By Douglas Brinkley
On June 6, 1984, President Ronald Reagan visited France to mark the 40th anniversary of D-Day. The speech he delivered at the windswept Normandy promontory looking out over the English Channel--known now in history as the Boys of Pointe du Hoc address--was the opening salvo to a new American indebtedness to World War II veterans. By honoring the daring action of the 2nd Ranger Battalion--225 young Army volunteers whose mission was to climb the treacherous 100-foot-high Pointe du Hoc cliff while being shot at by entrenched German soldiers--he was paying tribute to an entire generation. (Out of those 225 "boys," only 99 survived the Battle of Normandy.)
By the 1980s, these youths were aging gray hairs. "If I have one enduring memory of Reagan, it's the way he crisply saluted World War II veterans that afternoon," Ken Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff, recalled. "These were his guys . . . . As president, Ronald Reagan delivered three unforgettable speeches: Pointe du Hoc, the Challenger disaster, and the Berlin tear-down-this-wall number. But it was the first of these--Pointe du Hoc--that set the tone for the others."
If it hadn't been for Reagan's two elegiac June 6, 1984, homilies--written by Peggy Noonan (Pointe du Hoc) and Anthony Dolan (Omaha Beach)--there may never have been Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, or the many memorials built to exalt the citizen-soldiers who liberated Europe.
With Reagan as president, the time had come for the World War II generation to speak out. By 1984, the stars were aligned for thousands of these stoic war heroes to finally offer eyewitness testimonials for posterity's sake. It was, in essence, a generational reckoning. At Pointe du Hoc, President Reagan became the self-appointed spokesperson of the "greatest generation." Although he never fought in the war, Reagan had served in the Army Air Corps, eventually becoming a captain. The hundreds of propaganda movies he made then were, in essence, a dress rehearsal for Pointe du Hoc.
But it wasn't just about World War II. With the timing of a maestro, Reagan galvanized that generation into performing one last task: reminding a nation cynical after Vietnam and Watergate that America truly was still the shining city on the hill. What Reagan understood was that compared with the testimony of an Army Ranger who, climbing the Pointe du Hoc cliffs, had been forced to watch a buddy drown in the English Channel or a young officer get his legs blown off by a Nazi mine, 1970s slogans like "Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion" were political throwaway lines of a decadent and largely self-indulgent recent past.
What Reagan was trying to engineer--using the World War II generation and the American flag as his platform--was the creation of a combustible patriotism, one that would spread like wildfire: an extension of his 1980 presidential campaign's embrace of increased military spending and upgrading the armed forces. He essentially wanted to turn the clock back to an unambiguous black-and-white era when, as Ambrose said in Citizen Soldiers, the sight of a GI meant joyous cheers from communities that had been occupied by fascist troops. The way Reagan saw it, too many young people knew about the atrocities at My Lai and not enough about the raw gallantry of D-Day.
Behind the Speech
A relative newcomer to the White House, speechwriter Peggy Noonan had impressed her boss Dick Darman with her early work and, to the chagrin of some others, was handed the task of preparing Reagan's words at Normandy. How Noonan went about writing the Pointe du Hoc speech can now be fully discerned by reading the files archived at the Reagan Presidential Library (and also from a wonderful memoir Noonan wrote titled What I Saw at the Revolution ). As in all speechwriting, the first step in Noonan's laborious process consisted of gathering usable data about D-Day. The 34-year-old speechwriter devoted to elegant New Yorker- style prose cast a wide net, searching for inspired ideas from all corners. She received input from various foreign-policy fiefdoms. The State Department weighed in with a bland memo and a "country report" on France, cold and factual.
Reagan's 10-day visit to Ireland, Great Britain, and France would be more than a drawn-out D-Day remembrance, Noonan knew. As the itinerary dictated, after three nights in Ireland, Reagan would fly to London. The idea was for Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to spend June 5 together showcasing Anglo-American unity before crossing the Channel for the Normandy ceremony. On June 6, they would visit three spots in France: Pointe du Hoc, the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and Utah Beach. "Normandy symbolizes the U.S. commitment to Europe, which led directly to the Atlantic Alliance," National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane wrote in a briefing paper for the president. "The President will make brief (10-15 minutes) remarks at the Point [sic] du Hoc ceremony to about 5,000 people, including veteran groups. This should be emotional, stirring, and personal. The themes include reconciliation of former adversaries, how postwar cooperation has kept the peace for the longest period in modern European history, Alliance solidarity, and the strength of the American commitment to Europe."
What McFarlane worried about was Reagan's not alienating West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had been banned from the Normandy ceremonies. In order that Kohl not feel too "bruised," McFarlane wanted the Reagan speech to focus on reconciliation. Given that, Noonan, who was then unaware that so many D-Day veterans would be in attendance, was somewhat hamstrung. An astute student of Reagan, she knew, however, that he was at his best when he told heartfelt stories about real people. Her boss was instinctive, blessed with a genuine showbiz gift for lively narrative and fabulist history. She didn't want to grind his address down just to please the men at State and the NSC.
