Reagan’s call 40 years after D-Day to stand against tyranny holds true today

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When Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential elections, I thought Carter’s foreign policy nested in strong moral values was over. I was wrong. Forty years ago on the anniversary of D-Day, Reagan spelled out America’s clear moral purpose — to stand against tyranny and for freedom.

As Peggy Noonan recalls, having worked on Reagan’s “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” speech delivered that day, it was a “plain-faced” speech that valorized Operation Overlord’s heroes simply by describing what they did. But, she writes, it was also a message to beleaguered Western leaders under pressure from domestic isolationism and Soviet expansionism alike: “he was telling them, between the lines: Hold firm and we will succeed.”

Forty years later, the ceremonies marking D-Day’s 80th anniversary are colossally moving, and showcase the continuity of views from Roosevelt to Reagan to Biden. This president’s speech echoed Reagan’s in its call to stand firm against tyranny, in its acknowledgment that freedom is worth dying for and in its resolve to meet the moment. On this, Reagan and Biden are political soul mates.

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“Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead,” said Reagan. “Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for.”

“Democracy is never guaranteed,” said Biden. “Every generation must preserve it, defend it, and fight for it. … In memory of who fought here, died here, literally saved the world here, let us be worthy of their sacrifice.”

I’ve visited the site and seen the steepness of the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, which 225 Army Rangers scaled while bullets rained on them. Seventy-seven were killed and dozens more wounded — in all, more than 4,400 Allied troops died among the 160,000 who landed in Normandy on D-Day. 

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If Reagan were here now, what would he do to fight growing isolationism in his party? Could he convince them that, as he said in his own D-Day speech: “isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent”? House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) at least channeled Reagan’s spirit when he finally shepherded Ukraine aid to bipartisan passage through the House and noted that “history will judge us for what we do.” But how for how much longer can he outflank the isolationists?

Europe, too, is seeing growing populism. Right wing populist parties are surging in polls in France and Germany, and already hold power in Italy. Now as then, the United States must hold the Western alliance together. The remaining heroes of D-Day will soon leave us, and it may be hard even five years from now to rekindle the unity of this week. That’s the problem — and the challenge. We are free because of them. We must find the way on a bipartisan basis to continue to honor their sacrifice. I salute Ronald Reagan and Joe Biden for doing their part.

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Jane Harman is the chair of the National Defense Strategy Commission. She is a former nine-term congresswoman from California, former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and author of “Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confont Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe.”

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