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Summer 2023 articles

“To Ensure that these Emotions are Passed to the Next Generation”: The Netherlands American Military Cemetery in Margraten as a site of Transatlantic Memory Diplomacy during George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’

Albertine Bloemendal

Abstract

This article analyzes President George W. Bush’s 2005 visit to the Netherlands-American Military Cemetery in Margraten as a case study in transatlantic ‘memory diplomacy’ in the context of the ‘War on Terror.’ It explores why, how and to what ends US diplomats in the Netherlands employed President Bush’s visit to Margraten, and the collective memory attached to this place, for transatlantic political-diplomatic purposes. By incorporating the role and agency of Dutch citizens in the development of the local commemorative culture, which in turn informed alternative—‘vernacular’—interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of Margraten as a lieu de mémoire, it demonstrates not only how top-down—‘official’—aims and narratives were at times contested, but also how public diplomacy has the power to obfuscate such alternative meanings, while simultaneously building upon these citizen initiatives for its own purposes. More specifically, this article demonstrates how president Bush’s visit was rhetorically and visually framed through the memory of World War II—linked to Margraten as the décor of this transatlantic diplomatic spectacle—and how this framing in turn informed ‘emotional norms’ that facilitated the creation of an unequal platform for political messaging in favor of the purposes and narratives of the official political-diplomatic actors.

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1. Introduction

  • 1 Pew Research Center, “Global Opinion: The Spread of Anti-Americanism,” January 24, 2005, https://ww (...)

1On May 8, 2005 President George W. Bush visited the Netherlands-American Military Cemetery in Margraten, the Netherlands, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The visit took place amidst a tense period in transatlantic relations. Two years earlier, the United States had started an unpopular war in Iraq, and it had been less than a year since the public had learned about the torture and prisoner abuse committed by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. These events had severely damaged America’s image around the world.1 While the Dutch were known to be a ‘faithful ally’ of the United States, these developments also undermined America’s soft power in the Netherlands, where President Bush had been unpopular since the beginning of his presidency. Thus, this scenario created a public diplomacy challenge for American diplomats in The Hague, who tried to cultivate and maintain not only close transatlantic relations, but also Dutch support for specific US policies.

  • 2 György Tóth and Krystof Kozák, “Introduction. Toward a Study of Memory in Transatlantic Relations,” (...)
  • 3 Ibid., 2.

2This article analyzes President Bush’s 2005 visit to the Netherlands as part of the 60th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Europe as a case study of transatlantic ‘memory diplomacy.’ It explores why, how, and to what ends US diplomats in the Netherlands perceived and employed President Bush’s visit to the Margraten Military Cemetery and the collective memory attached to this place for transatlantic political-diplomatic purposes. As others have pointed out, public memory can serve—and historically has frequently served—as an instrument of diplomacy through its ability to “move, persuade, mobilize and commit people to a cause or policy not only nationally, but also in international relations.”2 Even so, as Tóth and Kozák have pointed out, “there has been a lack of coverage of the role of collective memory in transatlantic relations since the end of the Cold War.”3 More specifically, this article demonstrates how American diplomats at the US Embassy in The Hague perceived the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Europe as an opportunity to address the ‘challenge of the successor generation’ in transatlantic relations. After discussing the roots and development of this specific post-WWII transatlantic public diplomacy challenge, which first came to the fore during the 1960s, the analysis will show how this challenge did not end with the demise of the Cold War and will demonstrate how thinking in terms of the ‘successor generation’ also manifested itself in the writing of US diplomats in the context of the ‘War on Terror.’

3The article subsequently explores how the 2005 commemoration of the liberation of Europe at the Margraten cemetery engaged with transatlantic diplomatic purposes. It will do so by investigating the ways in which President Bush’s 2005 visit to the Netherlands was rhetorically and visually framed through the memory of World War II—linked to Margraten as the décor of this transatlantic commemorative spectacle. That décor, in turn, helped to inform emotional norms, which facilitated the creation of an unequal platform for political messaging in favor of the purposes and narratives of official political-diplomatic actors. Finally, the article will briefly reflect on the (perceived) success of these attempts. Through this case study, the article sheds light on the role played by the Netherlands-American Military Cemetery in Margraten as a key site and décor for the diplomatic performance of transatlantic memory diplomacy.

  • 4 Sam Edwards, Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of Transatlantic Commemoration, c. 194 (...)

4The 2005 commemorations at Margraten did not take place in a vacuum, but should be understood within the broader context of a long tradition of local commemorative practices. These were shaped not just by American and Dutch government representatives, but also through the agency of Dutch citizens. As Sam Edwards has pointed out in his work on the politics of transatlantic WWII commemoration in East Anglia and Normandy: “whilst agents of official memory often sought to define the acceptable parameters of commemoration in the interest of order, patriotism or national policy, such ambitions were frequently circumscribed or confounded by the activities of ‘others.’”4

  • 5 Quoted in: Ibid. See also: John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriot (...)

5In the case of Margraten, the local Dutch population played a key role in shaping the commemorative culture. In the process, this article argues, they challenged the official US narrative by directing attention from the abstraction of the nation state to the individual and personal level of the fallen soldiers, thus contributing to the development of a ‘commemorative pluralism.’ Therefore, building upon the insights provided by Edwards, this article takes into consideration how “the dynamics of transatlantic commemoration are reminiscent of what John Bodnar has identified as the clash between ‘official’ memory (top-down narratives produced by elites working for the State or by those seeking to construct patriotic consensus) and ‘vernacular’ memory (contesting and challenging narratives produced by ‘others,’ often at local and regional levels).”5 Consequently, before analyzing President Bush’s visit to the Netherlands in 2005 as a case study of transatlantic memory diplomacy, this article will first reflect upon the diplomatic role of American military cemeteries in Western Europe and shortly zoom in on the specific history of the Netherlands-American Military Cemetery in Margraten and the role of private local actors in the commemorative culture that developed here.

2. The Diplomatic Role of US Military Cemeteries Abroad

  • 6 See, for example: Peter Schrijvers, The Margraten Boys: How a European Village kept America’s Liber (...)

6Western Europe counts twenty American Military Cemeteries, the first eight of which were constructed following the Great War. Twelve more ‘fields of honor’ were subsequently added to provide a resting place for the American casualties of World War II. Despite massive interest in the histories of the World Wars, scholars have only recently started to more rigorously study the roots, development, and political-diplomatic roles of the American military cemeteries on European soil.6

  • 7 Ron Robin, “‘A Foothold in Europe’: The Aesthetics and Politics of American War Cemeteries in Weste (...)
  • 8 Ron Robin, Enclaves of America: The Rhetoric of American Political Architecture Abroad, 1900-1965 ( (...)

7Ron Robin, who was among the very first to write about the politics and aesthetics of American war cemeteries in Western Europe, has described them as “silent cities” testifying to “a forceful American presence in the cultural and political landscapes of other countries.”7 Pointing out that family members of the fallen soldiers pleaded with the Quartermaster General of the US Army to bring the bodies of their (mainly) boys home, Robin identified the “enhancement of America’s global position through monumentality” as the main goal for the creation of American military cemeteries abroad.8

  • 9 Kate Clarke Lemay, “Politics in the Art of War: The American War Cemeteries,” International Journal (...)
  • 10 Wanger, “‘Time will not dim the glory of their deeds’: The memorial roots and transatlantic legacie (...)
  • 11 Lemay, Triumph of the Dead, 3-8; Lemay, “Politics in the Art of War”, 232; Lemay, “The Construction (...)
  • 12 Lemay, Triumph of the Dead, 3.

8More recently, Kate Clarke Lemay, whose research focuses mainly on France, has pointed out the “diplomatic” intention and “calculated image” US war cemeteries had to project to Europe, while simultaneously emphasizing their role as “stages for political messaging.”9 Allison Lynn Wanger has demonstrated, moreover, that “[b]y carving the memory of the U.S. participation in WWI and WWII into European landscapes, the federal government helped establish a memorial foundation and international pilgrimage sites for subsequent generations to reaffirm and reimagine evolving transatlantic relations.”10 In this context, Lemay has furthermore emphasized how the “messages of the cemeteries are intentionally triumphant in order to create provocative stages for the display of transatlantic politics.”11 Particularly since President Jimmy Carter was photographed with French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing at Normandy American Cemetery in 1978, she argues, “American and French politicians have used the American war cemeteries for boosts in press coverage and potentially in popularity.”12 Thus, before analyzing how Margraten served as the key stage and décor of President Bush’s 2005 visit, it is important to be aware of how the design of the American military cemeteries in Europe—including Margraten—was intended to support the official political messaging of these commemorative sites.

  • 13 Ibid., 3-4.