As Noonan read Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day, John Keegan's Six Armies in Normandy, and Jean Compagnon's The Normandy Landings, she realized anew just how unbelievably dramatic the D-Day invasion was. Somehow, she would have to cut through the bureaucratic thicket and find a way for Reagan to talk emotionally about the heroism of these men with the same uplifting conviction of an FDR. It wasn't a difficult task. Susceptible as he was to theatrics and imbued with a lifelong enthusiasm for symbolism, Reagan would choke up, Noonan knew, at all the perfect white crosses and Stars of David in the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery. What she didn't know was that the story of the brave 2nd Ranger Battalion survivors--dozens of whom would be in attendance--would choke the Gipper up even more.
When Noonan was assigned to write the Pointe du Hoc speech, she was not dispatched to make an on-site inspection of the hallowed place. She had not, in fact, even met Ronald Reagan. "I can't write well," she complained once, "without hearing the person I'm writing for talk in conversation." A former CBS News writer for Dan Rather, Noonan was somehow expected to pen an "impressionistic" speech for a president she did not know about a place she had never seen.
The place itself, though, was spectacular. No matter what the day or hour or tide, standing on top of the craggy hundred-foot-high promontory is an awesome experience. This was it, the exact spot where the Army's 2nd Ranger Battalion made its fearless attack. Some of the German bunkers and blockhouses were still intact, having survived both the Allied bombing and nature's wrath. Rusted barbed-wire fencing was also still evident after 40 years. The Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument--a dagger-shaped granite pylon--was going to be unveiled the afternoon of Reagan's speech, overlooking the Channel. It had been erected by the French to honor Col. Earl Rudder of Texas and his 2nd Rangers; Rudder's Rangers they were called. Michael Deaver, the Reagan aide who orchestrated the Pointe du Hoc ceremony, seized on the simple beauty of the monument, already seeing the president's address there as part of the Reagan bio film to be shown at the Republican National Convention, in August. "I knew it would be our backdrop for the year," Deaver recalled. "Reagan's love of America and pride in World War II was just so real. He pined for that time, for those days that were gone. He'd say, 'You know, it used to be that if our country was in trouble, if a crisis was at hand, you just pinned a little American flag on your lapel and nobody harmed you. Nobody touched you.'"
Deaver was aware--as Noonan wasn't--that some 60 Pointe du Hoc veterans would be attending the Reagan speech (62 actually showed up). Deaver, however, had one hurdle to overcome if he wanted Reagan's speech to be delivered at 1:20 p.m. at the site of the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument: the French government. President François Mitterrand, the host of the D-Day ceremonies, insisted that Reagan meet for a photo op before he spoke at the Pointe. He wanted the ceremonies to take place later in the afternoon. But Deaver knew if he capitulated to Mitterrand's preferences, his boss wouldn't be on the all-important U.S. morning TV shows. According to the Washington Post 's Lou Cannon, Deaver pressed the French ambassador to the United States, Bernard Vernier-Palliez, to not make waves and to approve the 1:20 p.m. time slot. The scheduling change, eventually, was made.
Following a mid-May press briefing at the Pentagon, Noonan had a eureka moment--many of the surviving 2nd Ranger Battalion members would be sitting in the front rows when Reagan spoke at Pointe du Hoc. They wouldn't be scattered haphazardly around the audience; they would be crunched together like choirboys in New England pews. Not only that, she learned, the new memorial at Pointe du Hoc would also be unveiled. Noonan scrapped her early drafts of the speech and started over. "There were some ways in which the Reagan speechwriting department was a little dysfunctional," Noonan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution , shortly after Reagan died last year. "One of the things they did wrong was send researchers, 20-year-old kids, to the location of future speeches, along with the advance staff. The speechwriters were not sent . . . . I didn't know until shortly before the president left for Europe that the boys of Pointe du Hoc--the old men who were the U.S. Rangers who took the cliffs of Normandy--would be there, in the first few rows, as RR spoke. I was indignant: How could you not tell me? RR will want to talk to them, not just talk over their heads! And thus, in the last days, 'These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc' was born."
