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The Greatest Generation ()

CSPAN Booknotes

Let's start with a couple excerpts to give you the flavor of what Mr. Brokaw's title means:

    In the spring of 1984, I went to the northwest of France, to Normandy, to prepare an NBC
    documentary on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, the massive and daring Allied invasion of
    Europe that marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. There, I underwent a
    life-changing experience. As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who had returned for
    this anniversary, men in their sixties and seventies, and listened to their stories, I was deeply moved
    and profoundly grateful for all they had done. Ten years later, I returned to Normandy for the
    fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, and by then I had come to understand what this generation of
    Americans meant to history. It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.


    The year of my birth, 1940, was the fulcrum of America in the twentieth century, when the nation
    was balanced precariously between the darkness of the Great Depression on one side and the
    storms of war in Europe and the Pacific on the other. It was a critical time in the shaping of this
    nation and the world, equal to the revolution of 1776 and the perils of the Civil War.  Once again
    the American people understood the magnitude of the challenge, the importance of an unparalleled
    national commitment, and, most of all, the certainty that only one resolution was acceptable. The
    nation turned to its young to carry the heaviest burden, to fight in enemy territory and to keep the
    home front secure and productive. These young men and women were eager for the assignment.
    They understood what was required of them, and they willingly volunteered for their duty.

That's it in a nutshell.  Incredibly enough, he means exactly what he says.  This unimaginably hyperbolic sack of tripe has as its premise the single most asinine argument ever made by a network anchor, which is no small feat.  It is sort of the literary equivalent of Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will.  Let me make it clear that I yield to noone in my admiration for the men who fought in WWII.  Anyone who fights honorably in his nation's service is deserving of our respect and our thanks.  But here are a few of the questions that are necessarily raised by Mr. Brokaw's treacly hyperbole:

    *The first generation of Americans settled and subdued an unknown land.  The Revolutionary
    generation created the nation and defeated the world's greatest empire.  The Civil War generation
    saved the Union and freed the slaves.  Brokaw's subjects won a war in Northern Africa, France,
    Italy and the South Pacific.  By what stretch of the imagination was their battle vital to the nation's

    *If there really was a horrible darkness falling on Europe and this generation fought it out of a
    sense of duty, why did they stay out of the fight for a full two years, until the Japanese attacked us?

    *Why did they declare war only on Japan at that point, waiting until Hitler declared war on us to
    return the favor?

    *Is there any reason to believe that there has ever been a generation of Americans who would have
    reacted differently to the bombing of Pearl Harbor?  Wouldn't every generation of Americans have
    eagerly sallied forth to crush Nippon?  Succeeding generations fought to free South Korea, South
    Vietnam and Kuwait; does Brokaw really wish to suggest that they would not have fought Tojo?

    *Is it appropriate to consider this generation the nation's greatest considering the fact that the
    Armed Forces were segregated and that we interred our own American Japanese population during
    the war?

    *How difficult a task was it to win WWII?  With Japan failing miserably in its desperate gamble at
    Pearl Harbor and the German offensive grinding to a halt in Russia, was there any way that we
    could have failed to win the war or wasn't this merely a mopping up operation, however costly?

    *Having freed half of Europe, why did this generation abandon the Eastern half of the continent to
    the ministrations of Stalin and the USSR?  Do the dead of the gulag really feel comforted by the
    fact that America allowed them to be murdered by Stalin and not Hitler?

    *Did this generation's responsibilities cease on V-J Day?  Besides the question of the Soviet Union,
    where was this generation during the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, etc?  Were they responsible for
    these failures or merely unsupportive of our soldiers during them?

    *Do the difficulties of the Depression and service in WWII really justify the massive transfer of
    payments that this generation has secured to themselves from future generations?  Social Security,
    Medicare, etc. are justly called entitlements; why is this generation the one in our history that felt
    entitled to so much in exchange for their service to the nation?

