Today marks the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Normandy landings commonly referred to as “D-Day.” More than 160,000 soldiers, supported by 195,700 Allied naval and merchant marine personnel, were involved, under joint Anglo-American command, in the largest amphibious assault ever undertaken. They came ashore along a fifty-mile stretch of coast divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches. Estimates vary, but Allied casualties that day probably exceeded nine thousand, and may have reached as high as eleven thousand, of which roughly a third were fatal.
Also on this day, sixty-nine years ago, the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, addressed the nation. Here is a portion of his remarks:
My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas — whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.
There are many things to note about this remarkable statement. First of all, so far as I know, few if any among the media elite or elsewhere expressed terror at Mr. Roosevelt’s obvious attempt to impose a theocracy upon the United States, thus making America the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany. Second, notice that it’s not an explicitly Christian prayer. Rather, it expresses a shared civic religion. Not Christian, but also not secularist. There was a time when such things were possible (as with Abraham Lincoln’s marvelous Second Inaugural Address and his even more famous Gettysburg Address, and with his proclamation of Thanksgiving Day). But it’s unthinkable that Mr. Obama would lead the nation in such a prayer today — I doubt that the thought would ever occur to him — and, if Mr. Bush had done so, the expressions of outrage and horror would still be reverberating in the editorial offices of the New York Times and the Washington Post and in every living room tuned to MSNBC, CNN, and the three major television networks.
Don’t miss how overtly religious Mr. Roosevelt’s statement is. Not only is it a prayer and an invitation to prayer, but it unabashedly defines the Second World War as, at least in significant part, a crusade “to preserve . . . our religion.” It exhorts Americans to continual prayer, to faith in God. It speaks of God’s “Kingdom.” It asks that God’s will be done. It speaks of humanity as his “people.”
The fact that such a statement is essentially inconceivable in today’s America should inspire deep reflection about how we’ve changed, and whether it’s been for the better. And it wouldn’t hurt us a bit, too, to reflect on the price paid by “the greatest generation,” the generation that, at unbelievable cost, hurled itself simultaneously against European and Asian fascism and defeated it, ending its brutal and murderous reign over hundreds of millions of people and turning back its threat against the remainder of the world.
On this day, even more than others, I think of my father, who was not called to cross the English Channel on D-Day — he spent 6 June stationed in High Wycombe, roughly halfway between London and Oxford, involved with interpretation of aerial reconnaissance photos — but was on the continent of Europe with General Patton’s Third Army shortly thereafter. His experiences in the war (and particularly with the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen) permanently marked him, and I like to think that, albeit in a lesser way, they have influenced me, too. I hope, among other things, that they have made me more appreciative of sacrifice, more intolerant of oppression and injustice, and more willing to speak out when I see it.