D-Day and the United States: History as a Tool for Cultural Understanding
In order to have a modern understanding of the nations in this world, it is important to consider how they remember their history, as these recollections are often used as a lesson, an honor, or a cultural reinforcement.
In his article about the importance of remembering the past, William Cronon expressed that “… if the past is the place from which we have come, then memory and history are the tools we use for recollecting that place so we can know who and where we are.” This sentiment is also true of nationhood and the representation of the values that form a collective identity. In the context of the United States, there are only a handful of events in history outside of the War for Independence itself that are as uniquely defining of American culture and ideals as the Normandy Landings of June 6, 1944.
The example of struggle and sacrifice in the D-Day operation invited a memory about: a) the triumph of the tenacity of freedom against tyranny, and b) the importance of success found in perseverance. These two themes are very common in American ideology and literature, and this narrative is evident in public memory of D-Day over the course of the twentieth century to the present.
The attribution of specific meanings and grand themes to D-day illustrated how the public and the community of the nation, in the words of Michael Dolski, “…draw of the past to validate the present and chart a course for the future…” Because D-Day was such a huge event, it was more or less guaranteed to be significant in public remembrance, as it was a heavily televised day with several photographers and filmmakers following the troops ashore. It is clear that most of those involved in D-day were aware that they were living history. This is especially significant because the word of veterans became gospel of what had occurred on that day. Historian Christopher Clausen suggests that no matter how hard academics push their own studies, the narrative given by the eye witness will always trump the scholarly article because they add a level of humanity to something that would otherwise be so foreign and so horrible that it would be completely un-relatable to most people. Legends and popular narratives are born from eye witness stories and the need for people to weave an event into a powerful story to be able to cope with the trauma of what happened. This is clear on D-Day, which experienced extremely high casualty rates and intense combat that, in some cases, lasted for hours.
By remembering D-day as a highly important moment to preserve liberty, soldiers were able to justify the incredible loss and chaos to themselves. Therefore, the remembrance of D-day as a narrative of the triumph of liberators became a way for Americans to reinforce their cultural image. Since it was so widespread and influenced so many people, many countries remember D-Day differently. Where it is a tale of the triumph of liberty for America, it is a lesson about the value of peace to Britain, and different yet still to Germany.
Collective memory is a powerful tool for uniting people who might otherwise have nothing in common or no interest in each other. Historian David Thelen suggests that collective memory allows individuals to validate their own experiences and feelings about it by measuring it up to the expressions of the public. It enables them to reinterpret their memories and decide which experiences are worth remembering and which ought to be forgotten. This is especially evident in the representation of D-Day in the media, where the director’s vision of an event gets passed along to the audience and is consumed easily and widely by many people who may not have an inclination to get a second opinion on the media’s interpretation. William Cronon suggests that American common identity is inexorably linked to its famous moments in history; we see a part of ourselves in George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and the soldiers who fought to preserve freedom on D-Day.
Operation Overlord – the codename for the Battle of Normandy – was an incredibly complicated plan that included intricate naval and aerial support plans, bombardment, and airborne assaults in addition to the mass amphibious assault that took place on the Normandy shores. At this point, amphibious assault was not exactly a normal method of accomplishing invasions, so that facet of it was notable in and of itself. By 1944, many soldiers both on Allied and Axis sides were experienced combatants who were likely completely exhausted from their time in the war, or new conscripts ready to prove their glory. Although D-Day was only the initial stage of the operation as a whole, it still represented an extreme challenge because of the weather, the question of supplies, and its amphibious nature. Because Overlord was such a far-reaching plan, Allied forces had to demonstrate significant cooperation and intricate planning in relative secrecy to successfully launch an operation that required a ‘tremendous level of ingenuity’, as the Historian Michael Dolski suggests.
