D-Day: Three presidents, one of the great battles of history, and the heart and task of a nation

D-Day: Three presidents, one of the great battles of history, and the heart and task of a nation

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about the fading sentimental connection of today’s generations with World War II, the defining event of the 20th century.  There is some oddity in living through the transition: in seeing the soldiers whom FDR called “our sons” become our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and then the ghosts of history commemorated on tombstones.

One of the most important transitions is the fading of the grand narrative by which we defined and guided our nation for so many decades.  The hindsight of history has its rewards.  But it has its drawbacks as well, as immediacy and personal connection disappear behind us.

A whole civilizational mindset is being bred out of us with the passage of time: a visceral sense of meaning and purpose that once flooded us when we heard words like “Pearl Harbor” or “D-Day.”  Even we who were born well after V-J Day in 1945 were participants in the nearly universal sense that World War II was the gravitational center of our time.  If we didn’t have personal memories, we had vivid memories of the memories of others: pictures and sounds and stories burned on our minds and hearts.

That sense inevitably has much less reality for the more recent generations.  There is some justice, too, in the observation that a lot has changed since the 1940s – even since the 1970s or 1980s – including the character and the certainties of the people.  The rulebook of the “Greatest Generation” no longer presides over our public square, and with it has gone the framework for what was once America’s mighty vision of freedom.

Trending: Defamation lawsuit: Schiff colluded with Politico to leak false info to further sham impeachment

Many younger people realize, with their elders, that in important ways we are rudderless today, struggling just to understand what freedom means.  The touchstones of certainty are so far behind us now that fewer and fewer of us can even articulate what they were, back in those war years between 1939 and 1945.  Certainly, fewer now realize that they were imperiled even then, and that we fought the great war precisely because they were imperiled, and because they were worth fighting to defend.

As we reach the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, we have much to relearn.  Some would say we’re due a big dose of humility, and I suppose they’re right.  But I’d like to suggest a slightly different perspective, as we commemorate an anniversary that still tugs on many of our aging hearts.  It came to me as I was assembling the videos and transcripts for this post, and listening once again to Reagan’s seminal speech at Normandy 30 years ago today.

He spoke of a generation of men who faced the seemingly impossible task of scaling the sheer cliffs of Normandy in the teeth of machine-gun fire from the German defenders: who attacked the shore not knowing if they could get this job done or not, but who did, in the end, manage to do it.  Here is Reagan’s narrative:

At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers — the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.

Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.

These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.

There is a real sense – in some ways an even more challenging sense – in which the living generations of today face the sheer, forbidding cliffs of a moral and cultural Pointe du Hoc.  In its way, reclaiming the American heritage of freedom, of constitutionalism and limited government for a religious and moral people, is as tremendous and daunting a task as mounting the D-Day invasion.

It has been a long time since Americans faced a challenge whose outcome we knew would be life-altering for us, but whose success or failure we truly could not foresee.  We have to go back to the middle years of the Cold War to recapture something of what it felt like for the citizen, and back to Korea and World War II to recover how it was for the soldier.

But America was born from the tenacity of generations of the “boys of Pointe du Hoc.”  From the pilgrims on the leaky, lice-ridden Mayflower to the fight for beach-heads in the Pacific in 1944 and 1945, going in where there are no guarantees, yet everything we hold dear is on the line, is what we do.

Every few generations, Americans have embarked on an epic enterprise of breathtaking daring: the kind of enterprise a society of complacent busybodies, one that obsesses over “hate speech” and salt content, would call crazy or irresponsible.  Many Americans today would like to see laws that prohibit precisely the daring of liberty that America has made her name and her fortune exercising.  Such complacency is the sheerest of cliffs, and it has machine-guns all over it, manned by an army of desperate defenders terrified of the unknown.  We may know the cliff has to be scaled, but that doesn’t mean we can see how to do it.

Reagan’s simple narrative is a good start, though.  Throw up a rope ladder and start climbing.  When one man falls, take his place, and keep going.  When a rope is cut, throw up another and start again.  Climb, shoot back, and hold our footing.  Soon, one by one, we’ll pull ourselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top, begin to seize back our heritage and our future.

The boys of Pointe du Hoc didn’t know in advance that their fight would be won.  Neither do we know today whether ours will be.  We don’t know what will symbolize the “daggers” we hack with into the side of the cliff, or whether there will ever be ceremonies to commemorate the “D-Day” that is shaping up for our generations.

But we know whose shoulders we stand on.  And we know, as those forebears did, that we are the ones here, facing the test, and there is no one else.  On this 70th anniversary of the remarkable Allied feat of June 1944, we can profit from pondering the words of encouragement from two American presidents who, on this day 70 years ago, did not yet know how the battle would turn out.  And with a third president, who did know, we can give thanks, and put words and shape to our vision, and commit ourselves, without faltering, to whatever it takes to scale the cliff now looming before us.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. Army, Supreme Allied Commander (later 34th president of the United States)

Address to the Allied invasion force on D-Day, 6 June 1944

Transcript (courtesy of U.S. Army)

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

D-Day landing

Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States

Prayer for the D-Day landing force from his address to the nation on 6 June 1944

Transcript (courtesy of The American Presidency Project)

My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.

And for us at home – fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas – whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them – help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.

Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.

Give us strength, too – strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.

And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.

And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.

With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.

Thy will be done, Almighty God.

Soldiers of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, move over a seawall on Utah Beach during the Allied Invasion of Europe. (US Army photo)
Soldiers of the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, move over a seawall on Utah Beach during the Allied Invasion of Europe. (US Army photo)

 

Ronald W. Reagan, 40th President of the United States

D-Day commemoration address in Normandy on 6 June 1984

Transcript (courtesy of The History Place)

We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For 4 long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.

We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers — the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.

Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.

These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.

Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life . . . and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”

I think I know what you may be thinking right now — thinking “we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.” Well, everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren’t. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him — Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, “Sorry I’m a few minutes late,” as if he’d been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he’d just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

There was the impossible valor of the Poles who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold, and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a rollcall of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet” and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought — or felt in their hearts, though they couldn’t know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4 a.m., in Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying, and in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.

Something else helped the men of D-day: their rockhard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer he told them: Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do. Also that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies.

When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. There were nations to be reborn. Above all, there was a new peace to be assured. These were huge and daunting tasks. But the Allies summoned strength from the faith, belief, loyalty, and love of those who fell here. They rebuilt a new Europe together.

There was first a great reconciliation among those who had been enemies, all of whom had suffered so greatly. The United States did its part, creating the Marshall plan to help rebuild our allies and our former enemies. The Marshall plan led to the Atlantic alliance — a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.

In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost 40 years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as 40 years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose — to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars: It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.

But we try always to be prepared for peace; prepared to deter aggression; prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms; and, yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.

It’s fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II: 20 million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the Earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.

We will pray forever that some day that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.

We are bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We’re bound by reality. The strength of America’s allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe’s democracies. We were with you then; we are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”

The American Cemetery at Normandy today.  9,387 Americans are buried there.
The American Cemetery at Normandy today. 9,387 Americans are buried there.

Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their value [valor], and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

America's oldest living Army paratrooper, Jim "Pee Wee" Martin, in Normandy in 2014 to recreate his D-Day jump with the 101st Airborne Division.  (Image via CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/05/world/europe/d-day-paratrooper-jumps-again/index.html?iid=article_sidebar)
America’s oldest living Army paratrooper, Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, in Normandy in 2014 to recreate his D-Day jump with the 101st Airborne Division. (Image via CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/05/world/europe/d-day-paratrooper-jumps-again/index.html?iid=article_sidebar)
J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.