The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Monday, May 31, 2004

The unveiling of the new World War II Memorial coincided with this year's Memorial Day. Considering the diminishing ranks of the "GI Generation", to which the Memorial is dedicated, a poignant look back at the era into which they were born, from 1901 to 1924, highlights the unique and unprecedented circumstances which helped this generation achieve as much as it did.
The parents of the GI Generation had it rough. They were the "Lost Generation" of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis - generally, people born from 1883 to 1900. Few in that generation went beyond the eighth grade, and it showed.

"As a group they demonstrated no measurable improvement in educational performance over preceding generations," said William Strauss, co-author of Generations.

They were adults in the Roaring '20s, a time of prosperity but also of urban blight, sweat shops and massive immigration. They came home from World War I not to heroes' welcomes but to crackdowns on drinking and crime.

"There were issues of child health and safety," Strauss said. "The Lost Generation was not raising its children well."
It's noteworthy that a society had to hit bottom before its next generation could move up. It's debatable whether or not the Lost Generation was the bottom of the barrel in the American polity, and circumstances like World War I and the interwar years provided equal parts opportunity and disappointment.
All that would change for their kids, the GI Generation.

There were improvements in nutrition laws and vaccines. Vitamins became widely available. From 1900 to 1924 infant mortality fell by 50 percent.

The Volstead Act of 1920, which created Prohibition, failed as a social experiment but had an important benefit for the GI Generation.

"It reduced alcohol consumption in the home. The parents of the GI Generation spent less time drunk, on the whole," said Strauss.

Education improved dramatically. The GI Generation produced the "largest one-generational jump in education achievement ever," he said. "It was a generation of joiners, of team players."
Basically, a lot of medical/technological progress, combined with social experimentation, helped this generation come out in dramatically better shape than their parents.

I find the next phase of development most intriguing:
The GI Generation grew up in youth clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H and a host of similar organizations, helping build a strong sense of community.

"They wore uniforms from the time they were young - they were the most uniformed generation in American history," Howe said.

Home from war, they went to school on the GI Bill. As adults they built well-scrubbed suburbs and won flocks of Nobel Prizes. They took mankind into space.

In return they fully enjoyed the American Dream. Social Security and Medicare were constructed with the GI Generation in mind.

"There has been no generation in history with better access to affordable housing," Strauss said, "especially considering what today's young people have to deal with.

"The Lost Generation was poor; the GI Generation was not."

The core values that made the GI Generation good citizens were formed during the first 20 or so years of their lives, said Underwood, the TGI consultant.

"They had their early childhood during the Roaring '20s, generally a time of prosperity," he said. "But they were hit hard by the molding effects of the Depression and the war."

From the Depression, he said, the youthful GI Generation learned humility, "a rejection of wealth as a status symbol."

"This broke down the mystique of wealth, even for those who would later have it," he said.

From the war came a respect for teamwork, an understanding that "we're all in this together," he said.
It struck me while reading this that, in a lot of ways, the formative experiences and immediate (post-WWII) legacy for the Greatest Generation very much resembled the goals put forth by the facist/totalitarianist movements that were taking root during the very same period in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union. The objective of the systems advanced by Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini was the creation of the "New Man"--better, smarter, and divorced from the past. It seems that this New Man was, at the very same time, being formed in United States.

This is not to say that the Greatest Generation was a product of a fascist organization. Rather, I think they're a good example of the hollowness of fascist/totalitarianist movements, in that their stated goals were achieved in a polity that was their direct opposite--a democratic society. For sure, the level of structure in the America of the 1920s and '30s had a certain hint of authoritarianism to it, especially as compared to today's much looser civic life. But it was still developed within a liberal democratic tradition--perhaps the purest example of such during the early 20th Century. The "New Man", apparently, didn't need a strong-arm state to grow and prosper.

This article touches on a lot of ground that's been covered before, particularly in Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation". But I found the presentation here to be particularly succinct and thought-provoking.