Today marks the 10th anniversary of the death of one of the 20th century’s towering figures: Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th president of the United States. He died at age 93 of pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer’s disease.
Reagan had a remarkable political career. At mid-century, no one had a clue he would one day be president. He was a Hollywood actor, mostly known for playing leading men, or sometimes the second male lead, in B movies.
Off screen, he was politically active, first as a Democrat, then later as a Republican. In 1964, he gave a nationally televised speech on behalf of GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, and a political star was born. In 1966, in his first attempt at running for public office, Reagan won the governorship of California. A decade later, he tried for the Republican nomination for president.
He lost to incumbent President Gerald Ford that year, but his impromptu speech at the 1976 Republican National Convention—at President Ford’s request—gave Reagan a leg up in 1980, when he not only received his party’s nomination but was elected president, winning 44 of 50 states and handily defeating President Jimmy Carter.
In 1984, Reagan won 49 of the 50 states, earning a second term in the White House.
A few years ago, more than 135 scholars who study rhetoric and public address developed a list of the Top 100 speeches of the 20th century. Ronald Reagan made six of them.
One of those speeches was Reagan’s address on the coast of France on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1984. Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the Allied military operation that moved World War II toward its close in Europe. Reagan delivered this address near the top of a cliff overlooking the spot where Allied forces stormed the beaches. In his audience were some of the soldiers who took part in that historic battle. He lauded their commitment, saying:
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge—and pray God we have not lost it—that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
Listen to more excerpts from Reagan’s D-Day remembrance speech on The World and Everything in It: