As I watched President Obama’s very fine speech yesterday commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, I couldn’t help but think back to what remains in my eyes the gold standard of D-Day remembrances: Ronald Reagan’s famous “Boys of Pointe Du Hoc” address. Reagan gave what is perhaps his best-known speech three decades ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, standing on a windswept point in front of the U.S. Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc on the Normandy beach, before an audience of D-Day veterans and dignitaries from the Allied nations. (You can read the entire address here.) Reagan’s speech is perhaps best remembered for its description of the effort by 225 Rangers to scale 90-foot cliffs in order to secure a key promontory and knock out heavy guns that threatened the Allied landing. That portion of the speech culminates with these lines: “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.” The lines – indeed, the entire speech – were penned by Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, and her description in her wonderful memoir What I Saw at the Revolution of trying to find the right words to capture the moment is well worth reading. (Not surprisingly, the best presidential memoirs are written by speechwriters – see, for example, Robert Sherwood’s Roosevelt and Hopkins, or Ted Sorensen’s Kennedy. But I digress.) Noonan struggled for days to capture the moment. She recalls that while pacing the halls looking for inspiration she ran into a Reagan advance man who told her they would like a speech “to be like the Gettysburg Address!” In describing the motivation for the “boys of Pointe du Hoc” lines, she writes, “This part was a little for the average viewer but mostly for kids watching TV at home in the kitchen for breakfast.” (Today, of course they would be watching their smartphone. But I digress.)
Beyond Noonan’s memorable lines, and Reagan’s superb delivery, however, what made the speech memorable was the context in which it was given. It is easy to forget that Reagan gave his speech at a time when the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union was in full throttle. Only a year earlier Reagan, in a speech to an evangelical group, had memorably described the U.S.S.R as the “evil empire”. Of course, Reagan had already committed the U.S. to a military buildup that would, in the end, contribute to the economic collapse of the Soviet empire, but would also set in place structural budget deficits that would dominate American politics for more than a decade. In writing the speech, Noonan sought to remind her audience what could be accomplished when the Allies worked together against a common foe. She did so at a time when there were deep fissures within our European allies regarding what many perceived to be Reagan’s uncompromising approach to dealing with the Soviet Union. The Pointe du Hoc speech resonated in part because it was Reagan’s effort to remind his audience of what was at stake in the Cold War struggle and the necessity of remaining unified in that struggle, just as they had done 40 years before. In Reagan’s (and Noonan’s) words: “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’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.
But we try always to be prepared for peace; prepared to deter aggression; prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms; and, yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever…We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.
We will pray forever that some day that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.”
Thirty years later, as President Obama delivered his own D-Day remembrance the Cold War is, thankfully, largely a distant memory. As a result, Obama’s speech is noteworthy almost as much for what he did not say as for what he did. In his speech the President repeatedly cited the valor of the men and women who served then, and who serve now, in our military, and urged us not to forget their sacrifices on our behalf. But beyond references to liberty in the abstract, there was no call to arms against a common foe, or mention of sacrifice for a specific purpose. It was instead a speech that honored individuals for their service, and urged us never to forget their sacrifice. It was a powerful speech, but one that served a different purpose, in a different time. And it is a reminder that what makes a speech memorable is not only what is said, and by whom – but when it is said.