in this war in particular, directed at the release of hostages and the replacement of Hamas with a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia to rebuild Gaza. It should be obvious to all of us who believe that Western values are worth defending that fighting and death can cease when the aggressor who takes civilian hostages and seeks the destruction of another country is neutralized or defeated.

Mark L. Cohen has his own legal practice, and was counsel at White & Case starting in 2001, after serving as international lawyer and senior legal consultant for the French aluminum producer Pechiney. Cohen was a senior consultant at a Ford Foundation Commission, an advisor to the PBS television program "The Advocates," and Assistant Attorney General in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He teaches U.S. history at the business school in Lille l'EDHEC. Read Mark L. Cohen's Reports — More Here.

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As we celebrate the Allied May 8, 1945, victory in Europe and prepare to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, Normandy landing, there are lessons to be learned.
Tuesday, 21 May 2024 08:57 PM
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