The 80th Anniversary of D-Day: An Opportunity to Seize


“Ike Returns to Normandy, Tells Reds: Remember Hitler.”

With this June 1948 headline, the Washington Post left readers in no doubt about the present politics that often underpin D-Day commemorations. When Western heads of state, including President Joe Biden, visit Normandy next week to mark the 80th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the concerns of today will similarly impose themselves.

While full details of all the commemorative events have not yet been released, early indications are that there will be high-profile ceremonies in Normandy itself, including an international commemoration at Omaha Beach. There will also be significant events elsewhere. In the United States, both the National D-Day Memorial (Bedford, Virginia) and the National World War II Museum (New Orleans) are hosting ceremonies, whilst in the United Kingdom the anniversary is centered on Portsmouth, once a key staging point for the invasion force and now the home of Britain’s D-Day museum.

In its essentials, therefore, D-Day 80 will look very familiar to anyone who has witnessed some of the previous major anniversaries, such as the 75th (2019), the 60th (2004), or indeed the 50th (1994).

But for all these similarities there is also an important difference, with D-Day 80 unfolding amidst an increasingly tense international political scene. For those dignitaries gathering in Normandy next week one current event is likely to loom especially large: the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022 and which has returned war to Europe and brought East-West rivalry back to the fore.

How might those attending the anniversary events pay homage to the past while keeping an eye on the present? A look at how D-Day was commemorated amidst a previous era of East-West tensions — the Cold War — is instructive. Just like D-Day commemorations during the 1950s and 1960s, D-Day 80 offers a highly visible forum at which to deliver a powerful reminder of what a unified alliance, resolute in purpose, can achieve. Here is a chance to declare — publicly and unapologetically — that democracy can vanquish dictatorship. Seen like this, D-Day 80 is an occasion peculiarly well-placed for the challenges of this moment, and for Biden it offers an invaluable opportunity to seize.



D-Day in the Cold War

D-Day was commemorated for the first time in June 1945, just a month after the Allied victory against Nazi Germany. But with the conflict against Japan nearing its crescendo it was a rather muted occasion. It was not until 1950s, then, that the now familiar outlines of a modern D-Day anniversary began to emerge. This was a development inextricably connected to the rising tensions of the early Cold War.

In June 1947, on the eve of the third anniversary of the Allied landings, U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced a plan for European economic recovery.

A year later, East-West tensions ramped up further — the Soviet decision to cut off access to West Berlin led the United States and United Kingdom to launch a massive resupply effort by air.

And then in June 1950 the Cold War went hot: The North Korean military invaded South Korea, with an American-led U.N. force duly intervening in September.

In this increasingly tense geopolitical context, D-Day anniversaries quickly drew attention from high-profile figures. In June 1948, none other than Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower — the man who led Operation Overlord and who would shortly become NATO’s first Supreme Commander (1950–52) — made a visit to Normandy during which he declared that “the whole of western Europe must be defended against tyranny.” The result was the Washington Post headline quoted above.

The same sentiment was expressed during the first widely commemorated anniversary of D-Day, the 10th, marked in 1954. This was also the moment that the annual commemorations started to develop their now familiar form. There were ceremonies along the beaches, veterans paid homage at memorials, and dignitaries delivered speeches.

President René Coty of France, for instance, spoke at Omaha Beach — site of amongst the bloodiest fighting on D-Day — and remarked that “the task of the free nations is now to maintain and develop a solid, constructive, and organic cooperation in all fields.” Among his audience was Gen. Alfred Gruenther, recently arrived as the NATO Commander in Europe (1953–56). Similar appeals for Western solidarity were heard at several of the other gatherings that June.

Drawing attention to such appeals is not to accuse those involved of cynical political appropriation (though this may well have been a factor). Rather, it is to acknowledge that commemoration is an inescapably political act and thus something that is always as much about the concerns of the present as it is about honoring the past. And given the history at the very heart of D-Day, its commemoration offered a clear opportunity to rehearse the ideologically freighted language of contemporary Cold War geopolitics. After all, where better than Normandy — where a massive multinational Allied army began the liberation of Nazi-oppressed Europe — to rally the free world in its ongoing battle against totalitarian tyranny?

The close connections between D-Day and contemporary Cold War politics were only further accentuated by the various memorial construction projects of the early 1950s. In 1952, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission completed its cemetery at Bayeux (the largest of its kind in Normandy); in 1954, a museum commemorating the landings was opened in Arromanches (close to where the American and British invasion sectors met); and in 1956, the American Battle Monuments Commission unveiled its cemetery on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach.

