Sixty-one years ago, 225 U.S. Army Rangers attempted one of the most difficult and dangerous missions on D-Day — the allied invasion of Normandy. Historian Douglas Brinkley discusses the heroic events of that day in 1944 and the tribute that President Ronald Reagan paid to them 40 years later.
Douglas Brinkley, author, The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc: Ronald Regan, D-Day and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion; director, Theodore Roosevelt Center for American Civilization, at Tulane University
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With his "Peace Through Strength" foreign policy approach, Reagan was trying to create the indelible image of the tough, protean Cold War statesman, a trifecta combination of FDR (optimist/communicator), Truman (straightforward/ honest), and Eisenhower (amiable/shrewd). Throughout his European travels he constantly evoked the need to reenergize the grand anti-Fascist alliance of 1941-1945, which led to victory in World War II. Only this time around, Reagan believed, the global democratic crusade had a new enemy: the Soviet Union (a.k.a. the Evil Empire). On June 5, Reagan gave a well-rehearsed radio address from the Palace of Versailles, in which the time-honored memory of D-Day — particularly the vigilant leadership of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Franklin D. Roosevelt — was given a fulsome embrace. France may have helped the United States win at Yorktown but, Reagan insisted, America repaid the favor in spades 163 years later at Normandy. "One lesson of D-Day is as clear now as it was thirty-eight years ago," Reagan stated in his radio broadcast, which aired that day in the United States. "Only strength can deter tyranny and aggression." In taped remarks for French television Reagan echoed the same sentiment: "D-Day was a success, and the Allies had breached Hitler's seawall. They swept into Europe, liberating towns and cities and countrysides, until the Axis powers were finally crushed. We remember D-Day because the French, British, Canadians, and Americans fought shoulder to shoulder for democracy and freedom — and won."
The term "D-Day" was not coined for the Allied invasion. The same moniker was given to the attack date of nearly every offensive during World War II. It was first coined during World War I, before the massive United States attack at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel in France on September 12, 1918. The "D" was shorthand for "day." The expression literally meant "Day-day" and signified the day of an attack. By the end of World War II, however, the expression was synonymous with only one date: June 6, 1944. Evoking the fact that over 150,000 Allied troops had stormed the Normandy coast thirty-eight years before, at the cost of more than 10,500 dead, wounded, or missing men, Reagan pledged that America would do it again if it meant freeing France from a totalitarian aggressor like the Soviet Union. In the second year of his presidency, the resurrection of D-Day — the greatest amphibious landing in world history — as a defining moment in recent American history was already a central part of his anti-Soviet Cold War oeuvre. He closed his radio remarks by reading President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inspired D-Day prayer to the nation. According to historian Jon Meacham, author of Franklin and Winston, when FDR had read the prayer on the radio, he was playing the part of "national pastor"; now Reagan, in a far less dramatic historical moment, was doing the same.
Two years later, on June 6, 1984, Reagan came back to France for the fortieth anniversary of D-Day. The emotive speech he delivered at the windswept Normandy promontory looking out over the English Channel — known now in history as the Boys of Pointe du Hoc address — was the opening salvo to a new American indebtedness to World War II veterans. By honoring the daring action of the 2nd Ranger Battalion — 225 young Army volunteers whose mission was to climb the treacherous 100-foot-high Pointe du Hoc cliff while being shot at by entrenched German soldiers—he was paying tribute to an entire generation. (Out of those 225 "boys," only 99 survived the amphibious assault.) Later that afternoon the President also gave a stirring oration at Omaha Beach, not far from where the plaque on a bronze memorial statue honors "The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves." By the 1980s, these youths were aging gray hairs, the new old. "Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach were Reagan's signature moments," Ken Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff, recalled. "If I have one enduring memory of Reagan, it's the way he crisply saluted World War II veterans that afternoon. These were his guys. Then there was the moving visual of Reagan walking with Nancy amongst all the gravesites, which looked like miles and miles of white crosses. That was an unforgettable moment of absolute reverence for the World War II vets. As president, Ronald Reagan delivered three unforgettable speeches: Pointe du Hoc, the Challenger disaster, and the Berlin-tear-down-this-wall number. But it was the first of these — Pointe du Hoc — that set the tone for the others."
Before Reagan dubbed the 2nd Ranger Battalion the Boys of Pointe du Hoc, they were known as Rudder's Rangers—named after their feisty, tough-minded commanding officer, Colonel James Earl Rudder. Historian Ronald L. Lane's Rudder's Rangers, first published in 1979, remains the indispensable book on the World War II years of this remarkable fighting man. Another invaluable book on the battalion is Robert W. Black's riveting Rangers in World War II, a definitive popular study of these elite fighting men. From an archival perspective, the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, of which I served as director from 1994 to 2004, has numerous transcribed oral histories of various U.S. Army 2nd Battalion survivors. Never before have these oral histories been so fully tapped as in the writing of this book.
What distinguishes this deliberation from other D-Day narratives is the interweaving of the Battle of Pointe du Hoc (June 6, 1944) with the ascendance of President Ronald Reagan's New Patriotism (June 6, 1984). With the assistance of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, I've been able to document how and why our fortieth president played a seminal role in launching the great reappreciation of World War II veterans that swept over America in the 1980s and continues today largely unabated. If it hadn't been for Reagan's two elegiac June 6, 1984, homilies — written by Peggy Noonan (Pointe du Hoc) and Anthony Dolan (Omaha Beach) — there may never have been Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, or numerous memorials — like the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans — built to exalt the citizen soldiers who liberated Europe.
The foregoing is excerpted from The Boys of Pointe du Hoc LP by Douglas Brinkley. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022