Remembering D-Day, when America was willing to lead

Tuesday represents the 73rd anniversary of the Normandy landings. From those windswept French beaches, the Allies opened up a second front in Europe and marched east toward Berlin. It would take 11 months of hard, bloody fighting before the Third Reich surrendered, but the successful landings made by American troops and its allies on June 6, 1944, were the beginning of the end for Hitler’s fascist regime.

It also represented another beginning: America would, from that point on, take the lead in securing a more peaceful, free and prosperous Europe.

The events of the past several weeks, however, suggest that America is abandoning its global leadership role. It is retreating from the world stage, pulling out of international agreements and making friendly overtures to authoritarian, anti-democratic, repressive regimes. The president, full of bluster and braggadocio, sows confusion and doubt among our most trusted allies and puts American security at risk with his erratic, intemperate behavior.

This week as we reflect on the heroism and sacrifice made by an earlier generation of Americans and our allies on D-Day, remember what Ernie Pyle — the greatest of America’s war correspondents — wrote in June 1944, “I want to tell you what the opening of the second front in this sector entailed, so that you can know and appreciate and forever be humbly grateful to those both dead and alive who did it for you.” 

American blood and treasure helped to defeat German and Italian fascism, and after 1945, would protect and secure the freedom of western Europe and North America from Soviet communism. The international relationships forged between the United States and our European allies over the next seven decades created what historians call “the Long Peace,” a period since 1945 which is marked by the absence of a hot war among the world’s great powers.

Of course, there have been numerous wars over the last 70 years, but no rich, industrial nation has fought another rich, industrial nation. It may be difficult to see this peace from in front of a TV or computer screen that announces hourly the murder and violence that seems to be erupting all over the globe. Yet, the truth is, overall violence between nations and people is at a historic low. Today, wars are small, measured in thousands of lives lost and not the multimillions of World Wars I and II.

Harvard professor Steven Pinker says that he “doesn’t believe that humans have become inherently less violent or that such tendencies have been bred out of them.” Rather, he says, “people have always been complex creatures. The civilizing effects of institutions, combined with the spread of literacy, education, and public discourse, have all favored our nonviolent inclinations.”

The fact is, American global leadership from 1945 has helped to create a more peaceful and free world. The United States has supported the spread of those civilizing effects of literacy, education, and public discourse, making the world more stable and free. It is undeniably true that America has committed atrocities, and at times has not lived up to the lofty and moral goals that President Harry Truman laid out in the Truman Doctrine (the policy that underpinned American foreign policy from 1947 until the collapse of the Soviet Union); nevertheless, the United States has been a force for good in the world, warts and all.

Now ask yourself if the present generation of Americans is, as Ernie Pyle said, “forever grateful” by breaking those bonds of friendship and trust forged by our collective blood and treasure over the last 70 years.

Email columnist R. Matthew Poteat at poteatr@centralvirginia.edu.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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