Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Rangers, Realpolitik and Ronald Reagan: Douglas Brinkley’s The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc

One brisk morning at the White House in early October 1981, as President Ronald Reagan was preparing for a state visit from French president François Mitterrand, his deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver, informed him that the French government was eager to present him a prestigious decoration when the two leaders met in historic Yorktown, Virginia. A quizzical Reagan was baffled. “What decoration?” An unsure Deaver answered, “I think it’s the Croix de Guerre.” Clearly displeased by the rejoinder, Reagan, his face flushing, balked. His lips, in fact, contorted into a half pout. What was this nonsense? He had not earned epaulets. There was no Purple Heart or Bronze Star in his attic trunk that could be dusted off and flaunted for the grandkids. He was no colossal World War II hero. His tame war years were spend stateside in San Francisco and Culver City, feigning to be a bomber pilot, directing and starring in over three hundred training films for the Army Air Corps. “But that’s for bravery,” Reagan impatiently snapped. “All I ever did was fly a desk. We’d better get this straightened out right away. I couldn’t possibly accept the Croix de Guerre.”
Evan Galbraith – realizing that Reagan was aghast at the implication that he was qualified for such a distinguished military award – quickly looked into the matter. Getting on the telephone, Galbraith, soon to become the Reagan administration’s second ambassador to France, discovered there was a bit of a mix-up. “It’s not the Croix de Guerre they’ll be giving you after all,” a relieved Galbraith blurted out. “It’s the Légion d’Honneur.” A still puzzled Reagan asked for what possible reason. “Statesmanship,” Galbraith answered.
Suddenly Reagan’s whole demeanor changed. A relaxed, confident smile now beamed forth. The look of consternation had dissipated from his furrowed brow. His usual radiant, genial mood was back in full force. Comically, he pretended to be fixing his tie knot. “I can play that role,” he laughed.
Indeed he could...

With this introduction, Douglas Brinkley launches into one of the most unusual, most enjoyable histories I’ve read in the last couple of years. The book is The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion. The subtitle suggests the scope of the book, seemingly a too-large, too-incongruous task, but Brinkley pulls it off exceptionally well. Indeed, it only takes him 236 pages to interestingly interweave the stories of the Rangers’ amazing assault on the heavenly fortified cliffs of the Point du Hoc on D-Day and Reagan’s speech honoring their sacrifice on the 40th anniversary of their heroism.

Along the way, Brinkley presents provocative details of the Rangers’ history, leaders and daring exploits that will thrill and inspire you. And his insider’s look at Reagan’s personal history, the ideals of his Presidency, the deliberate political purposes behind Pointe Du Hoc speech (among the best and most significant of his Presidency), the actual construction of the speech by Peggy Noonan and the powerful effects it had – all of these elements are as fascinating and historically impacting as the military actions of the invasion itself. Well, almost.

I picked up the book on a sale table at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Gift Shop and read most of it in the 2½-hour flight back to Omaha. I was very footsore and sleepy when I began the flight but was wide awake after just a few minutes in to the book. It is riveting, inspirational reading.

So, for those interested in military history (especially WWII), the Cold War, Reagan’s presidency or statecraft in general, Douglas Brinkley’s The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc presents a most valuable way to spend an evening.