"Long before our time on earth has passed, one word will still bring forth the pride and awe of men and women who will never met the heroes who sit before us: D-Day." --President Barack Obama, June 6, 2009
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, NORMANDY -- For days, the hype in the French press was about the visit of President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters, but this sunny afternoon, on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, President Obama placed his role in the memorial celebration of the 65th Anniversary of D-Day in its proper perspective, noting that he was not the first and would not be the last president to honor the historic events of June 6, 1944. He thanked Susan Eisenhower and paid tribute to her grandfather, President Eisenhower, who as General Eisenhower was the architect of the D-Day invasion. Given the ages and mortality rate of the remaining World War II veterans, today's event might be the last year they can attend the memorial.
Among the nine thousand guests were Michelle Obama, Carla Bruni Sarkozy and Sarah Brown; Senator Bob Dole, a WWII veteran; and Tom Hanks, who starred in the D-Day epic Saving Private Ryan and co-produced the HBO series Band of Brothers. They gathered before a 22-foot memorial sculpture entitled "The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves," overlooking the gleaming white headstones and manicured green lawn of the cemetery. In honoring the veterans who had struggled on his country's beaches, French President Nicolas Sarkozy joined British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, H.R.H. Prince Charles, and President Obama, each representing the countries whose men and women comprised the Allied forces that prevailed against the Nazi's heavily fortified coastline to liberate France -- and the world -- from a truly evil regime. "What we faced in Nazi totalitarianism," Obama said, "was not just a battle of competing interests. It was a competing vision of humanity."
President Sarkozy presented his remarks first. Addressing President Obama directly, he expressed France's appreciation: "Before the 9,000 graves of this cemetery where we have gathered today, Mr. President, I wish to pay homage, in the name of France, to those who shed their blood on Norman ground and who rest there for eternity." Paying tribute specifically to the President's grandfather, Stanley Dunham, Sarkozy said, "Among them, Mr. President, were your grandfather, a sergeant in the US Army, and two of his brothers. For all French men and women...you are twice over -- by the office you hold and by the blood which flows through your veins -- the symbol of the America that we love. The America that defends the highest moral and spiritual values...that fights for freedom, democracy and the Rights of Man...that is open, tolerant, generous."
As one walks along the streets of Paris and talks with residents, from cab drivers to shop keepers to professionals, it is clear that President Obama does symbolize the American qualities freedom-loving nations respect and admire.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, fighting for his political life in Britain after four of his cabinet members recently resigned, gave what could be his last speech as PM before an international audience, and his best. At one point, he referred to Omaha Beach as Obama Beach, but it was a brief instant in an excellent and nearly poetic speech. The Allied forces on D-Day, he said, "Stepped out of these beaches and into history." Because of them, he continued, "freedom would not be pushed back into the waves, but would rise..." The beaches of Normandy, he pointed out, are significant also because "After five years of war, this is the only place where victory could begin." In a particularly evocative passage, Brown spoke of how the news of D-Day spread across Europe, inspiring the French Resistance to blow up bridges to thwart the Nazis -- and inspiring a young girl to write about it in her diary. Brown quoted young Anne Frank's description of D-Day as "too wonderful to believe, almost like a fairy tale," and said D-Day confirmed her belief in the best in people. The events of D-Day, Brown said, remind us that the new world we reach for is not pre-ordained or determined...but neither is it impossible."
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the only leader to address the gathering in French and English, framed D-Day as a "fight against oppression, cruelty and racism," along a fifty-mile seaboard. Linking the events of that fateful day and the present, saying, "there is a crying need to safeguard the values for which our parents fought." In only one of two references -- in any of the leaders' remarks -- Harper spoke of today's Allied forces and the task and dangers before them: "Think of our soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan," he said.
While Brown and Harper described WWII as their "parents'" war, the passage of time was underscored by the presence of the young American president, two generations removed from D-Day, who spoke of his grandfather and great-uncle's participation in the European theater during the Second World War. President Obama paid tribute to his great-uncle, Charles Payne, who was in the audience both as a veteran and uncle of the Commander-in-Chief. Mr. Payne was part of the first American division to reach and liberate a Nazi concentration camp. "I'm so proud that he's with us here today," the President said. One can only begin to imagne Mr. Payne's thoughts and feelings on this 65th Anniversary of D-Day.
As the Allies approached D-Day, Obama said, one newspaper wrote, "We have come to the hour for which we were born." The outcome of the struggle, he said, "would ultimately rest on the success of one day in June." The lives we enjoy today, the President continued, were made possible by the lives of the men and women -- living and dead -- who prevailed 65 years ago. "Much of the progress that defined the 20th 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, particularly, it came down to those who landed here."
Quoting President Lyndon Johnson, who presided over a controversial war that undermined his presidency, President Obama said, "There are moments when history and fate meet in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. D-Day was such a moment." Unfortunately for Johnson, Vietnam was not a war like WWII. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan will be another Vietnam. Without drawing the comparison directly, the President alluded to the differences between the war of the "Greatest Generation" and the conflicts we face today, "We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true. It is a world of varied regions and cultures and forms of government. In such a world, it is all too rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal."
Obama, the author-president who is fast becoming teacher-in-chief points us to the lessons we can learn from D-Day, "As we face down the hardships and struggles of our time and arrive at that hour for which we were born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us somehow were able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore."
After President Sarkozy presented the French Legion of Honor to four American veterans (32 American veterans received the medal in ceremonies at Les Invalides on June 5), the two presidents, two prime ministers and prince laid a wreath at the monument. A 21-cannon salute then thundered across the blue-gray skies over Omaha Beach, a minor example of the deafening sound of bombs and gunfire that shook the countryside on that June morning 65 years ago. Following the mournful sound of Taps, there were three jet flyovers--French, British, and American--with one American pilot symbolizing the fallen, breaking formation and ascending into the heavens.
As I walked back, I took time to look at the headstones in the cemetery. The first I saw was for a soldier from Massachusetts, then one marking the grave of a soldier from New York, and the third stone my eye fell upon was that of a fallen soldier from my home state, Pennsylvania. While I was walking, the band was playing Dvorak, the music commonly known as "Coming Home," played in news footage of President Franklin Roosevelt's funeral procession moving along the streets of Washington. It seemed like a fitting ending for the anniversary celebration of a day in which FDR figured so grandly, but who, like those who lost their lives in battle, did not live to see the final victory. D-Day was his and their assurance that that day would come.