President Reagan's Remarks - Victims of the Holocaust Ceremony

Ronald Reagan's Service Journey

“Together, with the help of God, we can bear the burden of our nightmare. It is up to us to ensure that we never live it again.”
~Ronald Reagan, April 30, 1981

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Embracing the power and value of human freedom was the most fundamental element of Ronald Reagan’s belief system. In every role he played - as radio announcer, actor, union leader, governor or president - he championed “the dignity and the ability and the God-given freedom to make our own decisions, to plan our own lives and to control our own destiny.”

In Ronald Reagan’s personal journey, he discovered that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds; rather it unfolds often in the most unlikely ways. His unexpected, eye-opening exposure to top-secret footage during World War II fueled his hatred of oppressive government, antisemitism, and his resolve to protect human freedom.

Good and decent people must not close their eyes to evil, must not ignore the suffering of the innocent, and must never remain silent and inactive in times of moral crisis.
~Ronald Reagan, April 11, 1983

Like all Americans, the young Ronald Reagan yearned to serve his country during a tumultuous time when the world was upside down. When he reported for duty at Fort Mason in 1942, his medical exam revealed poor eyesight. “If we sent you overseas,” the doctor explained, “you’d shoot a general.” “Yes,” quipped the aide, “and you’d miss him.”

So instead of going off to war and serving bravely in the Army Air Corps like his friend Jimmy Stewart, the young actor was consigned to service in the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU), based just outside of Los Angeles.

Reporting for Duty

Just three days before Ronald Reagan reported for duty, this new unit, the FMPU, was formed by Hollywood’s Jack Warner who was sworn in as a commissioned officer in the Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the U.S. Force. No aircraft were involved in this mission. Instead, the patriotic mogul had been lobbying Washington for months to establish “a very effective propaganda department” at his studio, with him in charge. Claiming that the film industry was essential to the national health, safety, and interest of the country, Jack Warner formed and led the FMPU as a division of the Army Air Corps.

And where did Ronald Reagan fit in? With Warner and Hal Wallis, 2nd Lieutenant Reagan was recruited to aid in producing propaganda and training films, while hiring the needed actors, writers, producers, and camera and sound engineers necessary to fulfill the task. The wish list from the military was extensive. They tasked the FMPU with creating films to increase enlistments, train servicemen, build morale, define the enemy, create unity, and promote air power. Ronald Reagan often narrated and appeared in FMPU’s work products like Rear Gunner, Target Tokyo, Beyond the Line of Duty, Fight for the Sky, and For God and Country.

From Inspiring to Acquiring

Once Warner returned to civilian life, the unit leased the nine-acre Hal Roach Studio complex in Culver City, which came to be known as Fort Roach. While turning out films at a record pace, Lieutenant Reagan was made post adjutant and promoted to Captain.

Then at once, the focus turned from inspiring to acquiring: the FMPU embarked on top-secret projects, extending beyond the walls of their studio.

The first challenge was to assist the Allied High Command in destroying Nazi missile launching sites which could have jeopardized the Normandy D-day landings. By building to-scale replicas of the Nazi launching sites in Florida, American bombers experimented in an effort to bring about their destruction. The FMPU made pictorial records of the experiments. Thankfully, through this process, our pilots were able to determine that armor-piercing bombs dropped from low altitudes could successfully cut through the concrete. The allies were able to destroy the sites, knocking them out of service long enough for D-Day to take place on schedule.

On the other side of the globe, the second top secret project took place in August 1944. At the time, Allied forces pushed the Japanese back across the Pacific, while the FMPU embarked on an assignment designed to assist in the bombing and invasion of Japan. The film unit’s set designers and special effects wizard built a miniature replica of Tokyo and other targets on the floor of one of the soundstages and mounted cameras on cranes above it so that simulated bombing runs could be filmed and sent to the front to brief bombing crews before they took off for Japan. Once the actual raids were carried out, footage from them was sent back to FMPU where the model was adjusted to reflect bombing damage. Security was so tight that Reagan commented, “it was enough to make all of us fearful of talking in our sleep, or taking an extra drink.”

And finally, here’s the story that deeply impacted Ronald Reagan.

If it’s true that one day can bend your life, then Captain Reagan was about to find out. A departure from their daily duties, the team received a top-secret assignment eighteen days after FDR’s death in April 1945. Hitler had committed suicide as Allied troops closed in on Berlin; Victory in Europe was declared on May 8. Shortly after, raw footage filmed by FMPU secret combat-camera crews at German concentration camps arrived at Fort Roach to be edited for viewing at the Pentagon. Ronald Reagan was among the handful of officers on the base to see the “ghastly images” and “discover the full truth about the horrors of Nazism.”

