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.
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Both sections could stand alone, as detailed as any book on either subject. Both share the same theme suggested in the overall title: that Roosevelt’s persistent quest, the core of his New Deal and his wartime leadership, was for the security of Americans. “Dr. Win-the-War” pursued it by different means in a war-torn world, no less than “Dr. New Deal” (Roosevelt’s self-descriptions) sought it in economic and social reform. Both efforts, Kennedy makes clear, succeeded almost in spite of politics, tradition, public incomprehension, FDR’s idiosyncrasies and fanatical opposition at home and abroad.
Brokaw focuses on individual achievements–only occasionally venturing into such polemical judgments as that the greatest generation “stayed true to [its] values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith.” It’s in such claims that Brokaw’s title thesis is at its weakest–for example, when he says on no cited evidence that in 1940 it had become “clear to all but a few delusional isolationists that war would define this generation’s coming of age.”
“A few”? As David Kennedy details, in the post-World War I decades, Americans had said “no” to the League of Nations, to the World Court, to free trade, to forgiveness of British and French war debts, to further unlimited immigration and to the “mistake” (as many came to consider it) of America’s past participation in the Great War. As World War II impended, moreover, Congress passed five “neutrality” acts that, in practice, favored aggressors like Italy against Ethiopia and Japan against China. Even the later Lend-Lease Act, which Winston Churchill called “the most unsordid” in history, was preceded by the forced and ruthless sale of British assets in America to finance the necessary plant expansion.
“Isolationism may have been most pronounced in the landlocked Midwest,” in prewar America, Kennedy concedes. But he insists that “Americans of both sexes, of all ages, religions and political persuasions, from all ethnic groups and all regions” shared attitudes that “bordered on disgust” toward Europe and the rest of a “wretchedly quarrelsome world.” Internationalist or no, Roosevelt himself scuttled the London Economic Conference, abandoned the gold standard, sponsored New Deal acts that kept the US economy isolated (perhaps pardonably, in the Depression) and acquiesced in the further downsizing of what was then an army of only 140,000 men.
He was “at many points,” Kennedy believes, “less the principled opponent of the isolationists than their willing captive,” no doubt because FDR faced, as he told a friend in 1935, “a large, misinformed public opinion” and, as he wrote a diplomat at the time, “the wind everywhere blows against us.” And after 1934, Kennedy’s evidence suggests, American isolationism “hardened from mere indifference to the outside world into studied, active repudiation of anything” that smacked of international involvement.
Even after the Japanese in 1937 “mistakenly” bombed the Panay, a US warship anchored in the Yangtze River, a Fortune magazine poll found a majority of Americans favoring not retaliation but a pullout from China. That year 73 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll favored a constitutional amendment–only narrowly defeated in Congress–to require approval in a national referendum for any declaration of war on anybody for anything.
So isolationist and isolated behind its oceans was thirties America that it “simply did not figure” in Hitler’s hegemonic calculations. As for the early signs of the Holocaust to come, Americans were not well informed but were even less concerned; a Fortune survey in 1938 (when unemployment was stratospheric) “showed that fewer than 5 percent of Americans were willing to raise immigration quotas to accommodate refugees.”
Brokaw’s book implicitly supports the “mythology” (as Kennedy calls it) that after Pearl Harbor young American men “step[ped] forward in unison to answer the trumpet’s call.” Nearly 2 million farm laborers and 4 million industrial workers sought and received draft deferments. Seventy thousand draft-age men declared themselves conscientious objectors. Owing to various forms of racial prejudice, 300,000 black men in the 1-A pool went undrafted.
Married men were exempt from the first draft calls, so an estimated 40 percent of 21-year-olds in late 1940 went to the altar within six weeks (“most” of these marriages, said Lewis Hershey, the once and future Selective Service director, “might have been for the purpose of evading the draft”). About 200,000 young men in the air corps cadet program never left home, and the Navy V-12 program sent droves of 17-year-olds, including me, to college for two years. By early 1944, only 161,000 pre-Pearl Harbor fathers had been conscripted; one couple, probably apocryphal, was said to have named a baby “Weatherstrip” because he kept his father out of the draft.
Although more than 16 million men and women served in all branches during the war, and one in five American families had at least one member in military service, the Army’s decision to limit itself to ninety divisions meant that it was, in Kennedy’s phrase, “scarcely…a mighty host”–only somewhat larger than the Japanese Army, somewhat smaller than the Wehrmacht and less than half the size of the Red Army that played a greater role in smashing Hitler.
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.
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.