This June 6th, we celebrated the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy. On June 6, 1944 (also known as D-Day) alone, 156,000 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France's Normandy region. Less than a week later, on June 11, the beaches were fully secured and over 326,000 troops, more than 50,000 vehicles and some 100,000 tons of equipment had landed at Normandy.
The invasion was one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history. By late August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated, and by the following spring the Allies had defeated the Germans. The Normandy landings were the beginning of the end of war in Europe.
In his Nobel Peace Prize address, Al Gore described the achievements of our World War II generation as follows:
The generation that defeated fascism throughout the world in the 1940s found, in rising to meet their awesome challenge, that they had gained the moral authority and long-term vision to launch the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and a new level of global cooperation and foresight that unified Europe, and facilitated the emergence of democracy and prosperity in Germany, Japan, Italy and much of the world.
When accepting HIS Nobel Peace Prize, Nelson Mandela articulated his vision for the world:
"[T]he normal condition for human existence is democracy, justice, peace, non-racism, non-sexism, prosperity…a healthy environment and equality and solidarity among the peoples…. [We should] do what we can to contribute to the renewal of our world so that none should, in future, be described as the wretched of the earth. Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to [our] ideals….."
Realizing Nelson Mandela's ideal will involve much more than just defending ourselves against terrorism or combating Weapons of Mass Destruction. It will require our generation to create Weapons of Mass Salvation - - an arsenal of life-saving interventions: Vaccines, medicine, food and farming technologies—that can avert millions of deaths a year.
Today, half the world — nearly three billion people — live on less than two dollars a day. More than 200 million children under the age of five do not receive basic health care when they need it. And according to UNICEF, approximately 30,000 children die each day because of poverty.
And they die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth; far removed from the view and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.
These were children who perhaps dreamt the same dreams as our children; who had the same hopes. We must accept that they die, not because of human incapacity…..but because of human indifference.
I had the opportunity of visiting the beaches of Normandy where thousands of Americans fought and died to defeat totalitarianism. Their heroism and bravery doesn't come alive in history books or media accounts. It comes alive when you are standing in a field of death; in the Normandy graveyards; where thousands of white crosses and Stars of David stand at attention, proudly proclaiming the memory of those who fell there.
It comes alive when the wind blows, and you can almost hear the guns, and the cries of the soldiers. And it comes alive in the silence, in the whisper of the thousand souls, whose spirits still touch our lives.
These were young Americans who were asked to attack the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc with rope ladders: And so they climbed; over the cliffs; over their fears; over their own mortality. For they had to know, that most of them would not survive. But they attacked anyway.
And just as there was greatness in the hearts of those young soldiers, there is within each of us today that spark; that heroism, that affirms that we are here for purposes greater than ourselves.
The same year I visited Normandy, I also visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz/Birkenau. I was overwhelmed by the serenity of the place. Tall birches lined many of the streets. Birds sang in them. The sky was blue, the sun was bright, and a cool breeze swept across the camp.
It almost seemed obscene for the sun to shine there. Humanity has set many noble aspirations for itself, most of which it will never achieve. But in Auschwitz and Birkenau, it realized its most nefarious ones.
Normandy and Auschwitz: A contrast between greatness and profound evil.
In many ways, the Battle of Normandy could be considered the greatest feat of our greatest generation. Because today we are also living in challenging times, political leaders of all parties are calling this generation to greatness. Like our greatest generation, we can help transform the world.
Franklin Roosevelt understood the need for a grand vision. His war aim was not just to defeat fascism; but to create a world of prosperity. He urged the nation to envision a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first two freedoms were Freedom of speech and Freedom of worship. The third was freedom from want, which translated into securing for every nation a healthy and peaceful life. And the fourth was freedom from fear.
Today that should include freedom from the depredation of terrorism as well as the freedom from want. We could be the generation of Americans that will help lead the world to a century of peace and prosperity. Then future generations will call us, "The next great generation."