When Tom Brokaw coined the term, “The Greatest Generation” for his book of the same name, it was clear who he was talking about. He meant that generation of people who grew up during the Great Depression and went on to fight in World War II. And while he certainly made a compelling case, he also likely intentionally added a new phrase to the lexicon that many would not dare dispute.
While it’s easy to jump on that particular bandwagon and echo the words of the slurring news anchor America trusts, it’s also true that his claims are questionable, to say the least. Kenneth D. Rose called Brokaw’s claims into question with his book, “Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II.” Although he makes many excellent points throughout, Rose is more concerned with identifying the fallacies regarding why Brokaw chose that particular group as his Greatest Generation. Rose and even calls into question the rationale behind the supposedly accepted truism that WWII was a “good war.”
This article’s aim is different. Instead of focusing on punching holes in Brokaw’s arguments, here will be discussed who the real Greatest Generation was and why. And while many readers of serious subject matter despise the list format, for the purposes of making points succinctly and with proper emphasis, that is precisely the format being used.
So, who was the Greatest Generation? Look no further than a February 19, 2006 Washington Post article for the answer: Baby Boomers. What makes this astoundingly hedonistic, self-righteous, and self-destructive group of people the Greatest Generation?
Size- Baby Boomers were named that because they were the result of a huge boom in births brought upon by the close of WWII and the prosperity America enjoyed by having only dealt with one attack on its soil. Simply put, their arrival changed everything about American society simply because there were so damned many of them! The existence and needs of children, once seen as secondary and easily dismissed, was now a stunning inevitability.
Suburban Expansion– Size dictates movement, and the Boomers demanded space that simply wasn’t available in the over-crowded cities. New suburbs cropped up all over the place, helped along by increasing car ownership and interstate highways. Sure, the argument could be made that suburbs also served to create a false separation between haves and have-nots, but ultimately, they became a symbol of prosperity, growth and something resembling rural life. The entire landscape of American life was changed forever.
Subversive Behavior– As Leonard Steinhorn of the Washington Post wrote, “It was a time when men with beards seemed subversive and women in pants were questioned by police, and when the Organization Man ruled the workplace. Children thought to be gay were sent off for psychiatric treatment and even electroshock therapy…The Greatest Generation largely accepted and defended this status quo.” As early as 1960, young Boomers were challenging these attitudes, forming free speech movements on college campuses, and marching for the rights of oppressed blacks, many of whom had been “allowed” to fight in WWII as long as they accepted second class status. As the Sixties wore on, open protests against muddled actions such as the War in Vietnam and suppression of free speech saw millions of Boomers taking a stand against the reality that Norman Rockwell’s paintings never seemed to capture.
Self-Sacrifice– Much has been made, and rightly so, about the sacrifices made by Brokaw’s Greatest Generation during the war. To be sure, far too many young men died giving their lives in a cause they believed in and we certainly can never gloss over the significant role women played back home by taking up tools and toiling away for the war effort while being, for the first time in U.S. history, both mom and dad to their children. However, Boomers sacrificed even more. The Vietnam War’s escalation saw a final American death toll of nearly 60,000 soldiers. For what? Most of them had only a vague idea of why they were over there; something to do with placing a chess piece on the board to prevent other pieces from moving forward. Soldiers weren’t allowed to fight in a conventional way, which meant they were often prevented from doing much to prevent their own deaths. Yet thousands of men accepted the draft and went over to a country Americans had never heard of until war broke out. This was no easily understood “good war” existing in the simplistic worldview of a famous anchorman. This was sheer insanity, making the sacrifices far more meaningful and tragic.
Societal Progress– While it might be a gross over-simplification to label Brokaw’s favorite time period stagnant and comprised of gleeful bigotry, it also isn’t entirely off the mark. As stated previously in the Post article, WWII generation types were, in largesse, all too happy to accept the status quo, minus a few extra forms of assistance thanks to the Roosevelt administration. Any objective student of history can see that it was that very same group of people that resisted most forms of social change for the better, including civil rights, equality for women in the workplace and an end to dogmatic military actions. Obviously, not all of them stood opposed to these things, but the sheer volume of people comprising the Boomer generation was one of the only things that helped their meager numbers overcome the pervasive prejudice of their peers.
Political Change– This one pertains to both sides of the political struggle and everybody in-between. The Sixties generation became politically active in a way that hadn’t been seen since the formation of the country. Left-wingers and right-wingers alike started young and fought to have their voices heard. One can easily argue that both sides have seen their share of victories, whether they’re the descendants of the Free Speech Movement on the left or of the Young Republicans on the right.
The “New Normal“- A term and concept mostly despised by American conservatives, it cannot be denied that what we as Americans tolerate and no longer label as weird or subversive has changed thanks to the efforts of Baby Boomers. Gays can hold hands in public, interracial relationships can be seen everywhere, and women often run the show in the workplace. Sadly, it’s been nearly impossible to overcome American jingoism, so the military actions continue unabated. And there’s certainly room for growth and improvement even among those things listed that have improved.
Steinhorn concluded in his article that while we’re not perfect, we’re a better America than we were before Baby Boomers pushed for changed. That, too might be a bit of an oversimplification, but they are certainly the group that inspired and effected the most positive change. The problem is many younger people don’t realize what they did because it isn’t as dramatic as shooting at Nazis.