9To facilitate US political-diplomatic goals, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), formed in 1923, carefully tried to control and curate the way in which US military cemeteries represented America’s image abroad. In this context, scholars have particularly pointed out the efforts by the ABMC to deemphasize the personal tragedy of the individual soldiers in favor of drawing visitors’ attention to the more abstract political narratives of the American nation, for example through artistic and architectural design and landscaping. As the American art historian Kate Clarke Lemay puts it: “The distinct aesthetic program of the overseas American war cemeteries cannot be underestimated as a powerful influence in the sphere of diplomatic relations.”13

  • 14 Robin “A Foothold in Europe,” 59.
  • 15 Ibid., 55.
  • 16 Cited in: Ibid., 67.
  • 17 Ibid., 55.
  • 18 Lemay, Triumph of the Dead, 3-8; Lemay, “Politics in the Art of War,” 232; Lemay, “The Construction (...)
  • 19 Wanger, “‘Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,’” 39.

10According to Robin, “The aim of the ABMC was to erase any sense of individual expression and idiosyncrasy from its projects, thereby elevating the event of death in national service to the purely abstract level.”14 Focusing on the aesthetic design of the post-World War II American cemeteries in Europe, he has pointed out how the “standardized styles, laconic epitaphs, and their removal from the sphere of family and community erase much of the sense of individual tragedy associated with premature death.”15 Moreover, the intricate landscaping designs of these burial grounds, like the trapezoid shape of the Margraten cemetery, makes the personal tracking of individual graves a very difficult exercise without the help of an official source. The reason for this, supervising architect John Harbeson explained, “was to distract attention away from ‘depressing’ melancholy thoughts of death and sacrifice, and invoke, instead, admiration for the great collaborative design that had produced these complex artifacts of American presence in foreign lands.”16 Thus, here again, the design was meant to “divert attention from mourning individual deaths.” After all, Robin concludes, “the American burial grounds were not meant to be mere memorials; they were designed primarily as representations of the American spirit abroad and as a political ‘foothold in Europe’ . . . planned to evoke a common national cause rather than mourn the death of young soldiers.”17 Kate Clarke Lemay comes to comparable conclusions in her research concerning the intentional depersonalization that the cemetery design contributes to.18 Moreover, while emphasizing the political-diplomatic role not just of the cemeteries, but also of the fallen soldiers—not so much as individuals but as representatives of the American nation—Allison Lynn Wanger has pointed out how the US federal government was thus able to “eternally enlist its war dead as ambassadors for American democracy.”19

3. Dutch Citizens and Margraten Commemorative Culture

11By looking at the specific case of Margraten, this article posits that to gain a better understanding of the success of the attempt by the US government to control the representation of ‘America’ abroad through its military cemeteries, we also have to take the agency of local non-state actors into consideration. If we do not just look at the top-down motivations and intentions of the ABMC, but also take into consideration the unofficial initiatives and involvement of local Dutch citizens, a more complex memorial landscape appears, which demonstrates that the original US governmental attempts to control the ‘meaning of Margraten’ was challenged through a variety of grass-roots initiatives and actors who helped to inform a variety of competing ‘meanings’ attached to the American military cemetery and the ‘historical’ lessons that can be taken from this lieu de mémoire in contemporary political-diplomatic discourse. The ABMC’s intentions to control the representation of America abroad through its military cemeteries notwithstanding, the citizens of the local Dutch communities surrounding Margraten had other priorities. Through their private initiative and involvement, they effectively redirected the local commemorative focus at Margraten away from the abstractions of the ‘American nation’ to the level of the personal and the individual stories of sacrifice.

  • 20 See: Schrijvers, Margraten Boys.
  • 21 Ibid., 1-3. For the role of the African American soldiers in the construction of Margraten Military (...)

12To understand their role and attitudes, it is important to realize that the citizens of Margraten had been intimately involved in the construction of the cemetery from the very start, as Peter Schrijvers has carefully chronicled in his history of the Margraten cemetery.20 While most of the Netherlands had to wait until May 1945, the village of Margraten, located in the south of the Netherlands, was liberated in September 1944. This enabled the people living in this area to develop personal relationships with their American liberators, many of whom were stationed in homes and schools or in tents in the fields surrounding Margraten. Local citizens said emotional farewells when they saw American GI’s they had befriended go off to the frontlines, and they were heartbroken when these same soldiers were among the truckloads of casualties that returned. Thus, the people of Margraten were personally affected when, from November 1945 onwards, many of these Americans found their last resting place in their village. Some of them also became involved in the digging of graves and the making of crosses.21

  • 22 Quoted in: Schrijvers, Margraten Boys, 2. Emphasis added.

13Motivated by a desire to demonstrate their appreciation of the American liberators, local citizens came together at Margraten’s town hall on the early evening of January 24, 1945 to organize themselves into a Civilian Committee. At the nearby school where US Captain Joseph Shomon of the 611th Graves Registration Company held office, they subsequently declared the following: “We as Dutch citizens […] feel an obligation towards the American soldiers who died not just for their country, but also for our freedom, and we want to do something for them in return.”22 Over time, they came up with a variety of ways to express their gratitude towards the American soldiers. The first thing they did was to collect money to buy flowers and to support a Holy Mass to honor the fallen soldiers on each third Sunday of the month. The main initiative, however, through which they would influence the commemorative practices at the Margraten cemetery from 1945 onwards, concerned the creation of a grave adoption program that still exists today.

  • 23 Ibid., 7, 232.
  • 24 Ibid., 47-59, 240.

14Through this program, local citizens could ‘adopt’ the grave of an American soldier. This meant that they would take care of the grave and visit it regularly, for example to place flowers on the grave to honor the fallen soldier. Local adopters visited Margraten cemetery “not just out of gratitude to the US and its mighty military, but often to safeguard the memory of a particular GI.”23 Many tried to contact the American families of the fallen to let them know they were taking care of the grave of a loved one and to find out more about the life and background of each individual soldier. Oftentimes an intimate transatlantic correspondence developed between Dutch adopters and the American relations of the soldiers whose graves they had adopted. Through the years, many relatives of American soldiers buried at Margraten crossed the Atlantic Ocean to visit the cemetery in person and to meet up with adopters. Some Dutch adopters also visited the families of American soldiers whose graves they had adopted in the United States.24 Thus, the grave adoption program contributed to a vibrant network of transatlantic linkages with high emotional value, as well as to the development of a rich and emotionally powerful commemorative culture, rooted in shared trauma and with a strong focus on the individuals buried at Margraten and their personal stories.

15Eventually, the Civilian Committee was able to accomplish the ambitious plan to have all of the nearly 18,000 graves adopted by Memorial Day 1946. In doing so, they started a tradition that would be passed from generation to generation. Thus, the citizens of Margraten played a key role in the development not just of the American military cemetery itself, but also of the commemorative practices surrounding it. In the process, despite the original intentions of the ABMC, they redirected the attention of the commemorative culture to the memory of the individual American soldiers, and their personal stories and sacrifice. After all, as Schrijvers put it,

  • 25 Ibid., xvi.

When the Dutch talk about the soldiers whose graves they have adopted, they rarely mention ranks or last names. Instead, they speak of Jack, Gustav, or Antonio or, just as naturally and caringly, of ‘our boy.’ For if the Margraten boys belong to America, the Dutch in whose soil they will rest forever, just as gratefully consider them theirs too.25

  • 26 Albertine Bloemendal, “Ambassadeurs van een Dankbaar Nederland: De burgerinitiatieven van Margraten (...)

16In the process, the people of Margraten contributed to the development of alternative interpretations of the ‘meaning’ and ‘lessons’ of the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers who found their final resting place at Margraten cemetery, often emphasizing the individual sacrifices and the human costs of war, rather than the more abstract and triumphant political narratives that the ABMC originally tried to emphasize.26

  • 27 Wanger, “‘Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,’” 56.

17This did not mean, however, that the Netherlands-American military cemetery in Margraten did not also serve as a key stage for the transmission of official narratives of transatlantic politics and diplomacy. As the following section will demonstrate, US diplomats in The Hague were clearly aware of the potential diplomatic opportunities this transatlantic lieu de memoire offered. Thus, like other ABMC cemeteries, Margraten also functioned as one of the “international public memory platforms where politicians and citizens alike could justify political and military engagements.”27 It evidently fulfilled this purpose during president Bush’s 2005 visit. Yet, as the ensuing analysis will establish, during this visit, Margraten did not offer an equal platform to official and vernacular narratives alike. Rather, it provided an unequal platform for political messaging that elevated the official narrative over alternative citizen interpretations of the ‘meaning’ and ‘lessons’ of Margraten, while making it possible to effectively circumvent explicit challenges to these official narratives in the form of overt protest.

4. Margraten, US Public Diplomacy and the Challenge of the “Successor Generation”

18US diplomats in the Hague understood and consciously approached the Margraten Military Cemetery as an important site of ‘memory diplomacy’ during the ‘War on Terror.’ The role of Margraten in Dutch-American relations emerges from the diplomatic correspondence in a variety of ways. One report, containing a more personal anecdote, which was sent from The Hague to the US State Department in February 2007, is illustrative both of the (perceived) power of Margraten in forging and maintaining Dutch-American bonds, as well as of the key public diplomacy challenges the American embassy found itself faced with during this period. Relating a conversation between incoming Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen and US Ambassador Roland Arnall, the former mentioned that he had often been criticized by political opponents and the Dutch press for being “too pro-American.” Verhagen subsequently told the ambassador that he actually perceived this label as a “badge of honor.” The reason for this, according to the incoming Foreign Minister, was rooted in the emotional ties fostered through his childhood visits to the Margraten cemetery:

  • 28 Diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in the Hague to the US State Department, February 16, 2007, “N (...)

