It is hard to believe that today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. When I was young this was closer to current events than history, even if I did not understand that at the time. I remember meeting so many Normandy veterans in 1994 who were going to France for the 50th. Now twenty years later so many of them are gone. Here is a reprise of something I wrote to mark the occasion in 2011.
I could not let the 67th anniversary of D-Day go unnoticed. When I was younger this was a much bigger deal than it is today. It is only a bit of a stretch to say that I have measured the events of my life according to the anniversaries of the Normandy invasion. In June 1984 I was still in high school, getting ready to start my senior year at the end of the summer. Ten years later I had graduated from college, but was unsettled and still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. By 2004 I had gone to graduate school and moved to New York City. Now I am married and in full middle age.
The arc of D-Day presidential ceremonies, or lack thereof, paints a fascinating portrait of the postwar decades. In 1954 President Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the invasion a decade earlier, skipped France altogether and instead vacationed at Camp David. His only public comment was a small proclamation about the Grand Alliance. For the 20th anniversary Ike did record a television special with Walter Cronkite entitled D-Day Plus Twenty Years: Eisenhower Returns to Normandy. The footage of the journalist and the retired president was filmed in August 1963 and is quite moving. On June 6, 1964 Johnson, who had taken office only seven months earlier after the Kennedy assassination, was in New York City speaking to the Ladies Garment Workers Union. In the waning days of Vietnam and the Nixon Administration in 1974 Americans were too tired and cynical to care about World War 2.
Reagan’s address in 1984 remains the most memorable of the anniversaries. At Pointe du Hoc he addressed a sizable audience of veterans still young enough to travel but old enough to appreciate their own mortality. President Clinton’s address on the beaches of Normandy during the 50th anniversary symbolized the passing of the baton from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomers. In 2004 current events overshadowed the 60th anniversary and the ceremony painfully underscored tensions in the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Today only one person mentioned it to me. Alas we have reached the tipping point where most of the veterans have either passed on or are too aged and infirm to participate in the observance. In other words it has become part of history. Makes me feel old and a little sad.