The Greatest Generation

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”                                                                   —John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

“Uncommon valor was a common virtue.”          —Shrine inscription, Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima


Charles McCandless’ battalion was leaving the island of Ulithi, loading into LSTs for the advance toward Saipan, and he was to be the last man off the beach.  “I’ll never forget the next two hours,” he later wrote, “waiting at the edge of the surf, standing alone in the rain, cold, wet, dog tired, and so hungry I’d lost my appetite.  Up to this time in my life, I’d never been so lonesome or depressed.  ‘What a lousy birthday—twenty-seven years old and what have I got to show for it?’  I thought, ‘Maybe I should have gotten a deferment and stayed safely home and become rich by now.’  In my heart, though, I knew that I belonged where I was.”

While inspecting an American supply train captured during the allied push toward Germany, Wehrmacht Field Marshall Gerd von Runstedt was privately dismayed by the treasury of home-spun amenities filling the boxcars: woolen sweaters, mittens, stockings, and scarves; fruitcakes, cookie tins, chocolate brownies, candy bars, dried fruit, mail, and Christmas cards.  At that moment, he later wrote, he realized that Germany was doomed to defeat, believing that any nation was unbeatable whose people, in their unity of support for their armies, were able to deliver so much, so far, with each item individually addressed.

Such are the valedictions for what has been called the “Greatest Generation.”  This is the generation that gave so much and asked so little in return.  Through cooperation, persistence, discipline, and endurance, they abided depression and war, defeating the darkest demon in history and leaving America a Colossus astride the Earth.  Willing to accept risk and sacrifice, they had a vision of something larger than themselves.  They succeeded on every front.  They won the war; they saved the world; and they returned to re-create America—its communities, roads, businesses, government, arts, and sciences, and an economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history.  As their last great gesture, they put man on the Moon.  Now they seem to tower out of the last century like monuments to communal values.  Henry Luce called it “the American Century.”

It was a Promethean generation.  Raised in the depression and sent into war, they returned with a work ethic and willingness to invest that outperformed their communist rivals and won the Cold War.  It was a generation willing, in Kennedy’s words, to “bear any burden, pay any price” to achieve whatever goal it set.  No other generation in history has been so adept in its aptitude for science and engineering.  Their bridges, highways, tunnels, harbors, and housing projects were the biggest and best in the world.  Theirs was the largest one-generation jump in educational achievement in American history.  They won roughly two-thirds of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded to Americans.  Six in seven report having fared better than their parents, the highest proportion ever recorded.

 Perhaps the final word belongs to Wernher von Braun, the man most responsible for the success of the Apollo moon landing.  A young space enthusiast once asked him what it would take to send a man to the moon.  His answer is the epitaph of his generation: “The will to do it.”

When I interviewed members of the generation in connection with the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, I asked what values they felt were most important. The common answers were honesty, integrity, loyalty, duty, service, courage, faith, fidelity, friendship, teamwork, responsibility, gratitude, and the Golden Rule.  The list is no less revealing for its omissions; another generation might have put independence, self-fulfillment, self-expression, self-this, and self-that nearer the top.  Most were asked what they felt was the best thing that ever happened to them, what they were most thankful for, and what they considered their greatest achievement.  The usual answer to all three questions was not a career or an achievement but “my wife,” “my husband,” or “my marriage,” followed by “my children” or “my family.”  In The Greatest Generation, the book that coined the phrase, Tom Brokaw noted that “it’s a legacy of this generation seldom mentioned with the same sense of awe as winning the war or building the mighty postwar economy, but the enduring qualities of love, marriage and commitment are equal to any of the other achievements.” 

If other generations seem to produce more creators, reformers, or individualists, the typical member of this generation has been the quintessential good citizen, good parent, and good human being.  And isn’t that all we really hope for in the end?  Isn’t all the rest just a footnote?  In retrospect, a disproportionate number of them have belonged to that diminishing group of people who still care about a world beyond the self, who aren’t likely to get up one morning and put on the gold chain and the cowboy boots and walk out on the family in the name of “self-actualization” or some such.  And if most of the people interviewed seemed relatively ordinary, isn’t that just the point? 

Hearing their stories, one is reminded that the true heroes of the world are far greater than the inflated images we project onto some single talent, that distinctions among real people are small in fact but large in effect, that the true heroes are those with an ounce more courage, a hair more kindness, a mite more hope—those whose pedestrian virtues nurture the world. 

Soon there will be no one who remembers Dunkirk, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Anzio, or Omaha Beach.  Most of the men who hit those beaches—terrified, longing for their loved ones, yet totally committed to their mission—now belong to the ages.  Those who fell on the beaches so that others might succeed take their place in history with those who perished in frail galleons on uncharted seas or vanished with their Conestogas out on the vast prairie. 

One by one, the Charles McCandlesses of that heroic time are falling.  And we may need the help of God when they’re all gone.  One thinks of the dying lieutenant’s last two words in the film to Private Ryan: “Earn this!”  Too often, we fail to honor that debt.  There is a failure of nerve, a loss of vigor, and a collective hypochondria that cripples our larger visions.  “Where there is no vision,” says the proverb of Solomon, “the people perish.”  We stand on the shoulders of giants.  If we balk at the challenges before us, we will betray all those who lifted us into the present.  If the generational cycle that has operated throughout modern history continues, then a new “greatest generation” is now in its childhood.  Let us pray that it is so.  Meanwhile, I’m sure their predecessors would close on a different note.  Because having talked to so many of that generation, I found over and over that they remain, in spite of everything, optimistic about the future of the human journey.

