Harvey J. Kaye is Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development Director, Center for History and Social Change University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America and is currently writing FDR, the Four Freedoms, the Greatest Generation, and Us.
Progressive pundits and academics have never really grasped the meaning and significance of their fellow Americans' enthusiasm for the "Greatest Generation." At some cost, we have failed to appreciate the democratic longings and possibilities the public has registered in its response to such books as Stephen Ambrose's “Citizen Soldiers” and Tom Brokaw's “The Greatest Generation,” films like Stephen Spielberg's “Saving Private Ryan” and the construction of the Franklin D. Roosevelt and World War II memorials in Washington.
Nevertheless, the release of Clint Eastwood's “Flags of Our Fathers” on the eve of the 2006 elections affords us an opportunity to reconsider our assumptions and arguments. It’s a chance to remind ourselves of the most profound contributions of the Greatest Generation, not all of which took place on military battlefields.
Ever ready to deconstruct, leftist political columnists and cultural critics berated the books, movies and television programs recounting the experiences and sacrifices of the young men and women who fought the "Good War" of the 1940s as nothing more than the commercialization of the past. More conspiracy-minded types went so far as to suggest that the media hype and cultural products represented an orchestrated campaign to eradicate the nation's "Vietnam syndrome" in favor of new "imperial adventures." And— referring to the nation's lethargic response to fascism in the 1930s, the racially segregated military and the internment of Japanese-Americans— radical historians proceeded to debunk the hagiographies and reveal to everyone how the so-called "Greatest Generation" was not really so "great."
Yes, the Greatest Generation phenomena involved lots of commercial and patriotic hype. Yes, conservatives and others—including the liberal Brokaw—have used the celebration of the World War II veterans to belittle or attack the 1960s generation for its opposition to the war in Southeast Asia. And, yes, the Greatest Generation was originally marked by isolationist sentiments and, all too often, by racism and a host of others sins.
Yet somehow liberal and left essayists forgot the most important parts of the story. Believing in America's exceptional purpose and promise, inspired and encouraged by President Roosevelt and the New Dealers and compelled by harsh necessity, the young men and women who faced the crises of the Depression and the Second World War—with all their faults and failings—were not just rescuing and defending liberal democracy.
By building labor unions, subjecting big business to public regulation, empowering the federal government to address the needs of middle and working-class people and carrying that democratic spirit into a total war against European fascism and Japanese imperialism, they also made America and much of the world freer, more equal and more democratic.
The powers that be have ever since been energetically endeavoring to obscure and effectively bury the truly progressive memories and legacies of the Greatest Generation along with those who constituted it. Yet in our eagerness to demythologize history, we remained insensitive to what our fellow citizens were themselves trying to do when they purchased the books, bought the movie tickets and attended the memorial events and unveilings. We never really asked why Americans were responding as they did to the calls to honor those who had sacrificed so much and were fast departing us.
Early in his new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina , Frank Rich suggestively writes that "the motivation [behind the World War II nostalgia boom], in part, was overcompensation for what was missing in our national life: some cause larger than ourselves, whatever it might be." But almost gleefully, he goes on to note how the "Clinton-Bush boomer generation turned a nominally selfless tribute to its fathers' generation not only into a lucrative branch of show business but also an implicit, cost-free celebration of its own worthiness."
Unfortunately, having posed the critical question, Rich abandons it in pursuit of Bush and company's lies and distortions. We, however, should not fail to consider what it meant that, sensing something was "missing in our national life," middle-aged and younger Americans turned to their parents and grandparents for answers.
More precisely, we should ask: What did it say that in the midst of an apparently conservative political era—witnessing corporate assaults on the labor movement, the rich getting richer and working people poorer, the abolition of welfare and the failure to enact national health care, the enervation of civil society and the vulgarization of public discourse by corporate media and right-wing talk-radio thugs—we sought to honor and engage America's most progressive generation?
If on November 7 the Democrats do succeed in taking back one or both Houses of Congress, they will have done so because Republicans have once again revealed what they are really about. But as the nation heads toward 2008, we progressives, along with our more moderate Democratic colleagues, will need to clarify what we really are about. And arguably, if we truly desire to make history, we will need to engage our fellow citizens' historical and political longings and start living up to the memory and legacy of our parents' and grandparents' progressive past.