Trump, world leaders celebrate the Normandy invasion that saved Europe from Nazism
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France - President Donald Trump paid tribute Thursday to old men who were once the young Americans who stormed an occupied and fortified shore 75 years ago, and he called the storied D-Day invasion "an epic battle and the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil."
Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders of the nations that defeated Nazi Germany joined the thinning ranks of veterans of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, at the cemetery where nearly 10,000 American war dead are buried.
Trump honored the sacrifice and patriotism of veterans in their 90s, who sat hunched behind him in a chilly wind at the last major milestone anniversary that most are likely to see. The avowed nationalist celebrated American bravery and the unity of fighting forces that landed here and pushed on into Europe, helping to turn the tide of the war.
"They came from the farms of a vast heartland, the streets of glowing cities and the forges of mighty industrial towns," Trump said of the teenagers and young men who approached the Normandy shores. "Before the war, many had never ventured beyond their own community. Now, they had come to offer their lives halfway across the world."
He gave, at most, a measured memorial to the transatlantic partnership and the foundation of the United States as the world's indispensable nation.
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"Today as we stand together upon this sacred earth, we pledge that our nations will forever be strong and united," he said. "We will forever be together."
Dozens of American veterans of D-Day were among other veterans and their families on a stage erected within the semicircular stone memorial at the Normandy American Cemetery.
Trump recognized several by name, including Ray Lambert of West End, North Carolina who served as a medic in the 16th Infantry Regiment of the Army's 1st Division, known as "The Big Red One."
Lambert, 98, has said this is probably his final visit to Normandy. Trump broke off his remarks as the crowd cheered Lambert, then turned and crossed the stage with Macron to greet him. Lambert doffed a blue ball cap, embroidered with "D-Day veteran," to the leaders and the crowd.
An 80th anniversary is planned, but even the youngest represented here Thursday would be approaching 100 then.
French and U.S. flags flew at half-staff behind the crowd. Omaha Beach below was not visible from the elaborate stage, also decorated with French and U.S. flags, as well as mock-ups of the white crosses and Stars of David that line the grass beyond.
Trump has pulled the United States away from Europe and the international rulemaking institutions that grew out of the end of World War II. He complains about what he calls imbalances in trade, defense spending and other issues. Trump's inward-looking view is not unique, as nationalist leaders and movements are on the rise in Europe.
Trump's address was his first as president that encompassed such a broad mix of history, patriotism and pathos. He read from a screen before him, appearing to stick closely to the script.
"We are gathered here on freedom's altar. On these shores, on these bluffs, on this day 75 years ago, 10,000 men shed their blood and thousands sacrificed their lives for their brothers, for their countries and for the survival of liberty," he said. "Today, we remember those who fell here, and we honor all who fought right here in Normandy. They won back this ground for civilization."
The landings were the largest joint naval, air and land assault ever undertaken, an audacious feat that helped cement the role of the U.S. military as the world's preeminent fighting force.
Reminders of what was built from the ruins of postwar Europe came from Macron, who praised NATO and other institutions that Trump has criticized as outdated and unfair to the United States.
Before Trump spoke, Macron delivered a message that mixed praise for U.S. veterans with a full-throated embrace of the kind of multilateralism that Trump's "America First" agenda is designed to resist.
At one point, he addressed Trump directly and appeared to riff on Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.
"We know what we owe to the United States of America. The United States of America, dear Donald Trump, dear president, which is never greater than when it is fighting for the freedom of others," Macron said. "The United States of America, that is never greater than when it shows its loyalty to the universal values that the Founding Fathers defended when, nearly two and a half centuries ago, France came to support its independence.
"We shall never cease to perpetuate the alliance of free people," Macron said, arguing that various global institutions such as the United Nations, NATO and the European Union were created for that purpose.
Trump has criticized all three of those organizations. He has repeatedly claimed, for example, that the European Union was created "to take advantage of the United States."
In his speech, Trump praised the various countries that joined the Allied fight against the "wicked tyranny of the Nazi empire," name-checking the Canadians, the British and "the fighting Poles, the tough Norwegians and the intrepid Aussies," as well as French resistance fighters.
"They were the citizens of free and independent nations united by their duty to their compatriots and to millions yet unborn," he said.
Trump's 2016 political brand was a fuzzy mix of "America First" isolationism and flag-waving nostalgia for a time when the United States had a more certain footing in a changing world.
He has been openly hostile to NATO, the transatlantic military alliance that is a direct heir of D-Day, although his language has softened since he proclaimed during his 2016 campaign that NATO was "obsolete."
Some consider the emotional power of the Normandy landscape a last-ditch attempt to ensure that those transatlantic ties still hold.
"As far as the Europeans are concerned, I think the general tone is one of desperation at the possibility that the lessons of history could be forgotten," said François Heisbourg, a former French presidential adviser and a senior adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. "The lesson of history is that the West exists, and when the West is divided, very bad things happen.
"We don't forget that it took the Americans two years to get involved in World War II. But we also know we were saved by the Americans - not only by the Americans, but without the Americans, it would not have been possible."
Giving a speech on the beaches of Normandy is something of a rite of passage for U.S. presidents, who, regardless of their party affiliation, have typically used the opportunity to drive home a message about American internationalism.
"We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars," Ronald Reagan said in 1984, in the course of his memorable "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech, written by Peggy Noonan. "It is better to be here ready to protect the peace than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost."
In 2014, President Barack Obama had a similar message.
"We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for," he said, referring to the troops who sacrificed their lives on D-Day. "We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it."
After the speeches Thursday, Trump joined Macron near the waterfront of Omaha Beach as vintage fighter planes and bombers flew overhead. Joined by first lady Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron of France, the two men then left flowers next to the graves of fallen Americans near the beach.
Trump spent less than a full day in France - just long enough for the D-Day memorial and a meeting with Macron. He returned to his golf resort in Ireland on Thursday afternoon, missing other D-Day ceremonies scheduled for later in the day.
Trump's relationship with the French leader - once seemingly sanguine enough to warrant the label of "le bromance" - has soured over the past year.
But both presidents were smiling Thursday, and seemed at ease as they embraced during the ceremony and toured the grounds with their wives.
"The relationship is outstanding," Trump said, speaking to reporters at his meeting with Macron in Caen. "The relationship we've had together has been terrific."
The two seemed more in tune on an international approach to Iran, a sore spot after Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 nuclear compact that France helped forge.
This chummy tone marked a significant shift from Trump's last visit to France in November, when he attacked Macron via Twitter upon landing in Paris and then again shortly after he arrived back in Washington.
"The problem is that Emmanuel suffers from a very low Approval Rating in France, 26%, and an unemployment rate of almost 10%," Trump wrote at the time. "He was just trying to get onto another subject. By the way, there is no country more Nationalist than France, very proud people-and rightfully so!"
Some current American politics were also in evidence, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a frequent Trump adversary, leading a delegation of about 60 U.S. lawmakers. She told reporters in Washington that she was not sure whether she would interact with the president here.
Trump's own relationship to military service was a subtext. He received multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War and previously said he was "lucky" to have avoided service. But in an interview broadcast Wednesday, Trump said that although he "was not a fan" of the Vietnam War, he would have fought willingly.
"I would not have minded that at all," he told British interviewer Piers Morgan. "I would have been honored."
This article was written by Toluse "Tolu" Olorunnipa, Anne Gearan and James McAuley, reporters for The Washington Post.