Above Photo: American troops landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy.
Nicolaus Mills, professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial, at The Daily Beast provides the perfect commentary for the remembrance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the day Allied forces in the largest amphibious assault in history stormed the beaches of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France to free the world from fascism. FDR’s D-Day Prayer Showed Us What a True Leader Looks Like:
On June 6, 1944, Franklin Roosevelt went on the radio and led the nation in prayer. Avoiding any trace of bluster, he asked not for conquest but for a better world.
With over 370 World War II vets dying every day, this year’s 75th anniversary of D-Day has a special poignancy. It reminds us that all those who on June 6, 1944, landed on the Normandy coast and began the last phase of World War II in Europe will soon be gone.
Like Gettysburg, D-Day marks a turning point in American history. In the case of Gettysburg, our memory of the battle is inseparable from the address President Abraham Lincoln delivered there four months later in November 1863. But it is often forgotten that D-Day, too, was memorialized in the year it took place.
On June 6, President Roosevelt read over nationwide radio a prayer [full text below] that earlier in the day the White House had sent to newspapers across the country. As Nigel Hamilton notes in his brilliant new book, War and Peace: FDR’s Final Odyssey: D-Day to Yalta, 1943-1945, Roosevelt had put much thought into his D-Day prayer. He had composed it during a quiet weekend stay at the Charlottesville, Virginia, home of his military aide Major General Edwin ”Pa” Watson.
This year as we mark D-Day, Roosevelt’s prayer is worth recalling for what it says about how we ought to conduct ourselves as a nation, especially in foreign affairs. Delivered from the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House at 8:30 p.m., the prayer was one that FDR read in a tone more suited to a church sermon than a political address. “And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer,” the president began.
Like Lincoln, Roosevelt emphasized the importance of victory, and in his prayer he requests God’s help for the troops engaged in the D-Day invasion. “Lead them straight and true: give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith,” the president asks.
Central to Roosevelt’s prayer, as it was to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, is the idea that victory offers the chance to create a new and better world. “They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest,” Roosevelt says of America’s troops.
Lincoln spoke about the Civil War preserving the values of the Declaration of Independence. FDR saw a parallel historical struggle taking place in World War II. “Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity,” Roosevelt declared.
The D-Day landings cost America and its allies over 10,000 casualties, and in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, warned the troops in his pre-invasion message, “Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.”
Roosevelt was of the same mind as Eisenhower. He foresaw a long struggle ahead, even as men and equipment poured ashore at Normandy. “This war isn’t over by any means,” the president cautioned the country in his D-Day press conference.
In his prayer, FDR made a point of resisting calls for single day of national prayer, instead observing, “because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves to a continuance of prayer.”
Roosevelt believed the end result of the D-Day invasion should not be a Pax Americana. It should be a more just world. “Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies,” Roosevelt asks in the concluding paragraph of his prayer. “Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace—a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men.”
For Roosevelt, who would not live to see the end of World War II, making the values of his D-Day prayer a reality was paramount. He began 1944 with a State of the Union Address in which he called for a second Bill of Rights that would provide economic security for all Americans. In late June he signed the G.I. Bill, which, among its other benefits, gave returning servicemen and women the opportunity to continue their educations at government expense. And in August the president helped lay the foundation for what would become the United Nations.
We will never know exactly what the post-World War II era would have looked like had Roosevelt been able to complete his fourth term, but from the Marshall Plan to NATO, it is easy to see how the values of Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer are reflected in American foreign policy of the late ’40s.
There is no turning the clock back to that time, but more than nostalgia is still in order. Today, FDR’s prayer remains a strong rebuke to those who think American military power can be meaningful without being deeply anchored in a moral vision.
Above photo: Omaha Beach American Cemetery & Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, perched upon a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, about 10,000 perfectly aligned white crosses point towards America.
From the FDR Library, the full text of FDR’s D-Day prayer:
Text of Radio Address – Prayer on D-Day, June 6, 1944:
“My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas — whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them–help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the Nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.