Ronald Reagan was not the greatest actor. He was not the greatest
President. But, as espionage buffs will tell you, even a
top-level KGB briefing admitted how well he combined both roles to play
the father of his nation. Who can forget the images of him
comforting the families of the Challenger victims?

Reagan knew the moral authority the Presidency brings. He understood how the institution ennobles its occupant.

Yes, his administration waged brutal and squalid wars in Latin America – but his was a constant voice for liberty.

Twenty years ago today he brought all these strands together in one of
his greatest speeches – in front of D-Day veterans at Pointe du Hoc in
Normandy. His words ring today. Here are some of them:

“We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied peoples joined
in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years,
much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had
fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation.
Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in
Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against
tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.

“We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France.
The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense
with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack
of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. 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. 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.

“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers — at 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. Two
hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting only
ninety could still bear arms.

“Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were
thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put
them there.

“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the
cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are
the heroes who helped end a war.

“Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s
poem. You are men who in your ‘lives fought for life…and left the
vivid air signed with your honor’…

“Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You
were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more
than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked
everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside
the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these
cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look
at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith, and belief; it
was loyalty and love.

“The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right,
faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would
grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep
knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a
profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and
the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to
conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause.
And you were right not to doubt.

“You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is
worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the
most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of
you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you
knew the people of your countries were behind you.”

Vale, Mr President.

Meanwhile, Boilermaker Bill assesses Reagan’s career at Ronald Reagan: a rough draft of history

Peter Fray

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