the imaginative conservative logo

The Greatest Generation

With due allegiance to persons and places, it is only right that we should love and respect our parents and grandparents. But we can do this without canonising the World War Two generation as the greatest, a piece of excessive sentimentality and sloppy thinking if ever there was one.

The phrase was coined by the American journalist Tom Brokaw, a liberal and a sentimentalist, in his 1998 book “The Greatest Generation,” calling it “the greatest generation that any society has ever produced.”

Really? Was it greater than the generation that produced America’s founders? Was it greater than a generation chosen at random from the Italian Renaissance? Greater than the age of Socrates? Greater than the single generation that produced the Apostles?

Clearly, a defective knowledge of history helps an author to manufacture money-making superlatives; especially while the subjects of his flattery are still doddering about and capable of buying his books, or having his books bought for them by adoring descendents.

Even so and only within the Twentieth Century, the American cult of the “Greatest Generation” is still mistaken at several levels, the first historical.

Wyeth WWI Veteran

Wyeth WWI Veteran

Those who won the Second World War were of the generation before, the survivors of the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Considering but a few, George Patton was the first officer assigned to the new United States Tank Corps fighting in France. Dwight Eisenhower left West Point to be the third-in-charge of tank warfare stateside. George Marshall arrived overseas in mid-1917 as director of training and planning for the First Infantry Division, before joining the American Expeditionary Force headquarters where he worked closely under his hero, General John “Black Jack” Pershing.

These three titans were born in 1885, 1890 and 1880 respectively, nearer to the Civil War than even to WW1 in which they served as young men. The so-called Greatest Generation were born decades later. My father, one of the very youngest to serve in WW2, was born in 1926 so we can loosely identify the “Greatest Generation” to have been born after 1910 and before 1927.The majority were conscripts, junior officers at best, and if they “won the war” they did so under the command of their elders while shooting and getting shot at. This is not to diminish the bravery of many, from Pearl Harbor to Anzio to Guadalcanal, but their primary choice was whether or not to do their duty and follow orders. This is important because we moderns do not compare them to their own fathers, who did their duty in the trenches of World War One, but against the Baby Boomer generation that followed them.

Advances in art and culture from the so-called Greatest Generation are at best a matter of taste, whether one prefers the post-WW1 era Picasso and Cole Porter to post-WW2 Jackson Pollack and Frank Sinatra. In science the Great War generation gave us diabetic insulin and Fleming’s antibiotics; the next generation gave us Salk’s vaccine and Crick’s and Watson’s DNA. One wonders if NASA triumphed over the Wright Brothers and Tommy Sopwith or rode on their shoulders.

Call it a draw or credit the “Greatest Generation” as you will, but either generation surpasses the Baby Boomers with little art of which to speak and their allegedly major scientific “advances” being the costly and lucrative global-warming hoax, and breast implants.

Either way, the value of a generation must be somewhat determined by its progeny, for a generation is partly responsible for what legacy it passes on.

128-hippyclownThe Baby Boomers, we may all agree, are as indefensible as their archetype Bill Clinton. In America and elsewhere across the West they copulated with whatever they could not snort, smoke or inject; they consumed it all, put it on credit and sold future generations for less than Esau’s Biblical “mess of pottage.” Writing on today’s betrayed youth, BBC stalwart Jeremy Paxman notes: “It strikes me as more of a wonder the streets aren’t full of demonstrators demanding compulsory euthanasia.”

America’s so-called Greatest Generation is great only in comparison to the rubbish that followed them, which frankly and literally they begat. The rest is mostly sentimentality, projecting onto an entire generation what we may more rightly respect about our own dear relations.

While it may sound ungrateful to the veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, from where did these ghastly Boomers come? Did they spring like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, fully-armed with credit cards, neuroses and BMW motorcars? Or did they have parents?

The so-called Greatest Generation created Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society that metastasized welfarism and made permanent the culture of entitlement. They created or enabled the Permissive Society that shattered millennia-old values leading to the decline of marriage, a level of narcotics-abuse never seen before in a developed country, an epidemic of sexually-transmitted diseases and the industrial-scale production of bastard children. They ran America when Roe-v-Wade opened the floodgates to 50 million abortions since.