    *Do they bear no responsibility for the enormous deficits that were rung up throughout their
    lifetimes, in order to pay for the thorough Social Safety Net they demanded?  Deficits, mind you,
    which our generation will be the one to pay off over the next twenty or thirty years.

    *Who is responsible for the tremendous cultural damage that their Baby Boom children have done
    and are doing to this country?  Wasn't it this "Greatest Generation" that raised the most spoiled,
    selfish, over indulged crop of brats ever to walk the face of the Earth?

Now Brokaw does treat many of these subjects--including interviews with Japanese Americans and blacks--but does not even consider others and its obviously impossible to answer or justify most of them.

In the end, what we're left with are some interesting oral histories, like the reminiscences of  George Bush and Julia Child, that add fairly little to the prior work of folks like Studs Terkel (The Good War : An Oral History of World War Two & Hard Times : An Oral History of the Great Depression), unified by a thesis that is completely risible.


Grade: (D+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOKNOTES: The Greatest Generation (CSPAN)
    -BIO: TOM BROKAW Anchor and Managing Editor, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw (NBC)
    -Bio from | Tom Brokaw (Random House)
    -EXCERPT: War and remembrance: Three women and how they served (Random House)
    -ARTICLE: A 'family portrait of the greatest generation' Brokaw shares the stories of a generation of heroes (CNN)
    -ARTICLE: The Willow Glen Resident  'Greatest Generation' failed at some things (Carl Heintze, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW : of The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (Florence King, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: 'Generation' lost without connections (USA Today)
    -REVIEW: (
    -REVIEW: (Manic Monkey's Review)
    -REVIEW: (Tom Walker, Denver Post Books Editor
    -REVIEW: A Timely Reminder from Our Elders (K. Daniel Glover, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW: (Bill Bell, Charlotte Observer)

    -ESSAY: How great was the 'greatest generation'?  By William A. Rusher
    -ESSAY : They're living the good life at America's expense (Andrew Sullivan, Sunday Times of London)
    -ESSAY : The Greatest Generation's greatest failure (Lawrence Henry, June 11, 2001, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW  : of The Good Fight by Stephen E. Ambrose (Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic)
-REVIEW ESSAY: The Cost of Sentimentalizing War: Has the American myth of the Good War helped ensnare us in bad ones? (Carlos Lozada, The New Yorker)


I am irritated every time I hear "The Greatest Generation" uttered by some TV hack. There's been a lot of this recently, in connection with the dedicaton of the WWII memorial on the Mall in Washington. I have a blog in which I intended to attack Brokaw's premise, but wanted to be sure what his premise is, so searched in Google for So I searched for "greatest generation brokaw premise" and found your site first. + You address many of the questions for/challenges to Brokaw that I also have, tho I don't sign on to all your views. The Social Security system, for instance, was NOT set up after WWII but before, and the Baby Boom generation did insist on social justice for everyone with more force than any other before it. + Still, I am happy that I can save myself some work on my blog today by quoting this message, adding a bit about how, if any generation of Americans is to be considered "The Greatest", it should be that of the Founding Fathers, and linking to this page. Cheers, L. Craig Schoonmaker, The Anti-Post (, Chairman, Expansionist Party of the United States, Newark, NJ (URL

- L. Craig Schoonmaker

- Jun-01-2004, 04:56


I always marvel at those like you who would deny senior citizens their social security, one of the greatest poverty-abolishing systems every devised, smear those how venerate them in their free time, like Brokaw, all the while singing the praises of Coulter, who never lets the facts get in the way (as proved by her George C. Scott comments on Hardball)

