Was the generation that survived the depression and won World War II the greatest generation? They certainly rose to the challenges of their times and were great, but were they truly greater than the generations who left the Old World for the undeveloped New World, won independence, or preserved the Union? Were these generations motivated by the same things? Stay with me for a few thoughts.
First, we cannot talk about the WWII generation without talking about Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was incredibly popular. He was viewed by the majority of the country as the man who saved the USA from the depression. He is still viewed that way today by many. One of my Great Grandfathers met FDR when he was Secretary of the Navy and was extremely impressed with him. FDR was brilliant, dynamic, and charismatic. My Great Grandfather became a Democrat after meeting FDR. (Hey, sorry, but this blot in my ancestry is offset by another Great Grandfather who was loudly opposed to FDR.) An entire generation of men who were born after the War to End All Wars were grateful to FDR for the CCC and the WPA. They trusted FDR and big government.
FDR did not allow Jews who were trying to escape the Nazis into the USA before WWII. And he imprisoned Japanese Americans. By running for two more terms than our first President, and by trying to pack the Supreme Court, FDR was closer to being a monarch or dictator than any other President. Because of those things, and FDR’s personal hold on the public, the Nazis saw us as perhaps at least a little bit in harmony with their world view. Like Wilson before WWI, FDR did not build up our military before WWII. We were seen as weak and unprepared for war by the Axis powers. Despite all of this (or because of it), FDR was incredibly popular. Big government programs were popular.
My dad, a Pearl Harbor Survivor, was a great man. He was honest, Christian, and hard working, but he never seemed to have a problem with big government. Dad lived through the 1930s without much to eat because his dad’s business was destroyed by the depression. Dad told me that until he joined the Navy in January of 1941 he never had had eaten so well. He grew about 5 inches after joining. Dad, like thousands and thousands of his peers, was well prepared for the military. As hard as it was, life in the Navy was a substantial step-up from the hardships he faced before joining. Before the Navy he had few prospects, once in the Navy he was a sailor with a bunch of shipmates and plenty to eat, and after the war he used the GI Bill to get his engineering degree. I never heard him talk about freedom, American exceptionalism, or our Constitution. He talked about the depression, hunting, growing up without indoor plumbing or refrigeration, his shipmates, his ships, work, faith, life in the Navy, and family. He did oppose McGovern, but I think that was because Dad saw Nixon as someone more like FDR than was McGovern.
After the war Churchill and others said that FDR was outsmarted by Stalin, but we also must wonder if FDR was actually more sympathetic to Stalin’s socialist regime than he was to Churchill’s vision of the future. I sometimes wonder if WWII was really about which Socialists would dominate the world: Russian Communists, German Nazis, or American Democrats.
As I add up all of these thoughts, I am forced to conclude that most of the WWII “Greatest Generation” did not fight and win because they were defending the Constitution and freedom. They did end up preserving our Constitution and Republic, but they fought because they trusted FDR and the government who had helped them. They fought because the country was hit when at peace. Most of them, and much of the country today, did not see that the depression was made worse by FDR and government, or that had we had a strong prewar military, we probably would not have been attacked. Of course after the attack, all of that was irrelevant.
The man who started calling my dad’s generation the greatest is a TV personality and author who is a part of the political left. He is not an unbiased historian (if there is such a thing). I have the highest respect for my dad, and for his peers, but I do not think they were greater than other great generations. Each generation faces different challenges and is motivated to respond to them for different reasons. In my mind George Washington and his peers were our greatest generation. They boldly fought for freedom and defeated the Superpower of their day; twice if we count 1812. Today we have also some truly great Americans. They are fighting for our freedoms and our way of life with an enemy invisible to much of the country. Being motivated by a nasty surprise attack is great, but perhaps no greater than those today who rally for our Constitutional freedoms while so many others are oblivious to the danger posed by the socialists inside our nation. The Make America Great Again generation may well prove to be the greatest.