On top of that weight, it was understood by everyone going into D-day that the success of the operation as a whole depended entirely on this one day. Each of the landing beaches were put into the responsibility of the Allied powers respectively, with Utah Beach and Omaha Beach under the jurisdiction of the United States. American soldiers on Omaha Beach were the ‘first wave’ of the assault and suffered a huge barrage of attack from a replenished German deployment. It acquired the nickname ‘Bloody Omaha’ because it had the highest number of casualties, most of whom arrived in the 1st company from Bedford, VA. Since it was such a difficult challenge, it is easy to see how the foundation for a story about heroism and triumph against all odds could take shape. If we consider this in the context that several American stories and myths employ a narrative about success found in determination, perseverance, and hard work, it is clear how D-Day and its collective remembrance has become such a defining moment in American society.
The construction of D-day’s remembrance in public memory began on D-day itself when President Roosevelt issued a prayer for the success of the operation over the radio in America, and Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech to the soldiers. These two influential voices laid the framework on top of the foundation to establish the narrative of D-Day that we know today. In his prayer for the soldiers, Roosevelt calls upon God to bless the American soldiers who “…have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity …. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again …” (FDR) These words alone are clear enough in their representation of the values of American society. The cause moved from one to defeat tyranny to preserve the sanctity of humanity as a whole. In another part of the speech, Roosevelt begged God to allow Americans as a whole to illustrate renewed faith to Him by means of great sacrifice. The divine focus of this speech, coupled with the emphasis on tenacity and sacrifice are consistent with most grand American stories. Even the revolution is remembered with these tenets in mind.
This narrative is consistent with Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech, which reinforced the divine role of the soldiers as it described the moments preceding D-Day as the moments prior to embarking “upon the Great Crusade.” Dwight D. Eisenhower deviated a little from Roosevelt’s prayer by attributing nobility and value to the Allied cooperation necessary to make this feat possible. However, that is more likely due to the different audiences than actual intent to forge a story. Where Roosevelt spoke to the American public, Eisenhower spoke to and of an amalgam of troops made up of several Allied powers.
Years later, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson, David, wrote on the memory of his grandfather. In his article, David Eisenhower emphasizes that his grandfather was just an ordinary American man from the Midwest with a family, who reached success simply through working hard. He suggests that his grandfather knew that the war was a defining period in his life, and that future generations would look back carefully on a time where “civilization itself” hung precariously in the balance. David Eisenhower’s own memory of the event reflects the public construction; the significance of the day was attached to the preservation of democracy, freedom, and human values that were championed by the Allies. He suggests that it is remembered as an impressive feat that no other belligerent in World War II could have achieved, and for twentieth century America, it was a decisive moment of renewal and affirmation of everything that people call positive about the United States, such as civil rights, technology, moon landings, and what not. In short, it made Americans proud to be Americans.
Today, June 6 serves as a reminder of the ability of world powers to cooperate efficiently toward a singular goal, and an opportunity to reflect on the positive values of American ideology. 2014 was the seventieth anniversary of D-Day and it is remembered still with honor for the tremendous sacrifice to a noble cause. Maia de la Baume’s article “On the 70th Anniversary, the Memories of D-Day Are Replayed at Normandy” found in the New York Times describes new effort put forward by the public to reenact the landings and how it impacts veterans. The annual commemoration in 2014 was significant because it included several world leaders meeting while tensions over Russian actions in Ukraine have been deteriorating those relationships. Mr. Obama called the invasion “the most powerful manifestation of America’s commitment to human freedom” which illustrates the remaining presence and power of D-Day to affirm Western ideals, especially in times of high tension and disturbance in the realm of international relations.
This article was written by Kristina Weber, Content Supervisor of Centry Ltd.
Clausen, Christopher. “Living Memory”
Cronon, William. http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Cronon_Why_the_Past_Matters.pdf
De La Baume, Maia and Alissa J. Rubin. “On 70th Anniversary, the Memories of D-Day Are Replayed at Normandy” June 6, 2014. New York Times.
Dolski, Michael R., Sam Edwards, John Buckley. D-Day in History and Memory.
Thelen, David. “Memory and American History”