As world leaders gather this week at Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and as struggles for freedom continue today in far corners of the world, consider the words of Col. Oveta Culp Hobby engraved at the World War Two memorial in Washington: “Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women … this was a people’s war, and everyone was in it.”
What began as an epic struggle against a great depression and fascism in Europe and Asia in the 1930s has become a freedom century that has brought a steady advance of democracy and human rights around the world.
This long, hard, epic struggle continues today, witnessed by headlines from our daily news.
Ukraine battles against a Russian invasion by subversion organized by a dictator who mourns the death of the Soviet empire. The Arab Spring that overthrew Hosni Mubarak from Tahrir Square faces a new form of dictatorship ruled by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Chinese government that fears the power of the democratic idea tries to erase the truth of the blood that stained Tiananmen Square 25 years ago this week.
Carnage continues in Syria while the “free world” ponders whether to stop it. Human rights activists battle from Havana to Beijing. Young women of a music group championing freedom for Russia are beaten and whipped by agents of a strongman. Voices of hatred and racism rise in a Europe that still searches for its continental identity while widespread economic pain sets loose an extremism reminiscent of the 1930s.
In the freedom century there are victories and defeats against oligarchs with money and butchers with guns.
American civil rights workers murdered by racists planted the seeds for the first black American president, with women destined to follow — possibly soon.
Communists invaded Hungary in 1956, destroyed the Prague Spring in 1968 and installed a dictator in Poland in 1981. Yet playwright Václav Havel left a communist prison to become president of a democratic Czechoslovakia. Labor leader Lech Wałęsa was imprisoned in a communist jail but rose to become president of a democratic Poland. The Berlin Wall was joyously ground into dust by newly freed people.
In the Spanish civil war of the 1930s fascism defeated freedom, but after long and brutal struggle, democracy prevailed. Nelson Mandela endured decades in the prisons of a racist state but triumphed to become the magnanimous president of a democratic South Africa.
Pope John Paul II, recently declared a saint, stood against dictatorships of Nazism and communism, while Pope Francis, who sainted him, warns against a spiritual dictatorship that worships the cult of money.
Two months after troops landed at Normandy, fascism fell in Paris. The liberation of Paris in August 1944 was as transcendent as the taking of Omaha Beach. As Clark Gable and David Rockefeller fought alongside union members and teachers in the “people’s war,” Paris was liberated when literary giants like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and André Malraux joined workers and shopkeepers to bring the great uprising within the city of lights as Gen. George S. Patton and the U.S. Army approached from one direction, Gen. Philippe Leclerc led the Free French forces from another direction and Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger carried guns along with pens in brotherhood with the French resistance and Allied armies.
Finally the streets of Paris were lined with cheering throngs when church bells rang and freedom won and freedom fighters from nations across Europe converged for the victorious march to Berlin.
The Latin America once ruled like banana republics has joined the advance of freedom. Literary luminaries such as Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende and Mario Vargas Llosa, who shared love of freedom while they often debated each other, joined with peasants and middle-class patriots to promote a continental movement to democracy that swept aside tyrants from the right and left with more to come, including Cuba.
This week we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the landing at Normandy. We honor what was achieved by the courageous patriots and timeless heroes of many nations who were the great generation. And now the future of the freedom century rests on the shoulders our generation, today.