Remembering America: Obama's D-Day Speech and Two Days in June

President Barack Obama commemorated the 65th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.

There's no question that timing is, as it were, of the essence in politics. Consider the timing of President Barack Obama's address to the Muslim world, coming as it did just two days before the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

Most focus simply on the Cairo speech. But that speech exists in a larger context, alongside the speech over the weekend in Normandy which bookended it on Obama's second big international tour.

On Thursday in Cairo, Obama gave his rhetorical best to reposition a mostly peaceful America in the future of the Muslim world. On Saturday in Normandy, he reminded of America's glittering, and far more martial, past.

One is a speech about peace; the other, a speech about war. In this case, war which was necessary to secure the civilization we have today.

The invasion of Normandy on June 6th, 1944.

Obama's tour, and his big speeches in Egypt and France, came as he is seeking to redefine America's relationship with the Muslim and, particularly, Arab worlds, and to deal with what may be the most right-wing Israeli government in history.

In Cairo, Obama spoke of what can be, a world in which the zealotry and extremism which fuels jihadism is dialed back. In Normandy, he spoke of what has been, reminding that American power, wisely and decisively employed, can ensure that Western civilization endures. Including in Israel.

Absent America, or perhaps better put, absent the action of America in the 1940s, the world would be a far worse place today.

Nazi Germany and fascist Japan would have ended that pivotal decade astride the world, with the lunatic ideologues of Nazism in possession of nuclear weapons and the advanced rocketry needed to deliver them. Britain and the Soviet Union may or may not have been able to hold out. Probably the latter, without supplies from America and its own participation in the war. Isolationist America would have had to cut a deal. Nazi death camps, which came perilously close to eradicating judaism as it was, would likely have finished the job. And so on, in a festival of horror.

The Nazis were a fringe political movement come to power in a time of chaos in Germany. Taking advantage of the underlying strength of Germany within Europe,the Nazi movement -- a fundamentally evil brand of politics which turned an historically tragic anti-semitism into something incredibly monstrous -- spread across the continent, taking territory right and left through force of arms.

Then President Ronald Reagan commemorated the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984.

D-Day reminds that diplomacy, while always a hopeful option, isn't always the right option. Though we would prefer it to be otherwise, there are circumstances in which there is simply no substitute for force, relentlessly and ruthlessly applied.

Had force been applied sooner against Nazism, the Holocaust which claimed six million lives might have been averted. Of course, FDR had to deal with hardcore isolationists in both parties, especially the Republican Party.

Obama is confronting Israel's very right-wing new government on its continued settlement of the West Bank. With his tour of Buchenwald, which his great-uncle helped liberate, and his D-Day speech, Obama showed that he knows full well the unspeakable tragedy of history which gave rise to Israel, and that he supports Israel.

But Israel will have to chart a different course if war which would quite likely not end well for it or anyone else is to be averted.

Obama toured the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, who survived Buchenwald.

Invoking both his great-uncle, who was on hand in Normandy for the 65th anniversary commemoration, and his late grandfather, who also fought his way across Europe after D-Day, Obama showed that -- as exotic as he is for an American politician -- he is part of the American tradition.

D-Day was one of the great hinges of history. While the war would not have been won without Russia decimating the Nazi empire in the East, not only was this this the moment in which America became the world's greatest military power, much of what we've known as the modern era was made possible by what transpired there on June 6th, 1944.

As Obama put it: "It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the twentieth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide."

That would be Omaha Beach, the most savagely contested of the landing areas. Or "Obama Beach" as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, caught up like much of Europe in Obamamania, mistakenly called it in his own speech.

The opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.

But there was another day in June, another day last week, another of those hinges of history that turned 67 years ago. And relatively few remembered this day. But had it not occurred, D-Day would probably have been impossible, as America would have been decidedly on the wrong end of the war in the Pacific with Japan.

This battle took place some 3000 miles west of San Francisco, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, around a place called Midway Atoll, a set of three tiny islands claimed for America in the 1850s as a source of guano, the seabird excrement so useful in fertilizer. Unlike France, nobody much goes there, aside from the native gooney birds.

America, not to put too fine a point on it, was getting its butt kicked by Japan in the six months after Pearl Harbor. With the fall of the Philippines, and pretty much everything but Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii, many Americans were fearful of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast that could sweep clear to Chicago.

On June 4th, through a combination of fortune and daring -- unlike today, there were no satellites or rapid communications, radar was rudimentary, and information about the location of the enemy and disposition of its forces came from scout planes -- that all changed as the outgunned US Navy shattered the striking power of Japan, sinking four aircraft carriers in the Battle of Midway.

John Ford's The Battle of Midway, about another day in June on which the hinge of history turned, won an Oscar for best documentary.

John Ford, who a year earlier had won an Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath, was on Midway during the battle and filmed much of it, and was wounded in the process. His documentary, The Battle of Midway, won the Oscar. The film plays as corny and rather frantic today, and really doesn't explain what happened, but all film is a product of its circumstance.

Two years later, Ford was on Omaha Beach on D-Day, directing a crew of Coast Guard cameramen filming the battle commemorated again this past weekend.

But unlike the Midway footage, the Omaha Beach footage was not released to a war-weary public. It was deemed by the War Department as too horrifying.

Over 50 years later, Steven Spielberg recreated Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. The movie's star Tom Hanks, an early Obama backer, was prominently on hand for the 65th anniversary festivities, visible on screen talking with the president and first lady and other world leaders. Hanks went on to produce Band of Brothers, the highly-regarded HBO miniseries about a company of paratroopers in Europe and is producing the upcoming miniseries The Pacific, about the Marines and the even more savage fighting that took place there.

And so history is passed on, in film as in speeches like Obama's, as we affirm our success and seek to set aside our stubbornness.