In 1984, on the 40th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, Ronald Reagan spoke at Pointe du Hoc, to commemorate the greatest war operation America has undertaken, and to explain its importance and continued influence on America and the world. He wanted above all to tell people that democracy is “the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.” In that proposition were the heroes of the war best remembered, the living and the dead, their destinies inextricably connected to America’s destiny. In that assurance were their children and heirs to dedicate themselves to the task then facing them. That speech is the only example Americans have of great nobility in our generation, and it is perhaps the greatest speech made by an American politician in that century.
Noble speeches, indeed, are the form of political rhetoric we have abandoned. They seem undemocratic because they exalt some men, usually fallen soldiers, above the rest of us — and, too, because they allow politicians to assume high authority, greater than the merely political, to speak to the nation about the nation as a whole. Reagan on that occasion spoke about soldiers praying to God, about Joshua facing the conquest of the Promised Land, and about Americans making a vow to keep faith with their dead. This is the upper limit of the political, beyond which lies the holy: Noble speeches are the only part of political rhetoric not essentially disputatious or disputable. They are by their nature uncommon, deeply solemn, and intended to draw men’s agreement not by acclamation or loud applause, but by silence and tears. Only rarely is it permissible to make such speeches, but they are utterly necessary to a free people, and constitute its highest self-understanding at the moments they are most needed. We remember that another speech in a military cemetery, a consecrated field of battle, is the greatest speech in American history, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The normal business of life and politics is far more contentious and acrimonious. Speeches concerning laws or justice are inevitably tied up with accusation and defense, with the pros and cons of a policy proposal. They tend toward the lower limits of politics. The good character, honest intentions, and competence of the speaker are always disputed, too. But to invite such dispute, which is normal in the daily life of a free people, is to presuppose a community so deep and strong as to endure any division caused by partisan politics. People have to be reminded, therefore, on occasion, of what America is and what binds Americans together such that they could consent to be bound together. This was Reagan’s purpose in Normandy. This effort required him to remind his fellow Americans and the European allies, and the world, too, that America still had the moral and political strength it showed in World War II. In listening to his speech again and pondering the text, we have to ask ourselves whether it still does.
As I suggested above, the democratic-egalitarian criticism of noble speeches can be stated simply: They amount to little more than hero worship. It is needful, therefore, to defend heroism if heroism is to fulfill its political purpose as those who make noble speeches intend it to do.But to defend heroism we must start from our common experience of politics, and, in a world saturated with political talk, it is inescapably obvious how seldom it is given to politicians to speak nobly. Politicians are accustomed to the applause of audiences chosen for that purpose. And they know, too, that unpredictable audiences might humiliate them. They wish to look noble, as is obvious in the unimaginative and uniform suits they wear, but even more do they wish to avoid risky situations. For the most part, therefore, they do not wish to act nobly. When it is said of someone that he speaks like a politician, it is a compliment neither to morality nor to intellect. But inasmuch as politics is a job like any other, who can blame them? Better the safer path! Perhaps the people who elect them want their politicians to act nobly, but not even this is certain; perhaps all that is wanted is victory — that is, having their way in a dispute. If there is any nobility in politics, noble defeat should be admired — and noble adversaries should be admired. That is possible in sports, the last manly meritocracy in American life. But we do not have many signs of it in our civilized politics.
We have no doubt, however, that there is nobility in our answers to the most terrifying crises we confront. Our normal lives do not tell the whole truth about who we are. In a crisis, then, do men show without speeches that they believe themselves responsible for others, at whatever risk to themselves. Entire communities are justified in such crises, in such heroes. In our impoverished state, we remember that nobility is tied up with sacrifice for the good of others. We signify this by honoring sacrifice. The coffins of dead heroes are draped in the flag.
Beyond death, the beauty and reverence of ceremony is how we commune with our heroes. In the quarrels of parties and partisans, this may be the only thing that reminds people that there is a common good. Often, people who act heroically do not live lives that otherwise give evidence personal heroism. They are often said to be ordinary men who rise to the exigencies of extraordinary circumstances. There is much truth in that. Our heroes do not come from anywhere but from among us. But I wish to say to you that there is as much truth in saying that we need those rare heroes to remind us in our ordinary lives that we are human. They uncommonly remind us of what we commonly forget — that there is any common good binding us. It is not that we do not believe and know that civilization is about the common good. It is rather that our common humanity is sacrificed to partisan quarrels and fatalistic resignation in the face of the great problems that are our common burden. The example of heroes both inspires and chastises us.
Noble speeches are the form of political rhetoric we have abandoned. They seem undemocratic because they exalt some men, usually fallen soldiers, above the rest of us.
This is why Reagan’s highest statement about America and democracy was made on a commemorative occasion. Winning World War II, saving civilization, was the greatest achievement of democracy in moral terms. It was the unique spectacle of justice followed by mercy, of the “profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest.” Americans therefore could be justified in the “faith that they fought for all humanity.” At the same time, Reagan understood that this had led to a fate worse than tragedy: the Cold War and the living possibility of nuclear warfare. He wanted to remind Americans of all these facts, because they described both the situation and predicament of America in 1984 and the politilcal and military resources on which America had relied in her time of trial in 1944.
Reagan articulated in that speech the things that once made America confident and make her weak and hesitant now: from NATO, the typical organization of America’s position in the Cold War, to its typical idea, the defense of democracy against tyranny. For that reason, too, Americans should listen to and read that speech, to learn what kind of political thinking and what kind of political action are required to achieve the proud but reasonable confidence at which politics naturally aims. Reagan respectfully but daringly spoke for the silent veterans in his audience. But he never compared the prudence he practiced as a politician to their sacrifice in war. He did not seek to gain in stature from his speech, but he did want to put together what is fitting, paying homage, with what is needful, a serious reflection. He put prudence and piety together, so that America could be whole in Americans’ self-understanding. That is why his example is as important as his speech: It too is a show of nobility.
