The Greatest Generation
"This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny." --Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The year of my birth, 1940, was the fulcrum of America in the twentieth century, when the nation was balanced precariously between the darkness of the Great Depression on one side and the storms of war in Europe and the Pacific on the other. It was a critical time in the shaping of this nation and the world, equal to the revolution of 1776 and the perils of the Civil War. Once again the American people understood the magnitude of the challenge, the importance of an unparalleled national commitment, and, most of all, the certainty that only one resolution was acceptable. The nation turned to its young to carry the heaviest burden, to fight in enemy territory and to keep the home front secure and productive. These young men and women were eager for the assignment. They understood what was required of them, and they willingly volunteered for their duty.
Many of them had been born just twenty years earlier than I, in a time of national promise, optimism, and prosperity, when all things seemed possible as the United States was swiftly taking its place as the most powerful nation in the world. World War I was over, America's industrial might was coming of age with the rise of the auto industry and the nascent communications industry, Wall Street was booming, and the popular culture was rich with the likes of Babe Ruth, Eugene O'Neill, D. W. Griffith, and a new author on the scene, F. Scott Fitzgerald. What those unsuspecting infants could not have realized, of course, was that these were temporary conditions, a false spring to a life that would be buffeted by winds of change dangerous and unpredictable, so fierce that they threatened not just America but the very future of the planet.
Nonetheless, 1920 was an auspicious year for a young person to enter the world as an American citizen. The U.S. population had topped 106 million people, and the landscape was changing rapidly from agrarian to urban, even though one in three Americans still lived on a farm. Women were gaining the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, and KDKA in Pittsburgh was broadcasting the first radio signals across the middle of America. Prohibition was beginning, but so was the roaring lifestyle that came with the flouting of Prohibition and the culture that produced it. In far-off Russia the Bolshevik revolution was a bloody affair, but its American admirers were unable to stir comparable passions here.
Five years later this American child born in 1920 still seemed to be poised for a life of ever greater prosperity, opportunity, and excitement. President Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge was a benign presence in the White House, content to let the bankers, industrialists, and speculators run the country as they saw fit.
As the twenties roared along, the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame were giving Saturdays new meaning with their college football heroics. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were raising the spectacle of heavyweight boxing matches to new heights of frenzy. Baseball was a daytime game and a true national pastime, from the fabled Yankee Stadium to the sandlots in rural America.
The New Yorker was launched, and the place of magazines occupied a higher order. Flappers were dancing the Charleston; Fitzgerald was publishing The Great Gatsby; the Scopes trial was under way in Tennessee, with Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in a passionate and theatrical debate on evolution versus the Scriptures. A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the beginning of a long struggle to force America to face its shameful policies and practices on race.
By the time this young American who had such a promising start reached the age of ten, his earlier prospects were shattered; the fault lines were active everywhere: the stock market was struggling to recover from the crash of 1929, but the damage was too great. U.S. income was falling fast. Thirteen hundred banks closed. Businesses were failing everywhere, sending four and a half million people onto the streets with no safety net. The average American farm family had an annual cash income of four hundred dollars.
Herbert Hoover, as president, seemed to be paralyzed in the face of spreading economic calamity; he was a distant figure of stern bearing whose reputation as an engineering genius and management wizard was quickly replaced by cruel caricatures of his aloofness from the plight of the ever larger population of poor.
Congress passed the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, establishing barriers to world trade and exacerbating an already raging global recession. Yet Henry Luce managed to launch Fortune, a magazine specializing in business affairs. United Airlines and American Airlines, still in their infancy, managed to stay airborne. Lowell Thomas began a nightly national radio newscast on NBC and CBS. The Lone Ranger series was heard on radio.
Overseas, three men were plotting to change the world: Adolf Hitler in Germany, Joseph Stalin in Russia, and Mao Zedong in China. In American politics, the New York governor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was planning his campaign for the 1932 presidential election.
By 1933, when the baby born in 1920 was entering teenage years, the promise of that early childhood was shattered by crashing world economies. American farmers were able to produce only about sixteen bushels of corn per acre, and the prices were so low that it was more efficient to feed the corn to the hogs than take it to market. It was the year my mother moved with her parents and sister off their South Dakota farm and into a nearby small town, busted by the markets and the merciless drought. They took one milk cow, their pride, and their determination to just keep going somehow.
My mother, who graduated from high school at sixteen, had no hope of affording college, so she went to work in the local post office for a dollar a day. She was doing better than her father, who earned ten cents an hour working at a nearby grain elevator.
