The Dead Cannot Go Home: Memory Diplomacy and the American Battle Monuments Commission at 100


On June 6, when U.S. military officers arrived at Normandy’s Sainte-Mère-Église to commemorate the 79th anniversary of D-Day, their thoughts were with Ukrainian forces preparing for another counteroffensive farther east. While Gen. Mark Milley cautioned against a direct comparison between the Allied landing and Ukraine’s current battle plans, he acknowledged the goals of both were “certainly the same, to liberate occupied territory and to free a country that has been unjustly attacked by an aggressor nation.”

Milley’s comments unintentionally serve to highlight the importance of another less noted anniversary as well. This year marks the centennial of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), an independent U.S. federal agency primarily responsible for U.S. military cemeteries and memorials overseas. With a full-time staff of less than 500 and an annual budget of just $85 million, the ABMC is a rather small-scale operation. Despite its size, though, the ABMC has played a powerfully effective and widely overlooked role in consolidating America’s continued participation in Europe’s defense.



Memory diplomacy” is a form of politics that “uses” commemoration in the service of foreign policy goals. In Europe in particular, it was a key mechanism through which America’s Cold War commitment to the continent was legitimated. Indeed, the postwar cemeteries built by the ABMC were established at the same time as U.S. bases on the continent. The ongoing U.S. military presence in Europe is thus not simply a matter of strategic calculation, economic realities, or competing geopolitical priorities. Rather, it is deeply enmeshed with memories of the “Good War,” memories powerfully enshrined by the commemorative sites so carefully maintained by the ABMC. In recent decades, moreover, these sites have hosted numerous U.S. presidents, all of whom have sought to re-enshrine a key idea: that America’s military commitment to Europe is, at root, a duty rendered in homage to the World War II dead. Amidst an ongoing conflict in which both belligerents have instrumentalized World War II memory, the ABMC deserves credit for its own success in mobilizing the war’s lessons on behalf of a free and secure continent.


Signed into being by President Warren Harding in March 1923, the ABMC was tasked with overseeing and maintaining the national cemeteries and monuments dedicated to the World War I American Expeditionary Forces. There was a precedent to this work. Several military cemeteries were created after the U.S. Civil War, and one cemetery had previously been laid out abroad: In 1851, Congress established the Mexico City National Cemetery. Now maintained by the ABMC, it is the burial ground for 750 “unknown” American soldiers killed in the Mexican-American War. But in size and scale, the ABMC’s post-1918 work in Europe was of a different order. By the end of the 1930s, the commission was responsible for eight cemeteries and 11 monuments (in 2017, a ninth World War I cemetery was added when the commission assumed responsibility for the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery). 

From the start, these memorial sites fulfilled two crucial functions. The first was a duty rendered to the dead and to the bereaved. These were places of solemn remembrance established in patriotic homage to Americans killed in national service and were intended to console grieving relatives, many thousands of whom made pilgrimages to the cemeteries in the 1920s and 1930s. The second function was no less important. As American memorials in Europe these were — very purposefully — political landscapes. They offered European audiences a history written in stone of American valor and victory. Here was a highly visible reminder of what the United States had given for Europe’s redemption. 

The United States was by no means alone after World War I in employing “memory diplomacy” of this sort. In many respects, the ABMC was inspired by the vast commemorative enterprise of the British Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission. This organization established an Empire of Memory in the 1920s through the construction of hundreds of military cemeteries across the world. But the American approach was also distinct as a consequence of U.S. policy. Unlike the British authorities, the U.S. government gave next of kin the right to decide if their loved one was buried abroad or repatriated. Around 70 percent of families chose the latter, and so the remaining burials were consolidated into a small number of large cemeteries in order that they might offer a robust statement of the American contribution to victory. This statement was further bolstered by the choice of Gothic or neoclassical architectural forms. By using this monumental tradition, America paid homage to the European past. 

Cold War

The decisions made in the 1920s informed the commemorative policy adopted by the federal government after 1945. Next of kin were again given the choice between repatriation and burial. As a result, and as historian Kate Lemay has explained, 64 percent of those Americans killed in Europe were returned home. The remainder were interred in the ABMC’s new World War II cemeteries, 12 of which were established in Europe (a small number of “unknown” World War II dead were interred in the World War I cemetery at Suresnes). The dedication ceremonies were impressive affairs, complete with heavy political oratory. Amongst the most notable speeches was that given by Gen. George C. Marshall at Suresnes Cemetery, just outside Paris, in 1952. Marshall was not only the former secretary of state and author of the eponymous plan for postwar European recovery — he was also, at this point, the chairman of the ABMC. At Suresnes, he declared that “the dead cannot go home. They have paid too great a price. And we will not go home until our friends here in Europe feel that our presence is no longer essential to their security.” His words, delivered just as Cold War tensions were ramping up due to the conflict in Korea, were well received in London and Paris. 



Marshall’s language exposed a key tenet of Cold War-era American memory diplomacy: that the war dead still had a duty to perform. As the Iron Curtain descended, therefore, the ABMC’s burial grounds became in essence the forts — manned by the fallen — garrisoning the Free World’s frontier. As such, they were contemporaneous to another program of postwar military construction, one with which Marshall was equally familiar: the establishment in Western Europe of a network of permanent U.S. military bases and installations. The chronological connection is crucial, for it exposes the politics underlying both: These were all landscapes purpose-built to communicate (amongst other things) U.S. policy in postwar Europe. Combined, their message was clear: The U.S. military was here “now” partly because of what it had given “then.” Always implicit and often unremarked upon, it was nonetheless a message powerfully exposed at various points in the 20th century, most famously in 1966 when French President Charles de Gaulle demanded that all U.S. bases on French soil be shut down. In response, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk reportedly (and angrily) asked if he would also like the American war dead to be disinterred.

