As we mark the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest moments in history, we should counter the defeatism and cynicism so characteristic of our times and look back at heroes proved—then up at Almighty God in gratitude for them. If the idea of gratitude toward God is off-putting to anyone, or seems somehow inappropriate, I would simply note how a famously liberal Democratic president approached matters on national radio as June 6, 1944, was drawing to a close. Roosevelt became America’s pastor for a moment, as he prayed:
"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..."
He added: “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.”
And he ended with: “Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.”
Next to ingratitude, forgetfulness is the most serious indicator of cultural decline. The two are intertwined. Thankfulness and remembrance are flip sides of the same essential cultural coin.
Shortly after the poet Robert Frost’s death in 1963, President John F. Kennedy traveled to Amherst College in Massachusetts, where Frost had taught for many years, to deliver a eulogy about the famous wordsmith. Kennedy shared a line that has since morphed into something beyond its original intent and focus. In my opinion, it was one of the best things Kennedy ever said:
"A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
Thirty-five years ago, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, President Ronald Reagan captured the attention of history and honored those who did so much for all of us on that crucial day. He called them “The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc,” and many of them were in his cliff-top audience in Normandy that day in 1984.
If you wanted to pick a more unlikely place for an important military attack, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a spot more uninviting than the imposing, rugged cliffs overlooking the English Channel four miles to the west of Omaha Beach. Some years ago, I visited the Normandy region for a speaking engagement, and I stood on the spot where the Great Communicator spoke. I tried to wrap my mind around the quite-evident impossibility of what the United States Army Ranger Assault Group accomplished that fateful day. As Mr. Reagan spoke, he honored those men:
“We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty 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 canon. 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.”
The noble ranks of the boys of Pointe Du Hoc have now been thinned out by the course of time. Other heroes have taken their place and are equally worthy of our gratitude and honor.
Kennedy was right—how we remember heroes of the past, and how we treat heroes in our day, reveals the heart and character of our nation.
Reagan was right, too, when he added: “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.”