Those that served in the Korean War (1950-1953) and later the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) are aged anywhere from their late 50s (Vietnam) to early 90s (Korean). Within the next decade, we will likely lose most of our Korean War veterans and will be making a fairly large dent in those from Vietnam. I make these points not out of a macabre view of mortality, but to question how their generation and ultimate deaths have and will impact our politics and culture. Every generation exerts some unique influence over public discourse. The more significant the life experience, the more impactful the influence. As a “Gen-X’er,” stuck between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, my generation is often thought of as the forgotten group. It does not have nearly the numbers of our parents’ cohort (the Boomers), nor the technological prowess of the Millennials, but quietly, we have marched along, creating those technology firms and start-ups and as noted in a recent article in Forbes, kept the economy humming.
The Greatest Generation – OriginsBut there are some generations that seem to have more influence and are more impactful than others to the extent that we notice when they are gone. In 1998, Tom Brokaw wrote “The Greatest Generation,” a non-fiction account of the cohort that grew up during the Great Depression, fought in World War II at home and abroad, and upon returning home celebrated the spoils of victory and US global economic and military denomination. It was this generation that produced the Baby Boomers and fueled post-war economic growth in the United States. This book is sitting at the bottom of a great big digital pile and at some point, I will get to it. But I understand Brokaw’s thesis.
American politics and government had the benefit of the World War II generation for almost 40 years. George H.W. Bush was our last president from that era. Bob Dole was the last presidential candidate. While the breakdown in our political discourse and hyper-partisanship has many root causes, it should not go unnoticed that as those who survived the Great Depression and World War II pass away, our politics has become more contentious and polarized. It cannot be a coincidence.
Further, as we see far-right movements take hold around the world, one has to wonder whether the public rise of nationalism and xenophobia was made possible because those that fought and died to stifle the enabling totalitarianism, is no longer there. Fascist tendencies are found in virtually every society. But a people who sacrificed their lives and those of their children’s, have a vested interest in keeping those tendencies at bay. In a recent VoX article detailing the upcoming German elections, Sarah Wildman notes that the far-right party, AfD (Alternative for Germany), which is anti-immigration and anti-Islam is set to gain a large enough share of the vote to get seats in Parliament. Germany has always had a far-right influence, but it has been stifled as Germans have wrestled with the sins of their past.
And Germany is not alone. We have seen Brexit, as well as other anti-immigration and anti-Muslim, pro-nationalist movements, gain momentum these past few years, particularly after the Great Recession but they have reached an apex in the last 24 months. Partly due to economic austerity measures and the Syrian refugee crisis, European nations are fighting push-pull countervailing forces. It has not helped that the Kremlin continues to stoke nationalist fears throughout Europe in a misinformation campaign during the last election cycle not only in the United States but also in France and the Netherlands.
Were these forces in full view in the 1980s, also a time of intense conservatism? Setting Trump aside (and the supposed “permission” he has given to those with white supremacist and xenophobic ideas), did we see neo-nazi’s parading in the streets during the Reagan era? Were there anti-Muslim demonstrations and travel ban threats throughout the west? I recall plenty of terrorist plots and airplane hijackings, but do not recall anything near the rhetoric we hear today. Could it be that the world still had enough people that remembered what fighting fascism took and would not allow its resurgence? Is it possible that despite the political and military challenges of the Cold War, a people that liberated the death camps understood how nationalist and xenophobic propaganda that sought to divide populations against themselves led to that eventual result? I wonder.
The Greatest Generation in PoliticsThe 50s, 60s, and 70s were far from peaceful. All you have to do is watch a documentary on the Vietnam War and you will realize that whatever consensus and patriotic zeal the United States enjoyed in the immediate post-World War II era quickly dissipated when civil and voting rights became a priority and Vietnam descended into chaos. Moreover, actions and behavior that occurred during those decades had a profound impact on our politics today. We could easily be witnessing a backlash or reaction against the culture wars that began in the 1960s.
But stepping back a bit from the minutia of public policy and I see a different approach to governance that I believe is a result of those who served in government during that era. Eisenhower led the invasion of Europe. He understood real conflict; real conflict resulted in death on a battlefield, not slight changes to marginal tax rates. When your entire adult life is seen through the prism of war and destruction, your approach to governance is much different than those with strict black and white ideological positions.
Further examples include president John F. Kennedy who was a naval officer during the war. In addition to losing his older brother during World War II, Kennedy found himself and his crew, stranded in the south Pacific after a Japanese ambush. It was no small miracle or act of heroism that he and his unit survived long enough to be rescued. He too understood courage and fear. George H.W. Bush, a Navy pilot was shot down over the Pacific and narrowly escaped capture and execution by the Japanese. Bob Dole, former Kansas Senator, and Republican Presidential candidate was seriously wounded in Italy during the final days of the war. He lost the use of his right arm and most feeling in his left. And these are just the veterans I can name off the top of my head.
