“The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
Thus Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower admonished the Allied Expeditionary Forces about to storm the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944, seventy-six years ago today, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi tyranny, and laying the foundations of the free world order we still enjoy today.
And even today, a memorial to President Eisenhower rises under construction in Washington D.C., south of the National Mall. Godwilling, a few last surviving veterans of the D-Day landings who read Ike’s words as they marched to battle so many years ago, will be there for the dedication.
For they did it—by their endurance, their grit, their patriotism, their service, those men on the beach and their wisest leaders at home crushed the fascists, stared down the communists, and forged from the ashes of world war a better world. Not a perfect world, by any means, nor a perfect America. But something better than it had been. Not all generations have been called to such apocalyptic glory.
The mission continued. Every so often since 1944, the ambitions of great leaders and the swirling currents of history have given subsequent generations their own rendezvouses with destiny. American warriors fought and died in far-off lands throughout the Cold War and ever since; American freedom fighters stood up against America’s founding sins at home in the long march of the Civil Rights Movement; American engineers and scientists and doctors have striven to expand our understanding of the world, and mastery of technology, across all domains. We have never been short of our own homegrown legends and heroes, even as our politics seems to shrink in magnanimity, and our culture grows coarser and more shrill.
2020 has been quite a year, but upon historical reflection, nothing unprecedented. In our own lifetimes and in the hazy past, we’ve had international crises, presidential impeachments, global pandemics, economic crashes, racial injustice, public unrest, and polarizing elections, and always muddled through one way or another—they’re just hitting all at once, at a time when we’ve lost faith in ourselves and in each other. The situation is fragile and shifting; we’ve all been driven to our corners; darkness shrouds our common ground. Now more than ever, in the absence of wise leadership to bring us together, we must do it for ourselves.
My fellow Americans, we are quite capable of doing terrible things to each other—we’ve done it a thousand times and more. But we are quite capable, as well, of doing great and wonderful things together, for ourselves and for all nations. The moments we’ve been living through this year, especially through the pandemic lockdowns and the nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd, have laid bare many of our pretenses and failures, all the flaws of our nature on bright, terrible display. They also have shown us some things we hold in common, if we pause to look and listen—our love of our rights and our livelihoods, our love of our homes and our neighbors, our propensity to righteous anger, our passion for justice, our capacities for charity, solidarity, redemption, and grace. These, my friends, are not the sole property of any one faction or sect in American life, but a hearth shared by all—these are the marks of a free people, diverse and fractious as we are, trying to live together as best we can.
The tasks of binding up the nation’s wounds, reforming our institutions on solid and equitable foundations, cultivating our own characters to bring out our braver angels when all seems lost and broken, realigning our political loyalties that they might be productive rather than pernicious, and generally addressing all the problems unique to the 21st century alongside all the problems unique to the American experiment—those still lie ahead, and they are formidable indeed.
But may we march forth as a house united, the fire of American patriots, reformers, explorers, warriors, critics, citizens, and statesmen of every background, from every American generation past, coursing through our veins. We will never agree on all things, either in principle or in fact; we may never come to accept some things about each other, either. But we must always act in good faith and courage, for this American cause far greater than any of us. We must act worthy of ourselves.
The past is not dead. The past lives in us, and with us. It stays with us—weighing us down and lifting us up at the same time, however much of it we remember or forget—as we go forth to build a better future. It is our inheritance, our identity, our great curse and great blessing, the shame and pride and duty we all bear. It cannot be escaped; but it can be wrestled with and remembered, in the name of a better future for us all.
Before the last American veteran of the Second World War leaves us for a better world, I hope he can look around, and know that what he and his generation fought to save and to build so many years ago is not yet a forlorn hope.
Luke Nathan Phillips, Braver Angels
June 6th, 2020