Barack Obama began his latest overseas trip on a mission to increase international cooperation, with a visit to Islam’s holiest land, Saudi Arabia, and its most dynamic intellectual hub, Cairo. He ended it four days later at a monument to what such common purpose can achieve.
Sixty-five years ago today, 135,000 allied troops launched the largest seaborne invasion in history on the beaches of northern France, a move that would eventually decide the outcome of World War II. On Saturday, Obama stood with the leaders of Great Britain, France and Canada on the beach where nearly 4,000 of those men died in a single day, to praise what he called the “clarity of purpose with which the war was waged.”
“We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true,” the President continued, standing before dozens of octogenarian veterans of the invasion, many of them in wheelchairs. “It’s a world of varied religions and cultures and forms of government. In such a world, it’s all too rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity.”
This universality has been on Obama’s mind all week. In Cairo, he addressed the Muslim world in sweeping terms about the need to forge again a common purpose. “Human history has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests,” he said. “Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”
On Saturday, Obama’s refrain was echoed by the head of other nations, who all called for greater global unity in the trying days ahead. “We know it is a long and difficult way,” said Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, according to a translation of his prepared remarks. “But we also know how much a united Europe and an America true to its values can achieve together.” A few minutes after Sarkozy spoke, British prime minister Gordon Brown said to his colleagues, “We are eternal allies because of this.”
The invasion he spoke of was an undertaking as large and treacherous as anything that has ever been attempted. Thousands of vessels charged the coasts, where German defenses, manned by about 50,000 soldiers, laid in wait. Less than three months later, on August 29, 1944, the death toll in Normandy was staggering: an estimated 38,500 Allied soldiers, 60,000 German troops, and 20,000 civilians had been killed.
Survivors of the invasion are now a dwindling group 18-year-olds in 1944 are now 83 years old. Benjamin Franklin, one of those veterans from Knoxville, Tenn., stood on a bluff overlooking the beach and spoke to Obama, Sarkozy, Brown, Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Prince Charles of Britain. Sixty-five years ago, Franklin had landed with Allied forces and fought for more than three months in the farmlands of Normandy. Over the last 25 years, Franklin has been giving talks about his experience. Now that was coming to an end. “This is the end of my military career,” he said of the opportunity to explain the scene to world leaders. “I will go home and relax now.”
But the leaders of free world, with Obama at the head, proclaimed their determination to carry on the memory, and apply the lessons of World War II to new circumstances. Sarkozy talked about the need to confront new challenges of “terrorism and fanaticism.” “Today we are only half way to honoring the pledges to a new world,” said Brown. “Darfur is in the grip of genocide. Burma is in chains. Zimbabwe is in agony.”
Obama also spoke of the need to apply the lessons of the past to the future. As we face down the hardships and struggles of our time,” he said, “and arrive at that hour for which we were born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore.”
Moments later, canons fired a 21-gun salute, and the French Air Force flew 12 jets in three tight formations over the graves of 9,000 Americans whose lives are memorialized above the sands of Omaha Beach. A military band played Taps as four of the worlds leaders stood on in silence.