Many that fought the Axis Powers had grown up deprived during the Great Depression. They knew what “going without” really meant and they understood that the New Deal helped. I have to believe that these experiences had a profound impact on their approach to governance, and more specifically their ability to moderate and compromise. I also wonder if those being governed – the voters – looked at government in a different way. Suffering destitution, followed by warring against fascism (and emerging victorious) helped place political discussion and policy decisions into context and likely helped ward off the ideological purity of the right for so long. This generation started to leave the stage in the mid-90s which corresponds to the rise of intense partisan bluster and obstruction.
John McCain is a bit of a unicorn in this discussion. He was not part of the World War II generation (born in 1936), but also not a Boomer. He served in Vietnam and was held for 5 and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war. But regardless of generation, I think the same pattern holds because once again, McCain was the grown-up yesterday. He announced that he could not in good conscience vote for the Graham – Cassidy amendment that would roll back significant provisions in the Affordable Care Act. He did not cite opposition to the bill’s provisions, rather the way in which it was crafted and debated. While I wish he would stop referring to the Democrat’s efforts to pass the ACA as “ramming it through Congress,” (that is not what happened), I admire his fortitude and commitment to regular order and bi-partisanship. In the subtext of his statement, McCain first and foremost defended the Senate, the institution he has served for three decades. Second to the Senate was likely his party. But reading between the lines, McCain is desperately pleading to return the Senate to the superior position it once held in the American system of self-government.
Think of what this generation accomplished – or rather, did not accomplish. Was the government ever “shut down” as a result of not passing a budget resolution? Was there ever a true effort to repeal Medicare and Medicaid? No. In fact, new programs were enacted by Republican presidents, including the Environmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon. Schools were integrated under threat of military force by Eisenhower and the military was integrated under Truman. Was there opposition? Of course. We have all heard stories of southern governors and senators (remember Strom Thurmond’s exit from the Democratic Party?) who took their white supremacist notions to the grave. But the progress that we had needed for a century was made and it was made by that generation. (We should note that we are currently living through the backlash to that progress, but that is another post).
Current GenerationsWhile we continue to have veterans serving in Congress, we have not seen a similar effect on bipartisanship and compromise. There are many likely reasons for this, none of which have anything to do with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans themselves. Partisanship and obstruction seem to be the norm, particularly as the ideological purity of the conservative right takes hold. If one side in the negotiations is fundamentally opposed to the idea of the negotiation, then compromise is all but a waste of time.
The point is that we have arrived at a place in our political discourse that has had several causal factors and root causes. I believe a big one that is not discussed often enough, is something that cannot be easily controlled. That is, the people doing the legislating and their common experiences. Given that Americans are more and more divided and seek to self-segregate when possible, I am not sure that this situation gets better without significant reforms including a national service requirement. Until every single American is forced to sacrifice something for their country, we have little hope of recreating what Tom Brokaw coined the Greatest Generation.
This does not mean that we need to go to war – far from it. But we have arrived at a place in which the two political parties could not be further apart and yet, most voters do not identify with either. Moreover, half of the eligible population does not vote regularly and another sizeable portion has been disenfranchised because of mass incarceration. One aspect of the Greatest Generation that I did not discuss was its attitude toward government. Despite Ronald Reagan’s famous quote of “government being the problem,” most members of that generation still believed that a reasonably sized government could have a positive impact on peoples’ lives and had a responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens, particularly the vulnerable and minorities. Moderation of social and cultural issues was acceptable; you could actually be a pro-choice Republican and run for President as President George H.W. Bush demonstrated.
But this consensus and moderation are gone from our political discourse and gone from those active in political causes. I am living proof that when one side gets angry, the other follows. So as the Greatest Generation leaves this realm and the Korean and Vietnam follow suit, we should truly grasp what the rest of us lose. It is not just their stories, although hopefully, those have been recorded for history. It is their spirit of compromise and the acknowledgment that there really are worse things than Obamacare – far worse things than regulating the healthcare industry and raising taxes on the one percent to help the poorest among us pay insurance premiums.
It is the first-hand accounts of being held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton before descending from a military plane that has just landed on American soil after five and a half years of captivity. It is the overpowering smell of death that greeted US soldiers as they entered German concentration camps throughout Europe. It is memories of the Bhutan death march and Japanese POW camps throughout the Pacific. And it is knowing that so many of your constituents and even family members never returned home.
I really want to believe that if Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell or any member of the House Freedom Caucus had endured experiences like these, they would be much less likely to be wedded to modern conservatism as we know it today and maybe even believe we should do something about climate change. Maybe the AHA would be working for the vast majority of Americans and corporations would have their tax cut. Democrats may have been more willing to bend and compromise on taxes and other Republican priorities. At one point, I thought “being an American” was enough of a shared experience. But I am not so sure anymore.