“In World War II, I was in the military and assigned to a post where every week, we obtained from every branch of the service all over the world the combat film …
 And we edited this into a secret report for the general staff…
And I remember April '45. I remember seeing the first film that came in when the war was still on, but our troops had come upon the first camps and had entered those camps. And you saw, unretouched -- no way that it could have ever been rehearsed –
what they saw, the horror they saw.
~Ronald Reagan, April 30, 1981

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Signal Corps Films

They also received additional secret Signal Corps films showing the liberation of other death camps. In his autobiography, he wrote how those “engraved images on my mind that will be there forever.” The FMPU combat-camera unit entered Ohrdruf and Buchenwald camps ahead of Eisenhower and had seen things “human eyes should not see.” In his autobiography, Ronald Reagan records the horrors; we’ll spare the details, but note that he intentionally kept a print to show his children, one day.

As promised, the secret film was revealed to his daughter Patti in 1961. Here’s her reaction to that footage, reported in a Washington Post OpEd in February 2022:

“I was about 9 when I learned that millions of people had been tortured and murdered simply because they were Jewish,” she wrote after meeting a survivor.

“The images from the concentration camp are seared into my brain still” she explained, with “— emaciated faces and skeletal bodies, eyes too haunted to cry. And the piles of bodies of those who didn’t survive the genocide …”

One cannot underestimate the impact of holocaust terror on the soul of Ronald Reagan. We know it intensified his hatred for fascism while increasing his sympathy for Jews and other minorities as taught by his father throughout his childhood. (For example, traveling salesman Jack Reagan, once slept in his car rather than stay in a hotel that did not accept Jews.) After the war, civilian Reagan was determined that he would use his speaking skills and political activism to help bring about, as he described it, “the regeneration of the world…I really wanted a better world and I think I thought what I was saying would help bring it about.” Because he knew it must never happen again.

Taking a stand against totalitarianism or discrimination in any form became a passion of Ronald Reagan’s following the war. In his Hollywood days, he refused to join a country club that discriminated against Jews, and he shared the film community’s enthusiasm for Israel when the Jewish state was founded in 1948.

He admonished those who inflated the role of government, believing that too much power was a narcotic. In a commencement address at William Woods College in 1952, he told the graduates:

“America is less of a place than an idea, and if it is an idea, and I believe that to be true, it is an idea that has been deep in the souls of man … It is nothing but the inherent love of freedom in each one of us, and the great ideological struggle that we find ourselves engaged in today is not a new struggle. It’s the same old battle. We met it under the name of Hitlerism; we met it under the name of Kaiserism….”

In 1959, he relied on the words of Edmund Burke to make his point, “For evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good men do nothing.” You may recognize this quote as it became one of his “go to” quotes throughout his presidency.

His commitment to protecting personal freedom was unrelenting. Elected Governor of California in 1966, in both inaugurals, he cautioned citizens to be wary of excessive government. “We are of the people, we are chosen by the people to see that no permanent structure of government ever encroaches on the peoples’ freedom or assumes a power beyond that which is freely been granted to us by the people.” And in his second inaugural address four years later he promised again to “see that no permanent structure of government ever encroaches upon freedom or assumes a power beyond that freely granted by the people.”

After leaving Sacramento, he never ended his campaign against totalitarian government and beyond that, questioned how to prevent the horrors that result. In a 1975 radio address entitled “Peace,” then former Governor Reagan posed the following question to his listeners: “Will it be said of today’s world leaders as it was of the pre-WWII leaders, ‘they were better at surviving the catastrophe than they were at preventing it?’”

Continuing his campaign against evil, oppressive government, in 1976, he selected language with a very strong, cautionary tone: “Our nation is in danger, and the danger grows greater with each passing day. Like an echo from the past, the voice of Winston Churchill's grandson was heard recently in Britain's House of Commons warning that the spread of totalitarianism threatens the world once again and the democracies are ‘wandering without aim.’"

Now, onto the Presidency. During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan had left little doubt about his pro-Israel views.  He denounced the PLO as a terrorist organization and described Israel as a “strategic asset,” a “stabilizing force,” and a military offset to Soviet influence. He valued Israel as a bulwark of freedom and an ally in the Cold War.

To soundly support that belief, he chose professor...and Democrat… Jeane Kirkpatrick as America’s Ambassador to the United Nations, knowing that Israel would have a champion at the UN. Relying upon her expertise as a foreign policy adviser during his 1980 campaign, he trusted her wisdom and immediately installed a woman at the UN who believed that “to defend Israel was to defend America and western civilization itself.” She cautioned Americans about the dangers of “political murder in our time, political murder in the name of an ideology by a state or some political movement.”

To clarify her point, the Ambassador pointed out three significant lessons which should be learned from the rise of Nazism and World War II. First, she said, the Nazi plans against the Jews were written “in black and white for all the world to see” and were issued some eight years prior to the outset of the war. Kirkpatrick said this should have presented a “clear warning of the impending disaster.”

A second lesson to be drawn from the Holocaust, Kirkpatrick added, was that “totalitarians test the grounds for more sustained aggression and persecution by beginning with minor suppression and calculated violence.”

