By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 7, 2009
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France, June 6 -- President Obama urged the world Saturday to live up to the sacrifice made by thousands of Allied soldiers who struggled to shore here 65 years ago on D-Day, telling a hushed audience that "the selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century."
"For you remind us that in the end, human destiny is not determined by forces beyond our control," Obama said during a ceremony commemorating the invasion. "Our history has always been the sum total of the choices made and the actions taken by each individual man and woman. It has always been up to us."
Obama's speech at the bluff-top cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach served to underscore the message he has sought to deliver throughout his trip to the Middle East and Europe. Using a mix of criticism and understanding, he has urged rivals and allies to work now to resolve conflicts based on his view of how their national interests coincide with those of the United States.
In Cairo, he appealed for a "new beginning" between the United States and Muslim nations, and at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany he demanded an end to religious and ethnic persecution, an implicit reference to Iran's leaders who deny the Jewish state of Israel's right to exist.
In his European meetings, Obama received support from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for his Middle East diplomacy, which he hopes will show progress this year.
But Obama also encountered concern from Merkel over his fiscal spending plans, which long-term projections show would add trillions of dollars to the national debt and could risk the U.S. credit rating and bring inflation. Advisers said he pledged to bring the budget into better balance, in part by reining in spending once the economy has recovered. And neither Merkel nor Sarkozy made new commitments to take any Guantanamo Bay detainees, as Obama works to meet his January deadline to close the military prison.
In office just over five months, Obama has offered what he has called a clear-eyed appraisal of the world's troubles, at times implicating allies such as Israel and his own country in failing to address them squarely. He used the term "occupation" to describe Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories, for example, and said that "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" there.
Even in his remarks Saturday, he noted that the Allied countries that defeated Nazi fascism were "not perfect." At several stops, he asked other nations to be equally honest in order to make progress on peace in the Middle East, curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and slow global warming.
"In his candor with all the interlocutors on this trip, the president is trying to move past the diversions that have hindered their joining us in taking the requisite steps to enhance our national security," said Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "That's what this candor is all about."
Obama follows other U.S. presidents who have traveled to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial to remember the dead and thank them, along with the surviving veterans whose number declines each year.
The thousands gathered at the grave sites, where 9,387 soldiers lie beneath bone-white crosses and Stars of David, included active-duty troops, heads of state and Hollywood stars.
Actor Tom Hanks, who came ashore on D-Day in the movie "Saving Private Ryan," posed for pictures with fans.
Obama's great-uncle Charles Payne, who as a young soldier helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp nearly a year after D-Day, watched from the front row alongside first lady Michelle Obama.
The U.S. president walked into the memorial's semicircle of columns with Sarkozy, Britain's Prince Charles, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
They took seats among scores of surviving D-Day veterans, the audience stretching before them in a wide column that reached far back among the graves.
Early in his 15-minute speech, Obama acknowledged former senator Robert J. Dole, who was badly wounded in World War II and attended the ceremony with his wife, former senator Elizabeth Dole. Obama thanked Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who the president noted "began this mission 65 years ago with a simple charge: 'Okay, let's go.' "
In a ceremony here 25 years ago, President Ronald Reagan called the D-Day anniversary a moment "to celebrate the triumph of democracy." A decade later, President Bill Clinton warned here "that progress is not inevitable. But neither was victory upon these beaches."
In a speech that included tales of individual heroism and inspiring wartime industriousness in the United States, Obama echoed those earlier remarks.
"It was unknowable then," he said, "but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide."
Families, veterans and young soldiers gathered under a row of pines, gazing down the deadly slope of hill to Omaha Beach and a shoreline where, at dawn 65 years ago, more than 135,000 U.S., Canadian and British troops landed under heavy German fire.
At Omaha Beach alone, 3,881 soldiers died.
In his remarks, Sarkozy said, "We cannot name them all, those heroes to whom we owe so much."
"They were so many," he said. "But we shall never forget them."
Like the other leaders who spoke, Sarkozy warned that "the threats that loom over the future of humanity today are of a different kind, but they are no less serious," naming terrorism, famine and human rights violations.
Brown, who in a stumble referred to Omaha Beach as "Obama Beach," said, "This is the place where you can chart the war's end and the start of a new world."
"We must be liberators for our generation," he said.
For much of the day, a brisk wind blew off the Atlantic, where a French warship bobbed at anchor.
Among the acres of graves, thousands of people gathered throughout a sunny morning that later gave way to rain. Veterans of the invasion, some wearing unit hats bedecked with medals and battle ribbons, visited the graves.
Some rolled in wheelchairs, others trudged with the help of canes -- paying solemn respects for perhaps the last time.
"As the numbers of this our greatest generation dwindle, we ask ourselves how can we honor them, how can we ever thank them," Harper said. "There is only one answer: to carry the torch from their failing hands and carry it high."
Obama mentioned his grandfather Stanley Dunham, who landed at Omaha Beach six weeks after the initial invasion and died in 1992. And he said he was proud that his great-uncle was in the audience.
In a thickening voice, he told the story of Jim Norene of the 101st Airborne Division, who died Friday night "after visiting this cemetery for one last time."
"As we face down the hardships and struggles of our time, and arrive at that hour for which we were born," he said, "we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore."
Generations younger than the soldiers who stormed ashore here, Air Force Capts. John Leger and Peter Gruters traveled from military bases in Germany to be with them.
The two met during intelligence training, served several tours in the Middle East each, and met up Friday for a 10-hour drive here to commemorate the day.
Gruters's grandfather K.K. McRoyan came ashore with the 1st Infantry Division on D-Day. The older man had intended to visit this cemetery on the invasion's 50th anniversary, Gruters said, but died before he could.
"I told my mom I was coming, and she said, 'Wow, take a lot of pictures,' " said Gruters, a 27-year-old from Sarasota, Fla., a digital camera dangling from his wrist.
In many of Normandy's villages, French and American flags flew Saturday from official buildings, poked from flower beds outside homes and hung from roofs.
Leger, a 28-year-old from Houston who is based in Stuttgart, Germany, said an elderly French woman approached the two officers as they strolled through the rows of graves.
"I didn't understand what she said, except 'Merci,' " he said.
"And she kept saying it over and over -- 'Merci, merci, merci,' " Gruters added.
A 21-cannon salute boomed out over the Atlantic, and the playing of taps sent tears streaming down weathered cheeks. Fighter jets screamed over the crowd -- a lone aircraft breaking off to rocket skyward in a missing-man formation.
Another anniversary had passed, and 65 years later, the soldiers on stage walked away from the beach again.