Politics & Policy

Recovered Memories

Normandy, the Gipper, and unspeakable truths.

The annual D-Day ceremonies in Normandy, seen to many Parisians of the writing-and-ruling class as a yearly exercise in cynicism hidden behind a thin veil of sardonic insincerity, had been inflated this year to accommodate a nice, round anniversary number. And indeed the coverage ramping up to Sunday’s events seemed to suggest that the usual “France will never forget” speeches would ring more hollow than ever. As reported in this space last week, the revised assessment of D-Day was that it was a moment when “Europe”–especially including the German part of it–had liberated itself from tyranny. As Der Welt reported Monday, to Schroeder, D-Day, and all that followed was “not a victory over Germany, but a victory for Germany.” An excited BBC radio correspondent talked about the reunion of the Americans and the British “and the Germans” all of whom “fought for the liberation of France.”

But this year, something else, and perhaps something unintended, happened. The death of Ronald Reagan on the eve of D-Day ceremonies in France provided a very awkward weekend for those in the European press who had grown fat and comfortable taking potshots at American policies and politicians. Perhaps because these two events fell at a time when French-German and American mutual loathing has reached an acute stage, it seemed for a day that cynicism had been ambushed by remembered facts.

First came the news, reported in the Daily Telegraph, that Bush and Chirac may have reached some sort of agreement on a U.N. resolution concerning Iraq. Whether this really has significance is something we probably won’t see until after the G-8 meetings conclude this week, but still, the thaw in U.S.-French relations seemed palpable enough.

Then, as preparations for the Normandy commemorations were rolling out in Arromanches, came word that Ronald Reagan had died. The confluence of the symbols of both American sacrifice for Europe and a principled regard for European liberties created a kind of inescapable potency that made it, for a day anyway, difficult to continue the great project of diluting or expunging the U.S. from the history of Germany and France.

The first reactions to the news of Reagan’s death were predictable. After all, Ronald Reagan was the George W. Bush of the ’80s. He was–and still is, by those on the left–reviled in the usual terms, as the moral equivalent of Hitler, a mass murderer, a starver-of-kids and all the rest. When Reagan decided to sacrifice money and political capital by going ahead with the positioning of Pershing missiles in Europe as a way of balancing a perceived threat by the Soviet Union, the streets of Paris, Berlin, and London instantly filled with millions of angry protesters who demanded that the U.S. back down in favor of disarmament and appeasement. No doubt many of them protested against Iraq, too. It took several years of anti-American excess before the results of Reagan’s policies were understood.

But for some, that understanding will always be partial at best. When the news reached the BBC, the Corporation first ran an error-filled obituary of dubious taste, claiming that Reagan was a mere “figurehead” and not a genuine political leader. That was followed by BBC World Service coverage on its Newshour in which the BBC line became more clearly presented: Reagan was a mediocre president who didn’t change history after all. He was there when changes happened around him. Even Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, had problems with that assessment. But fortunately Newshour had Mikhail Gorbachev’s former translator there to back them up. He happily agreed that Reagan had little to do with bringing about the end of the Cold War, and that view was dutifully echoed in a newer online analysis by Paul Reynolds. Unfortunately for the BBC, it was a view disputed in a revised obituary on the Beeb website quoting Mikhail Gorbachev, who called Reagan a “great president” who had been “instrumental in bringing about the end of the Cold War.” His translator couldn’t have said it better, obviously.

British TV coverage was split between D-Day events and commentary on Reagan’s death, and the reaction of the British press to the event was split, too: To the leader-writer of the Daily Telegraph, Reagan “deserves a stone-carved niche in that Olympus of commanders-in-chief atop Mount Rushmore.” Still, the paper continues, “despite his intense Atlanticism, Reagan never really received his due in this country, both for substantive and for stylistic reasons. He was often denigrated by much of the British Establishment as either extreme or stupid. He proved himself to be neither, most notably in his highly prescient belief that the rotten Soviet system would implode rather than lash out if the United States finally stood up to it.”

The editorialist at the Guardian at least agrees with the foreign-ridicule part: “He had an accord with the American people, who warmed to his vision of themselves as a nation of optimistic individualists, blessed by God and by destiny, a vision that predated and outlives him, but on which he left a deep imprint. That is why, though Mr Reagan was often mocked abroad, at home he has already become something of a cult, for very ideological reasons. In this as in other things, what made America feel good about itself makes others deeply alarmed.” That presumably includes D-Day and the end of the Cold War.

In France, Le Figaro ran an AFP obituary online and the news broadcasts led with the word of Reagan’s passing from Los Angeles. Le Monde’s analysis focused on Reagan’s crazy cowboy image in the French press and cataloged the instances of what the paper saw as Reagan’s hypocrisy in dealing with issues like family values. But in the end, even France’s most irrationally strident anti-American paper was unable to escape Reagan’s foreign-policy contribution entirely. The left-wing Libération gave the Gipper its front page, while the coverage inside managed to quote Richard Berke, Garry Wills, and Maureen Dowd, not exactly Reagan’s most charitable observers. Not surprisingly, the paper had as much trouble as the BBC in understanding how someone they disliked as much as Reagan could really have had a hand in foiling something they liked very much more–Communism.

The German press was slightly more balanced, generally crediting Reagan with ending the threat to Europe from the U.S.S.R. and in reuniting the country. The obituary in Der Spiegel was judgment-free, but the left-wing Suddeutcher Zeitung ran an report making Reagan’s contribution to modern German history clear, and even added a little list of Reagan quotes. The Berliner Morgenpost recalled the protesters who greeted Reagan before his “tear down this wall” speech, and the subsequent popularity of the U.S. president, as people named their babies “Ronald” and decked out cabs in red, white, and blue.

Ronald Reagan certainly didn’t come under fire on the beaches of Normandy, but his policies had a similar, liberating effect on Europe nonetheless. It’s doubtful there will ever be a celebration marking the Reykjavik conference or the Berlin Wall speech. Denial of their own history will always be popular with left-wing Europeans and their political leaders. In fact, only a day after Normandy, Le Monde’s attention has already turned to the marriage of Chirac and Schroeder and how the significance of Normandy is that it brought them closer together. Someday soon, no doubt, in the pages of Le Monde or the Guardian, the American defeat of Soviet ambitions will be seen not as an American victory, but as a victory the Russians won for themselves. But for a day, on June 6, 2004, as the TV stations in France, Germany, and the U.K. switched back and forth between Normandy and Paris and Los Angeles and Washington, truth invaded Europe.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


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