In early June 1944, as Allied troops in England made their final preparations before embarking on the greatest invasion of all time, the eyes of the American media turned not to the beaches of Normandy, but to Mt. Vernon, Iowa, a speck of a town more than 4,000 miles from Hitler’s Fortress Europe. There, at a small liberal arts college, Admiral William D. Leahy, the highest-ranking member of the American military, was set to give a commencement speech before an assemblage of reporters.
Leahy is little remembered. He can be seen in countless wartime photographs hovering a few feet from President Franklin Roosevelt with a sour grimace on his face, though today one could be forgiven for assuming that the man in the white peaked cap and the gold braids was some anonymous aide, rather than one of the most powerful men in the world.Admiral Leahy had been Franklin Roosevelt’s friend for years, going back to Roosevelt’s early job as the assistant secretary of the Navy. Two decades later, Roosevelt was in the White House, and Leahy had risen to the top position in the Navy. Upon the admiral’s retirement in 1939, the president confided to him that if war came, Leahy would be recalled to help run it. And call him Roosevelt did, making the admiral after Pearl Harbor the first and only individual in American history to bear the title “Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief.” Thanks to the trust that had built over their long friendship, Leahy was tasked with helping FDR grapple with the enormous strategic decisions of World War II.
Standing before an audience of eager graduates and their families at Cornell College, as well as newspaper photographers, the four-star admiral—by the end of the year he would become the first officer of the war to receive his fifth star, making him forever outrank his more-famous counterparts such as Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall—spoke of the heavy price of freedom.
“Everybody may have peace if they are willing to pay any price for it,” he said. “Part of this any price is slavery, dishonor of your women, destruction of your homes, denial of your God. I have seen all of these abominations in other parts of the world paid as the price of not resisting invasion, and I have no thought that the inhabitants of this state of my birth have any desire for peace at that price…”
Within 24 hours, some 2,500 Americans would be killed in France. Leahy was the only man in the auditorium who knew this cataclysm was coming. Indeed, it was the very reason he was in Iowa in the first place.