D-Day has become a moment of national consecration — and a pilgrimage for modern presidents.
President Obama, who will help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion Friday, is the fifth president to visit the beaches of Normandy, France, where about 156,000 American and Allied troops fought their way ashore to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany.
Nearly 4,500 sacrificed their lives.
Like his predecessors, Obama — who also spoke at Normandy in 2009 — will laud D-Day as the powerful symbol of sacrifice that won World War II and a moving inspiration to Americans facing modern challenges.
"It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century ... came down to a battle for a slice of beach only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide," Obama said at Normandy five years ago.
The drama and impact of June 6, 1944 — immortalized in books and movies such as The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan — make the Normandy coast an irresistible lure for U.S. commanders in chief.
"They can wrap themselves in the glory of Normandy and the aura of remembrance," said historian Rick Atkinson, who wrote about D-Day in The Guns At Last Light, the third volume of his World War II trilogy.
That hasn't always been the case. For some time after 1944, D-Day did not have the resonance it has had in recent decades, in part because many veterans were reluctant to talk about their brutal experiences.
Even President Dwight Eisenhower, who organized the D-Day invasion eight years before his election to the White House, issued only a short written statement on the 10th anniversary of the battle. (The statement's last line: "The courage, devotion and faith which brought us through the perils of war will inevitably bring us success in our unremitting search for peace, security and freedom.")
An American president didn't visit Normandy until Jimmy Carter made the trip in January 1978. Carter pledged to defend Western Europe during the Cold War: "We are determined, with our noble allies here, that Europe's freedom will never again be endangered."
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan stood atop a 100-foot-high cliff that Army Rangers had scaled 40 years before and proclaimed, "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."
Historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a book about Reagan's speech at Pointe du Hoc, said, "We really hadn't had that moment of appreciation for the World War II veterans" before that commemoration in 1984.
He noted that Reagan linked the sacrifices of World War II to efforts to win the Cold War. The president said "some liberated countries were lost" at the end of World War II.
Reagan also cited the sacrifices of the Russian people during World War II and provided "a kind of foreshadowing" of his dealings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, historian Donald Miller said. (Reagan said the United States was "prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation.")
Ten years after Reagan's Pointe du Hoc speech — a time in which the Soviet Union fell and its satellite nations became free — President Bill Clinton visited Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. One of his topics: the shape of the post-Cold War world.
Clinton asked, "How will we build upon the sacrifice of D-Day's heroes?" His answer: "Avoiding today's problems would be our own generation's appeasements."
President George W. Bush's first visit to Normandy came on Memorial Day of 2002, less than a year after the attacks of 9/11. Bush linked the sacrifices of World War II to those of the then-nascent war on terrorism.
"Words can only go so far in capturing the grief and sense of loss for the families of those who died in all our wars," Bush said. "For some military families in America and in Europe, the grief is recent, with the losses we have suffered in Afghanistan."
Bush returned to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2004 (the day after Reagan's death). In that speech, Bush said, "America honors all the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes."
Soon, the last veterans of D-Day and World War II will be gone, but their example can live on, for presidents and everyone else.
Historian Craig Symonds, whose new book is titled Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings, said of D-Day: "It means the United States can achieve great things."