Each year they arrive at Normandy: the veterans who pushed back German platoons after landing in the largest seaborne invasion in history. Townspeople hang out of their windows waving American flags. Commemorating the anniversary of D-Day always has a way of transcending politics.
On the 70th anniversary in 2014, which I covered as the Monitor's Paris bureau chief, the unthinkable had happened: Russia had annexed Crimea, Europe’s first forced border exchange in decades. Yet I saw Europe’s leaders standing together, alongside President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, resolute in paying homage to the men whose bravery helped forge a more stable world.
Five years later, the unthinkable is happening again, with the very alliances born out of D-Day under deep strain. Yet President Donald Trump, who has been sharply critical of the international order, gave a reverential speech at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial where 9,000 U.S. servicemen are buried. "You’re the pride of our nation," he told the veterans. French President Emmanuel Macron also thanked the United States, which he said “is never greater than when it is fighting for the freedom of others.”
These words resonate even more powerfully in the presence of the last witnesses of world war. I remember meeting Joe Steimel, who was 19 years old when he landed in Normandy, serving in the 29th U.S. Infantry Division. He still carried the weight and ambiguities of war. “I want to say to the French,” he told me, tearing up, “if I killed any civilians, I am truly sorry.”
For a bonus read, we have dusted off a personal essay from our archives. Monitor diplomacy correspondent Howard LaFranchi reflects on his experience as a high school exchange student, living with former members of the French Resistance.
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