- - Thursday, June 5, 2014

With the 70th anniversary of D-Day on Friday, Americans can be grateful to President Reagan for making the commemoration a significant tribute. In 1984, Reagan became not only the first American chief executive to travel to Normandy on June 6, for the 40th anniversary, but delivered one of his most acclaimed speeches — from both the left and right — before a large crowd of veterans and world leaders. A representative newspaper account concluded that Reagan “took Normandy by storm.”

Surprisingly, before Reagan’s appearance, American observances of D-Day were nonchalant. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1945 gave his soldiers a holiday on June 6, less than a month after V-E (Victory in Europe) Day was proclaimed. In 1952, in the midst of the Korean War, Gen. Matthew D. Ridgway, a D-Day veteran, represented the United States in Normandy. On the 20th anniversary in 1964, President Johnson sent Gen. Omar N. Bradley, one of D-Day’s commanders, to the ceremony. On the 25th in 1969, President Nixon issued a brief statement (“D-Day Noted,” read the headline in The New York Times), and five years later as the Watergate crisis mounted, the date received even less presidential notice.

First lady Nancy Reagan paved the way for her husband’s appearance by venturing to Normandy on the 38th anniversary. It was President Reagan, though, who on June 6, 1984, was the headliner, taking part in ceremonies honoring at the site the 225 Rangers who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc to take out Nazi weaponry so that the invasion could proceed eastward.

It was a brief but emotionally riveting speech: “We’re here to mark that day in history,” he began, “when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim the Continent to liberty.” Short, descriptive sentences described how the Rangers shot rope ladders over the 130-foot cliffs. “Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled 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.”

In one of the most widely quoted statements, the president went on to note that “behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust deep into 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.”

Reagan made the distinction between military efforts for conquest and those for liberation. The D-Day invasion illustrated the latter, as well as a “rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause.” To be sure, after war’s end, all wasn’t “happy or planned.” The Soviets didn’t leave when peace came to Europe. “They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding.” For that reason, Allied forces remain, too. “The only territories we hold are memorials like this one, and graveyards where our heroes rest.”

But the Russians lost 20 million people in the war, which is sufficient reason, Reagan argued, to work for “reconciliation” with the Soviet Union “so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.” Until that changed time, the Allies stand by the heroes represented by this site.

“Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their 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.”

Of the 225 Rangers on June 6, 1944, only 99 survived the assault. Sixty-two attended the 1984 ceremonies, and, at their conclusion, Reagan and wife Nancy greeted and hugged each one.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.