In 1984, Reagan offered America an understanding of herself, as it had acted in 1944, in preparation for victory but before it had been won. That is the true perspective of politics, never quite certain of success or of its permanence, always trying to match means to ends, to mediate between principles and circumstances. He put together examples of extraordinary martial virtue and equally extraordinary examples of moderation. In speaking of events, he could not be accused of flattery. But his praise of American and Allied virtue in a time of trouble went further than telling the truth about what happened. It also showed what’s truly worthy for Americans, the best at which they should aim, motivated by a reasonable pride in achievement and a reasonable shame in falling short of it again in the future. He put these ideas together in an understanding of prudence. He defined civilization and America’s role in it by saying that Americans, in overcoming their enemies, made friends of them. He thereby rejected both defeat in war and victory with revenge. He thought it would be bad for Americans to use their power to achieve revenge, just as it would be bad not to fight wars to achieve a lasting peace. In this way, he showed that prudence goes beyond partisans of war — and beyond partisans who want to avoid war in any given situation — while trying to honor what’s true in each of the two attitudes.
No one today can play the part of Reagan. And, too, prudence today would require different things from what it did then. Prudent action would look different. Reagan knew this, which is why he made the effort to connect 1984 to 1944, with the added benefit, of course, that there were people who remembered and lived through both times. He tried to show Americans that they could live in the light of truths learned at great cost. He tried to prove false the accusations most often leveled against democracies, that popular elections make for fickle, incoherent, unreliable foreign policies. He tried to show that the great effort to protect America follows from American character as embodied in men at war as much as from the people back home. That grand effort, in turn, safeguarded rather than endangered American character. He wanted to show that the ugliness and monstrous deeds of war did not mutilate the face of America, however they tested her strength. Moderation and justice would always be the guides of American conduct, he hoped, as they had been in her greatest trial. He tried to show Americans that this would be a test again in the Cold War: that America would have to win on the strength of her principles, prudently deployed, not despite them.
Reagan defined civilization and America’s role in it by saying that Americans, in overcoming their enemies, made friends of them. He thereby rejected both defeat in war and victory with revenge.
Something like what he did has to be done again, to try to connect 2017, for example, to 1977, with the much greater burden of reminding people of history before 9/11 or the end of the Cold War. It should go without saying, No one has a monopoly on Reagan’s legacy. In fact, he does not have political heirs when it comes to noble speeches. But America needs someone who can speak as he did to what makes Americans American, connecting history and morality, the necessities America faces and the powers available to meet the requirements of the times. Maybe the situation now is more like the end of the Vietnam War and less like the final years of the Cold War. Maybe it is not now possible to bring the nation together in an understanding of the common good, most nobly shown in great sacrifice in war. But that time must come again in the order of things, neither peace nor war, neither failure of policy nor success being permanent or foreordained. It behooves Americans to take nobility to heart and to study the politicians who, to understand American character and to pursue an adequate foreign policy, looked to American nobility.
This is the broadest view of the character and role of noble speeches in politics, and it needs to be restored. Listening to Reagan’s speech, everyone can feel reverence and be buoyed by hope. Everyone, too, must learn how he thought about America. Before any decisions about war and peace must come the deliberations on the character of America and the difficulties that Americans face in this new situation. The peace Americans should pursue, and the means, including war, which are needed to secure it, and the obstacles and enemies facing America — all have to be understood in relation to American character and the American capacity for concerted action. Knowing that Americans must face their difficulties together and that an imprudent policy will divide the nation in dangerous ways, as it has in the past, should teach politicians and all citizens interested in politics to turn to the study of prudent politicians. They alone unite the country by their actions and give a kind of coherence to the study of foreign affairs. Americans must learn of again both Reagan’s example and the task he took up. It is fitting and proper that such reflections should take place on such a commemorative occasion.
We have reason to believe that the ideas that guided Reagan’s understanding of America’s role in the world are true now as they were in 1984 or in 1944. They comport with America’s historical policy, but with changed circumstances. Reagan taught at Pointe de Hoc that America should never be eager for war, but that it should no longer retreat into itself. Without an urgent sense of the dangers America faces in the world, foresight and then force would be sacrificed. That sense of danger, however, would have to be tempered by a sense of the limits of policy. America should not seek to intervene except if American interests are threatened by “tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.” His aim was reconciliation, not domination. He reminded Americans that the best efforts of the greatest military power America had summoned still fell short of perpetual peace and instead opened up the possibility of nuclear war. It is prudent to be strong and prepared to defend oneself, but it is prudent also to remember that there are limits to strength and planning.
Reagan also uttered a fateful word not sufficiently thought about then or now. “The only territories we hold are memorials . . . and graveyards where our heroes rest.” Americans yearn to return home. They do not wish to conquer or to hold territories for long. That puts limits on war in terms of duration and objective. Trespassing those limits is imprudent and carries heartbreaking costs. Even within the proper limits of foreign policy, even a just defense of America, and therefore of civilization, will lead to memorials and graveyards in the order of things. Thinking very carefully about when it is justifiable to ask for sacrifice is, therefore, always necessary.
It is necessary to learn all these things again if America is to come together, to heal some of the wounds of disappointment and mutual recriminations among partisans, and to hold out to the nation the prospect of a coherent foreign policy in the future. Reagan tried to put past, present, and future together at Pointe de Hoc. To remind Americans of their debts to their forebears, lest they commit the worst injustice, ingratitude. To speak about the political and military necessities and hopes of the moment. And to prepare for the future by offering posterity a lesson in prudence. All civilized people owe a debt of gratitude to him and should learn from him, especially in times of confusion and partisan divide.