Verhagen recalled that his father had taken him to the American World War II Cemetery in Margraten at least once a year from the time he was six years old; his grandfather, he added, had been sent to a concentration camp in Germany. According to Verhagen, younger Dutchmen whose parents did not live through the liberation of Holland did not understand the depth of the gratitude felt by their elders. For many of the younger generation—including some of his colleagues in the new Cabinet—the Vietnam war had been a more significant influence in determining their attitudes towards the U.S.28

  • 29 Giles Scott-Smith, “Reviving the Transatlantic Community? The Successor Generation Concept in U.S. (...)

19The narrative illustrates on the one hand how Margraten served as a kind of memorial site of pilgrimage in the experience of the incoming Dutch Foreign Minister, who was born in the Dutch city of Maastricht, in the close vicinity of the American military cemetery. Verhagen’s story is not unique in this sense, and testifies particularly to the strong bonds that exist to this day between the cemetery and the local community, and to the impact its presence can have. At the same time, the narrative is also illustrative of a key transatlantic public diplomacy challenge that first came to the fore in the early 1960s: the so-called challenge of the ‘successor generation.’29

  • 30 Albertine Bloemendal, Reframing the Diplomat: Ernst van der Beugel and the Cold War Atlantic Commun (...)
  • 31 Stephen F. Szabo, The Successor Generation: International Perspectives of Postwar Europeans (London (...)
  • 32 Giles Scott-Smith, “Maintaining Transatlantic Community: US Public Diplomacy, the Ford Foundation a (...)
  • 33 See: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Limits of American Power,” Political Science Quarterly 117, no. 4 (Winter (...)
  • 34 Scott-Smith, “Reviving the Transatlantic Community?,” 206.

20As Verhagen pointed out, the US role in Western Europe during and right after the Second World War had ignited a profound sense of gratitude among many Europeans who personally experienced the liberation from Nazi Germany, followed by the reconstruction of Western Europe through the Marshall Plan. This experience had helped to generate goodwill towards the US that in turn informed a sense ‘Atlantic-mindedness.’30 By the end of the 1960s, however, a new generation came of age that had not personally experienced the horrors of the war or the American role in the liberation and reconstruction of Western Europe. Instead, this generation grew up with a very different set of ‘formative’ experiences, including the (mediated) experience of the Vietnam War, racial tensions and police brutality in American cities, as well as the political corruption exposed through the Watergate scandal. All of this stood in stark contrast to the idea of the US as the benevolent liberator of the World War II generation.31 In the eyes of these younger generations, as Giles Scott-Smith put it, the “United States had shifted from being the model to being a problem, perpetuating rather than undermining systems of repression for its own power.”32 This negative image of the United States undermined its soft power, which, according to Joseph Nye, had helped pave the way for the acceptance of American hegemony.33 Among the transatlantic elite this challenge to American (soft) power and—indirectly—to the transatlantic relationship as formalized through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), became known as the ‘challenge of the successor generation.’34 While the successor generation problem was first identified in the early 1960s and became a popular catchphrase among transatlantic foreign policy establishments during the 1980s, the challenge of transmitting Atlanticist values and concerns to post-World War II generations did not fade with the passing of the Cold War. As the diplomatic cables from the US embassy in The Hague demonstrate, a new, post-Cold War generation of Europeans grew up with its own set of formative experiences during the ‘War on Terror.’ These included the previously-mentioned Iraq War as well as American human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Like the formative experiences of the baby boomers, these (mediated) experiences reflected negatively on the United States, thus hurting American soft power and creating new public diplomacy challenges to positively engage with this generation as well. That this development was seen as a serious concern by US diplomats is supported by another cable from the US Embassy in The Hague, reporting on opinion polls, stating,

  • 35 Diplomatic Cable from US Embassy the Hague to the US State Department et al., “Netherlands: Renewin (...)

Polling data in 2008 revealed that approximately one-half of the Dutch population had a negative view of the United States, and 60 percent disapproved of our international policies, particularly in Iraq and Guantanamo. While we enjoy considerable support among the WWII generation, middle-aged voters, the young and the growing Muslim minority are cynical about cooperation with the United States, which affects Cabinet decisions to support U.S. strategic objectives.35

21Thus, the ‘War on Terror’ further aggravated the existing ‘successor generation’ challenge, negatively affecting American soft power in Western Europe and jeopardizing “U.S. strategic objectives” as understood by US diplomats in The Hague in the process.

  • 36 See: “Clifford Sobel (2001-2005): de man die geen ‘nee’ accepteert,” Elsevier Weekblad, July 6, 201 (...)
  • 37 Floris van Straaten, “Een energiek, soms opdringerig netwerker,” NRC Handelsblad, December 16, 2002 (...)
  • 38 Diplomatic cable from US Ambassador Clifford Sobel, US Embassy the Hague, “Ambassador’s Parting Tho (...)
  • 39 Sobel, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts.”

22Ambassador Clifford Sobel, who served as the American ambassador to the Netherlands from July 2001 to July 2005, was the first US ambassador stationed in the Netherlands as the War on Terror unfolded. A closer look at US diplomatic correspondence from this period demonstrates not only how he actively employed the language of the successor generation, but also how he tried to address this challenge, using the memory of World War II and the Margraten Military Cemetery in the process.36 During his first year in the Netherlands, Sobel himself became “deeply impressed” by his first experience of the annual commemorative service at the Margraten cemetery. “I was very surprised,” he said, “that so many Dutch citizens attended, and not just older people.” 37Sobel did not forget the traditional ‘tools,’ such as exchange programs, for reaching out to the ‘successor generation.’ As he argued in one of his cables to Washington: “Given the disproportionate influence wielded by the Dutch in international fora, we should expand our active exchange programs (including the Fulbright and International Visitor Programs) to help shape the successor generation.”38 Even so, impressed by his own Margraten experience, Sobel also came to value memory diplomacy as a useful tool of public diplomacy in this context. While referring to the value of the emotional response evoked by the memory of the American sacrifice in World War II at the end of his ambassadorship, Sobel explicitly stated in a diplomatic cable from The Hague that “This mission has pursued an ambitious program of outreach to future Dutch leaders to ensure that these emotions are passed to the next generation.”39

  • 40 Ibid.

23A key event in this context, which ambassador Sobel himself perceived as a huge success, was President Bush’s visit to the Netherlands in May 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Europe at the US Military Cemetery in Margraten.40 At the American embassy in The Hague, this visit—which was combined with a youth roundtable for potential Dutch future leaders—was perceived as an important opportunity to reach out to the successor generations and to reaffirm Dutch-American relations in a time of increased transatlantic tensions through the positive memory of the US role in WWII. What is more, the décor of Margraten also offered a safe haven for an American president embarking on a trip to an allied country whose population was rather critical of his presidency and policies.

5. A Faithful Ally, an Unpopular President and the Memory of World War II

  • 41 As Jockel and Missie have pointed out: “The Hague’s management of support to the coalition of the w (...)
  • 42 As the report of the Davids Committee, tasked in 2009 by the Dutch government to independently inve (...)
  • 43 Davids et al., Rapport, 67.
  • 44 “Amerikaans oorlogskerkhof Margraten perfect decor voor Bush,” Dagblad Tubantia/Twentsche Courant, (...)

24While President Bush was relatively unpopular among the Dutch population, the Dutch government nevertheless acted as a faithful ally in the context of the ‘War on Terror.’ They not only supported American military action in Afghanistan, but also ‘politically’ endorsed the war in Iraq.41 The government, represented by successive administrations under the leadership of Prime-Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, received substantive criticism at home for this policy, both in public debate and through protests.42 In fact, protests against the war in Iraq culminated on 15 February 2003 in the largest Dutch peace protest since the demonstrations against the placing of cruise missiles in the 1980s.43 Despite the loyalty of the Dutch government in the face of domestic opposition, President Bush had not included the Netherlands during his European ‘goodwill’ tour earlier in 2005, when he had visited neighboring Belgium and Germany, among other countries. Consequently, a “cordial diplomatic gesture” to this faithful transatlantic ally was believed to be in order—and Margraten would serve as the ideal décor.44

  • 45 Sobel, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts”; “Z-Limburg vesting voor Bush,” Trouw, May 7, 2005, 2; “Zeve (...)
  • 46 “Bush Marks a Victory for Liberty in Europe,” New York Times, May 9, 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/ (...)

