It is poignant and poetic that Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004, just a day before the 60th anniversary of D-Day–the day Reagan helped re-instantiate into our collective consciousness. Indeed, on D-Day Minus One, June 5, 1944, the ships and planes of Operation Overlord were already in motion, pushing toward their rendezvous with destiny.
In our time, anniversary commemorations of D-Day have become routine; every politician, for example, wants to take part. As Abraham Lincoln said of an earlier commemoration, at Gettysburg, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Lincoln, of course, famously underestimated his own rhetorical power, saying, in the very next sentence of his renowned address, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” But of course, the world has well remembered the fighting at Gettysburg, and no small part of that remembrance is due to Lincoln’s illustrious words.
Thanks to these words of the 16th President, a century-and-a-half after Gettysburg, Americans still think back to that time and “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.”
Now that’s the bully pulpit. And our 40th President had the same oratorical skills.
It might seem hard to believe today, but not so long ago, D-Day anniversaries were barely recognized. There was no US presidential trip, for example, marking 10th, 20th, or 30th anniversaries of D-Day.
It was Reagan who went to Normandy in 1984, setting a new precedent. Since then, every 10 years, the incumbent US president has traveled to France for the anniversary; we can each judge for ourselves how well they have done.
Reagan set the gold standard: Anyone watching TV then–or anyone with access to YouTube–knows that truth. Standing on a bluff that once held Wehrmacht artillery emplacements, the Gipper looked with admiration at the surviving old-timers gathered in the audience and said to the world, “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.”
That was Ronald Reagan, Great Communicator.
What’s less known is that Reagan himself could have been a warrior. At the age of 26, he was commissioned into the Army Reserve. That was 1937, and it was evident that America would inevitably face a confrontation with Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan–or both.
However, it turned out that Reagan was legally blind without his glasses, and so even after Pearl Harbor, he could never go into combat. As a result, while still in uniform, he was assigned to a training-film unit, where he made more than 400 instructional films. Rising to the rank of captain, he was offered a further promotion to major, but he turned it down, believing that such a high rank should be reserved for those who fought overseas.
(Even in Uncle Sam’s service, Reagan never lost his Hollywood good-sense; he was indirectly responsible for discovering an 18-year-old war-production worker, Norma Jeane Dougherty, who would, of course, become Marilyn Monroe.)
Yet in his Normandy speech of 1984, Reagan aimed to do more than commemorate past victories over fascism, important as that was. He sought also to remind Americans of the ongoing Cold War struggle against communism. The Soviet Union–or, as he sometimes called it, the “evil empire”–still still held much of Europe in tyrannical servitude:
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.
By contrast, Reagan added, wistfully, “The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.”
Americans, Reagan continued, had learned “bitter lessons” in the past about the dangers of isolationism. So America has had to stand tall for freedom, in its own defense. Indeed, from a strategic point of view, we were better off standing for that freedom in forward positions, beyond our own shores. Speaking on the other side of the Atlantic, he argued:
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.
And so, Reagan said, America would stand watch. We must be prepared to deter aggression, he said, even as were prepared to negotiate for arms control, or even, conceivably, for “reconciliation.” In other words, we always want peace, but we only want peace through strength. As he had said earlier, “Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because the US was too strong.”
In fact, strengthening American was Reagan’s lifework. He strengthened our economy, he strengthened our military, and he strengthened us spiritually. After the disappointments and “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years, the Gipper made us feel more proud to be Americans. (And yes, this veteran of the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign sees great parallels between the late 1970s and today.)
Ronald Reagan. He was a Great Communicator, for sure. But he was a Great President, no doubt about that, either.
And that’s why, a decade ago, a few hundred thousand of us stood on the grass of the Washington Mall, waiting for our chance to step into the Capitol, file past his coffin as it lay in state, there to say “thanks” and pay our last respects.
Indeed, that respect is undying; it will live, I believe, even after we, the living, are gone.
Reagan’s legacy is immortal.