Holden on Lemay, 'Triumph of the Dead: American World War II Cemeteries, Monuments, and Diplomacy in France'

Kate Clarke Lemay
Charles Holden

Kate Clarke Lemay. Triumph of the Dead: American World War II Cemeteries, Monuments, and Diplomacy in France. War, Memory, and Culture Series. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2018. xx + 209 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-1981-6.

Reviewed by Charles Holden (St. Mary's College of Maryland) Published on H-War (July, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53988

In a recent edition of The Atlantic, Rachel Donadio offers a moving account of the 1944 Normandy landings in which she also reflects on what the meaning of D-Day is—or may become—in these uncertain times. After her trip to the site, she found herself troubled, contemplating what an event like D-Day may mean in a world that, once again, seems increasingly dominated by “small leaders and blustery autocrats.”[1] Bridging the decades between 1944 and Donadio’s recent Normandy experience, Kate Clarke Lemay’s Triumph of the Dead: American World War II Cemeteries, Monuments, and Diplomacy in France demonstrates how the memory of D-Day, or more broadly the US contribution to the Allied victory, has always been changing and contested.

Lemay’s book begins with a fundamental yet critical point: that the now iconic American World War II military cemeteries in France express far more than simply how Americans remember that particular war. Well versed in the works of historians like John Bodnar and Sam Edwards, Lemay notes that several scholars have examined the story of how these cemeteries came into being and how their commemorative power has shaped international politics. Lemay, however, adds to this body of scholarship the importance of the artistic design of the cemeteries as well as their place within the local context—that is, how the creation and reception of these cemeteries have, in turn, shaped France’s ability to commemorate its own war experience. Lemay examines the specific postwar political and cultural contexts of the United States and France and the at-times contentious relationship between the two nations. From the dramatic Normandy American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach to local steles commemorating French civilian casualties, this relationship has played a critical role in determining what visitors see today along the Normandy coast.

Lemay focuses much of her analysis on Normandy since here was felt most acutely the devastating effects of the war, both in terms of American casualties and local destruction. She explains that since France’s own wartime history was fraught with memories of stunningly sudden defeat and collaboration, commemorating the profound relief of liberation presented an enormous challenge. Lemay then shows that Norman women in particular found an important psychological and emotional outlet for both their grief and their appreciation of being liberated by tending to the graves in the temporary cemeteries established for the American dead. The markers and cemeteries were simple and spare, not surprisingly given the devastated conditions of the region. But they were cared for attentively.

By the late 1940s the US government took over the organization, creation, and maintenance of permanent cemeteries. Lemay notes that the locals felt an acute sense of loss when the graves they had been tending so lovingly were gone as the remains of the soldiers were relocated to permanent sites, such as the famous Normandy American Cemetery on Omaha Beach. Sadness mixed with quietly held hard feelings (at first) as the US government, diving head-first into Cold War anxieties and mindful of the rise of the Communist Party in postwar France, “demonstrated a distrust of French citizens” by taking over control of the cemeteries (p. 12).

Lemay’s analysis here turns deftly to the attention paid to the intersection of the design of these new permanent cemeteries with American concerns over the spread of communism into Western Europe. Shifting American tastes have left the choices made by the artists and architects of these sites under-examined. But the results matter both politically and artistically in her view. The sheer size of the cemeteries, at the heart of which lay row after row of the simple Latin Cross and Star of David headstones with the spare details of the fallen, helped to de-personalize the life stories of the fallen, while reminding visitors of the awesome power that the US unleashed during the war. Lemay also offers a close analysis of the attention paid to the other details of the sites themselves. The threshold design, for example, features a striking entryway on to the cemetery grounds adorned with sculptures and text that spoke to important postwar themes of American power and selfless sacrifice. Once the visitor entered the muted rows of the dead, the clean, crisp marble lines of the headstones effectively sanitized the brutality and chaos of the actual wartime experience. But, Lemay explains, the specific memory war was not completely erased, of course. These permanent cemeteries, especially at the Épinal American Cemetery, also display beautifully executed battle map murals, again reminding visitors of the ultimate Allied—and in these parts of France, American-led—military victory.

One of the many strengths of this book is Lemay’s attention to the French response to these cities of American dead in their midst. In addition to her moving portrayal of the Normans caring for the temporary graves of the American dead immediately after the war, she also explains that by the mid-1950s, French pride under Charles De Gaulle was on the mend. The memory of the French resistance helped as did the fact that France, even with its defeat in Southeast Asia, remained an influential force on the global scene, in part by its willingness to serve as a counterpoint to American influence in the Cold War. The French also began to find ways to commemorate the thousands of civilian casualties suffered—or sacrificed, as they asserted—during the Allied landings at Normandy. Locally this added an important new voice to the dominant narrative of American sacrifice that had radiated out from the military cemeteries. French resentment to the often heavy-handed American influence during the Cold War began to find its way into annual commemorations at the cemeteries as well, most famously when De Gaulle decided not to attend the twentieth anniversary ceremonies at Omaha Beach in 1964. De Gaulle opted instead to attend the ceremonies in southern France where the Free French Forces played a vital role in the liberation.

Other developments over the years have continued to alter the landscape of memory in Normandy. By the 1980s, for example, with the creation of the Mémorial de Caen Peace Museum—and more recently the construction of visitors’ centers in places like the Normandy American Cemetery and at Pointe du Hoc—important sites dedicated to educating visitors now share the space with the cemeteries and their older themes of American sacrifice and bravery. Since the region still depends heavily on American tourism, however, stories of the Yanks still feature prominently.

Impressively researched and with the keen eye of an art historian, Lemay’s analysis is nicely contextualized within the tangled layers of American, French, and Cold War political and cultural history. Triumph of the Dead was clearly a labor of love for Lemay and it shows.


[1]. Rachel Donadio, “Nothing Prepares You for Visiting Omaha Beach,” The Atlantic, June 2, 2019.

Citation: Charles Holden. Review of Lemay, Kate Clarke, Triumph of the Dead: American World War II Cemeteries, Monuments, and Diplomacy in France. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53988

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