25Taking into consideration the—for Dutch standards—relatively strong anti-American sentiments, President Bush’s 17 hour-visit to the Netherlands was carefully choreographed and cautiously framed around the commemoration of the American World War II sacrifice, with the Margraten cemetery offering the main setting for the expression, mutual affirmation, and harmonious public confirmation of close Dutch-American relations. The choice for Margraten as the setting for this diplomatic spectacle was strategically feasible as it offered a way to avoid the kinds of at-times violent protests that Bush’s recent visits to other West-European destinations had ignited. Just a few months earlier, the Belgian police had needed to disperse protesters gathered near the European Union headquarters in Brussels with water cannons during a visit by the American president. Fears existed among both Dutch and American officials that Bush’s visit to the Netherlands would also be met with angry protests.45 By only visiting Margraten and framing the entire visit within the context of the World War II commemorations, such scenes could be avoided in the Netherlands. After all, as the New York Times pointed out: “Bush is widely unpopular in the Netherlands. But in the region around the cemetery graveyard, within walking distance of the German and Belgian borders, Americans are fondly remembered for their wartime rescue.”46

  • 47 “Bush gaat naar Limburg, niet naar Nederland,” Tubantia/Twentsche Courant, March 30, 2005,  https:/ (...)

26The US President’s choice to exclusively visit the Margraten area did not go unnoticed in the Dutch press. According to the Queen’s Commissioner for the province of Limburg, Baron Van Voorst tot Voorst, this choice even meant that President Bush circumvented the standard protocol for such visits, which also prescribes a visit to the seat of government (The Hague) or the capital (Amsterdam). This had prevented President Clinton from coming to Margraten in the past, Van Voorst tot Voorst claimed, as he had considered it improper to ignore this protocol. In contrast, a newspaper article titled “Bush visits Limburg, not the Netherlands” pointed out, President Bush “did not mind” skipping a visit to The Hague or Amsterdam, making him the first American president to officially visit the Margraten cemetery.47

  • 48 Joseph S. Nye, Jr. “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Politic (...)

27Having the American president visit Margraten Military Cemetery to commemorate VE-Day was not only diplomatically appealing because it allowed him to stay away from more politically ‘hostile’ areas of the country. It also offered an excellent opportunity from a memory diplomacy perspective, as this made it possible to generate considerably more than the usual amount of attention for the American role in the liberation of Western Europe, thus employing the memory of the ’Good War’ for diplomatic purposes. As the relatively positive disposition of the World War II generation towards the United States illustrates, the memory of the American role in the liberation of Europe—and the positive emotions, imagery and associations attached to this memory—make for a valuable diplomatic resource. Public diplomacy can instrumentalize resources like this positive ‘collective memory’ by consciously drawing the public’s attention to them.48 Thus, from a public diplomacy perspective, the weeks-long attention that President Bush’s visit to the Netherlands was able to generate—consistently framed within the context of the World War II commemorations—offered a valuable opportunity to draw an unusual amount of nation-wide attention to the US contribution to the liberation of Europe.

  • 49 Marja Rohol, “An Invasion of a Different Kind: The US Office of War Information and ‘The Projection (...)
  • 50 Olivia B. Waxman, “Video Games May be Key to Keeping World War II Memory Alive,” Time Magazine, Aug (...)
  • 51 For ‘emotion norms’ see: Simon Koschut, “Emotional (security) communities: the significance of emot (...)

28In reminding the Dutch of the US role in the ‘Good War’, US public diplomacy efforts not only tapped into the memories of the generation that had actually lived through this period, but also build upon a vast legacy of cultural memory, transmitted through representations of the Second World War through popular culture. After all, as Marja Roholl has pointed out, the disproportionate presence of American popular culture in Western Europe has contributed to an ‘Americanization’ of the memory of the liberation, the foundations for which had already been laid during the liberation itself.49 This cultural memory of America’s role in the ‘Good War’ was something that young publics could identify with through their consumption of popular Hollywood productions, such as the film Saving Private Ryan or the miniseries Band of Brothers, and, more recently, also through video games conveying similar—often Americanized—narratives.50 What is more, through the constant reminders of the memory of World War II, linked to the hallowed fields of Margraten as the location of the event, President’s Bush’s visit was not just rhetorically and visually framed, but also invoked a normative emotional script that demanded a sober, respectful and dignified attitude by those who attended.51 In this context, loud and angry protests, which the president might have had to confront in Amsterdam or the Hague, would be improper and out of place, if not simply profane.

6. Bush at Margraten: Framing and Optics

29As part of Ambassador Sobel’s attempts to reach out to the successor generation, the Margraten commemoration was preceded by a meeting between President Bush and a selection of potential future leaders from the Netherlands at a youth round table in the town of Valkenburg, where the President had spent the night. The transcript of this meeting offers an interesting window into one of the ways in which the President’s visit was consistently framed in light of the World War II commemorations at Margraten.

30Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende opened the roundtable and introduced the President by evoking the memory of the American military presence in the Valkenburg area during the liberation of the Netherlands as well as the broader purpose of the President’s visit. He effectively set the tone for the meeting in his last sentence by reminding his youthful audience of the fact that the American president was there specifically to visit Margraten to commemorate the sacrifice of these American soldiers, emphasizing that “It’s so important to be there, and also for us to show our respect and to say thanks for what all the Americans have done for the Netherlands.”52 Thus, Balkenende explicitly reaffirmed the frame within which the American president’s visit—as well as the ensuing roundtable discussion—was to be understood, namely, within a context of gratitude, respect and commemoration. President Bush continued in a similar vein:

  • 53 Ibid.

You know, I will be honoring a generation that made enormous sacrifices so that my generation could grow up in a free world. I’m really looking forward to going to the cemetery and paying homage to those who fought for freedom. It will be a solemn occasion, but an important moment to reflect upon. And I look forward to talking to the next generation about the responsibilities that you’ll have to make sure the communities in which you grow up are hopeful communities and this country in which you love is a free country.53

  • 54 Ibid.

31This did not keep the Dutch youngsters from asking some critical questions, however, ranging from queries concerning the Patriot Act and US civil liberties to the President’s responsibility to address domestic poverty while spending valuable resources fighting foreign wars.54

  • 55 “Zulke vragen krijgt Bush in Amerika niet,” Algemeen Dagblad, May 10, 2005, 7.
  • 56 Raymond van den Boogaard, “President Bush stemt Europa mild,” NRC Handelsblad, May 9, 2005, 1.

32Afterwards, an article in the Los Angeles Times explicitly pointed out the critical nature of the questions, arguing that such questions would probably not get through the “domestic censorship” when asked in the US.55 While most members of the Dutch press mentioned this meeting only fleetingly, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad also noticed the transatlantic “difference in style” illustrated by the critical tone of a question asked by a Dutch student who had interrogated the American president about the relationship between the fight against terrorism and respect for civil rights in the US.56 In the end, however, the President was able to bring the conversation back to the theme of the day, trying to convey his interpretation of the “lesson of World War II”:

  • 57 “President Participates in Youth Roundtable.”

The hardest decision a President makes is war. Nobody wants to be at war. Nobody. Now the question is, how do we spread peace. And one way you spread peace is spread democracy. That’s the lesson of World War II. If that thought troubles you, we can discuss this a little more. But the lesson of World War II, was that by spreading democracy throughout Europe, that Europe at last became whole, peace—free, whole and at peace. That’s the lesson that people at least ought to take away from the experience of the last 60 years. I believe it applies to the next 60, as well.57

7. A Carefully Choreographed Media Event

  • 58 These optics can be seen as form of ‘visual diplomacy,’ which refers to “the ways and means by whic (...)

33The Margraten commemorative ceremony itself was a carefully choreographed media event, broadcast live by the Dutch national broadcasting station NOS. The official program included the laying of wreaths by President Bush and Dutch Queen Beatrix, speeches by Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende and President Bush, as well as a fly-past by three US fighter jets. Next to providing an appealing and dignified stage and décor for verbal political messaging through the speeches that were delivered during the ceremony, the optics in the form of the mediated images resulting from this commemorative spectacle of diplomacy deserve to be taken into account in their own right.58 The images that resulted from the ceremony profited from the fact that the Margraten decor came with a clear set of emotional norms and attached behavioral expectations. Emotional expressions of respect, reverence, and gratitude belonged to the proper emotional script for such an occasion, whereas loud protests expressing anger and frustration, which the President would likely have faced if he had visited The Hague or Amsterdam, would be seen as disrespectful towards the fallen soldiers. Together, these elements helped set the stage for an asymmetrical platform of political messaging that was beneficial to American—and Atlanticist—diplomatic interests.

  • 59 “Belangstelling groot voor Bush,” Algemeen Dagblad, April 28, 2005, 5; “President Bush stemt Europa (...)
  • 60 “Ambassadeur lokte Bush naar Limburg,” Volkskrant, May 7, 2005, 3; “Elk graf is geadopteerd in Marg (...)