- dedee

- Dec-26-2003, 22:02


Dear Mr. Brokaw, Just picked up a copy of the Greatest Generation. Cant wait to read it. Just one comment on something you said on the "Generation" chapter. "They weren't perfect. They made mistakes." And, the first mistake you site is "They allowed McCarthyism (and racism) to go unchallenged for too long". This wasn't a mistake! Have you read the book "Treason" by Ann Coulter? On page 36-37 your comment (theory) is proved 100% wrong. I wish you guys in the main stream press would realize that the days of spreading you false unchecked liberal points of view are over. Today, there are many other outlets (have you noticed your audience going down over the last 5-10 years?) that provide facts and proof, not just liberal media bias. You be the judge and tell me if she's right with the FACTS; Page 36 "Though not revealed for half a century, the US government had broken the Soviet cable code beginning in the forties in a top-secret undertaking known as the Venona Project. In the most patriotic act of his career, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan would push trough the declassification of the Venona Project, which was finally unveiled on July 11, 1995. After the cables were revealed, liberals became a little less argumentative about the evidence of Soviet spies. Here was enough "evidence" even for those who demanded a shockingly high level of proof before defending America. The Verona Project was begun in 1943 by Colonel Carter Clarke, chief of the US Army's Special Branch, in response to rumors that Stalin was negotiating a separate peace with Hitler. Only a few years earlier, the world had been staggered by the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Unaccountably, Colonel Clarke did not share President Roosevelt's trust in the man FDR called "Uncle Joe". Cloaked in secrecy, Clarke set up a special Army unit to break the Soviet code. Neither President Roosevelt nor President Truman was told about the Venona Project. This was a matter of vital national security: The Democrats could not be trusted. Page 37 The Soviets used a code that was, in theory, unbreakable. But by the war's end, the Americans had cracked it. And when the Venona cryptographers read the Soviet cables they discovered something far more sinister than Stalin's war plans: The Roosevelt administration was teeming with paid agents of Moscow. Stalin's handmaidens held strategic positions at the White House, the State Department, the War Department, the Office of Strategic Services,. and the Treasury Department. Only a small number of intercepted Soviet cables have been decoded. But even that much proves McCarthy was absolutely right in his paramount charge: The US.S. government had a major Communist infestation problem. It is treated as a mere truism that McCarthy was reckless, made mistakes, and was careless with his facts. It can now be said that McCarthy's gravest error was in underestimating the problem of Communist subversion. The scale of the conspiracy was unprecedented. Hundreds of Soviet spies honeycombed the US government throughout the forties and fifties. America had been invaded by a civilian army loyal to a hostile power. There was no room for denying it. Soviet operatives were stealing technical information from atomic, military, radar, aerospace,and rocket programs. The cables revealed the code names of the spies, their technical espionage, and the secret transmission of highly sensitive diplomatic and strategic policies. McCarthy was accused of labeling "anyone with liberal views" a Communist. As we now know, that wouldn't have been a half-bad system. " This book is loaded with facts and figures that have equipped people like myself with the truth. It's obvious that McCarthy was painted with a broad brush of haltered and literally killed by the savage attracts in the media. Now, you also know the truth. Neal Brown Naperville, IL

- Neal Brown

- Sep-21-2003, 12:08


It's not necessarily the war they were fighting that made them the greatest generation, it's everything they had to sacrifice and the many hardships they faced throughout the entirety of their lives. They were born into the Roaring 20s then depression hit and as young men and women, they were forced to work to help keep their families alive. This left little time for education, and at the closing of the depression young men were drafted into the army to fight in Europe and the Pacific. Most left families and fiancees/girl friends behind. Back home everyone left unforcefully helped in the war effort by making supplies and shipping equipment overseas. During this generation everyone joined together during such difficult decades to help the country we live in today.

- ST

- Aug-07-2003, 10:10


I agree with your assessment of Brokaw's book. The Greatest American Generation was the Revolutionary Generation who literally risked everything to create the greatest country the Earth has ever known. But the Greatest Generation the Earth has ever known were the Apostles/Disciples of Jesus, many of whom died one by one as they confessed their faith. That faith would lay the groundwork for all of Western Civilization.

- J Nelson

- Feb-07-2003, 17:33