Reflections on Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation
In his role both as a television journalist and best-selling author, Tom Brokaw led the charge in bringing attention to the feats of a heroic generation before it passed on to the graveyard of history. His considerable influence led to wider recognition of those whose sacrifices saved the world from forces of great evil and chaos. For most of us, this was our parents’ or grandparents’ generation, and we generally took their achievements for granted—that was an easy way because they were, after all, very humble and mostly did not want to relive their wartime experiences. His conclusions derive from a renewed clarity not only about their accomplishments but also about the significance of the World War II epoch itself. As Brokaw states: “They answered the call to help save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, and . . . without their efforts and sacrifices our world would be a far different place today.” (The Greatest Generation, p. xxvii) Brokaw acknowledges that he approaches his story almost as an evangelist: “By 1994, I felt a kind of missionary zeal for the men and women of World War II, spreading the word of their remarkable lives.” (Ibid, p. xxxiv)
Brokaw also credits the generation with both moral and material achievements, including the creation of vast wealth and improvement in the lives of countless numbers of Americans. He notes what professional historians have emphasized for years—that the war unleashed forces of profound change for women and minorities. It was no accident that Civil Rights Movements emerged from the war with greater momentum. The emphasis on fighting for freedom against tyranny held up in a more compelling way the realities of oppression here in the United States, whether that be the blight of segregation or the injustice of internment for Japanese-Americans, many of whom served in the war with great distinction. Further, opportunities expanded because wartime scarcities of labor paved the way for women to serve as pilots, factory workers, nurses, government employees, and in an endless list of roles previously reserved exclusively for men.
The Greatest Generation gained such a substantial audience because it is accessible in ways that professional historians often fail to fulfill. It moves from subject to subject in a series of biographical vignettes emphasizing both wartime roles or exploits and the post-war carryover of the impact of World War II. His biographical subjects include both the famous and those who remained generally unknown, cited here because of their representative nature. Many of the book’s heroes came from the ranks of those mostly unsung by either themselves or by others who have told the story of the World War II era. In part, the characteristic humility of the generation accounts for this lack of public attention. As Brokaw writes, “by and large, they made no demands of homage from those who followe. . . It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor.” (Ibid, p. 11) Regarding a woman who described herself as “an ordinary person,” he writes that yes, she was “an ordinary person [but one] who as a teenager supported her family, became a highly skilled nurse, won the Silver Star, and lived an exemplary life. In her modesty she typifies so many women of her generation.” (Ibid, p. 179)
Brokaw found that the humble quality emanated from the fact that most wanted to forget the war rather than to revel in its glories or even revisit their wartime experiences. Another factor accounts for this tendency to avoid the limelight—it was a depression generation of individuals who wanted most of all to get on with their lives and not miss out on this new-found prosperity of the post-war era.
He also believes that the “values” of the generation sets it apart. These qualities include strength of character and an ethic of personal responsibility. One of the most surprising suggestions that Brokaw makes is that the generation was made up of men and women who were “not afraid to question authority.” (Ibid, p. 298) Other qualities of this “greatest generation” include a powerful work ethic and commitment to family along with “duty, honor, country, [and] personal responsibility.” (Ibid, p. 231) Brokaw also notes that World War II “was a great unifying force, requiring sacrifice and imposing new disciplines across the many layers of American society. America came to know itself better through this common experience.” (Ibid, p. 273) He asserts further that an ethic of fairness, of doing the right thing, characterized the members of the generation, and he notes that typically they saw their parents as heroes too for having gone through the Depression.
Brokaw anticipated many doubters because of his use of the term “greatest,” but he makes a strong case for this thesis. Certainly, few can come away from reading the book without an appreciation for the acts of heroism that occurred with such regularity. The Greatest Generation helped to inspire a tremendous outpouring of public recognition of this pivotal era and its human accomplishments. Even the most casual cultural observer must note the echoes of Brokaw’s themes in countless films, books, and television shows such as Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and the almost ubiquitous nightly re-runs on the Military History Channel, to cite but a few examples.
Despite its social rather than military emphasis, in the end The Greatest Generation still stands out because it also records vividly so many acts of valor, repeated endlessly, and yet so stunning as to remain almost beyond our grasp as we reflect back from our comfortable armchairs of history. Another profound conclusion that he reaches concerns the influence of the generation, symbolized by its domination of American politics for so many years. As Brokaw notes, during the forty year period “from Eisenhower  through George H. W. Bush , all but one American president was a veteran of World War II,” and that was Jimmy Carter who finished his education at the US Naval Academy “just as the war ended.” (Ibid, p. 330)|
From our present perch it becomes somewhat difficult to avoid becoming susceptible to the perils of nostalgia. Brokaw quotes Daniel Inouye with approval. “The one time the nation got together was World War II. We stood as one. We spoke as one. We clenched our fists as one, and that was a rare moment for all of us.” (Ibid, p. 356)
Brokaw’s concluding tribute is to credit the members of “the greatest generation” for giving “the succeeding generations the opportunity to accumulate great economic wealth, political muscle, and the freedom from foreign oppression to make whatever choices they like.” (Ibid, p. 388) Without saying so exactly, he clearly wonders whether we are making the best of it.
Dr. Paul D. Lack, Ph.D., is the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Stevenson University. Born and raised in Texas, Lack is a trained historian and holds a bachelor’s degree from McMurry College and a master’s and Ph.D. from Texas Tech University. Lack is well-known among historians of the Texas Revolution and on the historiography of the Revolution and the Republic, and authored the study The Texas Revolutionary Experience: A Political and Social History, 1835-1836, published by Texas A&M University Press.