Generation that defined a nation

May 31, 2004 | By David Ballingrud

They are old now, and their ranks are thinning rapidly. The youngest is 80, and they fall at the rate of more than a thousand a day.

The nation dedicated a grand memorial to them Saturday, and Sunday will mark the 60th anniversary of D-day, when so many died on the beaches of France.

The disappearing GI Generation—Americans born from 1901 to 1924—defined modern America more than any other. Much was asked of them, and much was returned to them.

As kids they learned humility and frugality in the Great Depression. As young adults, their belief in teamwork and the common good helped them win the big war. As citizens returning home, their hard work and optimism helped build a powerful new nation.

They were Walt Disney, Charles Lindbergh, John Wayne and Billy Graham. They were Jimmy Stewart, Joe DiMaggio, Judy Garland, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. They were Walter Cronkite, Lee Iacocca and drugstore entrepreneur Jack Eckerd, who died nearly two weeks ago.

Today they are commonly called America’s Greatest Generation, and there aren’t many who disagree.

“They saved the world and came home and built a nation,” said Chuck Underwood, president of a consulting organization called TGI, The Generational Imperative. “That’s not a bad legacy.”

“This was a big generation (63-million),” said Neil Howe, co-author of Generations (William Morrow), a generational study of American history. It was an unusually powerful generation in politics, in institution building and in expanding the economy, he said.

“It transformed our society. It made us strong as a unit, as a country. In this sense the generation does merit the word great—maybe even greatest.”

Underwood has no doubt. “They were called to greatness and they achieved it,” he said.

But there’s more to the GI generation than nation building and sacrifice. It was also one of the nation’s most fortunate generations, well cared for not only by their parents, but later by their sons and daughters.

Children of the “Lost Generation”

The parents of the GI Generation had it rough. They were the “Lost Generation” of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis—generally, people born from 1883 to 1900. Few in that generation went beyond the eighth grade, and it showed.

“As a group they demonstrated no measurable improvement in educational performance over preceding generations,” said William Strauss, co-author of Generations.

They were adults in the Roaring ‘20s, a time of prosperity but also of urban blight, sweat shops and massive immigration. They came home from World War I not to heroes’ welcomes but to crackdowns on drinking and crime.

“There were issues of child health and safety,” Strauss said. “The Lost Generation was not raising its children well.”

All that would change for their kids, the GI Generation.

There were improvements in nutrition laws and vaccines. Vitamins became widely available. From 1900 to 1924 infant mortality fell by 50 percent.

The Volstead Act of 1920, which created Prohibition, failed as a social experiment but had an important benefit for the GI Generation.

“It reduced alcohol consumption in the home. The parents of the GI Generation spent less time drunk, on the whole,” said Strauss.

Education improved dramatically. The GI Generation produced the “largest one-generational jump in education achievement ever,” he said. “It was a generation of joiners, of team players.”

The GI Generation grew up in youth clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H and a host of similar organizations, helping build a strong sense of community.

“They wore uniforms from the time they were young—they were the most uniformed generation in American history,” Howe said.

Home from war, they went to school on the GI Bill. As adults they built well-scrubbed suburbs and won flocks of Nobel Prizes. They took mankind into space.

In return they fully enjoyed the American Dream. Social Security and Medicare were constructed with the GI Generation in mind.

“There has been no generation in history with better access to affordable housing,” Strauss said, “especially considering what today’s young people have to deal with.

“The Lost Generation was poor; the GI Generation was not.”

The core values that made the GI Generation good citizens were formed during the first 20 or so years of their lives, said Underwood, the TGI consultant.

“They had their early childhood during the Roaring ‘20s, generally a time of prosperity,” he said. “But they were hit hard by the molding effects of the Depression and the war.”

From the Depression, he said, the youthful GI Generation learned humility, “a rejection of wealth as a status symbol.”

“This broke down the mystique of wealth, even for those who would later have it,” he said.

From the war came a respect for teamwork, an understanding that “we’re all in this together,” he said.

Trouble with the Kids

But let’s not gush, Strauss said.

“‘The greatest generation’ is too heavy a label,” he said. “They can and should honored for their remarkable achievements, but there have been others like it. The generations of our early leaders—Jefferson and Hamilton, for example.

“The GI Generation is by no means the generation most damaged by war. That would have been the generation of George Washington, which lost, per capita, a lot more people to war.”

(More than 16-million people served in the U.S. military during World War II. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 291,557 battle deaths and 671,846 wounded. More than 4-million World War II vets survive today. During the American Revolution, 217,000 wore the uniform, and 4,435 died).

“They were absolutely not the greatest at getting along with their kids,” Strauss said. The baby boomers recoiled against what they saw as their parents’ materialism and conformity. “They raised their kids to be idealistic, to question authority, and they did.”

Underwood agreed: “The GI Generation imbued their kids with a sense of idealism, that people really can make a difference. This showed up in the social activism of the 1960s.

“The GI Generation battled economic and military enemies. They had idealistic children, and those kids unleashed their passion and idealism on a different set of enemies: discrimination, the trashing of the environment, a flawed war and a suffocating conformity,” he said. The result was the “generation gap.”

For many, that gap is closing now only because the time to say goodbye to the GI Generation is near. Strauss said the new World War II Memorial and the popular Steven Spielberg movie of 1998, Saving Private Ryan, may have been “a way for the boomers to make it up a little bit, trying to heal a little after the difficulties they caused their parents.”

“Different generations specialize in different things,” Howe said. “It’s not a question of being great or not great. They are what they are raised to be and what history makes them.

“This generation was more than the sum of its parts,” he said. “And that’s how they like to see themselves.”

“Every generation has a long and interesting story,” Strauss said. “But this one defined the 20th century, with all its ups and downs, goods and bads.

“Shortcomings? Sure. They never got around to solving racism,” Underwood said. “But if there had been 25 hours in the day instead of 24, I think they would have rolled up their sleeves and tackled that one, too.”