Over the past few days, the American media have shared the touching image of an armada of wheelchairs crossing the airports of the United States to great applause, on their way to Normandy: They are the last survivors of the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. The fervor of the cheering public is not feigned because everyone is guessing that, in 2024, this 80th anniversary is one of the last in which we can still hope for the presence of the heroes of the Second World War. Perhaps we’re also aware that with them goes a certain idea of America.

To understand the evolution of leadership since this founding event in transatlantic relations, let’s retrace the steps of D-Day commemorations, decade by decade. Each American president has marked this evolution in his own way, without ever hindering it.

Ronald Reagan undoubtedly left the most lasting mark, on the 40th anniversary in 1984, in the midst of the Cold War, with a speech at the Pointe du Hoc that still grips historians. Reagan wasn’t an actor for nothing. He grasped the heroic and political dimension of this cliff taken by American rangers to neutralize the German artillery battery aimed at the D-Day beaches. It was the spot he chose to extol the liberating spirit of American democracy and the strength of the transatlantic bond, at a time of tension with the Soviet Union (USSR). “We were with you then,” said Reagan. “We are with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, your destiny is our destiny.”

In 1994, a still ill-defined role

A decade later in 1994, the world had changed, and so had Washington. The USSR had collapsed and the Cold War was over. Bill Clinton, the first president to be born after the war, was one of the baby boomers who had avoided serving in Vietnam, and he too chose the Pointe du Hoc to try and restore his image by paying tribute to the honor of the GIs. But he made no attempt to glorify American leadership on the world stage, even though columnist George Will wrote in the Washington Post on the same day that Normandy was “where the United States stepped forward as the leader of the West.”

The role of American power in this nascent post-Cold War world was still poorly defined, and Clinton himself expressed more questions than certainties. The painful issue of Bosnia divided Europe and the US. Washington was trying to make the Europeans understand that “Bosnia is not an American problem,” in the words of a senior official, while the Europeans were relentless in their desire to involve the United States – something French President Jacques Chirac would eventually obtain.

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