In his 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw told the story of my parents’ generation. As a history person — I am a retired history teacher — I initially was not ready to agree with Brokaw and his assessment. For me, that moniker was reserved for the generation that started it all, the Revolutionary War generation. As time passed, however, the more I contemplated Brokaw’s premise, I came to see his point.
The greatest generation that Brokaw refers to, first and foremost, fought World War II. My Father graduated from high school in 1942, and like many other Americans, put his future on hold as he found himself in Europe fighting against Nazi tyranny. Like millions of other soldiers, upon returning home he married, and together with Mom raised seven children. They were married 65 years when Dad passed in 2012. They were reunited when Mom passed in 2016, and are together forever in the military cemetery that is their final resting place.
As if being the generation that fought World War II was not enough, they also spent their childhood in the throes of the Great Depression. Unemployment rates of 25 percent were prevalent, and in pockets of the United States, rates far exceeding that devastated families. In addition, unemployment insurance as we know it today did not arrive until the Social Security Act of 1935. As if the Great Depression was not enough, the Dust Bowl was ravaging the Great Plains during the same time period.
But of all the trials the Greatest Generation faced, it was World War II that tested them the most. Time and again our military rose to the occasion in the European and Pacific Theaters, and over 400,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice. On the homefront, Americans faced shortages of a wide range of commodities, as the country was mobilized for the war effort. Ration books were issued that limited their access to everything from sugar, meat, cooking oil, canned goods, gasoline and tires.
The Greatest Generation endured it all. They survived the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and, along with our allies, defeated all that was Nazi tyranny in the most cataclysmic war in world history.
Years ago, I was teaching U.S. History in one of our local high schools. We were covering World War II on the homefront and the sacrifices that had to be made due to, among other things, rationing. I would pass around a ration book from the war and share with the students that when my parents were married, Mom’s bridesmaids had saved their sugar ration coupons, so Mom and Dad could have a wedding cake.
Most of my students took a quick glance and passed the ration book on. One student, however, was really poring over it. After a couple of minutes he raised his hand and made a comment that has stayed with me. He offered that he did not think that the American people today could handle the type of sacrifices that Americans made during World War II.
As we struggle with the restrictions placed upon us by COVID-19 and the reactions of some Americans to those restrictions, it appears that this young man was rather prescient in his observation.