Mercifully, General Marshall and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower persuaded Roosevelt to stick with the original plan. (Ironically, Ike had his own moment of doubt after the Battle of the Bulge. After the 76,000 U.S. casualties in the Ardennes, the future president told General Omar Bradley “I’d rather stay” in Belgium “because I like the numbers being where they are.”
Overlord wasn’t Roosevelt’s first time worrying about how the American people would react to bad math. After the carnage at Pearl Harbor, FDR couldn’t stomach adding to the 2,400 U.S. dead in Hawaii. In his original draft of his speech to Congress declaring war on Japan, Roosevelt planned to say:
“YESTERDAY, December 7, 1941 a date which will live in infamy the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
But I will not be deploying the ground, air and naval forces of the United States to turn back the Japanese onslaught. I’d rather they stay in the bases.
I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault. And it wasn't the fault of the people on the ship either, okay? It wasn't their fault either and they're mostly Americans. So, I can live either way with it. I'd rather have them stay on, personally.”
But FDR reversed course in the face of a near-rebellion by his cabinet. Even his dovish Vice President Henry Wallace was outraged and personally replaced the last two paragraphs above with the rousing call to arms:
“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
American history is replete with proud precedents to which President Trump can point in support of his COVID-19 cowardice. Remembering the cry from Bunker “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes—unless you like the numbers being where they are,” General George Washington was reluctant to hurl his forces at the British during the decisive Battle of Yorktown in 1781. “Let Lafayette and the French fleet deal with Cornwallis,” Washington pleaded, “I don't need to have the numbers double.” Only after Lafayette knocked the wooden teeth out of his mouth did the Father of His Country find his backbone.
The 16th President was as sensitive to the bad PR accompanying a rising body count as the 45th. In his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln repeated his famous proclamation that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” but added “I can live either way with it.” Regarding the high tensions with the growing number of secessionist states, he continued:
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. Seriously, because I like the numbers being where they are.”
Lincoln’s friend Ward Lehman did not forget the painful silence which greeted Lincoln’s words that rainy day at the Capitol. So, Lehman took out his editor’s pen as President Lincoln prepared to address the new National Cemetery at Gettysburg in November 1863. The gravity of the occasion was not lost on either man, coming as it did where 150,000 men fought and over 50,000 were killed and wounded the previous July. But excerpts from Lincoln’s first draft included these passages:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. We had a good run.”
“The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract…So let’s not add to it; I like the numbers being where they are.”
“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth—unless you were to tell me the numbers would double. I like the numbers being where they are. I don't need to have the numbers double.”
“Lincoln,” an exasperated Lehman told his friend, “that speech won’t scour.” Together they edited the Gettysburg Address on the train. And the rest is history.
History, like John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. His speechwriter Ted Sorenson rewrote the original text, which initially read: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty—provided the numbers stay where they are.” In October 1962, we only recently learned, Kennedy at first opposed by an American invasion of Cuba and a naval quarantine of the island in response to the Soviet placement of nuclear missiles there. After the previous year’s humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, JFK explained, “. I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault.” Luckily, Robert Kennedy stiffened his brother’s weak backbone.
Then there’s Ronald Reagan, the role model for every Republican president since before he left the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. Speaking in Berlin on June 12, 1987, President Reagan spoke of the oppression and suffering of those East Germans on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate just behind him:
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.
Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate!
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!
Then again, I’d rather have the people stay. I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are.”