COLLEVILE-SUR-MER, France — Speaking at the Normandy cemetery where nearly 9,400 Americans are buried, President Barack Obama on Friday said maintaining freedom continues to require sacrifices like those made by the men who landed here 70 years ago to defeat Nazi Germany.
“We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for,” Obama said. “We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.”
The anniversary was of particular significance for World War II veterans, whose numbers are rapidly dwindling. It was along the coast here on June 6, 1944, that more than 160,000 American and Allied troops invaded northern France in an operation that would mark the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany.
Obama touted the bravery of America’s D-Day force, which suffered astonishing casualties at Omaha Beach, above which the Normandy American Cemetery now sits.
“Here, we don’t just commemorate victory, as proud of that victory as we are. We don’t just honor sacrifice, as grateful as the world is,” Obama said. “We come to remember why America and our Allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at this moment of maximum peril.”
Obama did not mention Europe’s current crisis in the wake of Russia’s moves against Ukraine, which for some have evoked memories of Germany’s land grabs at the dawn of World War II. The response by U.S. and European policymakers have also come under criticism by some, including World War II veterans, who say the West isn’t doing enough to deter Russian aggression.
“They’re letting it slide instead of standing up to it and stopping it,” said George Sherman, an 88-year-old veteran who fought at Bastogne with the 11th Armored Division. “It just reminds me of Munich all over again. It’s the same ‘Peace in our time’ baloney. And the only way you stop them is to stand up now.”
Obama’s speech was sprinkled with language asserting a continued need for strength and allusions to loftier U.S. goals in Europe.
“When the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory,” he said. “We helped Europe rebuild. We claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag, and where we stationed those who still serve under it.”
Other military leaders in Normandy for days of commemorations and celebrations marking D-Day have stopped short of singling out Russia in public remarks, focusing instead on the actions of the veterans who carried out the invasion.
Nevertheless, current events are on the minds of many here.
“The whole situation is pretty sad,” said John MacPhee, who nearly drowned trying to wade 400 meters to shore at Omaha Beach and was shot in both legs and the lower back during the D-Day assault.
Infighting between political parties in the U.S. doesn’t help the situation, MacPhee said. Politicians seem to only remember the lessons of D-Day “on days like this.”
When it comes to deterring Russia, the U.S. “can’t do it alone,” Sherman said.