Too nice to argue and too weak to put their foot down, they spoilt their offspring with the kind of good-natured generosity and blind tolerance that is far more harmful than parsimony and even cruelty.

Having inherited a work-ethic from their parents who fed them through the Great Depression, they built America’s post-war economic surge but then wiped the cultural hard-drive, hoping to free their creepy kids from what the “Greatest Generation” saw as a work-a-day encumbrance and we now see as a missing ingredient of national strength.

In that sense, they were hopeful ideologues of materialism as much as any of Chairman Mao’s acolytes were ideologues of communism. If they had religion in their fox-holes and bomb-craters, they failed to pass it on to many of their progeny.

Many Boomer children of those loyal WW2 conscripts fled to Canada to avoid Vietnam-era conscription themselves, and their parents either would not or could not stop them. Others, such as two recent US Presidents, found excuses to stay safe at home with parental approval or complicity. However brave and dutiful had been the youthful G.I. Joe and Rosie the Riveter, they turned into wimps and cowards who raised scoundrels and poltroons.

Judging by my contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic, many of the 25-year-old grandchildren of the “Greatest Generation” drop in and out of college, while living in their parents’ home and waiting aimlessly for anything to extract them from their boundless torpor. Their surviving grandparents, members of the tail-end of the “Greatest Generation,” smile tolerantly and mutter blandishments about the aging youngsters one day “finding themselves.” Meanwhile, many of the wrinklies lobby for old-age benefits, plot their next holiday cruise and dress like toddlers without a shred of dignity. What would the upright soldiers of the Great War, who were adults in the Great Depression, make of that?

The likes of T. S. Eliot, Roy Campbell and Wyndham Lewis saw this coming in England between the wars. Their American contemporaries, including Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, saw the emerging permissiveness and weakness just as clearly, but few of us recall their warnings.

So, we have lionised a fatally-flawed generation as “the greatest” only because some of them are still alive and their nobler parents died forty years ago. Our memories are frail and our knowledge of even recent history is weaker still: similarly, the movies that rank “highest-ever” in modern polls are the modern ones because the respondents either forgot the older and better films or never saw them at all.

We call the survivors “the Greatest Generation” not because they were great, but only because they were greater than we, their more shameful descendants.

Taken as a whole, the so-called Greatest Generation were too nice and too rich and too satisfied with the promise of riches; they were too generous and too tolerant, and thus they inadvertently betrayed the very civilisation that they defended on the beaches of Normandy.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this article can be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
13 replies to this post
  1. May I ask, Mr. Masty, what generation you belong to? Does all that is outlined in the article apply to you? Or are you an exception?

    “…their allegedly major scientific “advances” being the costly and lucrative global-warming hoax, and breast implants.”

    Really?! Hmmm. What about this impressive little machine, dubbed computer? What about the internet (thanks to it, I’m able to read your articles, which I mostly agree with, this one being an exception, your having gone a bit over the top disparaging our generation, IMO)? The whole of information technology in general? What about the advances made in space exploration? (don’t forget, it was during the baby boomer generation that man first walked the moon; not a small feat by any stretch of the imagination). What about the groundbreaking field of Nanotechnology, which we haven’t yet seen its first fruit? What about that startling whole branch of quantum physics? And, since I’m particularly of a scientific turn of mind, I regret not being able to go on listing the overwhelming number of innovations, but the signs are all around us.

    While hardly anyone can deny that our moral and cultural situations are abysmal (and this is certainly not a small thing), at least we are doing all right on the scientific and technological levels. You can’t have it all at once.

    Do you really think that the Ancient Greeks or Romans (who everyone, myself included, but especially classists, duly admire) enjoyed a moral situation vastly superior than most subsequent generation? To me, the pictures of tens of thousands of feverish crowd cheering at the sight and sound of animals—and humans—being slaughtered in the Coliseum is quite ghastly. But we admire those civilizations, as well as for cultural and literary achievements, but also thanks in big part to technological ones (especially in the case of the Romans. Think of the architecture; the aqueducts; the fountains; the long, straight, paved roads; the mechanical devices, etc.)

