Biden looks to D-Day to inspire push for democracy at home and abroad

Mr Biden is aiming to channel historic moments to advance his own vision for the country’s global role.

President Joe Biden (Daniel Cole/AP)
President Joe Biden (Daniel Cole/AP) (Daniel Cole/AP)

President Joe Biden looked to summon Americans to defend democracy from threats at home and abroad — and draw an implicit contrast with Donald Trump — by highlighting the heroism of troops who scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc in the D-Day invasion 80 years ago.

The same spot was etched in the nation’s political memory in 1984, when president Ronald Reagan honoured the “boys of Pointe du Hoc” and drew common cause between their almost unthinkable feat in the face of Nazi Germany’s tyranny to the then-Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

Now, Mr Biden is aiming to channel both historic moments to advance his own vision for the country’s global role amid two gruelling wars and the persistence of former president Trump, who has continued to lie about his 2020 election loss and threatened to dismantle US commitments overseas.

“As we gather here today, it’s not just to honor those who showed such remarkable bravery that day June 6, 1944,” Mr Biden was to say according to prepared remarks released by the White House.

“It’s to listen to the echo of their voices. To hear them. Because they are summoning us. They’re asking us what will we do. They’re not asking us to scale these cliffs. They’re asking us to stay true to what America stands for.”

President Ronald Reagan delivers a speech in Normandy at Pointe Du Hoc (Ron Edmonds/AP)
President Ronald Reagan delivers a speech in Normandy at Pointe Du Hoc (Ron Edmonds/AP) (Ron Edmonds/AP)

While ostensibly an official speech, coming a day after Mr Biden marked the anniversary of the Normandy landings with solemn ceremonies alongside allies, his remarks were to be steeped in political overtones, as his campaign makes a renewed play for national security-minded Republican voters who lionised Mr Reagan and have never warmed to Mr Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.

A day earlier, Mr Biden paid his respects to the D-Day force in an emotional ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery that was also attended by dozens of veterans in their late 90s and older.

As Navy officer recited The Watch, affirming that a new generation was taking up their post in defence of freedom, and a 21-gun salute cast eerie smoke over 9,388 white marble headstones, the president grew heavy-eyed and pumped his fist as an F-35 flypast performed a missing-man salute.

Mr Biden, at 81 not even a generation removed from the Normandy fighters, cast himself — and the nation — as their inheritors in the timeless struggle between freedom and tyranny.

But the country’s willingness to take up their mantle has in many ways never been more uncertain amid the possibility of Mr Trump’s return to the White House.

It comes as Mr Biden is also seeking to end fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza — to free hostages held by the militant group and surge humanitarian assistance to civilians — while also trying to reorient US foreign policy to confront China’s rising power in Asia.

Before flying to Normandy, Mr Biden sat down with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday in Paris, where he stressed the US commitment to Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion and for the first time publicly apologised to the Ukrainian people for a months-long congressional hold-up in American military assistance that let Moscow make battlefield gains.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Evan Vucci/AP)
US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Evan Vucci/AP) (Evan Vucci/AP)

It was their first meeting since Mr Biden signed the legislation authorising the additional military assistance. He also announce a new 225 million dollars in ammunition shipments, including rockets, mortars, artillery rounds and air-defence missiles.

“I apologise for those weeks of not knowing what’s going to happen in terms of funding,” Mr Biden said, but insisted that the American people were standing by Ukraine for the long haul.

“We’re still in. Completely. Thoroughly,” he said.

Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters that his speech would focus on sacrifices made by US soldiers during “an existential fight between a dictatorship and freedom”.

“He’ll talk about the dangers of isolationism and how if we bow to dictators and fail to stand up to them, they keep going and ultimately America and the world pays a greater price,” Mr Sullivan added.

Pointe du Hoc is located on the sheer cliffs between Omaha and Utah beaches. Before D-Day, the Nazis were believed to have stationed artillery there, which would have allowed them to shell critical landing zones for Allied troops.

Army Rangers used ropes, ladders and their hands to scale Pointe du Hoc while under fire. When they reached the top, they realised that the artillery had already been moved elsewhere and only decoys remained. The weapons were tracked down nearby and disabled, and the Americans spent two days repelling Nazi counterattacks.

The mission was memorialised by Mr Reagan on the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984.

“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” he said. “These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Mr Reagan’s speech, coming as the Cold War with the Soviet Union remained under way, was also a call for the US to not turn its back on Europe.

“We in America have learned bitter lessons from two World Wars,” he said. “It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.”

It is a view that would likely put him out of step with the modern Republican Party, which under Mr Trump’s leadership has become increasingly sceptical of foreign entanglements.

Mr Biden highlighted the contrast during his State of the Union this year.

“It wasn’t that long ago when a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, thundered, ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’” a reference to another famous speech in Berlin.

“Now, my predecessor, a former Republican president, tells Putin, ‘Do whatever the hell you want.’”

Mr Trump made that comment at a February rally in South Carolina, warning European allies not to be “delinquent” in their military spending or he would refuse to help them as president.