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Kilroy Was There | The Nation

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Kilroy Was There

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Brokaw is properly appreciative of the greatest generation's women, who contributed mightily to the war effort, but again he overstates his case by claiming that they "changed forever the perception and the reality of women in all the disciplines of American life." If that were so, there'd have been little need for Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique in the sixties. Rosie the Riveter did not really finish the job.

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Tom Wicker
Tom Wicker was a reporter, Washington correspondent and political columnist for the New York Times from 1960 until his...

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In the first place, few women drilled rivets; instead, wartime supervisors usually employed women in their traditional low-skill positions--welding, for instance, in the shipyards, or clerical and service jobs. More important, three-fourths of all women were at home when the war began--and an overwhelming majoritywere still there when it ended (the reverse was true in Britain and the Soviet Union). About 6 million women entered the American work force in the war years--but only about 3 million over and above the normal expectation from population growth and maturation.

Nor did the long-term impact of women in the work force "change forever" their place in American life. Women's participation in the work force spiked at 36 percent in 1944, then fell to 28 percent (about the historical level) in 1947. During the war years and beyond, the proportion of women in blue-collar jobs actually declined--from 26.2 percent in 1940 to 24.6 percent in 1947.

Wartime polls repeatedly found that majorities of women as well as men disapproved of working wives, especially of working mothers. Surveys after the war disclosed that most former female war workers preferred home and motherhood to outside jobs. The problem, Kennedy observes trenchantly, was that Rosie the Riveter's wartime activity was "not yet sanctioned by a shift in social values." But her day would certainly come, because she had encouraged women eventually to challenge sexual stereotypes and demand economic freedom as well as familiar family roles.

For blacks, however, the real beginnings of social change were registered during the war years. Despite blatant racial discrimination in and out of the services, those years "threw into high relief the contradiction between America's professed values and its actual behavior." And when A. Philip Randolph proposed a massive black march on Washington unless Roosevelt barred racial discrimination in war industries, then refused presidential blandishments to back down, it was FDR who had to give in. On June 25, 1941, he signed the historic Executive Order 8802, formally desegregating the federal workplace; for perhaps the first time, the black community glimpsed its latent power.

One finishes Freedom From Fear--even those of us who lived through the years it encompasses--not with the feeling that Tom Brokaw is wholly wrong in his estimation of the "greatest generation" but with a larger and fuller view of those Americans than his phrase conveys. Their blighted youth in the Depression, their inherited reluctance to engage with an unknown world, much less with a foreign war, their forced adaptation--not always successful--to wartime stresses previously unimaginable, their return to a far different world that the "good war" had not arranged as they and Roosevelt had envisioned--all these indeed demanded courage and perseverance.

Just as challenging, perhaps more so, as they settled--on the whole happily--into that different world was their command of half the planet's manufacturing capacity, in a nation that generated half the world's electricity, owned two-thirds of its gold and half its monetary reserves, possessed its largest merchant fleet and held a near-monopoly on promising aerospace and electronics industries as well as, briefly, the uses of atomic power. Such unprecedented wealth and power made it all the more likely that they could not avoid the chronic American problems of race, class and raging poverty amid riches--while having to confront, too, the new threat of human extinction by the power demonically loosed in their name.

D-Day veterans interviewed by Brokaw in 1984 told him that, under terrible fire during the landing, they had felt "alternating fear, rage, calm, and, most of all, an overpowering determination to survive."

So perhaps that's what, if anything, best supports Brokaw's contention that this was a great generation--even if it's a claim that all generations might make: not that these particular Americans fought and helped win the war that finally overcame the Depression; or that they created untold national wealth and power in doing so, ultimately prospering beyond their personal dreams; certainly not that they conquered those chronic problems or that new threat to which they came home from the war. History has not yet recorded that they prevailed over their time.

Probably no generation ever does, or can. But with alternating fear, rage and calm, these Americans survived. Not everyone, of course, but enough.

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