The exposure of the National Security Agency’s domestic and international surveillance programs by Edward Snowden has had a profound impact on America’s standing in the world, with many in the mainstream media portraying the U.S. as an authoritarian state masquerading as a free society.
But President Barack Obama drew a clear distinction Friday between that perception of America and the country that 70 years ago paid for “democracy’s beachhead” with a downpayment of 9,387 American lives.
“We come to remember why America and our allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at its moment of maximum peril,” Obama said, speaking June 6 at the Normandy American Cemetery in France, overlooking where more than 150,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed by ship to begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis.
“We tell this story for the old soldiers who pull themselves a little straighter today to salute brothers who never made it home. We tell the story for the daughter who clutches a faded photo of her father, forever young; for the child who runs his fingers over colorful ribbons he knows signify something of great consequence, even if he doesn’t yet fully understand why,” Obama said. “We tell this story to bear what witness we can to what happened when the boys from America reached Omaha Beach.”
The president’s speech — arguably one of the most stirring and poignant of his time in office — comes at a critical point for U.S. foreign and national security policy. The administration has been beset by crises at home and abroad, most notably Russian military intervention in the Ukraine, increasing tensions with China over cyberespionage and the international fallout from the Snowden revelations, which have created a deep sense of distrust among America’s European allies.
But Obama offered a different portrait of America and suggested that today’s social media-driven society may not have been up to the task of dealing with the level of sacrifice that was necessary during World War II.
“By 8:30 a.m., General Omar Bradley expected our troops to be a mile inland. ‘Six hours after the landings,’ he wrote, ‘we held only ten yards of beach.’ In this age of instant commentary, the invasion would have swiftly and roundly been declared, as it was by one officer, ‘a debacle.’ But such a race to judgment would not have taken into account the courage of free men,” Obama said.
More than 5,000 allied troops died on the first day of the invasion. Of those who never made it off the beach June 6, 1944, nearly half were American.
“It was here, on these shores, that the tide was turned in that common struggle for freedom,” Obama said. “What more powerful manifestation of America’s commitment to human freedom than the sight of wave after wave after wave of young men boarding those boats to liberate people they had never met?” Follow @DanielVerton