On June 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan went to Normandy, France, to speak at events commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Addressing statesmen, dignitaries, and veterans of those landings and their families, he spoke eloquently and movingly, especially at Pointe du Hoc, where GIs of the 2nd Ranger Battalion had fought their way up a 100-foot cliff while deadly German fire hailed down upon them.
He talked there of the struggle and of those who pursued it – and he spoke directly to those men: “You were young the day you took these cliffs. Yet, you risked everything here. Why?… We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief [and] loyalty and love… You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for… All of you loved liberty.”
A beautiful act of remembrance, Reagan’s visit to Normandy was at the same time a carefully staged political event. With his 1984 re-election campaign upcoming, Reagan and his advisors saw the trip, as historian Douglas Brinkley has told it, as an opportunity to promote a “New Patriotism” – a new “political consensus…based on an unflinching devotion to all things American.” Reagan went some way in doing that and won re-election. He also expressed the long-felt yet understated admiration and affection for the generation that the men of Normandy represented and essentially “triggered the so-called Greatest Generation phenomenon.”
But there was even more to it. Whenever Reagan spoke of that generation, his own generation, he was not so much trying to remind Americans of its great democratic struggles and achievements of the 1930s and 1940s as to keep them from remembering too much of them.
He won the White House in 1980 because of President Jimmy Carter’s failures in addressing fuel shortages, stagflation, an armed takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran, and a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All of which, coming in the wake of the upheavals of the late 1960s, the Nixon-Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam, and a devastating mid-1970s recession, had incited talk of national “exhaustion” and “decline” and led Carter, even before the embassy takeover, to call on Americans to lower their expectations.
Inviting Americans to join him in a “crusade” to restore the nation’s strength, pride, and values, Reagan pulled together a “New Right” Republican electoral alliance of corporate elites, Christian evangelicals, and a host of conservative special-interest groups and picked up the votes of millions of disenchanted Democrats – millions more simply did not vote – with a platform of lowering taxes, limiting government, deregulating business, reducing the power of unions, cutting welfare spending, and expanding the military.
Reagan intended, however, a far grander restoration. He wanted to do what the right and conservative rich had been trying to do for decades – bring an end to what he called “the long, liberal experiment that began in the 1930s.”
A New Deal Democrat and World War II veteran who so admired FDR that he memorized key lines of his speeches, Reagan had moved to the right in reaction to the Cold War – so far right that he took to not only praising “free enterprise”, but also decrying New Deal “liberalism,” “big government” and the “welfare state” as threats to American liberty and, even, defending “states’ rights.” But he realized most Americans had not.
Indeed, Reagan recognized how they continued to not only revere Roosevelt, embrace the progressive achievements of his presidency, and believe in the promise of the Four Freedoms – Freedom of Speech and Worship, Freedom from Want and Fear – which FDR and so many of them had articulated and fought for in the New Deal and the war effort, but also draw strength and encouragement from them. He saw it in the struggles and initiatives of the 1960s to secure equal rights for minorities and women, combat poverty, organize new unions, reform immigration, and regulate business to protect consumers, workers, and the environment. Moreover, while he had won the governorship of California in 1966 by damning student protestors, urban rioters, and the liberals who, he contended, abetted them, unsuccessful bids for the White House in 1968 and 1976 had taught him it was dangerous to attack Roosevelt and his legacy.
By 1980, Reagan knew that whatever else he did he had to refashion American memory and imagination – especially regarding the generation he was to celebrate at Normandy. He still charged that liberalism endangered liberty but, harkening back nostalgically to an America that valued “family, work, neighborhood, and religion,” and making no reference to what his generation had progressively accomplished, he now targeted strictly “the Sixties.” He not only denied the advances made. He also insisted that the politics and programs of those years had brought on the nation’s problems and, as he used to say of the New Deal, betrayed America’s promise. No less audaciously, he hijacked the story of American democracy and harnessed to his cause figures venerated by the left and working people. In his presidential nomination acceptance speech, he declared what pundits were to call the “Reagan Revolution” by quoting none other than Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt to proclaim: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again;” a “new birth of freedom;” and “this generation today has a rendezvous with destiny.”
Reagan sustained that rhetoric as President even as he pursued policies that undermined the democratic labors of a generation and made the rich richer and working people poorer. He even occasionally referred to “the Four Freedoms.” And yet he never stated what they were – which reflected neither ignorance nor innocence but, as he was soon to reveal, a desire to reconstitute them. Speaking at a 1987 Independence Day celebration at the Jefferson Memorial sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Reagan announced plans to seek enactment of an “Economic Bill of Rights that guarantees four fundamental freedoms: The freedom to work. The freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. The freedom to own and control one’s property. The freedom to participate in a free market.”
Reagan sought to erase or override the progressive memory and legacy of Roosevelt and the generation of the 1930s and 1940s right up to his last days in office. In his January 1989 Farewell Address, Reagan noted the “resurgence of national pride” that he believed his presidency had inspired. But warning that “it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge,” he recalled his visit to Normandy and urged “more attention to American history.” Most of all, he said – clearly determined to not just echo the right’s wartime call for a Fifth Freedom, but also expunge “Freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” – Americans needed to remember that “America is freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise.”
Reagan not only gave voice to American admiration and affection for those who fought the Second World War. He also gave them shape and direction. Those who were to celebrate the Greatest Generation made no mention of the Four Freedoms.
Even more critically, he initiated a conservative and corporate ascendancy that has succeeded in undoing so much of what that generation fought for and achieved.
But, of course, Reagan could not have done all of that – hell, he could not even have become president – if those whom he opposed had not already forgotten or forsaken what made the Greatest Generation and its greatest leader truly great. That they saved the United States from economic destruction and political tyranny and turned it into the strongest and most prosperous nation in history by making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before. That they were, measured by their achievements, the most progressive generation in American history.
On this, the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, will we remember?
Excerpted from Harvey J. Kaye, “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great”(Simon & Schuster, 2014) – and cross-posted toMoyers & Company.