34The commemorative ceremony drew a large crowd. Estimates vary between 9,000 and 11,000 attendees. A few hundred of these consisted of veterans while thousands belonged to the local community, including many citizens involved in the Margraten grave adoption program.59 In fact, Ambassador Sobel at multiple occasions suggested that the President wanted to come to Margraten specifically to thank the people of Margraten for their sustained dedication in tending to the more than 8,000 graves—and the memories—of the fallen soldiers.60 While the presence of all these people did not necessarily mean that they supported President Bush or his policies, it did contribute to diplomatically appealing optics, which were reinforced by the dignified atmosphere that the location required. In this, the audience played its implicitly assigned part through the proper expression of emotions in the presence of the fallen soldiers whose graves were marked by a humbling sea of thousands of white crosses flanking the speakers as well as the spectators.

35The images of the event depicted President Bush, surrounded by thousands of people who were deferentially listening to the American president’s words, watching him pay respect to the fallen soldiers in a sober and dignified way. In a sense, these fallen soldiers were once more called upon to serve their nation, still protecting the American president—this time against open expressions of protest, anger and criticism, which were understood to be unbecoming, inappropriate, unfitting and unseemly in their presence. Once the ceremony ended, friendly images of veterans sitting in the front rows, reaching out to and waving kindly at President Bush, combined with images of the President hugging and shaking hands with attendees were added to the visual repertoire of the event.

  • 61 Schrijvers, Margraten Boys, 228. See also: “Zeven arrestaties bij zorgeloos bezoek Bush.”

36It is hard to imagine that such friendly imagery concerning a visit by President Bush could have been fashioned anywhere else in the Netherlands at this moment in history. Important in this context is how this geographical location of Margraten facilitated an almost complete visual separation of protest from the immediate presence of the American president. Margraten is far removed from the urban centers of The Hague and Amsterdam, which are usually visited by heads of state, but which also tend to be key sites of protest. The closest city to Margraten is the city of Maastricht, a city with a population of about 120,000 residents, which is located quite far away from the most densely populated areas of the Netherlands. As it turned out, protesters—who agreed that protesting against the American president and his policies at Margraten would be improper and would not help their cause—could not agree on the one key place of protest. This led to fragmented, and thus smaller, protests divided between Maastricht and Amsterdam. In addition, seventy protesters had received permission to participate in a ‘noise demonstration’ near the local airport where Air Force One landed. A police escort had brought them to a rather remote place within sight of the tarmac. Here, they were allowed to protest by making noise while waving banners declaring Bush a “war criminal” and the US “the dictator of the world,” while an “elderly man sat on a chair and quietly denounced the war in Iraq holding a placard saying, “Not in My Name.”61

  • 62 Ibid.; “Bush herdenkt gevallenen in koud en guur Margraten,” Utrechts Nieuwsblad, May 9, 2005, 1.

37The images of this small group of protesters making noise with pots and pans in what appeared to be a remote field looked quite unimpressive. The group’s size clearly paled in comparison to the large crowd that respectfully gathered at Margraten. The spatial separation of the loud and angry protests from the peaceful and dignified scene of the presidential visit meant that the positive imagery of President Bush’s presence was never directly challenged or disturbed, but only indirectly challenged through separate, alternative images. In addition, since the protests that did occur were scattered, this created a strong visual contrast, for example when it came to crowd size, which seemed to reflect positively on the American president. News reports also emphasized how flawless the President’s visit to Margraten had been, with one reporter concluding that the only dissonance at the Margraten ceremony that could be observed concerned the rainy weather, one thing that could not be orchestrated.62

38Thus, while protests certainly did take place in other places, sober, friendly, peaceful, respectful, and dignified are among the key adjectives that come to mind when looking at the images that appeared both in TV reporting and news photography of the event at Margraten: a grateful nation paying respect and, indeed, reaffirming friendly transatlantic bonds. To whom exactly this grateful nation paid its respect, and to whom this gratitude was directed, however, was obscured in the imagery. Whether this respect was directed at President Bush, at the fallen soldiers, the American nation, at Bush as the formal representative of this nation, or a combination of these cannot be determined based on the images alone. Irrespective of the attendees’ political views regarding President Bush and his policies, in the mediated imagery of the event, the audience came to play a supporting role in this carefully orchestrated spectacle of diplomacy which provided very appealing optics for the American President while it simultaneously supported a narrative of friendly and respectful relations between the Netherlands and the United States.

39The deliberate consideration given to the optics of the visit by its organizers in the form of the mediated version of events to broader national and international publics—as well as the tension present in the fact that respectful attendance at the Margraten commemoration did not equal political support for the President or his policies—comes clearly to the fore in the case of four Dutch citizens who were denied access to the ceremony based on the fact that they had participated in a demonstration against president Bush’s policies in Maastricht on the day before the ceremony. While opposing the policies of the American president, the four argued that they nevertheless wanted to attend the ceremony on the following day to pay respect to the fallen soldiers. After they had been denied access to the ceremony, Gerd Leers, the mayor of Maastricht, apologized for this course events. His reasoning, however, clearly emphasizes the importance that was consciously attributed to the optics of this transatlantic commemorative ceremony, as he said,

  • 63 “Leers biedt excuses aan,” De Limburger, May 10, 2005.

These people have become victims of our extreme caution. We had indications that some of the protesters also wanted to come to the ceremony the next day. If they had disrupted it, that image would have gone all over the world. We wanted to prevent that by picking out the people who had been to Plein 1992. I’m really sorry that these people fell victim to that.63

40The primary objective in the reasoning of the mayor thus appears to have been the safeguarding of the international optics of the event. At the same time, assuming these four truly did want to pay their respect to the fallen soldiers, it also illustrates the complexity of soft power assets, and how positive associations with a country in one realm—in this case, the memory of the American role in the World War II liberation of Europe—do not automatically translate into support for a country’s politics and policies. The fact that attendance at the ceremony should not be confused with political support for president Bush and his policies was also emphasized in news reports by people who did attend the ceremony (but who probably had not attended any of the protests).

  • 64 Peter de Graaf, “En daar is dan de limousine met Bush,” De Volkskrant, May 9, 2005, 3.
  • 65 Onno Havermans, “Het Amerikaanse graf blijft in de Nederlandse familie,” Trouw, May 7, 2005, 2.
  • 66 Pascale Thewissen, “De Bush-show,” Dagblad Tubantia/Twentse Courant, May 9, 2005, 3.
  • 67 Guido de Vries, “Publiek komt voor de doden, niet voor Bush,” NRC Handelsblad, May 9, 2005, 6.

41Multiple Dutch newspaper articles contained interviews with attendees who explicitly mentioned that they attended the ceremony not to demonstrate their support for the policies of president Bush, but solely to pay their respect to the fallen soldiers. While standing in line to attend the ceremony together with her father and two siblings, Lidewijn from Sittard told a Volkskrant reporter that “We’re not going for Bush, but to commemorate the liberation.”64 In a similar vein, grave adopter Elly Bendermacher told Trouw reporter Onno Havermans that she would be attending the ceremony for the same reason that inspired her to adopt the grave of a fallen American soldier: “out of gratitude,” explicitly adding: “Not for Bush, but for the Americans who liberated us.”65 One of these Americans—alive and in attendance—was the 91-year-old veteran Bob Bowen from Maryland, who, as member of the legendary 101st Airborne Division, had helped to liberate the area. He was quoted in multiple Dutch newspapers sharing that he was “anti-war” and “no fan of Bush,” jokingly adding that when he shook the president’s hand, he had told him that he “did not vote for him”—quickly followed by a big smile and the words, “No, I’m just kidding. But I would have liked to.”66 While Bowen acknowledged that it nevertheless “meant a lot” to him, and those who had fought with him, that Bush, as the US President, visited Margraten, a local visitor from Limburg named Lisette was more judgmental, stating that president Bush, “who is little loved here,” should have avoided Margraten because of “his” war in Iraq. “It is cowardly,” she said, “that he uses this commemoration for his own publicity.” Suggesting that these attitudes were not unique, NRC journalist Guido de Vries observed that “a small tour” among those in attendance confirmed “that many visitors come ‘for the fallen’ and ‘not especially for Bush’” —a conclusion that even ended up as the article’s headline.67

  • 68 According to Schrijvers, “A recurring refrain among adopters is that all war is madness and that in (...)

42This interpretation of ‘the meaning of Margraten’ also reflects the more complex nature of the local grass-roots culture of commemoration that had developed around Margraten, including the adoption program which primarily directed the attention and associated affections (e.g. gratitude) towards the individual soldiers, their sacrifice and the personal cost and trauma of war, informing a variety of different interpretations concerning the ‘lessons of Margraten.’ These included not only the ‘lesson’ that freedom should today also be defended in Iraq, but also that war—and its horrific human sacrifice—should be avoided.68

  • 69 Ibid., 218.
  • 70 Ibid., 218-225.