My father, an ambitious and skilled construction equipment operator, raced around the Midwest in his small Ford coupe, working hellishly long hours on road crews, hoping he could save enough in the warm weather months to get through another long winter back home in the small wood-frame hotel his sisters ran for railroad men, traveling salesmen, and local itinerants in the Great Plains village founded by his grandfather Richard Brokaw, a Civil War veteran who came to the Great Plains as a cook for railroad crews.
A mass of homeless and unemployed men drifted across the American landscape, looking for work or a handout wherever they could find it. More than thirty million Americans had no income of any kind. The American military had more horses than tanks, and its only action had been breaking up a demonstration of World War I veterans demanding their pension bonuses a year earlier.
Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office as president of the United States, promising a New Deal for the beleaguered American people, declaring to a nation with more than fifteen million people out of work, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
He pushed through an Emergency Banking Act, a Federal Emergency Relief Act, a National Industrial Recovery Act, and by 1935 set in motion the legislation that would become the Social Security system.
Not everyone was happy. Rich Americans led by the Du Ponts, the founders of General Motors, and big oil millionaires founded the Liberty League to oppose the New Deal. Privately, in the salons of the privileged, Roosevelt was branded a traitor to his class.
In Germany, a former painter with a spellbinding oratorical style took office as chancellor and immediately set out to seize control of the political machinery of Germany with his National Socialist German Workers party, known informally as the Nazis. Adolf Hitler began his long march to infamy. He turned on the Jews, passing laws that denied them German citizenship, codifying the anti-Semitism that eventually led to the concentration camps and the gas chambers, an act of hatred so deeply immoral it will mark the twentieth century forever.
By the late thirties in America, anti-Semitism was the blatant message of Father James Coughlin, a messianic Roman Catholic priest with a vast radio audience. Huey Long, the brilliant Louisiana populist, came to power, first as governor and then as a U.S. senator, preaching in his own spellbinding fashion the power of the little guy against the evils of Wall Street and corporate avarice.
When our young American was reaching eighteen, in 1938, the flames of war were everywhere in the world: Hitler had seized Austria; the campaign against Jews had intensified with Kristallnacht, a vicious and calculated campaign to destroy all Jewish businesses within the Nazi realm. Japan continued its brutal and genocidal war against the Chinese; and in Russia, Stalin was presiding over show trials, deporting thousands to Siberia, and summarily executing his rivals in the Communist party. The Spanish Civil War was a losing cause for the loyalists, and a diminutive fascist general, Francisco Franco, began a reign that would last forty years.
In this riotous year the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, believed he had saved his country with a pact negotiated with Hitler at Munich. He returned to England to declare, "I believe it is peace for our time . . . peace with honor."
It was neither.
At home, Roosevelt was in his second term, trying to balance the continuing need for extraordinary efforts to revive the economy with what he knew was the great peril abroad. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, setting a limit on hours worked and a minimum wage. The federal government began a system of parity payments to farmers and subsidized foreign wheat sales.
In the fall of 1938, Dwight David Eisenhower, a career soldier who had grown up on a small farm outside of Abilene, Kansas, was a forty-eight-year-old colonel in the U.S. Army. He had an infectious grin and a fine reputation as a military planner, but he had no major combat command experience. The winds of war were about to carry him to the highest peaks of military glory and political reward. Ike, as he was called, would become a folksy avatar of his time.
America was entertained by Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Woody Guthrie, the music of Hoagy Carmichael, the big-screen film magic of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda.
At the beginning of a new decade, 1940, just twenty years after our young American entered a world of such great promise and prosperity, it was clear to all but a few delusional isolationists that war would define this generation's coming of age.
France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, and Romania had all fallen to Nazi aggression. German troops controlled Paris. In the east, Stalin was rapidly building up one of the greatest ground armies ever to defend Russia and communism.
Japan signed a ten-year military pact with Germany and Italy, forming an Axis they expected would rule the world before the decade was finished.
Roosevelt, elected to his third term, again by a landslide, was preparing the United States, pushing through the Export Control Act to stop the shipment of war materials overseas. Contracts were arranged for a new military vehicle called the jeep. A fighter plane was developed. It would be designated the P-51 Mustang. Almost 20 percent of the budget FDR submitted to Congress was for defense needs. The first peacetime military draft in U.S. history was activated.
Roosevelt stayed in close touch with his friend, the new prime minister of England, Winston Churchill, who told the English: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." And "We shall not flag or fail . . . we shall fight on the seas and oceans . . . we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and on the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender."
