Can we stop all this "greatest generation" nonsense yet? It's indisputable that the fighting force that battled the Axis powers in WWII showed incredible gallantry and sacrifice, as did the civilian population during wartime. The nation's war effort was a collective undertaking, combining soldiers' bravery and citizen resolve. Corporations transformed their factories into armories where women worked the assembly lines in the absence of men who were serving their country, and everyone supported the troops because the soldiers were us. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, men from every station rushed to enlist in the military. No American family was left untouched by the war, and the leadership of government — armed with a righteous cause — rose to the occasion. If there were ever a war worth fighting, this was it. The defeat of fascism and Nazism by the U.S. military and our allies was among the noblest achievements of the 20th century, and for that, the generation that fought and sacrificed so much deserves to be called "the greatest." After the war was over? Maybe not so great.
The former mush-mouth anchorman Tom Brokaw has created a cottage industry celebrating our parents' and grandparents' exploits in war. I know I bought a copy of his The Greatest Generation to give to my dad one Father's Day. The book proved to be such a cash bonanza that Brokaw followed up with The Greatest Generation Speaks, a series of letters and interviews with former soldiers. Brokaw's gravy train slowed when he discovered that his planned third book in the trilogy, The War Lover, had already been written by John Hersey. But just when Brokaw was becoming the wrinkled equivalent of a teen-idol for the aged, the cause was joined by director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks. One WWII vet was quoted as saying that Tom Hanks has spent more time filming the war than the soldiers did fighting it. Suddenly, WWII movies were back in vogue, and Hanks and Spielberg became the John Wayne and John Ford of this generation, as if every conceivable battle were not already portrayed by a Hollywood movie. Post-war kids were fed a steady diet of films celebrating war: 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Back to Bataan, To Hell and Back, Flying Leathernecks, Sands of Iwo Jima, and so on. War seemed so damned exciting, I could hardly wait until I was old enough to go kill somebody in battle and be a quiet hero about it when I got back.
War seemed a rite of passage for American men, and we were certain that God was on our side. However, a golden opportunity was missed to remedy the societal inequities in this country that were magnified by the war. One million black men served in WWII with the hopes that their patriotic service would be rewarded, yet they were segregated into separate units in the Army, the Navy limited blacks to service roles like cooks and janitors, and the Marines excluded them altogether. Everyone knows about the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were stockpiled after Pearl Harbor. Less well-known are the firsthand accounts of black soldiers returning home from the war and being forced to sit in segregated sections of trains and buses, while Nazi prisoners of war received the accommodations and amenities reserved for whites. Some 400,000 German and Italian prisoners were transported to the U.S. during the war and confined to military bases, mainly in the South. While black soldiers were relegated to separate facilities, prisoners of war were permitted to dine with white officers and enlisted men. The war against the rabid racist Hitler was fought with the most segregated army in history. Although President Truman ordered the military desegregated in 1948, it wasn't accomplished until the '60s. The civil rights movement was the direct result of the unjust society left in place after the war.
The 1950s are often portrayed in fictions like Grease and Happy Days, but the reality was far grimmer. In prosperous, post-war America, with Ike on the golf course and the Korean conflict concluded, it may have seemed as if all was well with the world. But these were also the days of the Cold War, "duck and cover" drills, McCarthyism and red baiting, black-listing and Jim Crow. While white America embraced a corporate culture and a celebration of consumption, seeds of unrest were sown in those left out of the "American dream" and in their children. A phrase entered the lexicon, "juvenile delinquent," and it was no coincidence that the boldest critique of society came from the movie Rebel Without a Cause. A straight line can be drawn from this film about teenage alienation to Elvis Presley, and then the generational breach became irreparable. It might have been different, but the "greatest generation" had turned into the "whiskey and war generation" that instituted segregation, glorified war, and assumed an authoritarian puritanism that ultimately caused their children to erupt in social protest.
Such a mindset created the Vietnam War, the meat grinder which caused my generation to turn into schizoid Mouseketeers. Our patriotic parents could not understand why anyone would object to fighting in an ideological politicians' racist war. Add to that unrest a president who accrued votes by pitting the old against the young and a "generation gap" materialized. The so-called counterculture would never have happened without the Vietnam War. Say what you will about hippie excess, but the unifying message of non-exclusivity, and the belief that all people had value, was closer to Martin Luther King's vision of a "beloved society" than the "love it or leave it" sentiment of the "silent majority" of militant patriots. My bipolar generation is best represented by Bill Clinton on one hand and George W. Bush on the other, dividing my age group between those who dropped acid in the '60s and those who did not. People of all ages have fought the good fight, but the societal progress made since WWII in civil rights, women's equality, and human rights were accomplished in spite of the "greatest generation." They were magnificent in wartime. Then they became Republicans.