|Political Mythology: The Greatest Generation
||[May. 6th, 2012|09:35 pm]
David Dewhurst, a Texas Republican who would like to be the chosen candidate to take over Kay Bailey-Hutchinson's seat in the U.S. Senate, is running an ad on TV which epitomizes the mythology of the Greatest Generation. The Greatest Generation, he says, made this nation great and made it rich, but the next generation bankrupted it by demanding handouts and this is the source of the huge deficit that now must be reduced by everyone tightening their belts. (Just as a side note: he does not mean rich people must tighten their belts--he means those who depend on, for instance, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, etc.)
A ritual disclaimer is in order here. My parents were of the Greatest Generation, a term coined by Tom Brokaw in his took of that title, with the thesis that this generation--coming to adulthood in the Great Depression, and involved in both military and civilian ways with World War II--was, in Brokaw's words, "the greatest generation any society has ever produced." I'm certainly not arguing that this generation was unremarkable--I am not downplaying their accomplishments. Remarkable things were accomplished by this cohort both here and abroad. But just as too much sugar is bad for the blood, too much praise diminishes, rather than enlarging, those to whom it is given. Especially bad when credit is given for what was not, in fact, their doing.
Others have addressed some of the concerns I have before--but I'm speaking now in the context of this election cycle, when GOP candidates like David Dewhurst are deliberately falsifying the records to make use of the Greatest Generation as a flag-waving exercise. Dewhurst and others both imply--and state--that the reason the Greatest Generation accomplished so much was that it adhered to their theories of both character and politics. And that is simply not true.
The Depression did not teach self-reliance, for instance, or the need for free enterprise, or the need for lower taxation, less government regulation, and less government spending. On the contrary, those policies failed visibly, and the expansionary policies adopted instead are the reason we had the resources--the human resources, the infrastructure resources, the manufacturing capacity--to field a huge military effort and support it with domestic production. Most of the young men joining the military in 1941 had benefited from one or another government program that provided a combination of useful work, good food, medical care, discipline, and training in cooperative effort...exactly what you want your recruits to have in their background. The projects chosen for this work increased the country's infrastructure: roads, bridges, hydroelectric dams, etc., all of them increasing the country's capacity to succeed in the war that came next. Government contracts (including Lend-Lease contracts) kept factories open, or re-opened them.
By the time the United States entered WWII, its manufacturing capacity had already increased; the electric power to run even more factories was already in place, and instead of a generation of undersized, sickly, uneducated, resentful and undisciplined youth...the military found itself with a higher percentage of useful recruits than it had in WWI. So both the individuals of the Greatest Generation and the country benefited from the resources poured into these programs. The perception given now that the Greatest Generation were all or mostly volunteers in military service is not true: most in the military (10 million of 16 million total) were conscripts--voluntary enlistment for men ended in December 1942, with all males from 18 to 64 considered eligible for the national lottery.
Post-war, when Brokaw (and today's GOP candidates) say that the Greatest Generation "made America great," this cohort continued to benefit from a very un-GOP political climate. Returning GIs attended college--paid for by the government--in droves. Often they were the first in their family to have that opportunity. This additional education certainly drove the burst of technological expertise and development in the 1950s, and the rise of the middle class...but this was also an era in which unions still flourished, the tax rate on the rich was over 60%, and government investment in infrastructure was high throughout the Eisenhower Administration. The Interstate Highway System was a federal program. Additional power production was still done under federal programs, both nuclear and hydroelectric. Bank regulation--enacted in the Depression--removed the threat and concerns about bank failures until those regulations were removed, one by one, by GOP politicians, and bank crises started up again. Social Security, enacted in the Depression, meant that the parents of the Greatest Generation were less a burden to that cohort as the parents reached retirement age while the cohort was raising a family. Medicare, enacted later, also relieved the Greatest Generation (now older) from the medical burden of aging parents.
So the Greatest Generation benefited from federal interventions--federal funds, to be blunt, and federal taxes on the rich, and federal banking regulations--through at least early adulthood, military service, post-military service and into retirement. Through, in fact, most of their lives. I do not begrudge them that assistance...but I do begrudge the GOP's misrepresentations about both the Greatest Generation and those who followed. That the Greatest Generation had heroes does not make everyone else a wuss. That they fought bravely in WWII does not mean those veterans of the Korean War, Vietnam, the two wars in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan are fought by men and women less brave, or for motives less honorable, less patriotic.
And that brings up the disrespect to other generations in this country's history caused by the concept of one Greatest Generation. Was this generation greater than those who founded the country? The generation of the Revolution, without whose intelligence, determination, and courage we would not have a country at all? Greater than those who fought the Civil War? Why? How?
And what is the effect on those later generations who are told, over and over, that their parents or grandparents (or, now, great-grandparents) were so wonderful, so heroic, that nothing they do can possibly match it? That this generation deserved all the help it got from liberal policies, but nobody else does? Not good, to be blunt. In the first place, the Greatest Generation were the parents of the generation frequently dumped on--the Baby Boomers, labeled selfish and lazy. What does that say about the Greatest Generation? For one thing, they were a highly materialist generation who--having survived the Depression and WWII--went after material things hand over fist. The Baby Boomers learned their materialism from their parents' example--parents who, having been deprived in youth, lavished material things on their children as well as themselves. As the middle class expanded, they had the resources to do this, and to teach their children, by example, that expecting more was perfectly normal and acceptable. It's understandable that the Greatest Generation parents acted this way--rebound is common after deprivation--but blaming the children for the parents' choices is hardly fair. (Families that did not prosper in the postwar period--families headed by women, or families of color among them--taught their children different lessons.) Generational labeling increases intergenerational conflict anyway (once a group has a label, you're either in it or out of it.) and labeling that privileges one over others is bad strategy. A healthy population builds bridges between groups, not barriers.
On the whole, clinging to the myth of a supercalifragelisticexpealidocious Greatest Generation does not properly honor that generation or others--it's harmful because it offers too many excuses for bad political decisions--privileging one, dismissing and disrespecting all others. It casts a golden glow over a generation that was far from perfect--it conceals the amount of assistance that generation had, and the things that generation acquiesced in that were bad. It casts a simultaneous black cloak over the subsequent generations' good qualities. Without casting any mud whatever at the undeniable achievements of the Greatest Generation, we must not let the political ambitions of today's GOP falsify the history. Had Hoover's--and today's GOP's--notions of governance prevailed in the 1930s, the Greatest Generation-and the country--would have been crippled, unable to respond to the challenges WWII brought.