43As Schrijvers has demonstrated through a survey he conducted in April 2008 in which close to 1,200 Margraten grave adopters participated, “Even within the Margraten adoption community, the war in Iraq was causing deep divisions.”69 For many adopters, their appreciation of the sacrifice of the American soldiers in the context of the liberation of Europe did not translate into an endorsement of US foreign policy in the Middle East in the context of the War on Terror. While there were certainly those for whom the American role in the liberation of Europe informed a supportive or uncritical attitude towards US foreign policy in the context of the War on Terror, Schrijvers points out that “Many adopters thought the military intervention in Iraq senseless and dangerous, and not a few drew parallels with the Vietnam disaster. What appalled them, among others, was the sidelining of the United Nations, the lies that had led to the invasion, and the disregard for human rights from Guantanomo Bay to Abu Graib.”70

  • 71 Ibid., 234.
  • 72 Qtd in: Ibid., 219.

44Above all, what appeared to be most important to the adoption community “was to ensure that the memory of the Margraten boys in World War II remained untainted by politics past and future.”71 Many seemed to agree with the words spoken at Margraten in 1965 by US Ambassador Philip Young, who during the Vietnam War had emphasized the importance of respecting each other’s beliefs, arguing that “The capacity to disagree without jeopardizing a friendship can be of vital significance in the long run.”72 For the optics of the 2005 commemorative event—the images that ‘went all over the world’—however, this did not really matter. The respectful presence of those who attended, whether they supported president Bush and his policies or not, still reflected positively on the American President while supporting the narrative of close Dutch-American relations.

45The script of ‘proper emotions’ that was evoked by the Margraten décor—emotions befitting the commemoration of the fallen soldiers on these ‘hallowed fields’—did not only help to make for friendly and dignified optics concerning president Bush’s visit despite opposition to his policies among attendees. The Margraten setting also helped to provide an unequal platform for political messaging in favor of the official narratives as presented by President Bush and Prime Minister Balkenende. While protest against the Dutch and American roles in the War on Terror was considered to be unbefitting on such an occasion and at such a site, neither Bush nor Balkenende shied away from using the occasion and the memory of the Second World War to gather support for their foreign policies, including their engagement in the War on Terror.

46After weaving the “great victory for liberty” that Margraten represented according to Bush into the longer history of Dutch-American relations, followed by expressions of thanks and appreciation for the Dutch in response to the “wonderful tradition” of adopting and attending to the graves of the fallen American soldiers, and a reflection on the ways in which “every one of these Americans added his own unique contribution to the story of freedom,” the President turned to the present, saying,

  • 73 “President Honors and Commemorates Veterans in the Netherlands,” Office of the Press Secretary,” Ma (...)

On this day, we celebrate the victory they won, and we recommit ourselves to the great truth that they defended, that freedom is the birthright of all mankind. Because of their sacrifice and the help of brave Allies, that truth prevailed at the close of the 20th century.
As the 21st century unfolds before us, Americans and Europeans are continuing to work together and are bringing freedom and hope to places where it has long been denied, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and across the broader Middle East. Freedom is a permanent hope of mankind, and when that hope is made real for all people, it will be because of the sacrifices of a new generation of men and women as selfless and dedicated to liberty as those we honor today.73

  • 74 Obama, for example, similarly invoked the memory of the WWII dead to encourage international solida (...)
  • 75 David Hoogland Noon, “Operation Enduring Analogy: World War II, the War on Terror, and the Uses of (...)

47Thus, the President seamlessly interlaced his own policies into the grand narrative of the Good War. He certainly was not the first American president to use the stage of an American military cemetery on European soil to do so. Nor would he be the last.74 The speech he delivered at Margraten also fitted within a broader rhetorical pattern of President Bush’s domestic justification of America’s post-9/11 wars. As David Hoogland Noon has pointed out, George W. Bush consistently used World War II analogies and evoked the legacy of the ‘greatest generation’ to lend credibility to his war on terrorism, characterizing “the world in a simple, dualistic fashion that evades critical engagement with history.”75 The décor of Margraten, however, added an extra visual and emotional dimension to his words, and offered the president an opportunity for political messaging at a place that—based on norms of decency and respect—silenced dissenting voices.

48Prime Minister Balkenende, in turn, used the same stage not just to reaffirm Dutch-American bonds, but also to weave the Dutch commitment in the fight against terrorism into the same grand narrative, saying,

  • 76 “Bush Marks a Victory for Liberty in Europe.”

We must remain alert for we are confronted again with enemies of peace who seek to undermine our legal order. The message of terrorists is violence and fear. Our message is dialogue and peace. Terrorism will not prevail. We are fighting this battle together. The struggle for peace connects us all.76

8. Concluding Reflections: A Successful Visit?

49The context of the 2005 World War II commemorations at Margraten offered an ambiguity that the organizers of president Bush’s 2005 visit were able to exploit in their favor; because he visited the Netherlands within the framework of these commemorations, it appeared to be almost improper to use the occasion to protest this president and his policies, as the visit was officially not about him or his policies. At the same time, the Margraten commemoration provided the American president with the perfect décor and stage from which he could promote his own policies, while also producing appealing optics of a president respectfully welcomed by a sea of people representing a grateful nation. It should be no surprise, then, that US Ambassador Sobel looked back on this visit by president Bush with great satisfaction. In fact, looking at his description of the visit in a diplomatic cable sent from The Hague in August 2005, it appears that the ambassador was almost surprised at how successful the visit appeared to have been:

  • 77 Sobel, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts.”

Specific U.S. policies provoke squalls of anger and frustration here, but President Bush’s visit to the Netherlands in 2005 to commemorate V-E day at the WWII Dutch American Cemetery at Margraten was met with universal acclaim and provoked remarkably little protest. Even Dutch opposed to U.S. policies warmly welcomed the visit as a reminder of enduring, shared values forged in the crucibles of World War II and the Cold War.77

  • 78 Osgood and Etheridge, “Introduction,” 10.

50The ambassador furthermore described President Bush’s youth roundtable in Maastricht as a “notable success,” and argued that it could serve as a good model for future efforts to reach out to the successor generation. While analyzing these cables, the reader has to keep in mind that it was in the Ambassador’s own interest to describe these events as being successful. Whether the public diplomacy efforts that the American embassy in The Hague embarked upon in the context of transatlantic ‘memory diplomacy’ described in this article really had the desired effects in positively touching Dutch hearts and minds while reaching successor generations in a meaningful way remains difficult to say. After all, one of the pitfalls that both students and practitioners of public diplomacy often tend to fall into, is to assume that public diplomacy activities actually have the effect intended by the sender.78

  • 79 Sobel, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts.”

51So, were the emotions attached to the memory of World War II and the American role as liberators in the ‘Good War’ in fact transferred to the next generations as ambassador Sobel had anticipated? 79While answering the ‘effect’ question falls outside of the scope of this article, the analysis presented here does suggest that with regard to president Bush’s visit to Margraten to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Europe, such research should also be mindful of the presence and development of the local commemorative culture with its emphasis on the memory and sacrifice of individual American soldiers. It could very well be that this private initiative, while at times going against the original intentions of the ABMC, may have been just as—if not more—instrumental than any of the official initiatives in fulfilling this diplomatic goal.

52Many younger grave adopters have, for example, been particularly active in more recent attempts to unearth the still-unknown stories of individual soldiers buried at Margraten, at times literally giving a face to the more abstract names mentioned on the gravestones. This happened, for example, through the ‘Faces of Margraten’ initiative, which attempts to collect photographs of all the individual liberators, making it possible for new generations to literally look them in the eyes. From 2015 onwards, the ABMC allowed these images to be displayed next to the graves of these soldiers and next to the names on the walls of the missing during special commemorative moments.80 In 2020, seventy-five years after the liberation of the Netherlands, the Fields of Honor Foundation—a non-profit that developed from a group of volunteers within the adoptive community who initiated the ‘Faces of Margraten’ project—also published a book meant to serve as a ‘monument on paper,’ bringing the memory of individual soldiers to life through personal stories and photographs. The Foundation furthermore maintains an online database that is regularly updated with new pictures and information in honor of the memory of the individual soldiers. In fact, many of these ventures have been enabled through the new opportunities offered by the Internet, which not only provides alternative avenues to gather information, but also facilitates the establishment and maintenance of transatlantic social bonds.81

  • 82 “Netherlands American Cemetery,” American Battle Monuments Commission, accessed May 11, 2022, https (...)

53As the reference to the adoption program in President Bush’s speech also demonstrated, official representatives of the American government have also recognized the power of this grassroots initiative. Today, the ABMC pays explicit attention to the citizen initiatives in Margraten. Both Dutch and American representatives have embraced the adoption program as a key example of the strength of the bilateral relationship, often presenting it in diplomatic speeches as a significant element contributing to a sense of ‘special relationship.’82

  • 83 Schrijvers, Margraten Boys, 235-236; Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, “Adopting Ameri (...)

