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The real meaning of D-Day

In this short essay, Professor John Tierney reflects on the meaning of D-Day.

Over the past week the media has showered us with newsreels and testimonies regarding the importance and meaning of D-Day. The President is in Normandy, as are dignitaries from all over the world, and the 60th anniversary which we celebrate today has been heralded by many as the most important single day for Americans in the Twentieth Century. The festivities were somewhat interrupted yesterday by the news of the death of Ronald Reagan. But upon reflection, most will probably agree that his passing may give the day an even greater impact, given the importance he attached to D-Day and the fact of his presence there at the 40th anniversary. Reagan, in fact, probably symbolizes the meaning of D-Day more than any other American leader of the post-1945 period save Ike himself.

D-Day, then, has a virtue far beyond its significance as the greatest amphibious military operation in history. It was by no means the largest battle of the war, and there were many battles throughout history, including the American Civil War, which were equally or more decisive and which took many more casualties. But D-Day has a meaning that integrates both the virtue of hope and the concept of political liberty, ideas which reinforce each other.

If Pearl Harbor meant The Beginning, D-Day meant The Beginning of the End. D-Day was a true turning point in history, as was Gettysburg in the Civil War and Midway in the Pacific. Yet, unlike these others, everybody knew D-Day was coming: it was not an accidental happening. Thus, the worldwide spotlight on Normandy that morning served to highlight the purpose and meaning of D-Day unlike any other event in historical memory. The note announcing failure which General Eisenhower carried in his pocket, just in case, would have doomed both hope and liberty for the continent of Europe for an unforeseeable future, perhaps for a time too long to bear.

The symbolism of political liberty for the continent, which the bright hope of D-Day resurrected, stands today as one of the truly liberating moments in human history. None compares, even after six decades. The memory of the thousands of open-arm welcomes which were offered to the Pathfinders, Beachmasters, Paratroopers and ordinary soldiers and sailors by French villagers after D-Day offers a lasting tribute to liberty as shared across the ocean, and across the sands of time.

The giants who stormed the beach that day, and the people they set free, reflect a lasting tribute to the unity of the new and the old worlds, far beyond the petty differences which politicians and pundits seem to have imposed today. D-Day rises above it all.