President Obama on Friday declared the hallowed shores of Normandy “democracy’s beachhead” as he remembered the Allied invasions as the beginning of a century of freedom movements that spread across continents.
“Nations that once knew only the blinders of fear began to taste the blessings of freedom,” Obama said.
“That would not have happened without the men who were willing to lay down their lives for people they’d never met, and ideals they couldn’t live without.”
Obama spoke at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where nearly 9,400 American soldiers are buried on the bluffs overlooking the English Channel. The blanket of white crosses and Stars of David perched over beaches where 70 years ago Allied forces launched invasions that would liberate France from the Nazis, turn the tide of the war and over the course of months leave more than 425,000 men dead, wounded or missing.
“Gentlemen, we are truly humbled by your presence today,” Obama said to the veterans gathered in the midday sun for the anniversary ceremony. The aging vets sitting behind him -- some in baggy military dress, canes in hand -- rose slowly, if they could, to accept the applause.
Straying from prepared remarks, Obama noted how this ceremony affected him personally. “I don’t think there’s a time I miss my grandfather more, or a time I’d be more happy to have him here than this day."
The visit and reflections on the battles have become something of a rite of passage for American presidents as D-day has grown as a public symbol of the contributions of the “Greatest Generation.” President Carter became the first to pay tribute to the fallen at Normandy in 1978. Presidents since have seized the chance to offer their retelling of the story.
Obama’s visit was his second; he marked the 65th anniversary in 2009. It comes as a president who found easy acceptance of his military agenda in his first term is on defense on several fronts. Obama is facing bipartisan criticism for negotiating with the Taliban for the release of an American soldier. His Veterans Affairs Department is in turmoil as it struggles to provide care for a new generation and has seen veterans die waiting for services. Meanwhile, the president has been under pressure to better explain when he would use U.S. military power, as a civil war in Syria rages on.
On his trip to Europe this week, Obama has struggled to keep his European allies in step on a plan to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea. And he’s spent much of his time reassuring allies he would hold to the NATO treaty promising U.S. defense.
Though largely unrelated problems, taken in sum they raise challenging questions about when to begin and how to end wars in the 21stcentury. The president offered only glimpses of his thinking as he addressed a crowd of foreign leaders and dozens of World War II veterans as well as veterans of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“When the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory -- we helped Europe rebuild. We claimed no land other than the earth where we bury those who gave their lives under our flag, and where we station those who still serve under it,” he said.
“And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity. We worked to turn old adversaries into new allies.”
Nearly 4,500 Allied troops, more than half Americans, died on the invasion's first day -- a loss of life that Obama suggested might not have been tolerated in today’s hyperconnected, hypercritical culture.
“In our age of instant commentary, the invasion would have been swiftly and roundly declared, as it was by one officer, ‘a debacle,’” Obama said, according to prepared remarks. “But a race to judgment does not take into account the courage of free men.”
Still, Obama held up the ”9/11 generation” of soldiers as the heirs to this legacy. He noted the changing face of the military -- paying tribute by name to Staff Sgt. Melvin Cedillo-Martin, an immigrant from Honduras and Spec. Jannise Rodriguez, who earned the title of the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault Soldier of the Year.
“They too felt some tug; they answered some call; they said ‘I’ll go,’" Obama said.
The president spoke under the midday sun to several world leaders gathered for the ceremonies. More than a dozen leaders were slated to attend a luncheon at a nearby chateau that once served as a hospital for wounded soldiers. The high-powered meal, which will include Obama's European counterparts, Queen Elizabeth II and Putin, is closed to the media.