In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation

mhagandefaultMichael Hagan ’15

Op-ed columnist Dana Milbank is taking a lot of heat for his piece in this Sunday’s Washington Post, and understandably so. He checked the pride of many a middle-aged American when he wrote:

“Tom Brokaw justifiably called the cohort that survived the Great Depression and fought World War II the greatest generation. I’m afraid that my generation will someday be called the weakest.”

Critics can tell Milbank to blame his “hippie parents” for his “inferiority complex” all they want, but his concern is built on sound historical interpretation. Since the generation that endured the Great Depression and won the Second World War, no generation has endured the same degree of shared hardship and triumph. Complementary to this is the fact that since the two-decades after the War, no age cohort has set out on as ambitious a course to realize American potential as the Greatest Generation. In the decades following the War, the survivors of the Depression and heroes of WWII invested in the veterans who had so invested themselves in the American cause, strengthened national infrastructure tremendously, landed the Eagle on the moon, abolished de jure segregation, declared war on poverty, and enfranchised millions that Jim Crow had shut out from public discourse. Some achievements were born of top-down presidential and congressional leadership, and others were the product of grassroots initiative. Some were nearly universally accepted while others took the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of activists to bring to fruition. All were ambitious, but the men and women of the Greatest Generation didn’t buy into the notion of “impossibility.” They shared in common the formative experience of overcoming “impossible”… twice.

The Greatest Generation saw injustices it knew it could conquer, and was better disposed than any previous generation to see the injustices in the American status quo. The post-war decades were a unique window in American history when, to a large extent, what was just was also politically expedient; the people voted for it. This is the difference between then and now. GenX’ers and Millennials of far greater character than I act selflessly in the name of justice and the general welfare every day, yet we struggle to do so cohesively. Is our lawmakers’ debilitating failure to find common ground a symptom of the splintering of common goals forged through common struggle? Has time extinguished the victorious post-war spirit? For all its achievements, did the Greatest Generation fail to pass that spirit on? Must we experience hardship on as great a scale as Depression survivors and WWII veterans before we can lift the torch left to us? Perhaps I romanticize the Greatest Generation more than I ought, but I share Milbank’s frustration. We are weak when we bicker in the shadow of giants while we ought to stand tall on their shoulders.

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