54Whether intentional or not, President Bush’s visit to Margraten helped boost the popularity of the grave adoption program. In the wake of his visit, so many additional candidates for adoption contacted the Foundation for Adopting Graves that many had to be put on a waiting list. To accommodate the great demand, the Foundation decided in 2008 to also start with the adoption of the names on the walls of the missing, located at the entrance to the cemetery. In 2017, the Margraten adoption tradition was even added to the list of Dutch ‘intangible cultural heritage.’ Today, all 8,301 graves and all of the 1,722 names on the walls of the missing have been adopted. There also still is a waiting list of aspiring adopters, which clearly testifies to the continuing vitality of this grass-roots citizen initiative.83

55The fact that expressions of gratitude and admiration for the American role in the liberation of the Netherlands—including the years-long dedication invested in the adoption of a grave—did not necessarily translate into support for contemporary American foreign policy, should temper too-simplistic expectations of immediate political benefits of such emotional ties rooted in the memory of the liberation somewhat. While the anecdote shared by Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, as well as the relatively uncritical support by a section of local grave adopters, seems to indicate that such outcomes are also possible, the more critical attitude towards US foreign policy in the context of the War on Terror held by individuals in attendance at the commemorative ceremony as well as by many grave adopters demonstrates that we should be careful not to assume that transferring these emotions from generation to generation would also automatically translate into support for US strategic objectives.

56There is no doubt, however, that—taking into consideration the contentious nature of the political landscape in the Netherlands during the time of President Bush’s visit—the diplomatic optics resulting from this visit could hardly have been much more appealing. What is more, the spectacle of diplomacy on display at the Netherlands-American military cemetery in Margraten not only helped to both visually and rhetorically reaffirm the transatlantic relationship, it also helped to demonstrate that even citizens who disagreed with contemporary US foreign policies still affirmed and recognized that there were nevertheless meaningful transatlantic bonds that endured despite existing tensions, thus signifying that this relationship was rooted in something deeper and more solid than the ebb and flow of current transatlantic politics.

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Notes

1 Pew Research Center, “Global Opinion: The Spread of Anti-Americanism,” January 24, 2005, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2005/01/24/global-opinion-the-spread-of-anti-americanism/; Pew Research Center, “A Year After Iraq: Mistrust of America in Europe Ever Higher, Muslim Anger Persists,” March 16, 2004, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2004/03/16/a-year-after-iraq-war/; Kenneth A. Osgood and Brian C. Etheridge, “Introduction. The New International History Meets the New Cultural History: Public Diplomacy and U.S. Foreign Relations,” in The United States and Public Diplomacy: New Directions in Cultural and International Relations, eds. Kenneth A. Osgood and Brian C. Etheridge (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 1-5.

2 György Tóth and Krystof Kozák, “Introduction. Toward a Study of Memory in Transatlantic Relations,” in Memory in Transatlantic Relations: From the Cold War to the Global War on Terror, eds. Kozák et al. (London/New York: Routledge, 2019), 1.

3 Ibid., 2.

4 Sam Edwards, Allies in Memory: World War II and the Politics of Transatlantic Commemoration, c. 1941-2001 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 13.

5 Quoted in: Ibid. See also: John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 13-20.

6 See, for example: Peter Schrijvers, The Margraten Boys: How a European Village kept America’s Liberators Alive (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Edwards, Allies in Memory; Antonin Dehays, Combattre et mourir en Normandie: Les GI’s et l’expérience au feu, de la mort à la mémoire – Normandie 1944 (Bayeux: OREP, 2017); Kate Clarke Lemay, Triumph of the Dead: American World War II Cemeteries, Monuments and Diplomacy in France (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2018); Thomas H. Conner, War and Remembrance: The Story of the American Battle Monuments Commission (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018); Birgit Urmson, German and United States Second World War Military Cemeteries in Italy: Cultural Perspectives (New York: Peter Lang, 2019); Tracy Fisher, Burying America’s World War Dead (Oxon/New York: Routledge, 2020); Allison Lynn Wanger, “‘These Honored Dead’: The National Cemetery System and the Politics of Cultural Memory Since 1861” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2015).

7 Ron Robin, “‘A Foothold in Europe’: The Aesthetics and Politics of American War Cemeteries in Western Europe,” Journal of American Studies 29, no. 1 (1995): 55-72, 55.

8 Ron Robin, Enclaves of America: The Rhetoric of American Political Architecture Abroad, 1900-1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 109-110.

9 Kate Clarke Lemay, “Politics in the Art of War: The American War Cemeteries,” International Journal of Military History and Historiography 38, no. 2 (2018): 223-254, 224-230; Kate Clarke Lemay, “The Construction of Transatlantic Remembrance in the War Cemeteries of the Twentieth Century,” International Journal of Military History and Historiography 38, no. 2 (2018): 159-169, 159.

10 Wanger, “‘Time will not dim the glory of their deeds’: The memorial roots and transatlantic legacies of the U.S. military cemeteries abroad,” in Memory in Transatlantic Relations: From the Cold War to the Global War on Terror, eds. Kozák et al. (London/New York: Routledge, 2019), 39.

11 Lemay, Triumph of the Dead, 3-8; Lemay, “Politics in the Art of War”, 232; Lemay, “The Construction,” 164.

12 Lemay, Triumph of the Dead, 3.

13 Ibid., 3-4.

14 Robin “A Foothold in Europe,” 59.

15 Ibid., 55.

16 Cited in: Ibid., 67.

17 Ibid., 55.

18 Lemay, Triumph of the Dead, 3-8; Lemay, “Politics in the Art of War,” 232; Lemay, “The Construction,” 164.

19 Wanger, “‘Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,’” 39.

20 See: Schrijvers, Margraten Boys.

21 Ibid., 1-3. For the role of the African American soldiers in the construction of Margraten Military Cemetery, see: Mieke Kirkels, Dutch Children of African American Liberators: Race, Military Policy and Identity in World War II and Beyond (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2020).

22 Quoted in: Schrijvers, Margraten Boys, 2. Emphasis added.

23 Ibid., 7, 232.

24 Ibid., 47-59, 240.

25 Ibid., xvi.

26 Albertine Bloemendal, “Ambassadeurs van een Dankbaar Nederland: De burgerinitiatieven van Margraten en de trans-Atlantische diplomatie van dankbaarheid,” Atlantisch Perspectief, 44, no. 2 (2020): 7-12. 

27 Wanger, “‘Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,’” 56.

28 Diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in the Hague to the US State Department, February 16, 2007, “Netherlands/New Cabinet: Incoming Foreign Minister Sets Pro-U.S. Tone,” Wikileaks: Public Library of US Diplomacy, accessed June 30, 2023, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07THEHAGUE297_a.html. While the diplomatic correspondence covering the period under review in this article has not yet been officially released by the US government, a vast number of cables have nevertheless entered the public domain through the unauthorized online publication by Wikileaks. As Robert C. Williams, among others, has pointed out, the use of sources from Wikileaks for historical research should be carefully considered, taking into account the agenda of the leakers as well as the selective nature of the material that has been published. While the diplomatic telegrams from the US Embassy in the Hague that are used in this article are authentic, it is clear, for example, that they do not provide a complete overview of the diplomatic correspondence from the US Embassy in the period under review. These limitations do not affect the value of these sources for the purposes of this article, however, in which they are specifically used to demonstrate how US diplomats in The Hague consciously engaged in memory diplomacy and sought to address the ‘challenge of the successor generation’ in public diplomacy. See also: Robert C. Williams, The Historians Toolbox (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2012), 196-199; Ruud van Dijk, “’Taking the Dutch to the Next Level’: De jaren 2003-2010 volgens Wikileaks,” in: De Amerikaanse Ambassade in Den Haag: Een blik achter de schermen van de Amerikaans-Nederlandse betrekkingen, eds. Duco Hellema and Giles Scott-Smith (Amsterdam: Boom, 2016), 180-181.

29 Giles Scott-Smith, “Reviving the Transatlantic Community? The Successor Generation Concept in U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1960s-1980s,” in: European Integration and the Atlantic Community in the 1980s, eds. Kiran Klaus Patel and Kenneth Weisbrode (New York/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 202.

30 Albertine Bloemendal, Reframing the Diplomat: Ernst van der Beugel and the Cold War Atlantic Community (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2018), 265-266.

31 Stephen F. Szabo, The Successor Generation: International Perspectives of Postwar Europeans (London: Buttersworth, 1983), 1; Kenneth P. Adler, “The Successor Generation: Why, Who and How,” in The Successor Generation, 5.

32 Giles Scott-Smith, “Maintaining Transatlantic Community: US Public Diplomacy, the Ford Foundation and the Successor Generation Concept in US Foreign Affairs, 1960s-1980s,” Global Society 28, no.1 (2014): 90-103, 92.

33 See: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Limits of American Power,” Political Science Quarterly 117, no. 4 (Winter 2002-2003): 545-559.

34 Scott-Smith, “Reviving the Transatlantic Community?,” 206.

35 Diplomatic Cable from US Embassy the Hague to the US State Department et al., “Netherlands: Renewing our Strategic Alliance,” 3 February, 2009, Wikileaks: Public Library of US Diplomacy, accessed June 30, 2023, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09THEHAGUE78_a.html.