As a result, by the end of the 1950s a basic framework for marking D-Day anniversaries had started to emerge. These were often solemn occasions for sober remembrance, unfolding within recently established (and beautifully maintained) sacred spaces and frequently involving Allied veterans. But they were also high-profile forums for Cold War politics, pronouncements, and at times even polemic.

D-Day and NATO

This was particularly apparent during the 20th anniversary, in 1964. Indeed, where the 10th anniversary took place just as Cold War tensions drew the Western allies closer together, the 20th anniversary occurred, in contrast, just as trans-Atlantic relations were souring.

A key factor was the growing American military commitment to Vietnam (the Gulf of Tonkin incident, central to Washington’s decision to deploy regular U.S. ground troops to the region, occurred in August 1964). This American commitment drew criticism in European capitals, with even the British government declining to send troops in support of their ally. In France, meanwhile, whose military had been forcibly evicted from Vietnam in 1954, the 1960s witnessed a new era of increasingly assertive national politics, with wartime hero President Charles de Gaulle — in office from 1959 to 1969 — especially keen to chart a distinct line in international affairs. Two developments are of note here. One was the establishment of an independent French nuclear deterrent: An atomic bomb was successfully tested in French Algeria in 1960. The second was de Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw the French military from NATO’s integrated command structure, a decision accompanied by the demand that all NATO troops leave French soil (and the vast majority of these troops were of course American). Within a year NATO’s headquarters was moved from Paris to Brussels.

D-Day 20, commemorated in June 1964, took place in the very midst of these tensions internal to the Western alliance, something powerfully exemplified by the fact that de Gaulle refused to attend the proceedings in Normandy. Two days after the anniversary, the London Times pondered the “political implications” of his “absence,” particularly given that “exhortations to allied unity … have been more than a pious theme of D-Day.” From Washington, meanwhile, President Lyndon B. Johnson (also not attending in person) dispatched a message to the “peoples of Europe.” Read out in a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery, Johnson reminded European allies that as “unity wrested back your freedom, unity has brought and will always bring us fulfilment of freedom’s promise.” The same theme featured in the personal message Johnson gave to his official D-Day 20 delegation. As he explained: “the central force for progress has been, and continues to be, the unity and the strength of all nations of the Atlantic Alliance.”

Yet despite all the handwringing, the simmering trans-Atlantic tensions of 1964 actually made the anniversary’s Cold War optics still more important. Put differently, now was precisely the time to make clear that for all the occasional differences between Washington, London, and Paris, when it really mattered the wartime allies remained united. On the eve of D-Day, the Washington Post declared that de Gaulle’s absence from the 1964 commemorations was entirely “understandable,” whilst from Paris one American general loudly celebrated the Franco-American bond “forged” in the “fury and fire of battle.” He concluded that “our greatest strength is the spirit of our unity.”

A very similar message was apparent two decades later, during the 40th anniversary of the Allied landings in June 1984. With the United States and the Soviet Union embarked upon a new round of bitter nuclear rivalry (the so-called New Cold War of 1979–85), the Cold War geopolitics underpinning the D-Day 40 commemorations were again especially apparent.

As historian Douglas Brinkley has discussed, the figure who most skillfully exploited this fact was President Ronald Reagan, among the foremost political communicators of the era. Crucially, it was Reagan — or, more accurately, his speechwriter Peggy Noonan — who realized the full potential of a D-Day anniversary to accommodate a powerful and pointed story for the moment, one that could “work” for both a domestic and international audience.

Reagan’s key performance took place during a special commemorative ceremony at Pointe du Hoc — a Normandy battlefield made scared by the D-Day heroics of American Rangers. His speech was carefully planned, and carefully choreographed. He began by celebrating the “boys of Pointe du Hoc,” the heroes who “fought for all humanity.” But as the speech progressed Reagan turned his attention to the tyranny that still threatened Europe from beyond the Urals. He concluded with a powerful renewal of the American commitment to Europe: “We were with you then; we are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, your destiny is our destiny.”

Clearly reminiscent of what Eisenhower had said back in 1948, and similarly in tune with many of the sentiments articulated in both 1954 and 1964, Reagan nonetheless claimed the occasion as his own. European allies, concerned by Reagan’s “trigger-happy” approach to international politics (at least according to the New York Times in the days before the anniversary) were reassured, and audiences back home were impressed. Reflecting on the anniversary a few days later, Haynes Johnson remarked (in a piece for the Washington Post) that Reagan had “demonstrated to millions why he is the perfect ceremonial president.” Other commentators even suggested that the Pointe du Hoc speech was a crucial factor in Reagan’s victory in the presidential election that fall.

