Ken Rose Challenges Greatest Generation Myth
In Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II, Kenneth Rose has written a book that questions some of the main assumptions of Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation. Brokaw’s book is based on individual stories of men and women who came of age during the Great Depression and lived through World War II. What Rose brings a historian’s research method to the subject, and with economic, demographic, and historical data, he suggests that individual testimonies, no matter how powerful, don’t tell the whole story.
Rose’s understanding of human nature led him to question Brokaw’s assertion that the World War II generation was more honorable, patriotic, and solid than generations before or since. Was this a generation of superheroes? Or was it a generation, like others, of ordinary human beings coping the best they could with a society at war. Marriage, racial and ethnic tensions, job loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for the war effort were among the areas Rose investigated.
Rose’s purpose is to present a more realistic picture of the “Good War.” Rose said that Brokaw’s error in drawing an accurate picture is primarily one of omission—Brokaw simply didn’t mention some of the indicators that all was not well in American society. Rose suggests that the best way to honor survivors of World War II is to see them clearly, including their struggles and sacrifices within the reality of war.
For example, “there was a great deal of hostility on the part of servicemen toward civilians,” said Rose. “Due to oppressive government censorship of the details of the war, the actual conditions of fighting were kept from civilians, and so they had an unrealistic and romanticized idea of what soldiers endured. In a two-month period in 1943, there were seven major clashes between civilians and military personnel in the Los Angeles area.”
Rose acknowledges “the honeymoon of war” (a phrase used by Willard Waller, a social critic) to describe the early stages of a war when people forget their differences and special interests and unite for a common cause; that lasts for about six months. However, said Rose, the longer the war goes on, the less willing people are to go along with a glorified vision promulgated by the government. This was as true for World War II, suggests Rose, as for other, less popular wars.
One of Brokaw’s claims is that the period during and after World War II was a time of rock-solid marriages. In 1945, Rose discovered, divorce petitions doubled over the prewar rate. In 1946, Americans set a divorce rate that would stay in place into the 1970s. One of the reasons for this was that many American women were encouraged to marry soldiers as an act of patriotism. Often, these overly hasty marriages, in which the couple knew very little about each other, ended in a high rate of dissolutions.
Child neglect also spiked during the war. “Fortune Magazine called it a national scandal,” said Rose. “Rates in child neglect rose 55 percent overall, 100 percent in Brooklyn, and 200 percent in San Diego. With mothers working at the plant and dads away at war, it is easy to understand that children were unsupervised.”
Another myth that Brokaw forwarded and Rose questions is that Americans submitted willingly to rationing and were devoted to their war-industry jobs. According to Rose, absenteeism was high in many war industries. In the mining industry in Wyoming, for example, absenteeism reached 25 percent. “People were coming out of the Depression and for the first time, they had money to spend and they wanted to spend it. They didn’t like working extra hours,” said Rose.
“There was a robust black market throughout the war for such items as gasoline, meat, canned goods, nylons, and alcohol,” said Rose. “In Cleveland, 50 percent of the meat supply was obtained through the black market. There was a thriving counterfeit trade in gas and rationing coupons—one billion dollars a month.”
Counter to another widely accepted idea, race relations were not improved by the war effort, said Rose. Hate strikes were common. In Mobile, Ala., white workers struck against black welders being promoted over them. White female workers in the U.S. Rubber plant in Detroit and Western Electric in Baltimore walked off their jobs because they didn’t want to share bathroom facilities with black women. In addition, said Rose, there were race disturbances throughout the country. One of the worst race riots in U.S. history occurred in Detroit in 1943. Thirty-four people were killed and more than 600 injured during the riot.
And perhaps the defining myth, said Rose, is that of patriotism—that it was an era of ultra-patriots. “Americans mistrusted appeals to patriotism and idealism, because similar appeals had led them into the senseless, mechanized carnage or Wold War I.”
“The level of patriotism on the part of soldiers had as much to do with loyalty to the people they were fighting with, the pragmatism of doing the job they had to do, and finishing so they could go home,” said Rose.
Rose is among other scholars, including Paul Fussell, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Joseph J. Ellis, who have challenged the idea of the greatest generation. He writes in the introduction to his book, “Perhaps I will suffer a fate similar to other Greatest Generation doubters, but I think the best way to honor this generation is not to falsify it, but to humanize it. The only way this can be done is to follow the truth where it leads, and to include the blemished as well as the valorous.”
Rose is also the author of One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture and American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition.
—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications