THE BOYS OF POINTE DU HOC
Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the
U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion
By Douglas Brinkley
Morrow. 274 pp. $22.95
"These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc," President Reagan intoned, pronouncing it, after a heated administration debate, American-style ("Point Due Hawk"), with no risk of flubbing the French pronunciation during a speech timed for American morning TV. "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." With these short, declarative sentences on June 6, 1984, Reagan honored and hijacked the 40th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy invasion that liberated Europe. According to Douglas Brinkley, with these words Reagan also transformed America.
Brinkley, a history professor at Tulane University and the author, most recently, of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, risks attributing too much impact to just one speech. That afternoon, Brinkley argues, Reagan defeated the malaise of the 1970s, exorcised the ghosts of Vietnam, honored the D-Day heroes, resurrected pride in World War II veterans, anticipated the Tom Brokaw-Steven Spielberg-"Saving Private Ryan"-Greatest Generation hype, restored America's patriotism, challenged the Soviet Union, guaranteed his own reelection and showcased the "New Patriotism" that continues to shape modern conservatism and today's red-blue political dynamic. The highest compliment one can pay to Brinkley -- and, by extension, to Reagan -- is that there is much truth in those sweeping claims.
This short, charming, insightful book effectively interweaves the story of D-Day in the 1940s with the story of Reagan's presidency in the 1980s -- as well as Reagan's legacy. Brinkley chose his subject wisely and argues his case convincingly. If the D-Day anniversary was not quite the Reagan revolution's turning point, it surely was a useful intersection that epitomized what Brinkley calls Reagan's "penchant for historical symbolism" and embodied many of Reaganism's key themes. With chapters describing the invasion, "Reagan's Hollywood War," Peggy Noonan's speechwriting, "Reagan's Normandy Day" and the speech's aftermath, Brinkley offers enough perspectives on one moment to make a postmodernist swoon. Nevertheless, Brinkley remains focused, resonant and rooted in reality.
American popular memory has conflated two extraordinary speeches into one. The president first spoke at 1:20 p.m. at the Pointe du Hoc Ranger obelisk overlooking Normandy's daunting, deadly cliffs. Addressing the "boys of Pointe du Hoc," now old and gray, Reagan recalled how these American heroes scaled those cliffs, defying a deadly Nazi fusillade, and saved civilization. Three hours and 10 minutes later, the president spoke at the Omaha Beach Memorial. There, near the waves that had famously turned red with blood that awful day, Reagan's voice broke while honoring one veteran, the late Pfc. Peter Robert Zanatta, whose daughter, Lisa Zanatta Henn, had written a moving tribute to her heroic dad. Brinkley neglects to mention that the footage was so effective that when Walter Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign previewed the now-classic commercials showing Reagan and the veterans choking up, some Democrats' eyes became misty too.
Together, the two all-American, anticommunist speeches fused many of the themes of individualist gumption and nationalist renewal that characterized Reagan's presidency and continue to shape America today. Brinkley sidesteps the partisanship that mars most books about Reagan, explaining without editorializing how Reagan's "Morning in America" outlook inspired so many Americans.
Clearly, many forces renewed American confidence and fed the "New Patriotism" that Reagan touted; similar books could explore other "pivotal" moments such as the 1981 assassination attempt, the "Morning Again in America" 1984 campaign commercial, Reagan's moving speech after the space shuttle Challenger exploded or his challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Still, the D-Day moment resonates nicely, encouraging readers to think about the impact of the 1940s and 1960s on the 1980s. It serves as a delicious example of Reagan's ability to transform the country's mood, illustrating the impact that modern presidents have on American culture as well as on American politics. To capture these subtleties, presidential historians need to look beyond the Beltway to assess a president's impact on the American zeitgeist.
The Reagan who appears in this book looks more like the active and influential president whom historians are uncovering than the now-famous caricature of the "amiable dunce." Brinkley, who backed Sen. John F. Kerry in the 2004 election, now joins such Reagan fans as Martin Anderson and Noonan in arguing that Reagan did not just provide the lyrics and the melody to America's renewal; Reagan wrote the story line too.
A little-known White House scribe named Anthony Dolan drafted the second speech, letting Brinkley point out that the famous Noonan shares credit for the 1984 speechwriting miracles with Reagan himself and other, less flamboyant ghostwriters. "Something about Reagan had made his military aide bring [Lisa Zanatta Henn's letter] to him -- and, of course, he responded to it," Dolan recalled. "And then it was forgotten until something about Reagan made one of his speechwriters recognize the pure Reagan aspects of the letter -- the Reagan gold in it. All these synergies were responsible for that draft and also speak to the culture Reagan established, a culture at the heart of which was his own very well-defined philosophy and outlook and persona."
Here, Dolan describes the subtle interplays forging any moment while viewing Reagan through the appropriate wide-angle lens. Reagan was more alchemist-actor than philosopher-king. By establishing a certain tone, by relishing symbols, by imprinting his ideology and personality on the White House and the country, Reagan created "Reagan gold." This old-new alloy offered Americans a sunny new vision that has proved remarkably resilient, whether one likes it or not. *
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and the author of "Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s."