- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

This is the week to celebrate “the greatest generation,” days of remembrance sandwiched between a dedication in Washington and commemoration at Omaha Beach. The conventional wisdom is there will never be another generation like it.

Maybe not, although one hero of that generation begs to differ.

“A new band of brothers has stepped forward,” George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, told a prayer service at the National Cathedral a few hours before his son dedicated a memorial on the Mall to the men and women of World War II.

“They are every bit as great. Each of those who serve now is owed no less a debt of gratitude.”

The former president is perhaps the last president who actually looks like a president to those of us old enough to remember the greatest generation in its prime, though it’s true that the passing years will always lend flattering perspective to those who precede the thoughtful among us. But the ex-president has a point. The greatest generation became the greatest because it had no other choice. The generation now “stepping forward” can make itself great, too, in Iraq and beyond.

The men and women rising to maturity in 1941 did not appear as giants to their elders, either. Roger Babson, who with Walter Lippman comprised the most influential newspaper pundits of an era when pundits were actually influential, visited several Army training camps in the days after Pearl Harbor and revealed himself to be decidedly pessimistic. He called the young men and women of the America of ‘41 “good-time crazy.”

Sleeping through Sunday mornings, he wrote, would never defeat Japan. “No longer the moon alone can hold in spell the Romeo and Juliets of 1941. It must be dinner, a show, after that some dancing, and then some 60-cent chicken sandwiches, to say nothing of gasoline, oil, tires, fines for speeding, and wrecks — of car, or of character, or both. How the average man in average circumstances, ‘good-time crazy’ himself and with a ‘good-time crazy’ wife and children, make both ends meet is a mystery to all of us. …

“It would be a dull life if we could not occasionally reach for a sweet. But the good books, the sunsets, the forests, the birds and the flowers that Emerson, Lowell, Longfellow and the other great men have sung about seem to have lost their appeal. The family circle is the steering wheel. Family prayers or simple invocations at the family dinner table are something that we tell our children about what happened in the long ago.”

No one should knock 60-cent chicken sandwiches, but this would be a generation that would not be rattled when the war news went bad, and lest we forget, for a while the war news was very bad. By June of ‘42, six months into the war, the entire American army in the Philippines had been lost, an American division had been soundly licked by Rommel’s Afrika Corps at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa, and the Japanese, having thrown the British out of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, evicted the Dutch from what would become Indonesia and drove the Australians out of New Guinea. The Japanese Navy lost three carriers at Midway, but the battle of Midway would not be recognized as the turning point of the war in the Pacific for decades, and Guadalcanal lay still ahead.

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia told his New Yorkers: “The war will come right to our cities and residential districts. Never underestimate the strength and cruelty of the enemy.” In February of ‘42, a reporter asked Franklin D. Roosevelt whether the United States could be attacked by a foreign foe.

“Enemy ships could swoop in and shell New York,” FDR replied. “Enemy planes could drop bombs on the war plants in Detroit. Enemy troops could attack Alaska.”

But surely, the reporter asked, couldn’t the Army, the Navy and the Air Corps deal with that? Snapped FDR: “Certainly not.”

Mayor La Guardia’s prediction that a foreign foe could take war to the streets of New York was only six decades ahead of his time, and FDR was only predicting a harsh reality to come more than a half-century later.

The greatest generation did not flinch from war when it was forced upon them, nor quail in the face of bad news from the front. This is the legacy of the greatest generation, if only we have the fortitude to accept it.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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