In the summer of 1941, Adolf Hitler’s apparently invincible Wehrmacht was grinding hundreds of miles into the Soviet Union, spreading mayhem all the way. Defiant Britain suffered crushing defeat in North Africa and the Balkans, as well as shipping losses in the North Atlantic that threatened national survival. The voracious armies of militarist Japan were in the third year of their nearly stalemated invasion of China. In America, however, many of those drafted in 1940–for a war President Roosevelt insisted they’d never have to fight–scrawled OHIO (“Over the Hill in October”) on countless barracks walls, while Congress debated an eighteen-month extension of the Selective Service system.
Eventually, the draft was extended (in the House of Representatives by only a single vote), and a mass desertion of draftees never developed–partially, perhaps, because the draft extension banned deployment of Americans outside the Western Hemisphere.
Such events, detailed in Freedom From Fear, David Kennedy’s comprehensive account of “The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945,” offer a different view of Americans who lived through that era–those Tom Brokaw extols in The Greatest Generation. Brokaw’s superlative may not be wrong, but Freedom From Fear suggests that it’s in the eye of the beholder and that not everyone need necessarily agree with Brokaw’s ably defended belief that “I have the facts on my side.”
The Greatest Generation is devoted primarily to the personal stories of numerous Americans (most of them “ordinary,” in Brokaw’s description), who were undeniably admirable and achieving, in combat sacrificial and even noble. He notes that the stories of “so many others” could have been told–but not that these could have included draft-dodgers, profiteers, slackers of various kinds, incompetents, malcontents and–for instance–the white women cited by Kennedy who “shut down a Western Electric factory in Baltimore rather than share a rest room with their black co-workers.”
Like most generalities, Brokaw’s can only be sustained anecdotally–a method he employs with warm affection and ample research. But when “the greatest generation” is examined more broadly and dispassionately–as Kennedy does in this notable contribution to the Oxford University Press series on American history–then, naturally, a broader and more dispassionate picture emerges. Kennedy’s book is roughly divided into two (if it were not an overused word, I’d say “magisterial”) sections. One is about the origins and development of, and Franklin Roosevelt’s unavailing efforts to end, the Depression of the thirties. It necessarily includes an account of Herbert Hoover’s Administration (1929-33) that is surprisingly and deservedly sympathetic to the Great Engineer.
The second section comprises a history of how the United States was reluctantly drawn into World War II, partly owing to FDR’s bold machinations, then fought that war not only with the battlefield heroism Brokaw celebrates but with what Kennedy asserts is the most remarkable production performance of any society–ever, anywhere. By the war’s end, Americans had built 88,410 tanks and 299,293 aircraft–as well as what Kennedy calls “a glittering consumer’s paradise.” By 1944, even with half the nation’s production facilities devoted to the war, civilian purchases of goods and services had risen by 12 percent. Compare that with the Thousand-Year Reich’s production of 44,857 tanks and 111,767 aircraft, not to mention the utter ruin of all its major cities.