36 See: “Clifford Sobel (2001-2005): de man die geen ‘nee’ accepteert,” Elsevier Weekblad, July 6, 2018, https://www.ewmagazine.nl/americandreamers/achtergrond/2018/07/clifford-sobel-accepteert-geen-nee-628524/

37 Floris van Straaten, “Een energiek, soms opdringerig netwerker,” NRC Handelsblad, December 16, 2002, 3.

38 Diplomatic cable from US Ambassador Clifford Sobel, US Embassy the Hague, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts on Taking the Dutch to the Next Level,” August 22, 2005, Wikileaks, Public Library of US Diplomacy, accessed June 30, 2023, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/05THEHAGUE2309_a.html.

39 Sobel, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts.”

40 Ibid.

41 As Jockel and Missie have pointed out: “The Hague’s management of support to the coalition of the willing included several trade-offs between, on the one hand, domestic opposition to the invasion of Iraq and to Dutch military support to it, and on the other, Anglo-American demands for political support to the invasion and indirect military support. The Dutch prime minister hedged his bets by never clarifying what he had meant when he offered ‘political support’ (to the invasion or to the ongoing U.S. war effort) and by committing token, ‘defensive’ military support. This hedging strategy was more successful on the transatlantic front (with the Dutch made an official member of the coalition) than on the domestic front.” Joseph T. Jockel and Justin Massie, “In or out? Canada, the Netherlands, and support to the invasion of Iraq,” Comparative Strategy 36, no. 2 (2017): 166-181, 174.

42 As the report of the Davids Committee, tasked in 2009 by the Dutch government to independently investigate the decision-making process concerning Dutch policy on Iraq, concluded: “The Dutch government’s decision to take no active military part in the war against Iraq was consistent with the majority view of the Dutch public, as reflected in opinion polls of the time. The decision to express political support for the war, despite the fact that it had not been mandated by the Security Council, was inconsistent with the majority view of the Dutch public, as reflected in opinion polls.” W.J.M. Davids, et al., Rapport Commissie van Onderzoek Besluitvorming Irak (Amsterdam: Boom, 2010), 529. On Dutch public opinion and public debate concerning the Iraq War see also pages 63-77.

43 Davids et al., Rapport, 67.

44 “Amerikaans oorlogskerkhof Margraten perfect decor voor Bush,” Dagblad Tubantia/Twentsche Courant, May 6, 2005, 2.

45 Sobel, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts”; “Z-Limburg vesting voor Bush,” Trouw, May 7, 2005, 2; “Zeven arrestaties bij zorgeloos bezoek Bush,” Trouw, May 9, 2005, 5.

46 “Bush Marks a Victory for Liberty in Europe,” New York Times, May 9, 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/09/world/europe/bush-marks-a-victory-for-liberty-in-europe.html.

47 “Bush gaat naar Limburg, niet naar Nederland,” Tubantia/Twentsche Courant, March 30, 2005,  https://advance-lexis-com.ezproxy.leidenuniv.nl/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:4FTW-5550-01KG-10P2-00000-00&context=1516831. All translations by the author.

48 Joseph S. Nye, Jr. “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, no.1 (2008): 94-109, 95.

49 Marja Rohol, “An Invasion of a Different Kind: The US Office of War Information and ‘The Projection of America’ Propaganda in the Netherlands, 1944-1945,” in Politics and Cultures of Liberation: Media Memory, and Projections of Democracy, eds. Frank Mehring, Hans Bak and Mathilde Roza (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 17-38.

50 Olivia B. Waxman, “Video Games May be Key to Keeping World War II Memory Alive,” Time Magazine, August 27, 2020, https://time.com/5875721/world-war-ii-video-games/.

51 For ‘emotion norms’ see: Simon Koschut, “Emotional (security) communities: the significance of emotion norms in inter-allied conflict management,” Review of International Studies 40, no. 3 (214): 534. “Emotion norms guide people to display emotions to fit a socially defined situation.”

52 “President Participates in Youth Roundtable in the Netherlands,” May 8, 2005, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/05/text/20050508-1.html.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 “Zulke vragen krijgt Bush in Amerika niet,” Algemeen Dagblad, May 10, 2005, 7.

56 Raymond van den Boogaard, “President Bush stemt Europa mild,” NRC Handelsblad, May 9, 2005, 1.

57 “President Participates in Youth Roundtable.”

58 These optics can be seen as form of ‘visual diplomacy,’ which refers to “the ways and means by which images are used by plural diplomatic actors to transmit ideas to audiences, producing and circulating meanings that serve particular purposes, with the aim of influencing, shaping and transforming relations between actors and across publics. See: Costas M. Constantinou, “Visual Diplomacy: Reflections on Diplomatic Spectacle and Cinematic Thinking,” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 13, no.4 (2018): 287-409, 387.

59 “Belangstelling groot voor Bush,” Algemeen Dagblad, April 28, 2005, 5; “President Bush stemt Europa mild”; “Niets sterker dan vrijheid,” Algemeen Dagblad, May 9, 2005, 1.

60 “Ambassadeur lokte Bush naar Limburg,” Volkskrant, May 7, 2005, 3; “Elk graf is geadopteerd in Margraten,” NRC Handelsblad, May 4, 2005 2.

61 Schrijvers, Margraten Boys, 228. See also: “Zeven arrestaties bij zorgeloos bezoek Bush.”

62 Ibid.; “Bush herdenkt gevallenen in koud en guur Margraten,” Utrechts Nieuwsblad, May 9, 2005, 1.

63 “Leers biedt excuses aan,” De Limburger, May 10, 2005.

64 Peter de Graaf, “En daar is dan de limousine met Bush,” De Volkskrant, May 9, 2005, 3.

65 Onno Havermans, “Het Amerikaanse graf blijft in de Nederlandse familie,” Trouw, May 7, 2005, 2.

66 Pascale Thewissen, “De Bush-show,” Dagblad Tubantia/Twentse Courant, May 9, 2005, 3.

67 Guido de Vries, “Publiek komt voor de doden, niet voor Bush,” NRC Handelsblad, May 9, 2005, 6.

68 According to Schrijvers, “A recurring refrain among adopters is that all war is madness and that in armed conflicts there are not winners, only losers.” Schrijvers, Margraten Boys, 256.

69 Ibid., 218.

70 Ibid., 218-225.

71 Ibid., 234.

72 Qtd in: Ibid., 219.

73 “President Honors and Commemorates Veterans in the Netherlands,” Office of the Press Secretary,” May 8, 2005, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/05/20050508.html.

74 Obama, for example, similarly invoked the memory of the WWII dead to encourage international solidarity in the on-going fight against Terrorism. See: Wanger, “‘Time will not dim the glory of their deeds,’” 56. See also: Lemay, Triumph of the Dead, 3.

75 David Hoogland Noon, “Operation Enduring Analogy: World War II, the War on Terror, and the Uses of Historical Memory,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 7, no. 3 (2004): 339-365, 339.

76 “Bush Marks a Victory for Liberty in Europe.”

77 Sobel, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts.”

78 Osgood and Etheridge, “Introduction,” 10.

79 Sobel, “Ambassador’s Parting Thoughts.”

80 See also: Wanger, “Time will not dim,” 55.

81 “Meet our liberators,” accessed on May 11, 2022, https://www.degezichtenvanmargraten.nl/index.php/en-us/; “Fields of Honor Database,” accessed on May 11, 2022, https://www.fieldsofhonor-database.com/index.php/en/; Jori Videc, Sebastiaan Vonk and Arie-Jan van Hees, De Gezichten van Margraten (Walburg Pers: Zutphen, 2020); Schrijvers, Margraten Boys, 247.

82 “Netherlands American Cemetery,” American Battle Monuments Commission, accessed May 11, 2022, https://www.abmc.gov/Netherlands; Bloemendal, “Ambassadeurs van een dankbaar Nederland,” 8.

83 Schrijvers, Margraten Boys, 235-236; Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, “Adopting American War Graves in Margraten”, accessed April 26, 2022, https://www.immaterieelerfgoed.nl/en/adoptiegravenmargraten; “Foundation for Adopting Graves American Cemetery Margraten,” accessed May 1, 2022, https://www.adoptiegraven-margraten.nl/en/.

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References

Electronic reference

Albertine Bloemendal, “To Ensure that these Emotions are Passed to the Next Generation”: The Netherlands American Military Cemetery in Margraten as a site of Transatlantic Memory Diplomacy during George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’European journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 20 April 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/20247; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.20247

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About the author

Albertine Bloemendal

Albertine Bloemendal is Assistant Professor of North American and Transatlantic Studies at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. She is the author of Reframing the Diplomat: Ernst van der Beugel and the Cold War Atlantic Community (Brill, 2018), which explores the unofficial transnational realm of the post-World War II Atlantic community as an intrinsic part of the transatlantic diplomatic process through an analysis of the ‘diplomatic role’ of the Dutch Atlanticist Ernst van der Beugel both as a government official and as a private diplomat. Her current research focuses on the role of public memory and commemorations, emotions (in particular expressions of gratitude) and non-state actors in post-WWII transatlantic diplomacy. Her teaching covers a wider variety of topics related to US history, politics and transatlantic relations. 

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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