Veterans recall D-Day horror and triumph

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump will take part in a tradition for modern presidents that dates back four decades when he stands at the edge of Omaha Beach in Normandy on Thursday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

But while the ceremony will honor the sacrifices made on June 6, 1944, some fear Trump’s “America First” presidency and the international drama he has carried with him as he begins his third trip to France will complicate the hallowed observance. 

Like his predecessors, Trump will pay homage to the 160,000 American and Allied troops who landed on D-Day, altering the course of World War II. But in a break with past U.S. presidents, he is unlikely to use his remarks in France to embrace institutions such as NATO that rose out of the ashes of the fighting.

The American president has accused those institutions of “ripping off” the United States. 

“It’s going to be a tough challenge for him,” said Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who served presidents of both parties. “What we learned from D-Day and the Second World War is that we need allies.”

As on past international trips, Trump has also drawn considerable attention to his Twitter feed and overseas media interviews. He attacked singer-songwriter Bette Midler, blasted 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden and continued to drive news coverage by referring to Meghan Markle’s  comments about him as “nasty.” 

Trump, who was feted with a formal state visit by Queen Elizabeth II earlier in the week, gathered with British officials Wednesday on Britain’s south coast, where thousands of ships involved in Operation Overlord assembled before crossing the English Channel. Trump read a prayer that President Franklin Roosevelt delivered in a radio address on June 6, 1944.

“Almighty God, our sons, pride of our nation, this day, have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion and our civilization and to set free a suffering humanity,” Trump read. 

On Thursday, the president will deliver remarks at an international ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where some 9,388 American military dead are buried.

The president is not expected to attend D-Day events taking place on Thursday evening, according to a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the president’s schedule. Instead, Trump will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron, with whom he has had a testy relationship.

“The whole event is structured around the American Cemetery,” the official said. 

‘Boys of Pointe du Hoc’

Presidents have long used D-Day remarks to link the sacrifices made by the soldiers who landed in France to their own times and to apply lessons from the war to their own foreign policies. President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 address is often cited for his vivid retelling of the Army Ranger effort to scale the Omaha Beach cliffs – the “boys of Point du Hoc” – but he also notably laid out a vision for U.S. engagement in Europe. 

Speaking during a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Reagan used the 40th Anniversary of D-Day to condemn Moscow for occupying Eastern Bloc countries – “uninvited, unwanted,” he said – and vowed that the United States would remain a global force in defending democracy.  

“We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars: It is better to be here ready to protect peace than to take shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost,” Reagan said. “We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments.” 

President Barack Obama’sD-Day remarks in 2014 came just months after Russia’s invasion of Crimea shocked Europe, ultimately prompting sanctions from the U.S. and other countries. Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin held their first face-to-face meeting about the Ukrainian crisis during a lunch break amid the D-Day ceremonies.

Obama did not mention Russia’s action directly, though he used his second address on the shores of Normandy – his first was in 2009 – to defend U.S. efforts to build Europe’s economy after the war. Speaking at the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, Obama noted the U.S. “stood with the people of this continent” through the Cold War, and hinted at the wave of isolationism taking hold at the end of his term.   

“In a time when it has never been more tempting to pursue narrow self-interest, to slough off common endeavor, this generation of Americans, a new generation – our men and women of war – have chosen to do their part as well,” Obama said.  

Trump split with allies 

Trump ran for office in 2016 vowing to shake up much of the global order that emerged following World War II to prevent another global conflict and keep the Soviet Union – and communism – at bay. He has criticized NATO members for treating the United States like a “piggy bank,” engaged in high-profile Twitter spats with allies, including leaders in France, and has imposed stiff tariffs on the European Union, Canada and others.

Most recently, Trump’s administration has threatened 5% tariffs on all Mexican imports unless that country does more to stop the flow migrants to the U.S.  

The president has faced pushback at home from some veterans groups. The White House remains embroiled in a controversy over an apparent order to block from view the USS John S. McCain during Trump’s recent trip to Japan. Others have blasted Trump for pardoning – or considering pardons for – those accused of war crimes

“He’s probably the worst president in our history to commemorate this moment,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets, a left-leaning veterans group. “He’s undermined the alliances which gave us peace in Europe for over 70 years.”

Dan Caldwell, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, countered that Trump has pursued the same foreign policy he campaigned on in 2016. Many of those arguments, including Trump’s remarks on NATO, generated news coverage at the time, so his positions should not have been a surprise to voters. 

“He should talk about how the world has changed since the end of World War II, and why he is pursuing a foreign policy that is much different than his predecessors,” said Caldwell, whose group leans conservative.

“I think he can do that in a positive way,” he said, “explaining the world is changed and that it requires us to look at problems differently than we did 25 years or 75 years ago.” 

Focus on veterans 

Trump’s address will mark one of the last times an American president speaks to a group of D-Day veterans on the beaches of Normandy. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that just under 500,000 U.S. World War II veterans were still living in late 2018.

A U.S. president delivering remarks at the memorial is a relatively recent phenomena. An American president didn’t visit Normandy until Jimmy Carter made the trip in January 1978. Carter pledged to defend Western Europe during the Cold War.

“We are determined, with our noble allies here, that Europe’s freedom will never again be endangered,” he said.   

President Dwight Eisenhower, who organized the D-Day invasion eight years before his election to the White House, issued a short statement on its 10th anniversary. 

Craig Symonds, a maritime history professor at the U.S. Naval War College who wrote a book on the invasion, said Eisenhower “knew viscerally and instinctively that it’s important for us to listen to the legacy” of what happened on that day. 

“It’s important for a president to have a sense of history,” he said. 

Like what you’re reading? Download the USA TODAY app for more

Contributing: David Jackson