As a Tumultuous January Comes to an End, Some Lessons From the Bitter Winter of 1944
Americans need only look to the final month of 1944 as a guide for the multiple emotions that we all may be feeling as a memorable January 2021 concludes: optimism, dread, shock and resilience. Even in the depths of pessimism that is quite understandable given that the coronavirus pandemic has now claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans, it’s worth remembering that a collective national fatigue was present in December 1944, too. The resilence of American democracy was on display as the ugliness of the January 6th insurrection in Washington, DC gave way to a peaceful inauguration on January 20. The system bent but it did not break.
By late 1944, three years had passed since the attack on Pearl Harbor. And more than 350,000 Americans had died in the war by that December. Americans wanted to begin thinking about life after the war. But the war, just like the coronavirus now, was not done yet with America. Famed war columnist Ernie Pyle captured the collective fatigue of a nation in a September 1944 journal column: "All of a sudden it seemed to me that if I heard one more shot or saw one more dead man, I would go off my nut."
Beginning on December 16th, German forces pulled off an impressive surprise counteroffensive against Allied forces along the German-Belgian-Luxembourg border. Operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhein) initially involved over 400,000 German soldiers with nearly 600 tanks including some of the newest and best in Germany's arsenal. The attack began along a broad front that included the soft middle of the Allied lines in the isolated Ardennes Forest.
American units, overwhelmed and shocked by the attack, regrouped and slowed the advance as best they could. In the case of Bastogne, a Belgian town that served as a provincial crossroads and which was vital for German tank and supply columns, American paratroopers gallantly dug in for ten crucial days, slowing down German armor. It came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Some lessons can be gleaned from late 1944 that may give Americans confidence that the nation will prevail over the coronavirus. Additionally, the Biden administration will likely develop a more proactive strategic plan to reverse the pandemic in the US. Finally, a sobering but necessary view of an enormous public health challenge.
First, the German attack seemed to surprise Allied military leadership. It shouldn't have. The slow corrosive effect of complacency. A more sober assessment of German military and industrial resources in late 1944 as well as more reconnaissance along the front lines would likely have revealed a growing offensive capability by the Germans.
In early 2020 national leadership, including President Trump, dismissed the potential severity of the coronavirus: "And we could be at just one or two people over the next short period of time. So, we’ve had very good luck.", said the president on February 26. This disengaged attitude sent a message that collective national action and heightened awareness of a public health threat was not needed.
Second, improvisation and grit among individual soldiers, units and military leaders eventually helped slow down the German advance, hastening its eventual collapse. Once General Eisenhower and Allied leaders realized the scope of the German attack, they used any reserve forces that were available to plug the holes in the line. Airborne troops could move quickly to defend a broad area with considerable flexibility given that the Germans would be required to operate near a few select roads.
Allied supply lines from Normandy to the front lines were stretched thin. Lightly supplied airborne units did everything they could to stay warm during a bitterly cold December; newspapers and table cloth served as cold weather personal insulation. Similarly, seeing hospital staff fashioning plastic garbage bags into protective gear shows incredible dedication and resourcefulness. But it is also a commentary on the nation's initial response to a fast-moving public health threat.
Finally, Allied advantages were too much for German forces as 1944 came to a close. The skies had been overcast for the first week of the battle providing German forces a critical reprieve from Allied airpower. The skies finally cleared on December 23 so that German armored units could be significantly degraded.
By December 2020, the weight of America’s bio-medical industry resources, the dedication of medical staff and a belated appreciation of (and adherence to) mask wearing and social distancing began, even tentatively, to diminish the awful human toll of Covid-19.
The German Ardennes counteroffensive was stopped and began evaporating in the final days of 1944. A sustained Allied campaign would push the Germans back to their starting position by the close of January but at a cost of nearly 20,000 American soldiers killed.
Let’s remember that new vaccines offer hope for a better spring and summer but suffering and sacrifice lay ahead as America’s hospitals continue to fill. Complacency kills. During the Ardennes battle, an American general replied "Nuts!' when given a surrender ultimatum by the Germans. Those Americans refused to surrender and stayed in their foxholes during a brutal month.
As a tumultuous January 2021 ends, we can remain vigilant and help turn the tide of this battle against both the coronavirus and disinformation. A thriving democracy demands it.
Mark Mahon is from Minneapolis and has worked in public affairs in the Twin Cities area. He served in the Peace Corps in Morocco from 2013 to 2015.