Biden Honors D-Day Heroes, Reflects on Modern Threats to Democracy

The vision of the greatest generation—who sacrificed on the Normandy beaches—is fading into history along with the last of the old soldiers.

by Faruk Imamovic
Biden Honors D-Day Heroes, Reflects on Modern Threats to Democracy
© Getty Images/Win McNamee

The vision of the greatest generation—who sacrificed on the Normandy beaches—is fading into history along with the last of the old soldiers. The 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings, observed by President Joe Biden in France, marked a significant milestone, likely being the last major decennial commemoration attended by substantial numbers of veterans. Even the youngest soldiers from that time would now be nearing 100 years old.

The Final Salute

“We’re not far off from the time when the last living voices of those who fought and bled on D-Day will no longer be with us, so we have a special obligation,” Biden said, embracing and saluting the last surviving members of the invasion force above the beaches where thousands of Americans died. “We cannot let what happened here be lost in the silence of the years to come.”

Unity Amid Modern Dread

NATO leaders gathered at a paradoxical moment of unity and growing dread. The alliance, with a renewed mission to oppose another tyrant’s war in Ukraine, faces unprecedented challenges. At no point since June 6, 1944, has US leadership and support for internationalist values been so questioned. Democracy faces its sternest test from far-right populism and resurgent empires like Russia and China.

Biden drew a direct line between the fight against Hitler and the current battle against Putin's attempt to obliterate Ukraine’s democracy. “We cannot let that happen. To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators is simply unthinkable. Were we to do that, it means we’d be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches,” Biden said.

America's Role in Question

Biden’s words resonate amid fears that the US might turn its back on the West. Allies, unsettled by Trump's past attacks on NATO, were further rattled by his recent comment that he’d let Russia do “whatever the hell they want” with allies he regarded as failing to “pay their bills” on defense spending. This comment undermined NATO’s mutual self-defense creed. Trump’s advisers warn he might try to exit the alliance if he wins a second term. Even if Biden wins, there are signs that Americans’ willingness to maintain security guarantees—which have bought 80 years of peace—may be waning.

Trump’s “America First” philosophy deeply influences the Republican Party. The ex-president tried to overturn US democracy to stay in power. Some GOP figures now seem to have more empathy for Putin than for the European democracies the US rebuilt after World War II. The delay in funding Biden’s aid package for Ukraine raised doubts about Washington's commitment to democracy in Europe.

D-Day 80th Anniversary Ceremony At Normandy American Ceremony
D-Day 80th Anniversary Ceremony At Normandy American Ceremony© Getty Images/Win McNamee

Historical Memory and Modern Politics

As the final survivors of World War II pass away, the world will lose living testimony of a fight against tyranny. This transition risks a dangerous period when political actors could distort history to bolster their power. This distortion is already happening as lessons from the Nazi Holocaust, with dwindling survivors, are challenged by rising antisemitism in Western societies.

Biden’s leadership is seen as a return to normality post-Trump, who disrupted US stability. Trump’s mix of isolationism and populism stemmed from US military failures abroad and a belief that globalization eroded domestic prosperity. This sentiment has sparked debates in Europe about increasing their security responsibilities.

Charles Kupchan from the Council on Foreign Relations believes the internal threat to the West is as significant as external threats. “And it’s not just Trump,” he said. “It’s also what’s happening to the political center in France, Germany, and the likely gains of the far right in the upcoming EU elections.”

Normandy's Legacy

The Normandy landings marked the US emergence as a superpower with the will to make the world safe for democracy. However, the risk of sending an armada across the English Channel was enormous. By the end of June 6, none of the invading forces had achieved their objectives. More than 10,000 were dead, wounded, or missing. Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had prepared a message in case of retreat, taking full responsibility. However, the allies slowly established a foothold and by August, they were in Paris. Victory in Europe was achieved by May 1945.

Commemorations and Symbolism

D-Day commemorations have evolved from low-key events to significant diplomatic gatherings. This year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky added weight to the event, paralleling Ukraine's fight against Russia with the allied battle against Hitler. Russian leaders, usually present to honor Soviet sacrifices, were not invited this year due to Putin’s pariah status.

This year’s event held domestic significance for leaders like King Charles III and Presidents Macron and Biden. Biden, echoing Ronald Reagan’s 1984 speech at Pointe du Hoc, reinforced the message of enduring freedom. Reagan’s call for freedom and strong alliances remains relevant today, highlighting the Republican Party's shift from Reagan’s principles to "America First."

Reagan emphasized the importance of protecting peace and maintaining strong alliances. Biden faces a similar challenge, seeking to reassure allies and emphasize the US role in supporting democracy. However, in today's political climate, Biden’s ability to make such promises without contradiction is uncertain.