Our twenty-year-old American learned something of war by reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway, and something else about the human spirit by watching The Grapes of Wrath, the film based on John Steinbeck's novel, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda.
The majority of black Americans were still living in the states of the former Confederacy, and they remained second-class citizens, or worse, in practice and law. Negro men were drafted and placed in segregated military units even as America prepared to fight a fascist regime that had as a core belief the inherent superiority of the Aryan people.
It had been a turbulent twenty years for our young American, and the worst and the best were yet to come. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Across America on that Sunday afternoon, the stunning news from the radio electrified the nation and changed the lives of all who heard it. Marriages were postponed or accelerated. College was deferred. Plans of any kind for the future were calibrated against the quickening pace of the march to war.
Shortly after the attack, Winston Churchill called FDR from the prime minister's country estate, Chequers. In his book The Grand Alliance, Churchill recounted the conversation. "Mr. President, what's this about Japan?" Roosevelt replied, "It's quite true. They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We're all in the same boat now."
Churchill couldn't have been happier. He would now have the manpower, the resources, and the political will of the United States actively engaged in this fight for survival. He wrote, "So we had won after all." A few days later, after Germany and Italy had declared war against the United States, Churchill wrote to Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, who was traveling to Russia, "The accession of the United States makes amends for all, and with time and patience will give us certain victory."
In America, young men were enlisting in the military by the hundreds of thousands. Farm kids from the Great Plains who never expected to see the ocean in their lifetimes signed up for the Navy; brothers followed brothers into the Marines; young daredevils who were fascinated by the new frontiers of flight volunteered for pilot training. Single young women poured into Washington to fill the exploding needs for clerical help as the political capital mobilized for war. Other women, their husbands or boyfriends off to basic training, learned to drive trucks or handle welding torches. The old rules of gender and expectation changed radically with what was now expected of this generation.
My mother and father, with my newborn brother and me in the backseat of the 1938 Ford sedan that would be our family car for the next decade, moved to that hastily constructed Army ammunition depot called Igloo, on the alkaline and sagebrush landscape of far southwestern South Dakota. I was three years old.
It was a monochromatic world, the bleak brown prairie, Army-green cars and trucks, khaki uniforms everywhere. My first impressions of women were not confined to those of my mother caring for my brothers and me at home. I can still see in my mind's eye a woman in overalls carrying a lunch bucket, her hair covered in a red bandanna, swinging out of the big Army truck she had just parked, headed for home at the end of a long day. Women in what had been men's jobs were part of the new workaday world of a nation at war.
Looking back, I can recall that the grown-ups all seemed to have a sense of purpose that was evident even to someone as young as four, five, or six. Whatever else was happening in our family or neighborhood, there was something greater connecting all of us, in large ways and small.
Indeed there was, and the scope of the national involvement was reflected in the numbers: by 1944, twelve million Americans were in uniform; war production represented 44 percent of the Gross National Product; there were almost nineteen million more workers than there had been five years earlier, and 35 percent of them were women. The nation was immersed in the war effort at every level.
The young Americans of this time constituted a generation birthmarked for greatness, a generation of Americans that would take its place in American history with the generations that had converted the North American wilderness into the United States and infused the new nation with self-determination embodied first in the Declaration of Independence and then in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
At the end of the twentieth century the contributions of this generation would be in bold print in any review of this turbulent and earth-altering time. It may be historically premature to judge the greatness of a whole generation, but indisputably, there are common traits that cannot be denied. It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order. They know how many of the best of their generation didn't make it to their early twenties, how many brilliant scientists, teachers, spiritual and business leaders, politicians and artists were lost in the ravages of the greatest war the world has seen.
The enduring contributions of this generation transcend gender. The world we know today was shaped not just on the front lines of combat. From the Great Depression forward, through the war and into the years of rebuilding and unparalleled progress on almost every front, women were essential to and leaders in the greatest national mobilization of resources and spirit the country had ever known. They were also distinctive in that they raised the place of their gender to new heights; they changed forever the perception and the reality of women in all the disciplines of American life.
Millions of men and women were involved in this tumultuous journey through adversity and achievement, despair and triumph. Certainly there were those who failed to measure up, but taken as a whole this generation did have a "rendezvous with destiny" that went well beyond the outsized expectations of President Roosevelt when he first issued that call to duty in 1936.
The stories that follow represent the lives of some of them. Each is distinctive and yet reflective of the common experiences of that trying time and this generation of greatness.