It’s fitting that the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s death were just a day apart. Reagan’s remarks on the 40th anniversary of the Normandy invasion set the tone for all future commemorations as he delivered what is widely regarded as one of his best speeches.
Bill Clinton reportedly watched videos of the speech before embarking on his own trip to Normandy in 1994. Ten years later, that’s where George W. Bush reacted to the news of Reagan’s death. Barack Obama is said to have watched many of Reagan’s speeches; it’s unlikely the 1984 D-Day anniversary address missed the cut.
The speech will also leave its imprint on the Republican foreign-policy debate as many 2016 contenders try to wrap themselves in the mantle of Reagan. The lessons many of them will draw from it are predictably hawkish.
“We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars,” Reagan said. “It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost.”
What might be the money line for a Chris Christie or Jeb Bush: “We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.”
“Isolationism” is in the parlance of some the only alternative to war and intervention. And from Russia to Iran, we are told, isolationism will not do.
Reagan didn’t necessarily see things this way.
“But we try always to be prepared for peace, prepared to deter aggression, prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms, and yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation,” the 40th president of the United States continued. “In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.”
“It’s fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II,” Reagan said. “Twenty million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands.”
A little over two years later, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were discussing the abolition of nuclear weapons in Reykjavik. They didn’t accomplish this, but in 1987 they did conclude a historic arms reduction agreement that displeased many conservatives.
John P. Roche penned an article in National Review calling the INF Treaty “Reagan’s Suicide Pact.” Four years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was won.
This might be worth remembering when someone touting their “Reaganite” foreign policy seems eager to restart it.
Mudwrestling over Reagan’s foreign policy may not seem like a productive exercise, not least because the world has changed so much since he was president. But some on the right who like to speak in Reagan’s name appear to view all international threats through the prism of World War II or the Cold War, regularly seeking a new Nazi Germany or Soviet Union to vanquish.
The hawks like Reagan’s moral clarity and his bedrock belief in America’s role as leader of the free world. They have less use for his aversion to war and killing. Six months before his D-Day speech, Reagan said, “Reducing the risk of war—especially nuclear war—is priority number one.”
Reagan noted this disconnect himself when he wrote of some advisers in his memoirs, “they tossed around macabre jargon about ‘throw weights’ and ‘kill ratios’ as if they were talking about baseball scores.” His Secretary of State George Schultz observed, “Reagan was consistently committed to his personal vision of a world without nuclear weapons; his advisers were determined to turn him away from that course.”
None of this is to deny that Reagan was in many respects a hawk himself, a firm believer in American military might as a force for good. He was certainly not a non-interventionist. But many of his contemporary admirers seem to forget the first word of “peace through strength.”
It is hard to imagine Reagan—whose only land war lasted about two days—advocating simultaneous military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and Libya, as some neo-Reaganites appear to do if you take their rhetoric at face value.
If the Republican presidential candidates go back and study Reagan’s speech, let’s hope they pay attention to all his words, as well as his deeds.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?