Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Greatest Generation

I neglected to mention Pearl Harbor at Mass this morning. I stuck with St. Ambrose, although to my very young, pre-1st Communion congregation, Pearl Harbor would perhaps have seemed equally ancient! Even so, the 70th anniversary of that "day that will live in infamy" certainly does deserve some mention somewhere.
I grew up in a very eurocentric household. My parents, grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants from the third Axis Power, Italy. My father and most of my uncles had fought in the war, but in the European theater. Only one uncle had served in the Pacific, but he had died before I was born. So the war-stories were all about D-Day and the Bulge - never about Guadalcanal or Okinawa. All that cohered comfortably with a general view of the world that had history centered on Europe. I have always been interested in the history of World War II and what led up to it, but almost exclusively from the European angle. Even now, while I happily absorb endless History Channel documentaries about the Second World War, my attention tends to be almost exclusively devoted to the European War, with some secondary interest in the Pacific War's beginning and end.
In important respects, they were in fact two quite different confllicts, coexisting to create a global quasi-apocalypse. Yet in one very important respect they were one defining event, forming the war-time generation to which we, their children, owe so much - now famously referred to as "the Greatest Generation."
If "the Greatest Generaton" had just conquered Germany and Japan, that (to borrow form the Passover Haggadah) "would have been enough." But "the Greatest Generation" went on to do more. Those that survived the calamity of combat, came home to build a prosperous and stable society, such as the world had seldom seen before (of which, again, we their children were the immediate and primary beneficiaries).
The post-war period was indeed prosperous and stable - in contrast to what preceded it and to what followed the post-war period. Notably, the United States in the post-war period was not only the envy of the world in its prosperity, it was also more egalitarian than the society we have now. Contrary to what some politicians and other ideologies might have us believe, that more prosperous society thrived in part because the benefits of its prosperity were widely shared. It was also - contary to the conventional wisdom being promoted in certain ideological circles - a time when labor unions were big and strong and tax rates were high.
The members of that "Greatest Generation" were actively engaged in creating and maintaining that prosperous and stable society at all levels - including politics. Most politicians were veterans. Conspicuously so also were the Presidents - Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush 41 - some of whom had served with great distinction and all of whom had their world-view and values fundamentally shaped by the experience of the war that began (for the United States) 70 years ago today.
In the post-war era, the overwhelming majority of politicians were also veterans - beginning with our Presidents

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