Any 'greatest generation is rank ancestor worship; Calling the World War II generation America's finest is bad history, bad judgment and bad balance.


The big best seller of the winter is a reminder that from time to time Americans succumb to a frenzy of ancestor worship. This is a silly and dangerous indulgence, as the late, great Johns Hopkins historian J. Franklin Jameson explained on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Revolutionary War. In an essay, he condemned "the notion that, because in the period of the Revolution there were many heroic characters and deeds, the whole American population of that time was heroic."

He went on to say: "It is pleasant to think well of a whole generation of those who have preceded us, and especially pleasant to glorify them if they were our ancestors. It may seem harmless, but when it is done in terms of comparison with later generations it is not altogether wholesome."

The best seller is "The Greatest Generation" by Tom Brokaw (Random House, 412 pages, $24.95). The anchorman-author makes the simple-minded, wrong-headed and not altogether wholesome assertion that the Americans who waged and won World War II were "the greatest generation any society has ever produced."

The book is a collection of short biographies of some 50 members of the revered generation, what they did before, during and after the war. The chapters read like Ralph Edwards' introductions of his subjects on one of the greatest generation's favorite post-war TV shows, "This Is Your Life," as cleared by the Office of War Information.

But style is the least of the problems with this book. More important is lack of expertise. Brokaw says he read three historians of the war, but his book shows no evidence of research into earlier or later generations' accomplishments in America or any other society. Nor that he knows much about what went on in America in the 1940s.

More important still is that he inflates a select group of people into emblems of an entire generation, the very thing Jameson objected to. Brokaw's choices are hardly typical of their generation. Four-fifths of the men and women he features were in the military, and many saw real combat.

Now, only roughly two-thirds of American men ages 17-35 served in any branch of the services, 1940-1945. Three-fourths of those never went overseas. Of those who did, less than half saw even low intensity combat.

So about one in 12 at most of the young men of that day really sacrificed to the point that they deserve reverence -- and at least two-thirds of those were drafted. So many young men dodged military service by going to college, getting war factory or agricultural jobs, claiming bad health or pacifism or marrying and fathering that beginning in 1942 even the Navy couldn't meet its manpower needs with enlistments.

There were plenty of good jobs to go around. Average family income more than doubled between 1938 and 1942 in many cities. Wealth and spending exploded. Many manufacturers, who had suffered in the Great Depression, were more interested in producing consumer goods than war materiel.

Hoarding was widespread. So was black market activity. The good times rolled. The war was the best thing that ever happened to millions and millions of Americans of the greatest generation.

These and similar facts about those times are freely available to serious researchers. Even non-serious researchers can learn plenty about the war years and the vast literature on them in either of two small books with local connections. One is "Wartime America: The World War II Home Front" by John W. Jeffries (Ivan R. Dee, 213 pages, $24.95). Professor Jeffries teaches history at UMBC. The other is "The Best War Ever: America and World War II" by Michael C.C. Adams (Johns Hopkins University Press, 189 pages, $14.95 paper).

Both are well-written, un-stuffy. The former has a good "A Note on Sources" but no footnotes. The latter has a good "Bibliographic Essay" and is footnoted.

It's not just Tom Brokaw who is demonstrating that Americans want to worship their ancestors these days. One week this winter his book was No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction best seller list. No. 2 was "The Century" by Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster (Doubleday, 606 pages, $60). No. 6 was "The American Century" by Harold Evans with Gail Buckland and Kevin Baker (Knopf, 710 pages, $50).

The latter two are celebrity journalists' coffee table books, but wonderfully illustrated, and also well researched and written. The Evans book can stand up to most narrative histories of the eras. Both books are respectful but not worshipful of the World War II fighting generation. And Evans is balanced in assessing America's "greatness" in the war.

Then there is Stephen Ambrose (a friend and source of Brokaw's). The former Hopkins history professor's "The Victors" (Simon & Schuster, 396 pages, $28) was No. 15 on that same best seller list. It is a synthesis of several of his earlier books about World War II, including the 1997 "Citizen Soldiers," the re-issued edition of which was No. 10 on the Times paperback best seller list the same week.

No sentimentalist or amateur when writing history, and a demon researcher, even Ambrose succumbs to ancestor worship at times. He writes: "The 'we' generation of World War II (as in 'We are all in this together') was a special breed of men and women who did great things for America and the world. ... At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn't want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought and won and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful."

Ambrose surely doesn't really believe American GIs fought to make the world safe from wrong. He makes the point many times in his books that men in combat really fight for personal reasons having to do primarily with comradeship. He also has written with dismay about the youthfulness of the reluctant draftees forced to bear the brunt of much of the late fighting in Europe. (By then of the 8.3 million men in the Army, more than 7 million were draftees.)

At least he limits his reverence to the small percentage of that day's generation that deserve profound gratefulness. Even so, overly praising them and their accomplishments runs the risk of insulting by implication today's so-called X generation and baby boomers. Some of the commentary on the new books mentioned here -- and the highly praised World War II movies "The Thin Red Line" and "Saving Private Ryan" -- have been explicitly a rebuke of today's youth.

I know of no evidence that the military heroes of 1941-1945 were any braver than those of 1917-1918 or of the 1860s -- or of the 1960s. They did not bear more or suffer more. The military death rate in the Civil War was six times greater than in World War II, for instance. And I would guess that in the future crises American youth will measure up to grim challenges, no less reluctantly than their ancestors, but no less successfully.

J. Franklin Jameson, who said in 1926 that generational comparisons are "unwholesome," added this: "Let us distinguish between the heroes who fought and suffered and made every sacrifice to bring into existence a new nation, and the population at large, of whom so great a proportion were, as a matter of fact, however we may excuse them, provincial-minded, dubious in opinion, reluctant to make any sacrifices, half-hearted in the glorious cause."

That may or may not have been as true of the population at large in the 1940s as in the 1770s, but it's a good perspective in assessing both -- any -- generations.

"Let us be fair to the moderns," Jameson said, "and not fabricate an imaginary golden age."

Let's. Good advice then, good advice now.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorialist. His books about Franklin D. Roosevelt, H.L. Mencken and Spiro Agnew deal in part with their World War II years. He was in the Navy in Korea in 1953.

Pub Date: 01/31/99

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