Noonan finished a preliminary draft of the Pointe du Hoc speech and handed it in to her boss, Ben Elliott, at 1:30 p.m. on May 21. He marked it up and returned it to Noonan. Subsequent drafts were circulated over the next few days to others for input. As Noonan kept on reading and talking to the young officials who had done the advance work in Normandy, she realized that Pointe du Hoc was going to be an ultradramatic spot for Reagan to speak. It wouldn't be his Gettysburg Address--as some foolish, history-deficient White House hands were already boasting--but it could be a defining moment for Reagan's re-election campaign. Noonan started studying up on the surviving Rangers--and fast. American news organizations were already promoting the 40th anniversary of D-Day--and it was still May. What gave Reagan's upcoming trip a real boon was Time magazine, whose May 28 cover story was "D-Day: Forty Years After the Great Crusade." Veteran journalist Lance Morrow did most of the analytical writing for the Time package, which was accompanied by a stunning Robert Capa photograph printed from his 11 surviving negatives of Omaha Beach. Morrow began his article with a quote from Shakespeare's Henry V: "From this day to the ending of the world . . . we in it shall be remembered . . . we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."
Eight years later, Stephen Ambrose would title his book about E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Band of Brothers , borrowing from Morrow, who had borrowed from Shakespeare. Ambrose also decided to use the dramatic Capa photograph of an American soldier wading ashore with the first wave of troops on Omaha Beach, water up to his neck, determination on his face, as the jacket photo for the book. The packaging and repackaging of D-Day as a cottage industry had begun.
Clearly, Noonan had read the Time article. An underlined copy of it can be found in her Normandy files at the Reagan library. And in her speech she quoted--as Time had done--Gen. Matthew Ridgway lying on his cot, remembering God's promise to Joshua: "I will not fail thee or forsake thee." But what is even more significant about Morrow's piece is his trenchant analysis of why, in 1984, D-Day was about to become the election-year symbol of the Reagan administration's New Patriotism. "The ceremonies in Normandy will celebrate the victory and mourn the dead," Morrow wrote. "They will also mourn the moral clarity that has been lost, a sense of common purpose that has all but evaporated."
Moral clarity. That was the ticket Reagan would push to get re-elected. What voter could argue that Adolf Hitler wasn't a villain worse than Idi Amin or Muammar Qadhafi? Who wasn't proud of the job America's armed forces had done in 1944-1945? According to the Reaganites' view, NATO now faced an equally horrific threat from the Soviet Union. Munich-style appeasement was wrong in 1938, they believed, and it was wrong in 1984. But it was Morrow's understanding of how the D-Day story had spellbinding, redemptive qualities that Reagan could sell to Cold War America that really hit the mark.
What the Reagan administration understood was that the American people craved something grander in their history and national memory than Gerald Ford's evacuation of Saigon or Jimmy Carter's malaise speech. Reporters used to write during 1979-1980, when 53 Americans were held for ransom by the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, that it was as if "America was being held hostage." By sharp contrast, the D-Day story was about America as ferocious liberators, not backroom barterers. Even though Reaganites tried to pretend for political purposes that the Vietnam War was a morally justified crusade, in their heads and hearts they knew better. Millions of Americans, and virtually every honest historian, recognized that the prolonged intervention in Southeast Asia was so rife with tragic political blunders that it was indeed an American failure. Wisely, Reaganites understood there was no winning way to build a consensus New Patriotism by reopening the controversial Vietnam wound. The United States had wanted to be D-Day-like liberators again in Vietnam, but that time around, for numerous murky geopolitical reasons, U.S. forces had become largely unwelcome invaders. That is why Reagan went all the way back to World War II--and Normandy in particular--to promote his New Patriotism during an election year. It was too hard to sell Vietnam triumphalism. But D-Day? That was a different story entirely.
What was most noticeable about the pre-D-Day clips that Noonan collected as research were stories about the throngs of veterans returning to commemorate the 40th anniversary. Because the Vietnam War had torn Americans apart for a decade, World War II veterans had been either marginalized or forgotten. There were, of course, in all 50 states, granite memorials and reflecting pools honoring their sacrifice. But somehow the media had not focused on the uncommon valor of World War II fighting men since the tumultuous days when Ernie Pyle was firing off urgent dispatches from the trenches and Edward R. Murrow was boldly reporting on the radio from a bomb-besieged London. The American people had honored Gen. Douglas MacArthur with a tickertape parade and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower with a two-term presidency. But Reagan's election in 1980 had ushered in a new climate ripe for World War II remembrance. The New Patriotism was not just in the air; it was part of Ronald Reagan's DNA.
Because Pointe du Hoc had been chosen as the location for the first of the two principal D-Day commemorative speeches, Reagan approved the idea that the assault of the U.S. Army Rangers' 2nd Battalion be a central part of his address. With the right camera cutaways to teary-eyed survivors, Reagan could link his New Patriotism with the entire World War II generation. As a longtime ardent admirer of the Rangers--and everything they stood for--Reagan wanted them to enter the national psyche as all-season heroes. The ball was now in Noonan's court to provide the linguistic magic--he was more than ready to step to the Pointe du Hoc podium and offer up a flawless performance.
