Memory  /  Museum Review

Who Were the Americans Who Fought on D-Day?

A new exhibition seeks to understand the young soldiers who came ashore at Normandy.

THE DAWN OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY BEGINS WITH A QUESTION: Where did the American soldiers who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy in the early morning of June 6, 1944, come from? What cultural forces shaped them before they found themselves facing Omaha Beach’s impossible cliffs?

“You’re not born a soldier,” Arhoul says. “You become one. But before becoming a soldier, you’re a citizen, a child, a teenager, a young adult.”

The two and a half decades between the return of America’s victorious soldiers from one world war and the commitment to send troops back to Europe for round two were full of significant cultural change.

Silent films became talkies. Black and white became color. Jazz came into its own. California surfing culture gained prominence. The automobile industry contributed to economic prosperity. Monopoly was born.

But this period also saw the apex of the second Ku Klux Klan, the Tulsa race massacre, and murders of the Osage in Oklahoma. And then came the Wall Street crash of 1929, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl.

All these are represented in the exhibition—often in huge, blown-up photographs visitors walk past—as is the turn toward Roosevelt and recovery. As a press release from the museum notes, “In the space of one decade, a nation broken by the Great Depression found in itself the resources to eventually establish itself as leader of the Free World.”

In this exhibition, Arhoul says, we see an America tempted by isolationism—tempted not to look at the world but to look inward. Yet just as America had shaken off isolationism and entered the First World War, Roosevelt worked to counter isolationism as war broke out again in Europe. The isolationist temptation ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United States took up its responsibility as an emerging world power, ultimately bringing its troops to Normandy’s shores.

“We show that America has many faces, so we need to get away from caricature, and this exhibition helps us understand the diversity and complexity of America,” says Arhoul.