Indeed, as historian Michael Dolski has shown, Reagan’s performances during the 40th anniversary played an important role in the complex processes through which D-Day secured an increasingly “mythic” status in late 20th-century American culture (powerful cultural texts, like Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, were also influential). Hardly surprising that all subsequent presidents, from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, have attempted to replicate his success.

D-Day 50 to D-Day 80

The key challenge for these imitators has been that the D-Day anniversaries of the last 30 years have unfolded in a markedly different geopolitical landscape, one profoundly reshaped by the end of the Cold War. That is not to say that recent commemorations have avoided grappling with the pressing concerns of the moment. In 1994, Clinton’s 50th anniversary speech celebrated the fact that “the Soviet Empire is gone” whilst also noting — with an eye on the violent breakup of Yugoslavia — that “our work is far from done.” In 2009, President Barack Obama saw in the 65th anniversary an opportunity to rebuild Franco-American relations recently strained by disagreements linked to the American-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But from the perspective of the White House these concerns, whilst often challenging, were not existential. The same cannot be said of D-Day 80, which will unfold amidst a new era of East-West antagonism linked to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and at the very moment the trans-Atlantic relationship is being strained by European concerns about a potential second presidential term for Trump. As such, for those diplomats, dignitaries, and speechwriters currently readying for next month’s commemorations, D-Day 80 offers a challenge to negotiate but also an opportunity to exploit.

This is a point revealed by the guest list. Notably, Vladimir Putin was invited to the Normandy commemorations in 2004, and again in 2014 (that is, after the Russian annexation of Crimea), though he cut a rather isolated figure at the latter. But there was no such invitation in 2019, and nor will there be this June. Putin will no doubt declare indifference and redouble his commitment to celebrating Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, a recurrent feature of his domestic policy, as Jade McGlynn has explained.

But in Putin’s absence, and in light of his current foreign policy, those planning D-Day 80 can find inspiration in the commemorative precedents laid down in the 1950s and 1960s. Here is a chance for Western heads of state to gather on the Normandy beaches and once again assert their unity. Here is the chance, in the very year that NATO also celebrates its 75th birthday, for the wartime allies to declare their continued faith and fidelity. Just as Putin’s Russia is currently mobilizing World War II memory for political ends, D-Day 80 will offer an arresting spectacle within which Western leaders should stake their own claim to the past and present.

Seizing this opportunity is the challenge for all those involved, but especially for Biden. Increasingly criticized for his handling of the war in Gaza, locked into a fierce electoral contest, and battling to sustain domestic support for Ukraine, D-Day 80 presents an invaluable — but difficult — opportunity to deliver a speech for the ages. What might this speech look like? And what message should Biden deliver?

The Challenge and Opportunity for Biden

At various points in his presidency Biden has invoked the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt, with economic and military assistance to Ukraine “sold” with reference to the nation’s celebrated World War II role as the “arsenal of democracy.” The upcoming commemorations in Normandy offer Biden the chance once again to assume this Rooseveltian persona.

But Biden and his team can — and should — also take inspiration from Reagan’s much-celebrated Normandy performance, especially because several of the challenges he faces today are so very similar to those of the 1980s. Like Reagan, Biden should deliver a speech that works both at home and abroad. He should reassure European allies unsettled by Trumpism that the United States remains firmly committed to upholding their sovereignty and security. He should deliver a firm and unequivocal message to Moscow regarding the unbreakable unity of NATO. And he should make clear to Americans that providing support for embattled overseas democracies is the true way to honor the memory of those momentous events 80 years ago.

In short, Biden has the chance this June 6 to claim the mantle of both Roosevelt and Reagan. And for the current occupant of the Oval Office, this is something to embrace. Not since 1984 has a major D-Day anniversary taken place amidst the sort of resurgent East-West geopolitical rivalry apparent today. But as the response to Reagan’s speech 40 years ago makes clear, when the stakes are high, so too can be the rewards.



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) and co-editor of D-Day in History and Memory: The Normandy Landings in International Remembrance and Commemoration (University of North Texas Press, 2014). He has previously written for the Washington Post, the Independent, the BBC, History and Policy, and The Conversation. The views expressed here are solely his own. You can find him on Twitter @Historian_Sam. 

Image: Erin Rohn