In recent days we've given thought to the heroism and valor of those, on both sides, who fought for the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 40 years ago. The battle for the beaches was one of the decisive battles of history. When the landing had been made, the tide of battle turned against Adolf Hitler and his ''Thousand-Year Reich.'' The story after Normandy was the sequel to the success of the landings.
The human price was high. On the Allied side on the first day of the battle, the total in casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) was estimated at about 10 ,000. There are 10,152 graves in the German cemetery near the beaches - but many were from the fighting after D-Day. German casualties on that first day itself are estimated at between 4,000 and 9,000. No exact figures are available.
Other battles in other wars have been more costly. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1915, the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties. That battle raged through the whole month. By its end the British had taken 171,000 casualties, more than the United States sustained in the whole of the Korean war (157,530), and more than two-thirds of US casualties in the Vietnam war (211,005).
That fearsome Battle of the Somme in World War I had almost no effect on the outcome of that war, or on history. It was merely one place where Britain was drained of a generation of its youth. Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in talking about his own role in that war, has mentioned that he was the sole survivor of his class at school.
The respite between that war and its successor, World War II, lasted only 21 years. Many a survivor of World War I saw service again in World War II.
Since World War II ended in 1945, there have been many small wars, and two of substantial size. The Korean war lasted two years. The Vietnam war lasted eight years.
But the world is now 40 years past D-Day and 39 years beyond V-E Day, and there has not yet been another war comparable in size, in casualties or in its involvement of most of the world. Seldom in history has the human race enjoyed such a long respite from major war. Despite current tensions between the Soviet Union and the US, there is no sense of any such new world war impending.
We do not owe this respite from major war to the fearsome casualties of recent wars. British, French, Germans, and Russians suffered proportionately in World Wars I and II. The Soviets took more than 20 million casualties in World War II. But it is not the memory of those losses that has restrained the great powers of today's world.
Mostly we tend to think of the nuclear weapon as a dreadful danger lurking just around the corner. It is such a danger. But it is the very awareness of this danger that has so far excluded a resort to major war from great-power action. Thousands of people are enjoying peaceful lives today because the nuclear weapon exists and, by its very nature, is tending, so far, to be self-deterring.
This is so despite the stakes in the rivalry between Moscow and Washington. The issue ever since the collapse of Hitler's Reich in 1945 has been nothing less than primary influence in the world.
What we call ''the third world'' consists of those territories that before the big wars of this century belonged to one or another world empire. The British Empire was the largest. The others were substantial - French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Dutch. Western Europe, through its various empires, controlled most of the raw-material areas of the world.
Those empires are gone. Their possessions and their dependencies are now independent. Moscow and Washington vie for influence among them. If the bulk of the territories that were once controlled from Western Europe were to adhere today either to Moscow or to Washington, that power center would be dominant.
The stakes are as great as or greater than those that have caused a whole series of world wars. When some small country adheres to Moscow, Washington shudders. Moscow shudders equally when Washington wins a new convert. In other centuries this condition would long since have produced a world war.