They did not come, as invaders usually do, to loot and plunder and conquer. They came ashore, you might say, altruistically. A lot of them died on the beach.
Always at the heart of America as a moral experiment has been the question of how to make the nation’s power virtuous. Can power ever be virtuous? It’s an almost theological riddle. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the two—power and virtue—were neatly aligned. Good confronted evil; such clarity gives courage.
The invasion became a bloody, yet treasured, memory of America the Good, a story we have carried over from the olden time—that is, the twentieth century—as a parable of selflessness, in which the dragon of Hitlerism is slain and the continent of Europe is delivered from evil. It was a gesture on the grandest scale, democracy rising to an act of high chivalry—arguably the mightiest feat of arms in the history of the world.
The men who fought at Normandy, 75 years ago, are either gone or in their mid-nineties and older. The national memory relies on movies—The Longest Day or the graphic beginning of Saving Private Ryan—but the courage and sacrifice of the men were real and unforgettable. In this century’s atmosphere of media and political illusion, the decisive reality of D-Day makes us wistful—not for the terrible violence of it, but for the magnificent truth of what was being done and what was at stake.
The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended the Second World War 14 months later, represented a different sort of feat entirely. The hero of that story, if there was one, was either the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer or Harry S. Truman, and neither was proud of what happened. When the 75th anniversary of the nuclear age arrives next summer, those atom bombs—called Fat Man and Little Boy—will not be remembered triumphantly, but instead as a mixed blessing that defeated Japan, and at the same time, opened a new metaphysical abyss. Clarities blurred or vanished. Hiroshima and Nagasaki made D-Day the last great military violence that could be described as virtuous—the last that had, as it were, a happy ending: the liberation of Europe.
This summer will be crowded with anniversaries—a strangely assorted cluster of them, with wildly differing lessons to teach. There will be the 50th anniversaries of Chappaquiddick (July 18); of the moon landing (July 20); of the Manson gang’s murder of Sharon Tate, et al. (August 8-9); and of Woodstock (August 15-18).
Wordsworth wrote that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” That’s roughly the way of these anniversaries—the collective memory, via media, conjuring up a distant event, perhaps a scandal, that had meaning long ago. The reminder brings on reverence or amazement or elegy or disgust, and sermons on what we used to be and what we have become. It’s a way of sifting myths, and of thinking about whether anyone has learned anything in the meantime. Do we recognize ourselves in those heroes or villains who were our fathers or grandfathers, or our younger selves?
There’s generally a moral at the heart of the story. D-Day gives us the Greatest Generation in its youth and inevitably stands in bitter contrast to Vietnam—Good War, Bad War. Last year was the 50th anniversary of 1968, a calamitous year that marked the baby boomers’ coming of age. They experienced Vietnam and all that it brought with it—including the Tet Offensive, My Lai massacre, and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The year exhausted people’s appetite for recapitulation. But 1969 had its dramas, too. Saul Bellow captured the logic of these anniversary observances: “Everyone needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”
Memories of 1969 tend to line up like polarized iron filings—on the side of life or on the side of death. Chappaquiddick and the Manson murders belonged to the side of death. Woodstock was merely overinterpreted—a muddy, naïve, and parochial frolic of the counterculture that had its darker reverberation four months later, at the Altamont concert in California.
Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” are sometimes not so mystic. The most interesting polarity in the events 50 years ago lay in the contrast between the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Manson gang’s murders. These were the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of American possibilities. The point of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, of course, is that Jekyll and Hyde are the same man.
In 1969, American power and virtue were perceived to be radically asymmetrical. By that summer, it was clear that the Americans would be getting out of Vietnam—ignominiously. The moon landing served, to some extent, to mitigate the incipient humiliation of America’s first lost war. On the moon, anyway, and at Cape Canaveral and the Houston Space Center, Americans had technological, and even moral, preeminence.
The lesson of the Manson murders concerned evil and motiveless malignity, but of a peculiar kind: motiveless stupidity would be more like it, starting with Manson’s cheesy Satanism—a knock-off of the diabolism that had become a counterculture cliché. If the moon landing amounted to a triumph of applied scientific intelligence, the Manson business represented an achievement of applied stupidity, an American rendering of the banality of evil, spooky and vicious and dumb as a rock: Helter Skelter, swastikas on the forehead. Evil and stupidity are fraternal twins.
Stupidity—ignorance crossed with hubris—also played a decisive role in Vietnam. The moon landing was a victory of Good Science, at a moment when Wicked Science was being applied with ever more manic force in Southeast Asia in the form of B-52s (which dropped more bombs than fell in World War II), Agent Orange and napalm, and all the rest. In the midst of all that, as the world’s mightiest nation was losing a war to a tiny peasant country, and feeling bitterly demoralized and divided at home, there came the astronauts’ extraterrestrial affirmation of Good Science, so that Americans might feel once more, for a moment, that their power and their virtue were one and the same.
We are left to recollect these emotions 50 years later. Unlike the present, the past can be contemplated with some tranquility.