    Don’t you think it is quite probable that likewise future generations will look back and marvel at the inventions and innovations of their predecessors, of which I listed but a few above?

  2. I remember reading somewhere that the measure of any generation is how well they passed their greatest values along to the next generation. By that measure, the "Greatest" generation failed miserably. The entire human category of "adolescent" was created to describe how their children – the Baby Boomers, of which I am a member – wanted adult privileges without adult responsibilities. As Mr. Masty points out, that concept has now been extended to their children, some of whom want to drag adolescence into their third and fourth decades of life.

    But remember, the concept of a "generation" is artificial and arbitrary. Children are being born every day of every year. Grouping them into "generations" for easy categorization is a convenience, and one that leads to simplistic and misleading generalizations. (As does dividing up recent history into decades, as if the people in "the 60's" did and thought only certain ways, which was different from people in "the 80's".) Of course one can always find exceptions to generalizations. Mr. Masty was using his generalizations in the only way they can be used: as sweeping comments about general trends. Of course exceptions can be found; I hope I am one myself, and I'm sure Mr. Masty is. But that does invalidate his comments.

    Personally, I was raised a rather typical baby boomer, but consider myself to have "escaped" the thinking of that generation with the help of scholars such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others. When my wife (another "escapee") and I raised our children, we did so as "throwbacks" – i.e. by refusing to buy into the childraising norms and mores of our time. (The foremost expression of this was refusing to have a television in our house; other factors included regular reading and worship.) So we are proof that one need not be chained to one's "generation", but can escape it by drawing from the best of other generations.

    In some places this is known as getting a classical education.

  3. I'm reminded of Thoreau's comment when he first encountered a train, which changed his world at least as much as computers have changed ours: "An improved means to an unimproved end." It's a dangerous thing to hang a generation's scientific or technological trophies on the wall as a measure of its greatness. The generation that gave us computers also gave us abortion.

    As a member of the last generation never to have been given a name, those born roughly between the Great Crash and the end of the Great Patriotic War (heck, we never even got our "own" war!) I was nevertheless raised in the home of a "greatest," and was surrounded by them in my family and community. My overriding observation is that they were moved more than anything else by a desire for prosperity and security for their families. They certainly achieved what they were after, but unfortunately at the expense of the kind of discipline they themselves took for granted.

    Steve is also right in pointing out that the "greatest" came out of the Depression and war trusting government more that their parents had, and it got out of hand. The Cold War context didn't help in this regard, either. Taken all together, prosperity and the nanny state and empire are not an unmixed legacy; and meanwhile the kids were home alone.

  4. As one of Stephen's pieces of Boomer garbage, I don't really disagree with his description of Brokaw's 'Greatest Generation' title as somewhat sentimental. 'Heroic' may be a somewhat better title, since they definitely were that, in a way that the generations to follow were not (in my opinion). I have always been personally fascinated and awed by the stories of my father's 35 missions in a B-17 bomber over Germany, including the raid on Dresden. As well with the stories of my uncle Carl, who was killed in a crash of a B-17. Brave and dutifully they were, thank God, or Stephen and I might have grown up Heiling Hitler. They paid a stiff price for serving their country, and they deserved whatever prosperity they had in the decades to follow.

    Every generation has its unique challenges and resulting characteristics, though we all still remain essentially human, with the normal diversity of traits. American Boomers had (relative) affluence, TV, ubiquitous cars, the Cold War and the dread of annihilating atomic war, and the 60s to deal with. The year I graduated from high school–'68–the Vietnam war was raging, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated (five years after JFK, when I was in 8th grade), and race riots destroyed a number of inner cities.

    I remember a year or two later in college–during a Greek class, of all things–thinking to myself, "what's the use of all this." Maybe that's why we tried weed, slept around some, and shocked our elders by growing our hair long (like Jesus we thought, chuckling to ourselves).

    Anyway, this Boomer didn't turn out too bad. I married my college sweetheart and we'll celebrate our 39th anniversary in April. And I just retired from 33 years as a Methodist pastor.
    And we've got three great adult kids (though no grandchildren yet…this generation's challenge perhaps).

