Of all the presidential speeches in Normandy, none was as memorable as the one written by Peggy Noonan and delivered by President Ronald Reagan on the 40th anniversary of D-Day in June 1984. It is difficult to believe that we are now almost as far removed from that moment as 1984 was from 1944. The vast differences are readily apparent if you read Reagan’s address, primarily remembered for his tribute to the Rangers who scaled the cliff on which he stood: “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.” But the rest of the speech is actually more relevant this week as President Trump commemorates the invasion’s 75th anniversary.
Reagan said the reason Allied soldiers had risked their lives on D-Day was not only because “one’s country is worth dying for” but also because “democracy is worth dying for.” He then paid tribute to the Allies who, after having won the war, “rebuilt a new Europe together.” He noted that the “United States did its part, creating the Marshall Plan,” which in turn led to NATO, “a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.”
Reagan went on to say: “We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars: 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.” And then he added: “The strength of America’s allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe’s democracies. We were with you then; we are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.”
Imagine that. A Republican president who believed in fighting for democracy, valued foreign aid (the Marshall Plan was worth $135 billion in 2019 dollars), endorsed NATO without caviling about others’ contributions, advocated internationalism rather than isolationism, and was convinced that the United States’ security depended on standing together with Europe. Truly a lost world.
Can you imagine what Trump would have said had he been in office during the 1940s and Britain had requested U.S. assistance to fight the Nazis? I can almost hear him abusing the British for taking advantage of us, praising Adolf Hitler for being very strong and powerful, and demanding payment before he would send a single “beautiful” American soldier to Europe. That’s speculation, of course, but the way he treats our allies is well documented.
Just last week, Trump threatened to impose tariffs of up to 25 percent against Mexico to punish it for not having any more success than the United States has had in sealing its borders from undocumented immigration. “The problem is that Mexico is an ‘abuser’ of the United States, taking but never giving,” he tweeted. That is not the way you talk about an ally. Trump also raised tariffs against India, a country that a succession of presidents has been wooing as a counterweight to China. He even considered raising tariffs against Australia, a country that has sent troops to fight alongside our own in every war of the past century.
Yet Trump boasts of his “very good,” even “excellent,” relationship with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, inheritor of a slave state that 36,000 Americans died trying to defeat. The president seldom speaks of promoting democracy outside Venezuela — where what he is really promoting are his own political interests among Florida voters.
Normally, an American president’s visit to Britain would be a joyous celebration of the “special relationship” that made D-Day possible, but Trump’s progress is, as usual, marked by his rhetorical stink bombs. He called Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, “nasty” and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, a “stone cold loser.” He disparaged the Brexit deal negotiated by outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May and urged a no-deal Brexit that is at odds with what the majority of Parliament wants. He endorsed Boris Johnson, an unprincipled opportunist, as Britain’s next prime minister, and Nigel Farage, a slimy demagogue, as its negotiator with the European Union. When he mentioned NATO, it was, as usual, to complain about members not paying enough. Little wonder that 67 percent of Britons — the United States’ closest allies — have an unfavorable view of this American president.
At the end of his speech in 1984, Reagan said: “Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: ‘I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.’ 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.”
Trump has forsaken the boys of Pointe du Hoc. He has failed to stand for the ideals for which the heroes of D-Day lived and died.