D-DAY commemorations on the Normandy beaches this week were an intimate occasion for the Western Allies. The Germans weren't invited. Nor, for different reasons, were the Russians, the Chinese, or the Japanese.
The Germans were the enemy of 50 years ago. D-Day could have, but did not, become the occasion for a final act of reconciliation. Perhaps next year's commemoration of the German surrender will be a more appropriate moment for such an act.
The Russians were not among the troops that stormed ashore that June day. But their victory over Hitler's forces in the bloody battle of Stalingrad a year-and-a-half earlier was, from their viewpoint, the real turning point in the European war. The Western Allies were never comfortable that in order to defeat one dictator, Hitler, they needed the help of another, Stalin. Without the Russians, however, who knows how long World War II would have lasted?
And the Asians? Reading about the emotion-rousing speeches and celebrations from afar, I could not help reflecting how different D-Day looked to non-Westerners as compared with Europeans or Americans. Certainly there must have been non-Western faces at the commemorations. But they would have belonged to Asian-Americans, principally Japanese, who had taken part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war to liberate Europe from the Nazi yoke. Or of Indians with the British forces, or of Africans fighting with the Free French.
Chiang Kai-shek, in his isolated fortress city of Chungking, rejoiced to hear the news of D-Day, though as always he grumbled that Americans allocated insufficient assets to the struggle against the Japanese foe. He had been fighting the Japanese for seven years by that time, and intermittently with Mao Zedong's Communists as well.
In the Pacific, the Americans, having been brought into the war in the first place by Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, were well on their way to isolating and overcoming the Imperial Japanese war machine. But as of June 1944, the decisive naval battles in the Western Pacific were yet to be fought, Guam and Saipan yet to be occupied, the devastating air raids against the Japanese home islands yet to begin. Hideki Tojo was still prime minister in Tokyo. The so-called Greater Asia Coprosperity Sphere was still in existence, with Japanese puppet regimes installed in Manchuria and occupied China, and with pseudo-independence granted to Burma and the Philippines - though not to the Vietnamese. The Imperial Japanese forces preferred to have order maintained in Indochina by the Vichy French. Korea and Taiwan were outright Japanese colonies, and so was Singapore, renamed Shonan.
As brutal as was Japanese rule, and as false as was Tokyo's pretense of bringing independence to European colonies, it was quite true that 50 years ago, whether in Africa or in Asia, there was hardly a country that was not a colony of Britain, France, or some other European state. In China's principal ports, Europeans kept concessions - areas over which they exercised full sovereignty - until long after China was accepted as a Western ally. Even the United States kept the Philippines under its tutelage.
For the Europeans, D-Day was a beacon of light to a continent that had been plunged into darkness. Freedom and liberty were words with real content, throughout the lands that Hitler's forces had overrun. But in Asia, while the Japanese were unquestionably cruel invaders, many Europeans expected that once the aggressors were expelled, they could resume their comfortable overlord lives.
Only the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, accurately foresaw that the war would inevitably lead to the demise of colonialism. He tried to hasten the process by keeping the French from resuming control over Indochina, or the Dutch over the East Indies - now Indochina.
But his bulldog ally in the European conflict, Winston Churchill, swore never to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire. It took Clement Attlee, Churchill's successor, to shepherd the transition from empire to commonwealth and to restore independence, first to India, and then to a whole rollcall of nations.
The Dutch hung on in the East Indies until 1949. The French stayed in Indochina until 1954. After Dien Bien Phu, a traumatic eight-year war awaited the French in Algeria before Charles de Gaulle could return to power and begin to reconcile his countrymen to the loss of what had been legally an integral part of France.
With or without Pearl Harbor, sooner or later America would have had to enter the war against Hitler. It is ironic, though, that what opened the way to D-Day in Europe was an event that took place across the world in the Pacific Ocean - far from the sands of Omaha Beach. For the people of the US, it was a lesson in preparedness - but also in the interconnectedness of world history.
The 50th anniversary of D-Day is indeed a nostalgic and moving occasion for those who took part in it. But to have it resonate as a defining moment in the universal struggle for freedom against tyranny, it cannot remain simply an event within the family of European and North American Allies.