Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The "Greatest Generation" Reconsidered

"It is, I believe, the greatest generation this country has ever produced." -Tom Brokaw

With the upcoming release of the film Flags of Our Fathers, I am bracing for an encore of Ambrosian-Brokawian-Spielbergian nostalgia for Dubya-Dubya-Two and the Greatest Generation. I know my students will be interested in the movie since we are covering World War II next week in World Civilization II. They also will be interested in my take on the film because I told them at the beginning of the semester that the media bombards them with flawed historical arguments all the time and they should get a command of history as self-defense against misinformation. It reminds me of a book written a few years ago that helped revive interest in the Greatest Generation.

Former NBC newsreader and amateur historian Tom Brokaw coined the term to describe an age cohort of Americans born between 1900 and 1920. In a book of the same name, Brokaw argues that this generation won World War II and returned from the battlefield to build a progressive, stable, and prosperous postwar America. While the celebratory, feel-good thesis propelled The Greatest Generation to the top of the best-seller lists and spawned a sequel, it is an astonishingly simplistic and ahistorical argument.

Brokaw gives credit to the wrong generation for "winning" World War II. The GIs of World War II had no superior intellectual, moral, or physical traits that elevated them above the Minutemen, Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks, Doughboys, Vietnam-era Grunts, or Gulf Warriors; the difference, to my mind, is in the quality of senior leadership. I would argue that a group representing an age cohort born between 1880 and 1900 were far more influential in contributing to the defeat of the Axis powers, like FDR, Ike, Bradley, Patton, Marshall, Truman, Halsey, Arnold, and Nimitz. They conceived the strategy, provided the logistics, and formed the military and diplomatic alliances that helped end the war.

Some members of Brokaw's Greatest Generation did go on to inherit senior political and military leadership positions in the 1960s and 1970s; a more thoughtful journalist than Brokaw, David Halberstam, captured many of them in his ironically-titled book, The Best and the Brightest. There is a long roll call of Greatest Generation members who held the highest positions of responsibility in American government: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland, Creighton Abrams, and Curtis LeMay. Even the most sympathetic historians would concede that, on balance, the representatives of the Greatest Generation compiled a mixed record of successes and failures.

Brokaw also makes a sweeping generalization with respect to the entire age cohort. It is foolish to argue that the Greatest Generation secured civil rights for African-Americans when members of that generation, like George C. Wallace and Strom Thurmond, opposed racial equality at the height of their political careers. In addition, many of the leaders of the civil rights movement were members of a later age cohort, Betweeners born between 1920 and 1940---Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Hosea Williams, and Ralph David Abernathy.

History is not as neat or triumphant as Tom Brokaw portrays it.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Jonathan in MA said...

The Civil War and WWII are overplayed. Probably because the causes are simplistic, the enemy is clear, they ended decisively, and "we" "won".

Explain the real causes of WWI to a 9 year old child and see if they really absorb it.

Let them watch Ben Affleck in "Pearl Harbor" and they'll nod their heads appreciatively.

To address your main point, absolutely. Our parents and grandparents aren't worthy of the mythology. Only a few individuals who truly changed the course of history truly deserve the hype that historians have placed on their shoulders. And each of those people had tragic flaws a mile wide. Well, maybe not Jesus or Buddha, but certainly the rest.

But the WWII myth is a harmless myth. It encourages people to salute veterans and think harder about saving medi-care and social security.

Many average Americans are history retarded. Even if we sought truth from Hollywood, you'd still have children that believed Columbus was the first non-native person to step foot in the Americas.

So, the battle for media accuracy on WWII is as long and fruitless as Peyton Manning's Superbowl aspirations. But that doesn't mean it's a waste of time watching him choke.

6:55 PM  

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