January 28, 2021

The Greatest Generation

After the American Century

Today there are six generations alive in the United States, and they have had quite different historical experiences. The oldest were born before 1927 and in their later years they came to be called the Greatest Generation. My parents, aunts, uncles, and many teachers were part of this cohort, the dominant generation of the American Century. They were shaped by the contrasts between the Roaring Twenties when they were born, the Great Depression of their youth, and World War II, which engulfed them as young adults. The first president they were old enough to hear on the radio was Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), and his New Deal continued to shape the politics of the US long after his passing. 

The attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941
an unforgettable moment for the Greatest Generation

This generation knew exactly where they were when they heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and their lives were never the same afterwards. They helped in the immense war mobilization, fought in the Pacific and in Europe, and celebrated D-Day and the defeat of Hitler. They were stunned by the concentration camps of the Nazis and stunned again by the sudden surrender of Japan after the US dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

They feared that after the war the US might slide back into a 1930s-style economic depression. But prosperity followed victory. American industry had not been bombed, and it rapidly retooled to produce new cars, the new televisions, appliances, and a wide range of other consumer goods. Some returning soldiers found work building suburban houses and highways. Millions of other veterans went to university. By the 1950s this generation was enjoying a standard of living well above anything they knew in their childhood. It seemed that prosperity was possible for all, and that the United States was leading the Free World into a better life. By the 1960s, they were in their 40s, and most of them owned their own homes. While they knew the US had some problems, they believed the nation was on course to form a more perfect union.

The end of World War II also brought with it a new dominant role in world affairs. The Greatest Generation provided all the presidents of the Cold War, from 1946 until 1993: Harry Truman (1945–1953), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961), John F. Kennedy (1961-1963), Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1969), Richard Nixon (1969–1975), Gerald Ford (1975–1977), Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) and George Bush (1989-1993). These leaders had learned that the world was so interconnected that the isolationism the United States had embraced in the 1920s and 1930s was no longer possible. War had disciplined them to make sacrifices for the greater good, and the Greatest Generation supported the establishment of the United Nations, the expensive Marshall Plan that helped Europe recover from World War II, and the creation of a new military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

Indeed, it seemed that they had little choice but to play a major role in world affairs, because both the British and the French empires were in rapid decline, creating a power vacuum. They soon found themselves in a Cold War that took place on every continent, and took the form of foreign aid, military assistance, and exchange programs. In some places a shooting war also broke out, notably in Korea and Vietnam. In their experience, from the 1940s until they retired, the US was always at the center of an international struggle, and they believed they were defending democracy against its enemies on the right and on the left. Many had trouble understanding why younger Americans did not support the Vietnam War. 

In 2021 the Greatest Generation is over 90. They are frail and rapidly passing away, but all Americans have known some of them. Once they danced to Big Band Jazz and listened to Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Judy Garland and a young crooner named Frank Sinatra. They first heard Bing Crosby sing White Christmas in 1942. They enjoyed movie stars like Jimmy Stuart in It’s a Wonderful Life and Humphrey Boggart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. They read new novels by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. In the theater, they saw Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and they enjoyed musicals like Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahoma. Most of the Greatest Generation had retired by the time the older Bush left the White House in 1993. By 2020 the world they were born into had all but disappeared. Yet, it was not forgotten, and many in the five younger generations who are alive today recall them and their times with nostalgia.

This column is adapted from the opening pages of The United (and Divided) States, now available from Akademisk Forlag.  The chapter continues by describing the quite different experiences of the Silent Generation, The Boomers, Generation X, The Millennials, and Generation Z.  These differences have long-term cultural and political consequences. 

And in case you want to know, Joe Biden is the first, and probably will be the only president born into the Silent Generation.