FROM OUR PRINTED APRIL 2022 EDITION
The Greatest Generation
by Len Abram
Demographers measure a generation at 15 to 20 years, about six to a century. In the 20th Century, the largest and most influential generation got named for the population explosion after World War II, the Baby Boomers. Others got names from the alphabet, Generations X, Y, and Z, with Millennials born close to the millennium, another name for Generation Y. After Generation Z, the naming process for the 21st Century began with the Greek alphabet, Alpha.
Only one generation in the last century was named for what they did rather than when they were born. They got this for recognized achievement, awarded to them not by themselves but by others, including Tom Brokaw in his book, “The Greatest Generation.” These wereAmerican men and women born between the early 1900s and 1924. They reached adolescence during the Great Depression and adulthood in the greatest war in the history of mankind.
Ten million American men went to war, which cost 400,000 dead, many more injured, and left their country the strongest and most influential in the world. Women too were part of its story, not only for serving in uniform, but taking the jobs of men young and healthy enough to fight. Rosie the Riveter represented over six million women entering the workforce. Her “We Can Do It” motto came to symbolize all women – the Home Front workers. Feminists today wear T-shirts celebrating Rosie.
Time has thinned the ranks of the Greatest Generation, less of them each year. Along with the losses of World War II veterans to families across the country, Bob Dole, the senator and candidate for president, died this past year. His background, service and resilience are typical of the generation. Ordinary people do extraordinary things when called to duty.
Dole’s parents were lower middle class; his father sold butter and eggs, his mother for a time peddled vacuum cleaners. They were Democrats. The Army sent Bob Dole to Italy in 1944, where he was wounded so badly that he spent a year in the hospital – one arm paralyzed for life. Dole graduated college under the G.I. Bill, and went to law school. He married his nurse. He entered politics as a Republican, served in the House, the Senate and ran for president.
The Greatest Generation seemed unlikely to be great. The generation preceding them was called by a cynical and sad name, the Lost Generation. Many fought in World War I, a disaster with millions killed, little accomplished and a peace as prelude to another war. In 1917, American President Wilson promoted the war to advance democracy, but the results were rising fascism and communism, with democracies struggling to survive.
To this day, like two poles of human nature, authoritarianism and democracy compete, as to which system should govern mankind. Americans have the United States Constitution to remind us which side we are on.
The Greatest Generation faced many tests, the first, the Great Depression. Twenty-five percent unemployment. Soup kitchens. Banks repossessed so many homes and businesses that bank robbers for a while became folk heroes – until the FBI stopped them. Economic circumstances started to improve when autocracies and dictatorships gained power across the world. How to respond to these threats?
Through its Congress and president, the Greatest Generation armed the opponents of fascism in Europe and militarism in Asia. Winston Churchill of England and Joseph Stalin of Russia admitted that without the support – thousands of planes, trucks, tanks and dozens of ships – they couldn’t have won. Churchill called the Lend-Lease program “the most unselfish and unsordid financial act of any country in all history.” Then the Greatest Generation went to war, helping to liberate countries in Europe and Asia.
Until 1947, American Armed Forces were segregated. Removing this injustice from American society was another achievement of the Greatest Generation. In 1945, American tankers crossed into Germany and met stiff resistance. The African-American 761st Tank Battalion came to the aid of a white tank battalion. They linked up for their advance and liberated a concentration camp, the most extreme example of racial hate.
Twenty years later, in 1964 and 1965, Congress passed and the president signed into law civil rights acts outlawing racial discrimination. Much of Congress, those who voted for the legislation, were members of the Greatest Generation, including Senator Bob Dole. ♦