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"Old men forget," said Shakespeare's Henry V before the battle of Agincourt, during an invasion of Normandy. But not the old men who as young men stormed the beaches here half a century ago.

By June 6, 1944 - two days after U.S. forces reached Rome, the first Axis capital to fall - the cream of the Wehrmacht, 2 million men, had been killed in Russia. And still the Normandy invasion was a hard-won success. If Hitler had not been a habitual late sleeper, if that morning he had unleashed the panzer divisions north of Paris, which Rommel might have got him to do if Rommel had not been in Germany for his wife's birthday, the war could have been even longer. But even before D-Day the defeat of Germany was certain.Any war is a braided cord of related battles. In the autumn of 1940, in the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force ended whatever chance Hitler had of invading the island. Hence he had to guard the Atlantic Wall with forces that could have been decisive if moved to the Eastern Front. The disastrous raid on Dieppe on Aug. 19, 1942, from which only 2,500 of the 6,000 mostly Canadian raiders returned to England, lulled Hitler. But by Nov. 3, 1943, in Fuhrer Directive 51, he told the Wehrmacht that the likelihood of "an Anglo-Saxon landing" precluded further weakening of German defenses in the West However, the war was won in the East, by Russians.

Most Americans say the war began Dec. 7, 1941. Actually, that is the day the war that began Sept. 1, 1939, began to end, because of two events 7,000 miles apart.

One was the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought U.S. industry into the war. Churchill, whose greatness included a gift for seeing the sweep of things, said he slept "the sleep of the saved" that night, knowing the war's outcome: "So we had won after all!"

Also on Dec. 7, a Soviet counterattack drove back German forces that had advanced to the outskirts of Moscow. That night Hitler drafted Directive 39: "The severe winter weather which has come surprisingly early in the East, and the consequent difficulties in bringing up supplies, compel us to abandon immediately all major offensive operations and to go over to the defensive."

The easy drive to Paris in 1940 convinced Hitler that his offensive revolution in arms - tanks, motorized infantry with radio coordination, dive bombers functioning as flying artillery - could negate the manufacturing weight of the democracies. He was wrong. In 1939 the U.S. Army of 170,000 was smaller than those of 15 other nations, including Romania. On D-Day that many Allied soldiers crossed the Channel.

Hitler's racialist theories told him that America, enervated by prosperity and degraded by a polyglot population, could not produce worthy warriors. Wrong again.

Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower's biographer and president of the D-Day Museum being developed in New Orleans, calls D-Day "a love song to democracy." German soldiers were magnificently obedient to orders, as befitted young men socialized by 11 years of totalitarianism. But Americans, with the talent for spontaneous self-organization that Tocqueville considered a national characteristic, adapted to the chaos of combat in a confined coastal strip.

D-Day came 30 years into the 75-year crisis that began in June 1914, with pistol shots in Sarajevo, and ended in Berlin, Nov. 9, 1989, when the Wall crumbled. Arguably, the invasion was the third of the three most consequential battles in American history - Saratoga, which saved the Revolution, Gettysburg, where the Confederacy crested, and Normandy, where the United States stepped forward as the leader of the West.