The Greatest Generation?

Just finished up a lesson on World War II with my U.S. History classes. Unfortunately, two snow days and the county’s reluctance to reschedule the standardized midterm meant that we as a class had to rush through a lot of content by Wednesday. Regardless, this is usually a fun lesson to teach due to the plethora of topics to discuss. When I began this lesson, I asked students to consider two alternative features of the war usually lost in the “great man” history that is pushed in U.S. History standards. I asked them to consider the issue of race and the impact of race in the way in which country’s carried out their war effort. I usually phrase the discussion question in this manner: “Is World War II a world race war?” More often than not, it’s pretty interesting to hear what students have to say on the matter. Another aspect that I ask students to consider is America’s collective memory of the war. Specifically, the idea of “The Greatest Generation.” Today when I finished covering the material, we revisited those topics but we spent the majority of our time on “The Greatest Generation.” 

At the beginning of the lesson, I always take the time to explain to my classes what “The Greatest Generation” means. I will recap that here. “The Greatest Generation” is a phrase coined by Tom Brokaw in his book of the same title. In his book, Brokaw uses the phrase to describe those who lived through the economic deprivation of the Great Depression and then went on to fight in World War II, overseas and on the home-front. After explaining this, we discuss as a class why might that particular generation be considered the greatest. I play on their collective knowledge of the World War II when I ask this question. The responses are fairly predictable with a few exceptions.

At the end of the lesson, I returned to the question of the “Greatest Generation.” Throughout the unit we focused on numerous aspects often overlooked when buying into that narrative. Things such as racial conflict at home and abroad, labor unrest, and a booming black market (material goods in short supply due to the wartime rations could often be found on this black market). Finally, while concluding our discussion, we focus on the soldiers themselves. I usually explain to the class the destructive nature of World War II and how Americans on the home-front were generally naive about that. Granted, most Americans received their news through feel good pieces and hero tours that promote war bonds and included slogans like “Slap the Jap!” In that narrative, we lose sight of the emotional struggle veterans undertook as they coped with the reality of war.

Then I pose the question, “Is the Greatest Generation, truly the greatest generation?” The responses are usually plentiful. Some of my students hold on to the Greatest Generation argument. Some even go so far as to discredit their own generation; they compare themselves to “the Greatest” and decide that the current generation has come up short. I usually tell them ‘you’re sixteen years old, let’s not undermine your potential just yet.’ Some students go after Brokaw. One student criticized Brokaw as passing judgement based on his own personal beliefs. This particular student made the argument that every generation has qualities some might consider great, while they also have qualities that make them sub-par. After all, the Greatest Generation also upheld the era of Jim Crow. These types of answers have the ability to prompt terrific discussions, but one always has to be careful of getting too far off task. I then prompt the last question before closing out the lesson, “Why is it important not to remember the WWII generation as the “Greatest?”

Well…why do you think?

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11 thoughts on “The Greatest Generation?

  1. Isabel

    Americans really love nostalgia. We’re such a “young” nation, that you’d think we would be incapable of as much nostalgia and collective ADD at the same time. I’d have to agree with your student; the one that argued for the middle. Each generation, whatever that means — if you’re a poor 17 year old farm working Latina today, do you really count yourself in the same “generation” as Kendall Jenner? — has something to offer in the “end,” whatever that means too. I think we spend too much time re-living, rejoicing, and re-telling the past in ways that don’t open up into a dialogue of criticism, of lessons. We make kids recite speeches made by old men…under very (similar)different circumstances, but we don’t always encourage people to think outside the box…to write their own damn speeches. I think we spend a lot of time riding the coat-tails of old men…and then Selma’s 50th anniversary comes around, you realize how little and how much we’ve accomplished at the same time… how much we need the wisdom of the last generation.

    I’m sleepy. Goodnight.

    1. I agree with most of what you said. You guys are looking at this as an example of generations vs generations and society at large. We had a pretty good conversation about that very thing in class. What my students did not understand however, is why that Greatest Generation view is counter productive when studying history.

  2. Nightflyer

    We should also remember that the “Greatest Generation,” convinced of its own invincibility, had no trouble committing hundreds of thousands of young men to fight in Vietnam, believing that they could defeat Communism with the same effectiveness that they defeated Hitler and Tojo.

    But Vietnam was a different war, a poor cause, and a new environment. The “Greatest Generation” met hubris and nemesis, and sacrificed another generation instead.

      1. Nightflyer

        Rob, I would agree with you there. But it made it into David Halberstam’s “Best and the Brightest,” though.

          1. Nightflyer

            He’s a superb journalist and writer…it’s a fascinating accusation from a guy who covered Vietnam from the inside and outside as to why the US failed there.

            Also check out “A Bright Shining Lie,” by Neil Sheehan, which discusses the corporate culture of the US Army that went off to Vietnam, which was filled with the triumphal mentality of World War II and regarded the world as mere grid squares in which the guys in olive drab would defeat the Communists just as Patton had defeated the Germans.

          2. Nightflyer

            We’re starting to get some serious history and historiography on Vietnam these days, now that there’s some distance and perspective. Before he died, McNamara admitted his decisions were wrong, and Jane Fonda has admitted that her posing with North Vietnamese AA gunners was wrong.

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