At hallowed WWII battleground, Biden makes case for unity on Ukraine


U.S President Joe Biden speaks about bravery, democracy and D-Day as he stands next to the Pointe du Hoc monument in Normandy, France, June 7, 2024. [AP Photo]

Standing alone atop a concrete bunker dug into a 100-foot cliff overlooking the cold, choppy waters off Normandy's coast, U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday explained why he came to the French countryside to deliver a forceful speech drawing a straight line from the past to the present.

"Where we stand was not sacred ground on June 5th, but that's what it became on June the 6th," he said, referring to the battle that Allied forces launched that day in 1944.

"The Rangers who scaled this cliff didn't know they would change the world," he said of the U.S. unit that played a pivotal role in the D-Day invasion that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany. "But they did. I've long said that history has shown that ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things when challenged.  There's no better example of that in the entire world than right here at Pointe du Hoc."

Biden thus capped his French tour of American wartime nostalgia, which included a dramatic day of events at the battle's main American cemetery, with this point: This tale of autocratic aggression can happen again.

In fact, he argued, it is happening again, in Ukraine.

That nation has spent the past two years, with substantial American military help, holding its ground against a fierce Russian assault. Biden has argued, repeatedly, that Russia will not stop at Ukraine's borders, and he has urged NATO members to show a strong front.

As Biden spoke under a cloudless blue sky, he regularly met eyes with a man huddled in a wheelchair in the front row: 99-year-old John Wardell, one of the dwindling number of survivors of the Ranger battalion that scaled those rocky cliffs.

"As we gather here today, it's not just to honor those who showed such remarkable bravery that day, June 6, 1944," Biden said. "It's to listen to the echo of their voices. To hear them. Because they are summoning us. They ask 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."

But the people Biden needs to convince are back in Washington, holding the American government's purse strings in Congress. It took six months for U.S. lawmakers to approve a package of about $61 billion in military aid for Ukraine, and some Republicans have warned that this was the last American handout to help Ukraine fend off Russia's two-year invasion.

Biden referenced that fact when he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier in the day in Paris, as he announced another $225 million in funding.

"You continue to fight in a way that is remarkable, just remarkable," Biden told Zelenskyy. "And I'm not going to walk away from you. I apologize for the first weeks of not knowing what's going [on] in terms of funding. Because we had trouble getting the bill, we had to pass, to have the money in. Some of our very conservative members who were holding it up. But we got it done, finally."

'You saved Europe'

A day earlier, Zelenskyy attended D-Day commemorations and had emotional meetings with U.S. veterans of that 1944 battle.

At one meeting, 99-year-old Melvin Hurwitz, speaking from his wheelchair, grabbed the Ukrainian leader's right hand and pulled him down, into a bear hug.

"You're the savior of the people," Hurwitz said.

"No, no, no," Zelenskyy replied. "You [are]. You saved Europe."

A day later, Zelenskyy thanked Biden for American support.

"It's very important that you stay with us," he told Biden. "This bipartisan support with the Congress, it's very important that in this unity, the United States of America, all American people, stay with Ukraine, like it was during World War II. How the United States helped to save human lives, to save Europe. And we count on your continuing support and standing with us shoulder to shoulder."

But Europe, too, realizes it has a role to play here.

"There is definitely a common belief in Europe that we need to step up for our own defense and security," said Leonie Allard, a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council's Europe Center and a former French defense official. "But of course, European security and the future of the architecture in Europe cannot be without the U.S. So whatever steps are taken, I know that the U.S. is in the room and there is some form of coordination."

Historians note that the diminishing number of World War II survivors means that the next American president will have even fewer ways to highlight the nation's well-regarded role in establishing peace.

History professor Jeremi Suri said that for the undergraduates he teaches, World War II is "ancient, ancient history."

"So it will mean we're more distant and the heroism, the defense of democracy, the Greatest Generation stories we've told ourselves for so long, those will be less compelling. They already are becoming less compelling," he said.

But, said Suri, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin — and who acknowledged that few conflicts pack the narrative punch of World War II — there are other stories to tell.

"We do have many legitimate, honest stories of heroism from the Cold War, those who defended dissidents, those who participated in civil rights marches, those who stood up for solidarity workers who were striking in Poland and elsewhere," he said. "They're not the stories that have the same heroic varnish, and they don't have the same cinematography associated with them. But I do think they're compelling, and I think presidents will start to evoke those as much as they do the D-Day," he said.

"It's a made-for-Hollywood moment," Suri said.

That's a fact that Biden, who walked onstage accompanied by a piece of music from a popular TV series about World War II, "Band of Brothers," surely knows.

Just seconds after Biden completed his speech, he made a beeline to the front row. Wardell, with help from his caretaker on one side and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the other, struggled to his feet.

Atop that cliff that Wardell first scaled at the tender age of 18, he clasped hands with the president.

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