Talking to the Boys
The 2nd Ranger Battalion veterans assembled at Pointe du Hoc that afternoon came from all over America. There was Thomas Ryan, who was a policeman in Chicago, and Thomas Rugiero, captain of the fire department in Plymouth, Mass. Ralph Goranson was head of a sales company, and Harvey Koehning was an electrical worker on oil wells. Some of the Rangers President Reagan would be addressing had taken advantage of the GI Bill. Frank South, for example, was a professor of physiology at the University of Delaware because of the bill. A man Reagan had heard quite a lot about, William Petty, was running a camp for underprivileged children in upstate New York but nevertheless made the trans-Atlantic journey. Colonel Rudder's widow and daughter were at the Pointe, honored to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the amphibious attack with the president of the United States.
Among the many other Ranger families who later made the pilgrimage to the Pointe, the Wintzes of Nebraska may serve as an exemplar. Kathie Wintz Abts brought her nine children to collectively say the Lord's Prayer in memory of U.S. Army Ranger Richard Wintz. A second lieutenant who had climbed the treacherous cliffs, Wintz always talked of bringing his wife and children to the knife-shaped promontory at Pointe du Hoc but never got around to it. A member of what author Robert Putnam calls "the long civic generation," Wintz eventually succumbed to cancer in 1981, surrounded by his family. "Dick had never talked much about his experiences, but during the last days of his life, his family convinced him to tell his story, and they recorded it," Joan Burney of the Omaha World-Herald reported in 1994. "They were overwhelmed. Kathie hadn't planned to go to France this year. But when the anniversary of D-Day approached, and stories of it dominated the newspapers and the broadcast media, she said 'I was just a basket case. One of the problems was I realized how naive I was.'" Like so many children of World War II veterans, she had been sheltered by her dad, who didn't want his children to know the horrors he had seen at Normandy.
Usually speeches of any kind are forgettable. This was not the case with Ronald Reagan on this particular morning. With all those graying Rangers in front of him--not to mention D-Day families who had lost somebody dear to them 40 years earlier--and a finely written Noonan speech in his pocket and on the teleprompter, he strode to the podium like a man with a mission. There was nothing boring, hokey, or mundane about his demeanor. When he saluted the flag it was done with such conviction that it made you want to stand up straight yourself, to embrace the fact that you too were part of the great American pageant. He was the American statesman about to remind the American people--with the English Channel and the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument at his back--what true patriotism was all about.
The entire Rangers-climbing-the-cliff story, in fact, served Reagan's worldview as a metaphor for life. Like Job, you start your ascent up the dangerous mountainside with great fortitude. But you never know what will knock you down, or when it will cripple your ascent. Life was precious. The important thing was stoically trying, one foot at a time, with God as your guide, to succeed, always heading upward to the sky. Determination and faith were what mattered. Complaints never accomplished a thing. When you fell, you picked yourself back up and tried again.
With these thoughts in mind, and because of a combination of luck and design, the stage was set at Pointe du Hoc for Reagan to deliver the most remembered speech of his first term. The words Noonan had written for him that afternoon were a distillation of his anti-Communist thinking of almost four decades. Looking the part of a world statesman, Reagan, dressed in a handsome dark suit, cleared his throat, looked directly at the wife of Colonel Rudder, and began. "At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs," he intoned, making direct eye contact with the returning Ranger veterans. "Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance."
Reagan's voice, as usual, was strong, his delivery confident. "The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers," he continued, "the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe."
Everybody in the crowd was overwhelmed by the speech. Famed CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, by no means a pro-Reagan reporter, was visibly shaken by the oration. Michael Deaver, who accompanied the president to Normandy, deemed it nothing less than "a home run." A decade later he called it, along with the "Challenger Disaster" eulogy, "the best speech of his presidency." White House Chief of Staff James Baker noted that his boss that day was pitch-perfect, as if, for a few minutes, he actually personified the World War II generation. "I remember sitting in the audience, shaking my head, thinking, 'Boy oh boy, this is a dynamite moment,' " Baker recalled in an interview. "With Reagan, what you saw is what you got. And the tears in his eyes that afternoon, believe me, they were real."
As the TV cameras flashed to the 62 Rangers in attendance, tears filling their eyes, it was, as Baker maintained, impossible not to be moved. These "boys" Reagan was evoking weren't just men now; they were grandparents (many had brought their grandchildren along). The power of Reagan's oration was that he spoke directly to these Rangers; in addition, he was unafraid to make eye contact with them. The message was clear: These men had fought for freedom against Nazism, so don't we now have an obligation to fight against Soviet-style communism?
After his speech Reagan and his wife, Nancy, went and hugged all the Rangers. They then headed for Omaha Beach.
ABOUT "THE BOYS"
Excerpted from The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion by Douglas Brinkley. Copyright 2005 by Douglas Brinkley. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.