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What We Can Learn from D-Day and the Apollo Program

November 23, 2009
by Marc D. Paradis MS
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Why such large and complex efforts succeeded where healthcare reform may yet still fail

Well, now we have a healthcare bill in the House of Representatives and another one in the Senate. All of the political maneuvering, monetary machinations and lobbying efforts that we have seen to date has been in preparation for this penultimate showdown – the fight before the final fight. In my space here, I don’t want to wade into or debate the merits or demerits of policy or try to predict the future. I do want to speak to a lost sense of purpose.


Casablanca, January 1943 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle meet to lay out grand strategy. The U.S. has experienced some tenuous gains (viz. Operation Torch, Guadalcanal Campaign) in a logistically punishing two-front war with fronts literally on opposite sides of the world on opposite sides of the two largest oceans of the planet. Britain is the last democracy in Europe and has suffered through the military and civilian nightmares of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Charles de Gaulle represents a people and nation broken and occupied. Joseph Stalin is unable to attend as Russia is enduring the unendurable, experiencing the greatest loss of men, women, children and material in military history in the grinding Battles for Stalingrad, Leningrad and Moscow. These leaders agree in Casablanca that Nazi Germany must be the first of the Axis powers to be defeated, the defeat of Imperial Japan for all her rapaciousness, and despite the nearly incomprehensible cruelty of her occupations of China, Korea, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Phillipines, will be a secondary strategic goal.

Each of the Allied leaders, and the vast majority of the peoples they governed, agreed that the Axis powers must be stopped. However, there was strident disagreement between Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle and Stalin. Stalin pushed for an immediate invasion of any part of Europe, desperate as he was to relieve the pressure on his home cities. De Gaulle was preoccupied with Henri Giraud, his political rival for leadership of the Free French. Churchill looked to the soft underbelly of Europe to open the second front, as much to check Soviet expansion as to defeat Hitler and finally Roosevelt made it clear that the only plan the U.S. would fully support involved a direct push across the English Channel, through the Low Countries, into Germany. And so, planning for the invasion of Fortress Europe, what came to be know as Operation Overlord, in which D-Day was merely the opening act, began with four radically different views of what should be done and of how it should be done.


The planning, preparation and execution of D-Day, and the larger Operation Overlord, was an undertaking easily as complex and momentous as our current efforts to reform healthcare. Millions of lives and the wealth and fortunes of nations hinged on the success of this strategic plan. What’s more countries with diametrically opposed political and social systems, namely communist, totalitarian Russia versus capitalist, democratic America and classist, parliamentarian England found ways to work together in order to help each other and ultimately to bring about the shared goal of the destruction of the Axis threat.


And yet, there was no opposition party in the U.S. or in Britain whether majority or minority whipping up, with lies and misrepresentations, significant public frenzy or opposition to these strategic goals. There were no special interest groups actively working to undermine the success of the D-Day operations because it would be profitable for their business if the war dragged on or because they fervently believed in their ideology to the exclusion of all others. Nowhere were contrarian people and commentators heard to say “I hope the invasion of Europe fails.”

“At the beginning of 1939, American industry was still flat on its back. Factory output was less than one-half of capacity. Unemployment was above 20 percent. Five years later unemployment was 1 percent while factory capacity had doubled, then doubled again and yet again. In 1939, the United States produced 800 military airplanes. When President Franklin Roosevelt called for the production of 4,000 airplanes per month, people thought he was crazy. But in 1942, the United States was producing 4,000 a month, and by the end of 1943, 8,000 per month. There were similar, all-but-unbelievable great leaps forward in the production of tanks, ships, landing craft, rifles, and other weapons. And all this took place while the United Sates put a major effort in the greatest industrial feat to that time, the production of atomic weapons (hardly begun in 1942, completed by mid-1945).


That a cross-Channel attack against the Atlantic Wall could even be contemplated was a tribute to what Dwight Eisenhower called ‘the fury of an aroused democracy.’ What made D-Day possible was the never-ending flow of weapons from American factories, the Ultra and the Double Cross System, victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, control of the air and sea, British inventiveness, the French Resistance, the creation of citizen armies in the Western democracies, the persistence and genius of Andrew Higgins and other inventors and entrepreneurs, the cooperation of business, government, and labor in the United States and the United Kingdom, and more – all summed up in the single word ‘teamwork”’ (Stephen E. Ambrose D-Day June 6, 1944 Chapter 2)”

Everyone knew what was at stake, that there was a job to be done, that lives and the fate of nations depended on it and that they had a role to play, no matter how small, in righting the wrongs of fascism It wasn’t a Republican or Democratic effort, it was a patriotic effort; it wasn’t a conservative or liberal effort, it was a patriotic effort; it wasn’t an urban or rural effort, it was a patriotic effort; it wasn’t anything but teamwork in service of country.


18 years after the Casablanca conference, the American people were challenged by President Kennedy to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960’s.


While I assure you that each step along the way to the beaches of Normandy and to the launch of Apollo 11 were questioned and second-guessed by many of those involved, nearly everyone understood and was committed to the larger mission. There is an anecdote where President Lyndon Baines Johnson is visiting the Kennedy Space Center prior to the launching of Apollo 8. The tour is over, Johnson is on his way back to Air Force One and as he is walking across the tarmac at Cape Canaveral he sees a janitor sweeping in one corner of the hanger. Ever the populist, LBJ walks over to the man and asks him how he is doing. This humble janitor replies “I’m doing just fine Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Every year since at least 1998, 44,000 - 98,000 Americans have died preventable deaths because of our broken healthcare system. Between December 7th, 1941 and September 2nd, 1945 approximately 110,000 Americans died each year fighting the Axis powers. Even at the low end, more Americans have now died due to our inaction, infighting and partisanship on the issue of healthcare reform. It is no longer the time to be bickering over how, it is the time to do. It is the time to come together as one team, with one common goal.



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.

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