As Ron Robin has shown, the architectural aesthetic of the ABMC’s World War II monuments and memorials reflected the change in U.S. global standing. Gone was the post-1918 homage to European artistic traditions. In its place came the so-called Scrapped (or Stripped) Classicism — an assertive and, in its specifics, unmistakably American style of commemorative symbolism. The cemetery established at Madingley, just outside Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is indicative. It features an imposing Memorial Chapel, reflecting pool, and a commemorative Wall of the Missing (upon which are inscribed the names of 5,127 service personnel with no known grave). In design and layout, it clearly and very deliberately recalls another landscape of hallowed American memory, the Mall in Washington, DC.

The Reagan Effect 

Throughout the Cold War, the ABMC’s cemeteries and memorials often played host to visiting American dignitaries. They were an especially popular stop-off for newly appointed NATO commanders. After all, here was the perfect place from which to make a pointed statement about the ongoing importance of trans-Atlantic solidarity. But these commemorative sites also acquired a new visibility toward the end of the 20th century, just as World War II fully emerged in American memory politics as the “Good War.” 

The earliest signs of this intensifying interest can be detected in the late 1970s (that is, the immediate post-Vietnam period). But the pivotal moment, one that has ever since exercised a lasting influence over the form and function of American memory diplomacy vis-à-vis Europe, was President Ronald Reagan’s visit to Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, on June 6, 1984. Delivered before the Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc, Reagan’s now famous speech celebrated American martial valor before closing with a call for Allied unity in the face of the threat still posed by the Soviet Union. His tone and tenor were remarkably similar at times to Marshall’s in 1952: “Here, in this place where the West held together,” said Reagan to an audience of Americans and Europeans, “let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for.” Elsewhere in this very same speech, Reagan had even gone so far as to argue that where Soviet forces remained in Europe “uninvited, unwanted, unyielding,” the U.S. presence, in contrast, consisted only of “memorials like this one, and graveyards where our heroes rest.”

Just a few months later Reagan won a second term. For some commentators, his Normandy speech, purposefully delivered in time for U.S. breakfast television, was a key factor in the victory. Memory diplomacy, it seemed, was not just useful for bolstering trans-Atlantic relations — it could also offer a domestic political return. Little wonder that Reagan’s 1984 D-Day speech has provided a template adopted and adapted in various ways by all subsequent presidents. 

In 1994, during the 50th anniversary of D-Day, President Bill Clinton gave a speech at the ABMC’s Normandy cemetery asserting the ongoing U.S. commitment to the continent. This was a commitment validated by the recent collapse of the Soviet Union but also complicated by the conflict in the Balkans, which saw the deployment of significant U.S. air assets. A decade later, in 2004, President George W. Bush’s 60th anniversary D-Day speech — again at the ABMC’s Normandy cemetery — similarly asserted the continued importance of Allied unity (just then being tested by European criticism of American unilateralism). In 2009, and again in 2014, it was President Barack Obama’s turn. During the former, Obama spoke at the ABMC’s Normandy Cemetery and declared that D-Day “was a time and place where the bravery and selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century.” Five years later, during the 70th anniversary, he returned to the very same cemetery and echoed the sentiment of Reagan in 1984: “We claimed no land,” he told a gathering of French dignitaries, “other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it.” 

Even President Donald Trump accepted the demands of this “presidential rite.” Historian Elizabeth Samet has suggested that Trump’s speech during the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019 — delivered, as ever, from the ABMC’s Normandy Cemetery — seemed to reveal a “sudden capacity for statesmanship.” Frequently critical of NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance, Trump nonetheless struck a very different tone in Normandy. He declared to his European counterparts that “our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace.” It was certainly a notable departure from his conduct in France a year earlier. There to mark the centennial of the end of World War I, Trump cancelled his attendance at the ABMC’s Aisne-Marne Cemetery supposedly because inclement weather made it impossible for Marine One to fly. But rumors quickly circulated that the real reason was rather different. Some reports claimed he was worried “his hair would become disheveled in the rain,” and others suggested he had no interest in visiting the cemetery as he believed it was full of “losers” — that is, the war dead. 

American Memory Diplomacy at 100

The ABMC’s overseas cemeteries and memorials are solemn spaces of remembrance dedicated to the nation’s 20th-century war dead. But they are also landscapes of political memory, and those established after World War II are inescapably linked in both purpose and chronology to the broader concerns of postwar U.S. foreign policy. Not unlike U.S. military bases, the ABMC’s commemorative sites are part of the architecture of the American Century. They are garrisons of the dead, those who Marshall said could not go home and so must be defended in perpetuity. It is this connection between the past and the present that the widely publicized presidential speech-making of the last 40 years has intensified. It is the same connection that has been powerfully expressed again this very week. As one U.S. officer in the 101st Airborne Division explained to a reporter on June 6, “We stand here in Carentan today, and across Normandy this week, in remembrance not only of our past, but also mindful of our present.”

Such comments reveal the continued currency of what Marshall had said back in 1952. Simply put, the presence of U.S. troops in Europe today is not — and has never been — merely a matter of cold and disinterested strategic calculation. It is a presence born of World War II and one that is thus inextricably connected to how that conflict has been memorialized. 



Dr. Sam Edwards is a reader (associate professor) in modern political history at Loughborough University. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a former Fulbright Scholar (Pitt, 2010), and author of Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of Transatlantic Commemoration, c. 1941–2001 (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He has previously written for the Washington Post, the Independent, the BBC, and The Conversation. The views expressed here are solely his own. You can find him on Twitter @Historian_Sam.  

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Edward A. Salcedo