    All of this to say, it's a little dangerous to generalize so simplistically about this or that generation.

    Carl Lindquist

  5. Was he proud of the "raid" on Dresden? My uncle Gerry flew B 24s eighteen times into Germany, and never came back to England unhit. He also never bragged about his service, and never got into an airplane again after flying his home to New Jersey in 1945. Dresden, by the way, was the low point of western civilization.

  6. John, my father never mentioned the Dresden raid. I found out about it in 2002 after he had died, when I discovered his mission list in his footlocker. Whether he knew its significance or not, I'll never know.

    I was shocked of course, and for awhile, it threw me into a tailspin of angst and doubt. It caused me to do a lot of reading about WWII, strategic bombing, and the morality of such aspects of modern war. One of my 'bucket list' goals was to travel to Germany, to visit some of the 'targets' of my Dad's bombing, which I did this last summer: Stuttgart, Munich, Koblenz, etc. (didn't make it to Dresden, given how far in the northeast of Germany it is).

    I've concluded that there are no easy answers–moral or otherwise–to human violence and war. I consider myself anti-war, ever since my immoral college days Stephen writes about, and I protested the 2003 Iraq War (basically alone) and have opposed the more recent Afghanistan War. Yet I also realize how easily war can break out, and how vulnerable we all are to being sucked into its maw.

    I also believe it's impossible to pick out the 'low point of western civilization'. Without the popular novel 'Slaughterhouse-Five', I doubt that Dresden would rate more than a citation in a history of WWII. It was just one more in a long, long list of fire-bombed cities by the Allies. Most people have no idea how many German and Japanese cities the Allies leveled that way, before the slaughter was ended in 1945. It wasn't just Dresden, then Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as popular knowledge would have it. It was a truly horrifying time in history. No one, including the U.S., is free of guilt.

    As Werner Herzog reiterated in a recent interview about his films, human civilization is a thin film beneath which is a vast ocean of barbarism. WWII was certainty proof of that. The conservative defense of civilized values is one of the good things about this blog, actually: to try and prevent the eruption of that barbarism from happening again.

    Carl Lindquist

  7. Good reply, Carl; thank you. One addition: Dresden was bombed by the "good guys" on Shrove Tuesday, 135,00 dead, many of the children still in carnival costumes. Billy Clinton later took Ramadan off his bombing of children in Iraq, but did the Serbs on Good Friday. Novel or no novel, Dresden was certainly A low point of western civilization, and along with abortion we must own up to it.

  8. Miss Anonymous (at top), I was born in 1954 and I neglected to mention information technology because (a) I wanted to see who was paying attention, and (b)I wonder if breast implants may be the more important invention. I use computers, but for TIC submissions I adhere to the editors' guidelines of using quill pens on vellum and sending them by (very muscular) pigeons.

    Yes to the good Mister Lindquist, and this website, its visitors and contributors are testimony that all is never lost in a generation. And I admit to Miss Anonymous that I am no exception to generational decline. I realised it 30 years ago while sharing an office with that great American conservative, Ralph de Toldedano, who learnt more at Columbia than I shall in a lifetime.

    I won't mock dead innocents by making a frivolous list of low-points of Western Civ (tempting as that may be for another thread), but conclude with Adam Smith's dour observation that there is "a deal (a lot) of ruin in a nation."

  9. Most interesting!

    My father was indeed in the Bulge, on the Bastogne perimeter, and was very clear that there were rotten Americans there and back home.

    I did some time in Viet-Nam so that goofs like Rush Windbagh could say rotten things about Boomers.

    In the event, values are not so much about generations, which, after all, are only accidents of birth, but rather about the individual. And, hey, we're ALL flawed.

    — Mack

  10. I'm sorry, but the seeds of societal destruction were planted before the "greatest" generation. My parents were born in 1923-1925. Frequently they talked about their own upbringing being rather unsupervised and non formational. After all, their own parents had thrown off the shackles of the Victorian age. Some of them were living the life of the "jazz age" as Margaret Sanger birth control acolytes and fans of the new entertainment coming out of Hollywood. The twenties were hardly an era of modesty and restraint. Then the depression came and those parents were distracted and often absent as they tried to keep some money coming in. The war came and after, my parents, like millions of other young couples, began to build a family. The problem was, they hadn't had many good role models on how to be parents.

