Ronald Reagan, D-Day Anniversaries and the Suppression of Memory

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife, first lady Nancy Reagan, walk past the graves at Normandy American Cemetary in Normandy, France, June 6, 1984. The American president and first lady are attending the 40th anniversary of the allied invasion of 1944. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Former US President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan at the Normandy American Cemetery in Normandy, France on June 6, 1984. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

The following is an excerpt from Harvey J. Kaye’s The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

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 US 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.”

He [Reagan] 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.”

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.”

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 US 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?

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the new book The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.
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  • Marian Burns

    When I was a young woman I lived through Regan’s presidency. I found it oppressive. Some people called him a tough and patriotic. Which I felt was rhetoric -he did not serve in the military except on a motion picture screen. I remember him cutting funding for college programs. I found his pull yourself up by your bootstrap mentality convenient if you were wealthy. Unemployment was at an all time high. People were being mugged and killed for their shoes and coats in my neighborhood. I found that his sound and fury signified nothing.

  • Helen H Gordon

    You’re right on target, Bill, as always. Things that F.D.R. did in the 1930s are keeping our “Recession” from being as bad as the “Great Depression.” In those years we had no insurance on our bank accounts, no social security income for the disabled workers and elderly folks, no unemployment insurance to keep laid-off workers afloat for a while, and no constraints to keep banks from gambling with their depositors’ money. THANKS TO THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION, THINGS ARE NOT AS BAD NOW AS THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN WITHOUT THE ‘NEW DEAL.’

  • Celt Glen

    “Reagan sought to erase or override the progressive memory and legacy of Roosevelt and the generation of the 1930s and 1940s”

    And he did a good job of erasing it too, even those whose families had, indeed, benefited FROM the New Deal fell in step with Reagan’s New Day for America. What’s worse is that thinking presides in Congress to this very moment.

  • Johnny Kulas

    Ronald Reagan, the “acting president” of the United States, was a fraud and a racist.

  • Joan Harris

    During his campaign, Jimmy Carter said Ronald Reagan was a war monger. What he should have said was Ronald Reagan was a war monger and didn’t even know it. What I opposed more than anything was the wasteful and military spending under his presidency, with the help of the Democrats in congress. Now Republicans make up idealized images of a conservative they are proud to identify with…empty rhetoric from those with nothing meaningful to offer their party.

  • Doug

    I remember the trickle down theory and the defunding of certain institutions which resulted in lots of homeless mentally ill people living on the NYC streets.

  • Anonymous

    I remember Reagan, when he closed the mental health facilities here in California when he was the Governor, the mental patients are now on every street from the beaches to the barrios or jail/prison! Not much of a Governor or Predident.

  • Bill Glaser

    I remember run away inflation and high interest rates. At the time Reagan out spent any of the previous presidents and significantly increased the deficit with his ill thought Star Wars program.

  • Anonymous

    I have Family members who have forgotten how the policies of FDR helped my Grandfathers in time of need. Those same family members not subscribe to a political agenda that would have surely crushed my Grandfathers, thereby creating a backlash that would have our families back. My cousins instead were able to go to college and prosper. Now, sadly, they are Reagen/Bush/Palin Republicans who have failed to remember which side helped them attain their goals.

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  • Anonymous

    You can also thank the Reagan administration for splitting the control of many of the Federally run New Deal social programs and dispersing half to the states. Great for his re-election chances with the Federal debt burden reduced as state residents were saddled with higher taxes to fund a bigger bureaucracy to run the state’s portion of these programs plus a reduction in the services that these programs once provided, primarily in the Red States who had always wanted these programs eliminated and replaced with a private for-profit model that benefitted a small group of wealthy Capitalists and Wall Street investors !

    The fact is that the GOP put Reagan on the fast track toward the presidency in 1965 with his ascendency to governor of California, Reagan’s lack of governing experience needed to be bolstered before putting him into the presidential arena. The GOP had wanted to run Reagan in 76 but were thwarted by Nixon’s blundering and self-expulsion from the White House. After the disastrous Carter administration that was due largely to an incompetent Democrat leadership who was in the process of realigning themselves with a Neoliberal element that had far more in common with the GOP than the Progressive or Liberal wings of their own party. This provided Reagan the perfect opportunity to win by a landslide and assume that he had overwhelming support from the American people to push ahead with his ultra Conservative agenda ! The start of the social decay that we see in this country today can be traced back to the election of Reagan and the continuing failure of the Democrat Neoliberal leadership that followed him !

  • Jawed Zouari

    I find the mentioning of Reagan and FDR in the same sentence highly objectionable. FDR saved America during the Great Depression, defeated German fascism and Japanese militarism, and set America on its journey to become the richest and most advanced country in the world. Reagan set the stage for America’s financial and moral bankruptcy through scandals such as the S & L, Iran-Gate, Star Wars, calling the Taliban freedom fighters and receiving them in the white house, invading the small island of Grenada, and denigrating the American poor, which he deliberately impoverished.

    While FDR was one of the best and most effective American presidents, Reagan goes down history as an uneducated manipulator of the American people
    and a liar to Congress.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent point, to a large extent the reason we live in a shooting gallery today !

  • Anonymous

    He tripled the national debt.

  • Carl Peterson

    My father was a 2nd Bn Co E Ranger who was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his efforts on D-Day. A life long die hard republican, he had no use for Reagan and was not happy to see him elected President.

  • Thomas Milligan

    Ronald Reagan was a sellout grade-B actor-turned-corporate-pitchman in the early stages of dementia, tarted up by The Money which really runs this country as the embodiment of a brand-new economic order. He remains the ultimate triumph of the public relations “industry,” which excels in the art of making ordure seem to shine.

  • stephen a johnson

    Reagan was a phony, a “free market” promoter who cared only to bring back the fabulous poluting 50’s and bring on the jingoists to sell Amerika to the world. Good ridance. rename the airport, keep Reagan’s face off of our money.