The effort by junior administration officials to banish all references to God from the speeches recorded on plaques at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, is an outrage. It would be wrong to impute every action of everyone in the vast U.S. government to the dispositions of the current president, but any militant disregard for religious sensibilities does seem to reflect his disparagement of the tendency of Americans who don't vote for him to reach for religion (and guns) in their social frustrations. It also rankles from a commander-in-chief who took his religion for 20 years from Jeremiah Wright, apostle of the view that, among other exaltations of soul, 9/11 was divine and deserved retribution on (white) America.
“We will win through to absolute victory, so help us God” has already been excised from Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” war message, though it brought the greatest applause of any line in the speech before the Congress. The issue now is to remove the numerous religious references from what is widely reckoned to be, except for his first inaugural address (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”), Roosevelt’s greatest speech, on the evening of D-Day, June 6, 1944. (And Ronald Reagan is the only president since Roosevelt who has remotely approached him as an eloquent and affecting public speaker.)
The D-Day address, at the suggestion of the president's daughter Anna, was cast altogether as a prayer. She was not a particularly religious person, and her father, though a practicing Episcopalian who frequently made religious references in speeches that generally invoked a deity, was not given to excessive piety. He never, for instance, dabbled in the sort of exegetical religious speculation engaged in by former president Lincoln in his second inaugural, when he suggested that the Civil War was inflicted by God on the perpetrators of the evil of slavery (and that this was “true and righteous altogether” even if “every drop of blood drawn by the lash” is repaid “by the sword.” This and similar quotes from Lincoln are reproduced without the benefit of low-bureaucratic editing).
This religious emphasis on the attempted liberation of Western Europe and the final thrust for the defeat of Nazi Germany, was entirely consistent with the contemporary mood. Houses of worship of all denominations throughout America ran almost continuous services for some days in commendation of the Allied landings, and church bells rang everywhere in the country and almost all day on D-Day.
General Eisenhower’s invasion message was broadcast shortly after 3 a.m. on June 6, and Roosevelt ordered all White House personnel into work at 4 a.m. The New York Times, hardly a house organ for religiosity in any form, even then, editorialized on June 7: “We have come to the hour for which we were born. We go forward to meet the supreme test of our arms and our souls, the test of the maturity of our faith in ourselves and in mankind.”
The president introduced his remarks as a prayer, began “Our sons, pride of our nation,” said that upon the operation just launched depended “the future of our republic, our religions,” and said “some (soldiers) will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.” He spoke of “brave men overseas, our thoughts and prayers ever with them wheresoever they may be... in this poignant hour of great sacrifice;” asked for renewed faith, “continuous prayer,” and concluded “Thy will be done, Almighty God.”
The acute tension of the occasion was underlined by Roosevelt’s pledge, if necessary, to “return again and again” in the knowledge that “by God’s grace and the righteousness of our cause, the courage of our sons will prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy.” The president can be lightly faulted for under-recognizing the British and Canadian majority in the D-Day forces, but not for either soft-pedalling or emphasizing tastelessly his recognition of the role of Providence on the day, and on succeeding days. All polls indicated practically unanimous national solidarity with the spirit and letter of the president’s speech.
This reflected political realities also. The British, traumatized by the bloodbath on the Western Front in World War I, and smarting from the German expulsions of them from Europe in 1940 (Dunkirk), 1941 (Greece and Crete), and 1942 (Dieppe), had limited confidence in the operation until very late on. Roosevelt had had to recruit Stalin at the Tehran Conference to demand the cross-Channel operation rather than the preferred option of the British-a strike up the Adriatic and toward Vienna. Winston Churchill and his general staff chief, Sir Alan Brooke, believed Stalin only endorsed the Normandy invasion because he thought it would fail, distracting the Germans, weakening the Western Allies, and facilitating the advance of the Red Army into Central and Western Europe.
The Normandy invasion and break-out was the greatest military operation in the history of the world, involving 5,000 ships and 12,000 airplanes, and landing seven divisions by sea and three by air in Northern France in one day. Even Stalin, not a frequent source of praise about the activities of non-Communist foreigners, said of it: “The history of war does not know of another undertaking comparable to it for breadth of conception, grandeur of scale, and mastery of execution.” This was nothing but the truth, but on the day, it appeared a high-risk enterprise. Upon it also depended, though Roosevelt never mentioned this even in private, his own re-election to a fourth term as U.S. president.
It was one of the most decisive moments in world history, and a masterpiece by Eisenhower and his senior inter-Allied staff, celebrated by one of the nation’s greatest presidents in one of his most affecting and heartfelt addresses. Whatever anyone thinks of the tenor or precise wording of his remarks, it is what he said at an epochal and defining moment, and what he said must be accurately reproduced, not bowdlerized at the whim of an agnostic factotum 67 years later.
The assertion by Robert Abbey, holder of, for these purposes, the super-Orwellian title of director of the bureau of land management, that reproducing this address as written and delivered “will necessarily dilute this elegant memorial’s central message and its ability to clearly convey that message to move, educate, and inspire,” is an insolence that would scandalize Orwell, Kafka, and Koestler, religious skeptics though they all were. The statement effectively states that the land manager will rewrite history and improve on the mass communication talents of FDR, (who may have invoked the Almighty but at least he did not inflict on his immense worldwide audience a split infinitive).
Millions of people visit the FDR and other memorials in Washington every year to encounter or renew their experience of history, not to be subjected to the editorial tinkering of transitory and philistine placemen. Beside Roosevelt's likeness on the 10-cent piece appear the words: “In God we trust.” He never said that, publicly. On his memorial, visitors are entitled to read what he did say.
Conrad Black is the author of “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom”; an edition of this column also appeared at the Huffington Post.