The Greatest Generation

reviewed by Muriel Lindahl

The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, New York: Random House, 1998, 412 pages. $24.95

The Greatest Generation is a great book, one of the best! The reason I enjoyed it so much was that Brokaw writes so well, introduces us to some authentic individuals and seems to capture the character of this time period in our history. In the same book you get history, biography, autobiography, romance, tragedy, and triumph. I encourage everyone to read this inspiring book.

Tom Brokaw had a life-changing experience when he went to Normandy, France, in 1984 to prepare an NBC documentary on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. As he walks the beaches with the American veterans in their sixties and seventies and listens to their stories, he is deeply moved and profoundly grateful for what they did. He reflects on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives are laced with the markings of greatness.

In 1994 Brokaw returned to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day and felt a kind of missionary zeal for the men and women of World War II, spreading the word of their remarkable lives. The veterans are now in their seventies and eighties. He writes, "As I came to know many of them, and their stories, I became more convinced that…this is the greatest generation any society has produced."

Brokaw’s purpose is: "to pay tribute to those men and women who have given us the lives we have today." A beautiful and meaningful tribute, it brings to life these historical events so that we can all vicariously live along with them. The stories remind us all of someone—husbands, wives, dads, moms, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, or friends who were and are a part of this generation. Brokaw helps us understand these people, and with understanding comes love.

Much of this book is a collection of touching, inspiring, and true stories of the life-changing experiences of ordinary people, heroes, men and women of different ethnic backgrounds, and people who have contributed in making the world a better place for all. I teared-up as I empathized with these fellow human beings. Here are a few lessons this generation learned.

Veteran James Dowling, from New York, says, "The most memorable lesson I learned in the war is that life is precious. I really came to appreciate that when we languished in the prison camp. So I am always looking for things to do."

Gordon Larsen, of South Dakota, credits the Marines with giving direction to his life. He admits that he was a wild kid. "Part of that experience was learning the lessons of loyalty and family. "It’s hard to explain, but my friends are like my family. I found out in the Marines what that can mean in life…"

Jeanette Gagne Norton of suburban Minneapolis, married, a mother, her husband off to war, had to grow up fast. All of that happened before she was twenty. Of her delivery she says, "when they placed that baby in my arms I changed from being a kind of giddy, goofy teenager to being a real responsible person…It seemed like I matured overnight."

In Yankton, South Dakota, four wives with husbands in the service met to play bridge in a mutual support group, the "Dumbos." When their husbands returned, the group bonded into a strong relationship that lasted a lifetime. Brokaw explains how they emerged from the war with a remarkable appetite for public service, for doing good, and that it was the ethos of the time to get married, have a family, stay married, and do something for

your community. These couples were emblematic of the values that shaped their lives. In many respects, their marriages and the way they conducted them were a form of community service. As Brokaw puts it, "they managed their new prosperity carefully. Moderation in spending was as important to them as faithful marriages, well-behaved children, and church."

The well-known lawyer from the Nixon years, Chesterfield Smith, from Acadia, Florida, was in the service more than five years. He held the rank of Major and had been awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Chesterfield’s wife of forty-three years is quoted as saying of his youth, "He was a poker-playing, crap-shooting boy who wouldn’t settle down." Major Smith emerged from the service a fully formed man with a matchless passion for family, hard work, the irreducible strength of a just society, and most of all, his belief that no man, even the President of the United States, is above the law.

Ben Bradlee, a famous journalist today and the son of a prominent Massachusetts family, was assigned to a destroyer, The Phillip, in the South Pacific. "I remember," he says, "the first day I was made officer of the bridge. I was twenty-one years old. I was in charge of the ship. I am driving this (…) thing. It was a tremendous responsibility, and at twenty-one it was good to see what you could do." Bradlee was also able to see what others could do, others who didn’t have a famous pedigree. He laughs and says, "They were all a guy named Joe with an unpronounceable last name. They could fix the radar, and you couldn’t. I learned a tremendous amount about how excellence had nothing to do with class."

And how does Brokaw appraise the role of women? When the men went away to war, the women stepped in. New branches of the services were formed to get women into uniform, working at tasks that would free more men for combat. Other women went to work in the laboratories and in the factories, developing new medicines, building ships, planes, and tanks, and raising the families that had been left behind. Young women became self-confident and mature beyond their years.

However, the time immediately after the war years was not easy for women. They had to give up their positions to men as they returned. Married women were not hired as schoolteachers, a woman pediatrician was paid half of what the male partners earned. There were few women lawyers or business owners. It wasn’t fair after all the contributions women had made during the war. As Brokaw captures this picture of the place of women in the post-war society, he helps us better understand why women since those years have protested, struggled, and actively fought for women’s equality.

Brokaw’s chapter, "Shame," enlightens us on the dark subject of discrimination, the shameful side of the generation. He shares some unforgettable stories that moved me deeply. These brave, strong, fine characters, African Americans, Native Americans, Spanish Americans, and Japanese Americans, were all "fighting a two-front battle—the enemy in front of him, the social bigots at his back." We get to see the problem through these stories.

He writes, "Discrimination by gender and race remain an unresolved challenge in this society, but the World War II experience accelerated the solution in ways large and small."

There may be those who will challenge Brokaw’s title: The Greatest Generation. When he uses the superlative, I’m sure he expects a challenge. Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes was the only veteran in the book who challenges. He believes that this current generation, if faced with the same challenges, would prevail. I would like to hope so. Nevertheless, there is no question, it’s a great generation!

Muriel Lindahl is a free-lance writer.

See all articles by Muriel Lindahl