    To those of us looking back, the postwar years looked simple and earnest and conforming. But how do you explain the emergence of the beats and then the hippies and drop outs the "greatest generation" raised? How did we go from Father Knows Best to Charles Manson in 15 short years? Something was already wrong with the greatest generation. Something that was already wrong in previous generation. Sorry, I don't think there is such a thing as the greatest generation.

  11. While I believe any generation with the narcissism to proclaim itself the “Greatest Generation” is certainly capable of producing selfish offspring, it goes a little far to call Baby Boomers “the rubbish that followed them. Baby Boomers have carried their parents’ social security, raised their own children and many are now raising their grandchildren. They paid for WWII, the Viet Nam War, and the space program. They have paid more taxes to their governments, started more businesses, created more jobs, contributed more donations to charities, and poured more money into the world’s economies than any other generation in history. Selfish? Really? Now they are retiring and the economy is collapsing. Did you think they would flip the bill forever? Let’s think positively, maybe they will not die before every hard earned cent is squeezed out them.

    I think it is time to stop romanticizing the WWII generation or any other for that matter. It is true, the GI and the Veteran generations lived through a brutal war with a magnitude of poverty that cannot possibly be understood by any subsequent generation. However, studies indicate the generation as a whole, suffered a greatly increased rate of mental illness. The WWII generation could equally be named the Post Traumatic Shock Generation as well. These are the parents who raised Baby Boomers. They didn’t give their children things to spoil them. Giving their children what they themselves had been deprived of was a way this emotionally depleted generation could find to show love. Yet, money does not buy love. What was it the Boomers kept whining about in the 60s? Oh, yeah …they wanted LOVE. What terrible spoiled children. You will be happy to know they didn’t get it, so they grew up and made a bunch of money to keep them happy instead. Just like their parents.

    The idea the Greatest Generation fought for “freedom” was an outcome of the war, but maybe they just wanted to kick some butt. President Roosevelt (not a member of the greatest generation) said the attack on Pearl Harbor “woke a sleeping giant.” Few even knew of the existence of concentration camps before liberating them. The war was also a way for men to send a little extra money home to care for their families, and if need be, to die with dignity rather than unemployed and homeless. Now, let’s consider the Greatest Generation really was great because they fought for freedom. This is a good time to ask who they were fighting for freedom against. Oh, yeah…that’s right…it was the German members of their cohort…THE GREATEST GENERATION. They were fighting themselves! This should be enough to support there can be great good and great evil in every generation.

    The Greatest Generation was not great because they killed people in a war or dropped a couple of bombs that melted civilians’ eyes on their faces. The Greatest Generation taught us about perseverance – about how a people can come together, rise from hardship, tragedy, and even their own weaknesses and mistakes to rebuild their world. That is their great legacy and lesson to us, one we could be reminded of today.

  12. The boomers brought about social change as a reaction to fathers and grandfathers who still felt it was acceptable to hit mother if she misbehaved or didn’t prepare the evening casserole properly. Women and children could be physically beaten prior to the boomer generation and there were few women’s shelters providing a safe haven for battered wives. Divorce was demonized . I recall the jokes about the gay divorcee who was thought to be sexually promiscuous. The sexual abuse of children was rarely reported since mother relied on father to support the family. This article fails to mention the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, Native American rights, the personal computer , the smart phone, the moon walk, the birth control pill, the morning after pill and the gay /lesbian equality movement which were all brought about by the children of the WW2 generation.
    There was no attack on American soil to provoke a voluntary enlistment in the armed services. I am proud of my generation and their refusal to sign on for what they clearly understood was nothing worth risking their own lives for or more importantly , taking the lives of others. We cannot determine when we are born but we can create a better world while we are here. Lying about the important contributions of the boomer generation doesn’t make their efforts any less significant.

Leave a Reply