The landing at Normandy in June 1944 was one of the most stunning and impressive invasions in military history. More than 326,000 Allied troops had landed on those French beaches of Normandy with over 100,000 tons of military equipment. But as is so common in war and in life, those hard-won successes were followed by a number of difficulties.
The Allied troops became bogged down in the hedgerows of France. These obstacles—half earth, half hedge, sometimes 15 feet tall —plus the reality of coordinating that many men and so much material created a temporary stall, allowing the Germans to wage a series of counter offensives over the next several months—a final blitzkrieg of some 200,000 men. It was one of the most pivotal moments of the war. How would the Allies respond? How would they react to Hitler’s last-ditch, all-out attempt to hurl them backwards?
73 years ago today, Dwight D. Eisenhower rose to the challenge. Striding into a hastily assembled conference room at the Verdun headquarters full of despondent, frustrated officers, the Supreme Allied commander made an announcement. “The present situation is to be regarded as opportunity for us and not disaster,” he said. “There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.”
As you know, the Stoics were not much for baseless optimism. It wasn’t about wishing things were good. Instead, they looked at obstacles as opportunities to prove themselves—to make good. They focused on how they could benefit from everything that happened, no matter how seemingly negative or overwhelming they may have appeared on the surface. That’s what Eisenhower did. He cabled Washington that the Nazi counter-offensive was serious, that his ranks were thin. But that he saw silver lining. As long as the Allies could bend and hold their lines—not break at the onslaught—it would be to their advantage. “If things go well,” he said, “we should not only stop the thrust but should be able to profit from it.”
This moment became what was called the Battle of the Bulge. That bulge was, on the one hand potentially an enormous setback. The Germans were throwing everything they had at Eisenhower. It was scary, it was dangerous. But by the same token then, Eisenhower had grasped that this was an opportunity. The Germans were overextended. They were putting themselves at risk. He could work with that—he could put it to good use. And he did. (The Allies would ultimately take some 22,000 prisoners in the battle.)
This is what we’re trying to do here, as we study this philosophy, to prepare for those moments. Moments when it looks like all is lost or when exactly what we don’t want to happen is happening. So we can say: “I will regard this as an opportunity and not a disaster.” “I will not only stop this, I will profit from it.”