The third lesson, Kirkpatrick said, is the need now for concerted action between the United States and its allies “to ensure that the totalitarian forces of anti-freedom and dehumanization do not prevail.”

At that point, the President took the lead. Only a few months in office, the President issued Proclamation 4838, establishing a Holocaust Memorial Council to create a living memorial to the victims of the Nazi Holocuast, so “mankind will never lose memory of that terrible moment in time when the awful spectre of death camps stained the history of our world.”


Proclamations, April 22, 1981

Proclamation 4838 -- Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust

April 22, 1981

By the President of the United States of America

A Proclamation

The Congress of the United States established the United States Holocaust Memorial Council to create a living memorial to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Its purpose: So mankind will never lose memory of that terrible moment in time when the awful spectre of death camps stained the history of our world.

When America and its allies liberated those haunting places of terror and sick destructiveness, the world came to a vivid and tragic understanding of the evil it faced in those years of the Second World War. Each of those names -- Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka and so many others -- became synonymous with horror.

The millions of deaths, the gas chambers, the inhuman crematoria, and the thousands of people who somehow survived with lifetime scars are all now part of the conscience of history. Forever must we remember just how precious is civilization, how important is liberty, and how heroic is the human spirit.

Like the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it -- and like too many other such persecutions of too many other peoples -- the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.

As part of its mandate, the Holocaust Memorial Council has been directed to designate annual Days of Remembrance as a national, civic commemoration of the Holocaust, and to encourage and sponsor appropriate observances throughout the United States. This year, the national Days of Remembrance will be observed on April 26 through May 3.

Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby ask the people of the United States to observe this solemn anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, with appropriate study, prayers and commemoration, as a tribute to the spirit of freedom and justice which Americans fought so hard and well to preserve.

In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this 22nd day of April, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and eighty-one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and fifth.

Ronald Reagan

View the proclamation

A few days later on April 30, 1981, he delivered Remarks at the First Annual Commemoration of the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust in the East Room of the White House.

Together, with the help of God, we can bear the burden of our nightmare.
It is up to us to ensure that we never live it again.
~Ronald Reagan, April 30, 1981

Read the full speech

This Remembrance and the associated Proclamations became an annual tradition but particularly memorable in 1983 when he made this notation in his diary:

Diary entry – April 11, 1983

Then on to the Holocaust meeting—some 16,000 people—they had to turn 10,000 more away—no room. Practically all these people—all but their children are survivors of the Nazi death camps. It was an emotional experience for them & for us. I know I choked up a couple of times while I was addressing them…

Read the full transcript

Taking freedom on the offensive, President Reagan’s efforts to support Israel in the face of terrorism were resolute and steadfast. In 1982, Ronald Reagan hosted Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the White House in an earnest effort to bring peace to the Middle East and support the Camp David Accords.

Several times during his presidency, he paid tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, even taking steps to making him an honorary American citizen. He was “the Swedish savior of almost 100,000 Jewish men, women, and children. What he did, what he accomplished was of biblical proportions. Sir Winston Churchill, another man of force and fortitude, is the only other person who has received honorary United States citizenship. And as John F. Kennedy said at that signing ceremony, ``Indifferent himself to danger, he wept over the sorrows of others.''”

Finally, in President Reagan’s last effort to commemorate the Days of Remembrance in 1988, he was able to participate in the Dedication of the Holocaust Museum, a project he championed early in his presidency. In his diary, he recorded:

Diary entry, October 5, 1988

I went to the Corner Stone Laying ceremony for the Holocaust Memorial Museum at Raoul Wallenberg Place. It was quite an affair with several speakers including some victims of the Nazi concentration camps.

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In his remarks, the President stressed the importance of remembering while remaining vigilant. He said:

The Jews of silence, Elie Wiesel called them two decades ago, but they're silent no more. They're obeying what the great theologian Emil Fackenheim called the 614th Commandment -- the Commandment of Auschwitz -- and that commandment is this: "Let there be Jews.'' That commandment is dear to the hearts of all. The Jewish people were on this Earth at the time of the pyramids. Those structures are still standing, and the Jews are still here. We must make sure that when the tall towers of our greatest cities have crumbled to dust in the turnings of time, the Jewish people will still be on this Earth to cast their blessings and remind all of us that this world and the people who live upon it have a history and, yes, even a destiny….
~Ronald Reagan
October 4, 1988

And in those remarks, he sternly asked if the West had finally “awakened to the meaning of Hitler.” Because it must never happen again.

Our most sacred task now is ensuring that the memory of this greatest of human tragedies,
the Holocaust, never fades; that its lessons are not forgotten.
~Ronald Reagan
April 11, 1983

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Let us close with his words in Remembrance of the Holocaust:

May we take a moment to pause and contemplate, perhaps in silent prayer, the magnitude of this occasion, the millions of lives, the courage and dignity, the malevolence and hatred, and what it all means to our lives and the decisions that we make more than a generation later…
~Ronald Reagan
April 11, 1983