On June 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan spoke in Normandy, France on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day. It was, indeed, one of his most inspiring, memorable addresses.
The President, three years into his first term, stood on a beach overlooking the English Channel and retold the events of that fateful June day to an audience that included England’s Queen Elizabeth II, Norway’s King Olav V, and Canadian Prime Minister Elliott Trudeau. But the real celebrities were those they had come to honor, American Rangers who four decades earlier, scaled Pointe du Hoc’s 100-foot cliffs in order to seize German artillery pieces so they could not be used against American troops as they landed at Omaha and Utah beaches. There were just over two hundred of those Rangers, and they fought valiantly, and sacrificially, for two days. By the end of their mission, “only 90 could still bear arms.”
Said one historian, “For sheer oratorical elegance,” this was “one of the most inspirational presidential speeches ever delivered.”
The speech was written by a thirty-something woman, Peggy Noonan, whose last minute change resulted in one of the most memorable lines of any of the President’s speeches. Instead of, “We have here today some of the survivors of the battle of Point du Hoc, some of the Rangers who took these cliffs,” she wrote, “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc . . .”—
Reagan unabashedly connected the fight against Hitler to “the struggle against totalitarianism” in the 1980s Soviet Union. He said of America’s European allies, “we were with you then, and we are with you now.” One commentator said his words “kept the coalition in place that later defeated the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War. “The ‘boys of Pointe du Hoc’ saved the world, and, in many ways, they did so more than once.”
The following are some excerpts from President Reagan’s Speech:
“We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For 4 long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.
“We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 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 cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.
“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers—. . .shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.
“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.
“Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your “lives fought for life… and left the vivid air signed with your honor.”
“. . .Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and some how we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love.
“The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
“You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.
“The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought—or felt in their hearts, though they couldn’t know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4 a.m., in Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying, and in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.
“Something else helped the men of D-Day: their rockhard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer he told them: Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we’re about to do. Also that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: “I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.”
“When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. . . .In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They’re still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost 40 years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as 40 years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose—to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.
“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. . .
“We are bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We’re bound by reality. 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.
“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. “Thank you very much, and God bless you all.”