Seventy-five years have passed, but the heroism of the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy still resonates as strongly as it did that June Tuesday in 1944 when America awoke to the news.
This will almost certainly be the last time our country will be able to commemorate such a milestone anniversary while the heroes who participated in the D-Day invasion are still here with us on Earth. Even the very youngest World War II veterans are now well into their 90s.
The country and the world are blessed that more than 180 D-Day veterans were able to join President Trump and other world leaders in France. The living memory of what it means to fight and die “to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity” — as President Roosevelt put it when he spoke to the nation for the first time following the landings — is rapidly fading.
That memory is not merely of a single, bloody day in 1944, or even of the Second World War more broadly. It is the living memory of a generation whose struggle forged the world we enjoy today.
President Roosevelt defined that struggle for the GI Generation, calling on them to “conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies” and to “lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace[,] a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men.”
But the ranks of those who listened to those words live while the outcome of that struggle hung in the balance are rapidly dwindling.
The National WWII Museum estimates that there are fewer than half a million American World War II veterans left, out of the more than 16 million who answered the call of duty three-quarters of a century ago. By the time of the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the museum projects that there will be fewer than 100,000.
Those civilians who heard Roosevelt’s words as children are not far behind them.
From here on out, our task on subsequent D-Day anniversaries will gradually evolve from one of thanksgiving and commemoration to one of remembrance and preservation of what our soldiers accomplished.
As Roosevelt’s eternal words fade from living memory, we must continually refresh them with our own reflections on the significance that D-Day still has for our world, as President Ronald Reagan did at the 40th Anniversary.
“Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history,” Reagan reminded our allies in the midst of the Cold War struggle against a different totalitarian ideology. After America had prevailed over Soviet communism, President Bill Clinton emphasized the value of freedom at the 50th anniversary, when he said that the men who fought at D-Day were “driven by the voice of free will and responsibility nurtured in Sunday schools, town halls, and sandlot ball games” as they risked their lives to secure “a foothold for freedom.”
In this, the twilight of the Greatest Generation’s living memory, President Donald Trump rose to that challenge as well. He spoke to an American and European public that is in the process of casting aside the hollow platitudes of the post-Cold War glow and remembering anew the foundational values for which so many gave their lives preserving.
To the pantheon of eternal words at Normandy, President Trump added his own homage to the last of the warriors who stormed the beaches.
“We are gathered here on freedom’s altar,” he said. “On these shores, on these bluffs, on this day 75 years ago, ten thousand men shed their blood and thousands sacrificed their lives for their brothers, for their countries, and for the survival of liberty.” And to the approximately 180 veterans gathered for the commemoration, President Trump said, “You are among the very greatest Americans who will ever live. You are the pride of our nation. You are the glory of our republic. And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
The veterans who assembled in Normandy this week are among the last of their breed. After they fade away, the likes of them may never be seen again in the annals of men. But their heroism and their legacy will never fade. Like our duty to remember their sacrifice in new words and old principles, their achievements are eternal.