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Our obligation today to the brave heroes of D-Day 75 years ago

D-Day veterans gather during a D-Day commemoration event

D-Day veterans gather during a D-Day commemoration event at the Historical Dockyard in Portsmouth, southern England, on June 2, 2019. Credit: AP/Andrew Matthews

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, American, British and Canadian troops began landing on the beaches of Normandy to start wresting Europe from Adolf Hitler and his fascist forces.

About 153,000 men and boys, 76,000 of them Americans, tumbled out of transports into the cold waters or dropped from the sky that day. Each was hobbled by 80 pounds of gear and the terror borne of swarms of bullets coming at them. Ahead lay battlefields strewn with sharpened stakes, barbed wire and land mines, protected by German machine guns fired from sheltered fortresses on the bluffs above.

Behind these soldiers stood the might and pride and love of Americans and our Allies, united in a shared purpose, fighting the most terrible evil our nation and the countries who shared our ideals had ever faced. This was a war not just between nations but between belief systems, with good men dying to stop fascism and genocide.

The assault that day had to work, and it did, at a cost of about 4,000 Allied lives, 2,500 of them American. Once these lead forces had secured the area, a fantastic mass of troops and equipment supplied by a herculean effort on the homefront were dispersed through western Europe to fight the Axis powers. The war in Europe officially ended in May 1945, but it was won 75 years ago Thursday through staggeringly brave acts undertaken in a noble cause.

The end of World War II seemed to signal the dawning of an age in which enlightened ideals would triumph. Believing that the grinding punishments the Treaty of Versailles imposed on the nations that lost World War I were a direct cause of the second one, the United States helped Germany and Japan rebuild, just as it did France and Britain. The Allied victory renewed a trend toward democratic freedoms and equality that we thought would, over time, be embraced by all. It seemed that the massive technological and manufacturing power developed in the United States would, at home and exported, provide increasing prosperity for the world.

This did happen in many places and at many times, but the usual evils of the world also persisted. Humans and nations continued to often be cruel, hateful toward “the other,” power hungry and violent.

In the Soviet Union after World War II, Josef Stalin and the Communists killed as many as 50 million people. In China, Mao Zedong did much the same. More wars followed for the United States and our European allies, and these nations struggled with racial and gender equality and did more harm than good while interfering with other nations. More than seven decades later, furious nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise in the countries where American blood was shed to stop them. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but that progress is always uneven and never assured.

Today, we remember the brave men and boys who fought evil under terrifying circumstances, but remembering them is not enough.

We also must honor them by continuing to fight for a free and prosperous nation, and a world where democracy and equality thrive.

What a betrayal it would be to let what they won be undone.  — The editorial board