World War II

The "Greatest Generation" debate

... a vote for our founding fathers' era

by Irving Smolens

I have a close friend who is my polar opposite when it comes to our political preferences. We have mutually decided that we will not discuss Bush and the Iraq War but we do find other things to e-mail each other. In recent e-mails he, a Vietnam veteran, refers to my generation as the greatest using the term popularized by Tom Brokaw. I took issue with him for the reasons written below.

My own feeling is that we should take second place to the generation of the founding fathers.

I remember when we were in New Orleans Tom Brokaw addressed that criticism in his opening remarks and he said that the framers of our Constitution did not give women the right to vote and did not eliminate slavery so he said he would stick with his decision to call my generation the greatest.

Some time after that I was at a forum at the Kennedy Library. The keynote and only speaker was David McCullough who wrote the very highly acclaimed book on Harry Truman. He had just completed a new book on John Adams and his talk was based on the contents of the Adams book and how he came to write it. Since Adams was one of the founding fathers and a much better president than he generally receives credit for, I decided to ask MCullough about Brokaw's defense of his calling my generation, "The Greatest Generation." He said something like, "Far be it for me to take issue with my good friend Tom Brokaw but he would leave it up to others to decide for themselves which is the "Greater Generation."

The founding fathers gave us the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers. One of those founding fathers was Thomas Paine who wrote in his article, "The Crisis," "These are the times that try men's souls." I believe it was that statement and the article itself that so inspired and moved General Washington that he read it to his troops.

My generation liberated Western Europe from the scourge of Nazism and the brutal domination of East Asia by Japan. Although we were the first conquering nation in the history of civilization to rebuild and revive nations we had destroyed, we did have some deficiencies along the way. We made common cause with Stalin because we promoted the notion that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. That's not to say that we should have gone to war against the Soviets as General Patton wanted to do. Both countries were war weary. We might, however, have made a better effort to engage Stalin diplomatically. At that time we had not known of the full extent of his bestiality. We could have offered Stalin economic aid to rebuild his war shattered country in exchange for relinquishing his iron fisted control of the countries of Eastern Europe. Realistically he probably would not have agreed to such an exchange because he was well aware of the widespread anti-communist feeling that persisted among important members of our government and rightly or wrongly he feared an attack against his country. After all the Western nations had attacked his and Lenin's government after WW I, attempting to derail the Communist regime. We will never know if the suggested diplomatic attempt would have worked because it was never attempted.

I think every school child in America should be made to "google" Tom Paine, James Madison and the Bill of Rights so that they would gain an appreciation of what great men such as Madison and Paine had to endure in order to make this country what it is. The students should then be required to write a report on what they had read. Instead, the teaching of American History and Civics has virtually been eliminated from school curriculums. It's no wonder we keep repeating mistakes such as Rumsfeld going to Iraq during the Reagan Administration to assure Saddam Hussein of our support for him because he was making war on Iran which was holding our citizens hostage. The president who succeeded Reagan then made war against Saddam Hussein.

It has become very common for writers to use the admonition of George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

My question is how can decision makers remember the past if they never learned about the past? That is why our nation, as great as it is, keeps getting into trouble.

October 6, 2006

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