Even the youngest soldiers who stormed the beaches at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, and who live among us today are well into their 90s, so the 75th anniversary of D-Day was the final big observance before the memory barrier — the line that separates events lived and witnessed by people still able to talk about them and those that are known only through accounts from people who are no longer alive, or from stories retold by people who weren’t there. D-Day’s survivors are among the last ambassadors from the first half of the 20th century, an era when America at first rejected foreign entanglements but ultimately engaged.
The invasion itself — the slaughter, the horror, the heroics, the sacrifice — will soon take its place alongside Gettysburg or Saratoga as one of those long-ago battles that shaped who we are, but in ways we can’t really fathom.
But the liberal postwar order it ushered in remains ours to embrace or reject. It is one in which nations with different histories and languages but a common reverence for liberty have joined together to protect each other from forces that would divide them. It is a world that, when living out its ideals, promotes human rights and dignity and which understands that cooperation, communication and interdependence can enhance humanity and diminish the chance of war.
It’s a world of military alliances like NATO, international organizations like the United Nations, and trade agreements like NAFTA. It’s a world of treaties and multilateral accords.
And it’s a world in which the United States, when it abides by its expressed values, respects other nations yet willingly accepts its role as a leader.
Soldiers from many nations fought at Normandy — from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand — as did resistance forces from nations still occupied by the Nazis — France, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Greece.
But the invasion was led by the United States, which had the advantages of wealth, industry, population and geographic distance. There is no reason to shrink from the basic fact: The United States rescued freedom.
And in the aftermath, the United States protected it and, through its example, spread its blessings across the globe.
It was an imperfect champion. It obsessed on race and oppressed its nonwhite citizens, especially its African American descendants of slaves. In the name of peacekeeping and anti-communism, it blocked the legitimate aspirations of freedom-seeking people who wanted the same blessings that Americans enjoyed.
But it helped hold the world together. Its leadership, its alliances and its principles (sometimes honored in the breach) created a world in which a growing proportion of people live free of famine, deadly disease, state violence, poverty or fear.
Three-quarters of a century after D-Day, that world seems to be coming apart and the United States, or at least its president, rejects its responsibilities as a leader. Donald Trump expresses contempt for allies and for alliances. He lauds authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, demagogues like Rodrigo Duterte and dictators like Kim Jong-un. He embodies an America that demands respect but shirks its duties. He represents an America that is eager to forget what it accomplished, together with its allies, on the beaches of Normandy and in the decades since.
As the decades pass and the relationships among world powers shift, it is only natural to review 20th century alliances, to check whether they still hold, and whether they still promote freedom and still hold autocracy at bay. Perhaps that’s what Trump intends when he complains that one European nation or another doesn’t pay enough to support NATO.
But this is an era in which freedom is being pushed back in nations that emerged, with U.S. help, from Nazi oppression. Nativist leaders and parties, willing to question or even roll back hard-won freedoms, have won power in Hungary, Poland, Italy and other nations once allied with or occupied by Nazis.
More than 4,000 people died on the beaches of Normandy, and millions more over the course of the war, in the quest to wrest Europe back from the Nazis. The living memory of the individuals who fought and died may fade. But the 75th anniversary of D-Day is a good time to remember the lasting peace, prosperity and freedom that their sacrifice bought us, and that remains ours to keep or toss away.