On Normandy beach, U.S. president salutes W.W. II victors, warns N. Korea, Iran

McClatchy NewspapersJune 6, 2009 

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France_On the 65th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy to free Europe from the Nazis, President Barack Obama saluted the elderly veterans who once stormed the beaches and achieved an "improbable victory" in World War II.

Calls for cooperation instead of unilateralism, and diplomacy whenever it is possible, ran through the remarks at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial by Obama, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

After a two-hour meeting in nearby Caen earlier in the day, Obama and Sarkozy told reporters they were on the same page about most foreign policy issues - including the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detainee prison, reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and responding to North Korea's nuclear tests and Iran's nuclear program.

Obama called North Korea's nuclear and missile tests "extraordinarily provocative" and said they were "constantly destabilizing" the region. He warned: "We do not intend to continue a policy of rewarding provocation."

Regarding Iran, Obama said he had shifted from conditional talks favored by President Bush to direct talks without preconditions. But he warned it would be "profoundly dangerous" if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon and would provoke a nuclear arms race in the region.

Sarkozy told reporters that he and Obama had a "total convergence of views" on North Korea. He said he'd told Iran's foreign minister "how important it is" to accept Obama's offer of talks, adding: "We cannot in any way accept the insane statements made by President Mahmoud (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad" - a reference to the Iranian leader's denial of the Holocaust.

"We basically coordinate on all major issues," Sarkozy summed up, "and we are determined to continue that."

The events in France capped Obama's four-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, a trip built around his speech Thursday at Cairo University seeking to repair the deep rift between the U.S. and Muslim nations and restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

At the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, before the graves of 9,387 soldiers, Obama told thousands of veterans and family members that "we live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true," and "it is rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity. But all know that this war was essential."

"The ideal of the United Nations was born from the struggle of the free peoples against Nazism," Sarkozy said, adding that their collective duty "is to give life to that ideal." Noting that Obama's grandfather and a great uncle had served in World War II, Sarkozy told the president: "You are therefore twice over, by the office you hold and by the blood which flows through your veins, the symbol of the America that we love."

Brown accidentally referred to Omaha Beach as "Obama Beach."

The leaders lay a wreath at the memorial for the soldiers. Guns saluted. Taps played. Jets flew over.

Obama recalled how D-Day secured France, opened the path to Berlin and paved the way for Europe's liberation, the Marshall Plan, NATO.

"It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the twentieth century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide," he said.

As well as the improbable victory by the Allied forces, Obama said, D-Day resonated in the American consciousness because of its "clarity of purpose."

His choice of words underscored his message this week that Muslims must no longer debate the history of the Holocaust, and they seemed to justify his moves to end the Iraq war and deploy more forces to fight the Taliban and Al Qaida in Afghanistan.

A sea breeze cut the warm, sunny air as the D-Day veterans, the youngest of whom are 82, filed to their seats.

Veteran and former Sen. Bob Dole, his wife, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, and actor Tom Hanks were in the crowd. Bob Dole said it was too soon for judgments on Obama's skills as commander in chief. "The commander in chief has a great challenge," he said. "Things happen you can't control." Elizabeth Dole said she was humbled to be surrounded by "heroes who literally saved the world."

Susan Eisenhower was there, the granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied forces on D-Day. So was Prince Charles, and Obama's great uncle, Charles Payne, who helped liberate a sub-camp at Buchenwald the following year.

One veteran who made the journey this year despite his failing health, Jim Norene of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, died in his sleep on the eve of the ceremony, after one last visit to the cemetery, Obama told the audience.

"May he now rest in peace with the boys he once bled with, and may his family always find solace in the heroism he showed here," the president said.

Many of the World War II veterans who returned to Normandy said they were honored by the presence of Obama - who is young enough to be their grandson and never served in the military.

"I like him and I really appreciate the fact he took the time to come," said John Gill, 84, of Madison, Wisc., who at 19 anchored off of Omaha Beach on June 8, 1944, and was severely wounded two months later at Vire when he was hit by the Germans.

On Saturday, Gill, rolled through the cemetery in a wheelchair, clutching an envelope that contained maps of his path. He also brought photos, including one of him with President George W. Bush at the last anniversary he attended. His message for Obama: "Make more diplomatic efforts to prevent wars. People have no idea what it's like. It's terrifying."

But some viewed the president's participation as a distraction.

"I reluctantly accepted the invitation to attend," said Charles L. Wilson, 84, a retired major general from Fort Worth, Tex., who now lives in Belgium and flew airplanes in the South Pacific during the war.

"I didn't vote for him," Wilson said, decrying what he sees as Obama's "socialist" tendencies. "He's heading our country in the direction of European nations, and that's a mistake. He hasn't served in the military. He's grown up in an environment that's shaped his attitude toward the world, and we can't change that."

Kevin Jones, 38, a black American and Desert Shield veteran, who is now living in Paris where his wife works as a lawyer, said "it doesn't bother me at all" that Obama hadn't served in the military.

"It makes me proud to see my president."

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

In defeat for U.S., OAS will let Cuba rejoin without conditions

Obama to visit D-Day site in France on 65th anniversary

Obama invites world's Muslims to seek 'new beginning

a href="http://mcclatchydc.com/election2008">Check out McClatchy's expanded politics coverage/a>

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service