If Ronald Reagan hadn’t been president, no one would remember WWII.
That is, writes prolific historian Brinkley (Rosa Parks, 2000, etc.), if it had not been for two speeches Reagan gave in Normandy on June 6, 1984, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Allied landings, “there may never have been Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, or numerous memorials—like the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans—built to exalt the citizen soldiers who liberated Europe.” The counterfactual tragedy that a whole publishing and filmmaking niche might never have been filled did not come to pass, thanks largely to the efforts of speechwriter Peggy Noonan (and, secondarily, Anthony Dolan), who gave Reagan his words on that historic day. (To his credit, writes Brinkley, Reagan worried that the French government’s awarding him the Légion d’Honneur would give him military credentials that he did not have. To his discredit, Bitburg was just around the corner.) Brinkley tells two sometimes uneasily interlocking stories. The first is that of the Ranger unit that scaled a cliff and destroyed a Nazi artillery battery, then warded off a series of counterattacks; of the 225 members of the unit, Brinkley notes, “only 99 survived the amphibious assault.” The second concerns Noonan’s campaign to interview surviving members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion and craft memorable words for the president to commemorate the event, which she did with great care and to great effect. Tracing the lineage of the speech, Brinkley gives a special nod to Time columnist Lance Morrow, from whom Noonan borrowed heavily; it was he who evoked Shakespeare’s “band of brothers” speech in Henry V, a notion that bore fruit in Steven Ambrose’s book of that title published eight years later—and set off a fresh wave of interest in WWII and its aging veterans.
Thus, concludes Brinkley, “The story of D-Day as the pervasive metaphor for American bravery and goodness . . . endures for the ages to ponder.” He makes a solid case.