As they leave us one by one, wrote Brokaw, “many G.I.s probably wish they didn’t have to go that way, but would prefer to go together in some heroic D-Day redux—one last civic ritual to remind everyone what they once did, as a team, for posterity.”

Like those ragged men of the Revolution, marching to fife and drum, or the Statue of Liberty, or the Lincoln Memorial, the marines on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, become the timeless symbol of human liberation, forever raising the flag of freedom, of hope for the future of all humanity.

[This was from a speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day.]


A Note on the Generational Theory of History

How does one delineate a generation, let alone declare it the “Greatest?”    Contrary to common belief, the length of a generation is not measured by the years from birth to parenthood, a time span that can vary from 20 to 40 years.  A better measure is the length of a life phase, roughly 22 years.  The four phases are youth (birth to 21), young adulthood (22 to early 40s), midlife (early 40s to 65), and elderhood (after 65).  The turning points correspond to coming of age (legal majority, college graduation), seniority (higher responsibilities in return for experience), and retirement.  Thus, at any given moment, four to six generations make up society.  Each generation, however, is shaped by different historical circumstances.  Those born during the first quarter of the 20th century had a very different introduction to reality than those born in the second quarter (the so-called “Silent Generation”) or from the late 1940s to the 60s (the Baby Boomers). 

Roughly every two decades (the span of one phase of life), there has arisen a new constellation of generations—a new layering of generational personas up and down the age ladder.  As this constellation has shifted, so has the national mood.  History creates generations, and generations create history.  One generational constellation will underprotect children, for example, while another will overprotect them.  The same is true with attitudes toward politics, war, religion, family, affluence, gender roles, pluralism, and a host of other trends. 

 The result in modern history has been a cycle of four generational types.  The best exposition of the cycle is found in two books by William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997).  Briefly, they demonstrate that two types of key events—a material crisis and a spiritual awakening—have alternated approximately every half-century throughout American history.  Every scholar who has looked closely at American generational rhythms has seen a similar pattern at work. 

In America, freedom and relative isolation have provided ideal conditions for the natural operation of the cycle, from the Puritan awakening (1621-40), the “Glorious Revolution” (1675-92), the “Great Awakening” (1734-43), and the American Revolution (1773-89), to the transcendental awakening (1822-37), the Civil War (1857-65), the missionary awakening (1886-1903), the Great Depression and World War II (1932-45), and the Boomer or countercultural awakening (1967-80).  The outcome, as Strauss and Howe document with overwhelming detail on each generation, has been a cycle of four generational types designated “civic,” “adaptive,” “idealist,” and “reactive.”  The civic and idealist emerge, respectively, with the material and spiritual crises; the adaptive and reactive are transitional.*

In any era, the four generational types each occupy one of the four phases of individual life (e.g., when the civic is in childhood, the adaptive is in youth, the idealist in midlife, and the reactive in elderhood) and these configurations, along with child-rearing practices and other factors, help explain the progression of the cycle.  Like the seasons, each crisis and awakening contains the seed of its opposite, and the cycle of four generational constellations (high, awakening, unraveling, crisis) constitute history’s seasonal rhythm of growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction. 

To oversimplify:  (1) A self-sacrificing “civic” generation responds to a material crisis (e.g., depression and war) and in so doing creates a progressive, achievement-oriented Zeitgeist with a strong value consensus.  (2) In the succeeding high, an “adaptive” generation thus grows up overprotected, cautious, and conformist; this is a period of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism (e.g., late 1940s to 60s).  (3) The consequent prosperity spawns an “idealist” generation able to afford an inner search for new values (awakening), reacting against a conformism now so removed from its original impetus that it is perceived as hollow (e.g., 60s and 70s).  (4) The resulting unraveling is a period of weakening institutions and strengthening individualism (e.g., 80s to present); a streetwise “reactive” generation of self-serving realists both counters and exploits idealist excesses, fragmenting what is left of the old value consensus and setting society up for the new material crisis that will call forth a new “civic” generation.  

Thus the role of hero in social evolution falls to the civic generation, which resolves, or at least brings society intact through its most threatening crises.  The oldest member of the nascent civic generation, the one that will have to meet the crisis toward which we seem clearly headed, is now about 20 years old.  It is the previous civic generation, born during the first quarter of the twentieth century, that has come to be called the “Greatest Generation.”


*The self-perpetuating nature of cycles, in which a thing taken to its extreme becomes its opposite, is seen most simply in predator-prey cycles.  When the wolves have eaten most of the rabbits, they begin to starve, which results in fewer wolves, which in turn allows the rabbit population to expand and regenerate the wolves, ad infinitum.  The wolves and rabbits are a two-stroke cycle; the four generational types propel a four-stroke cycle, which is really a two-stroke cycle with two transitional stages.


  1. Reid Isaksen says

    The more I read, the more impressed I am with Wyn’s unique writing talents.

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