The Greatest Generation? Not Who You Think

by on December 23, 2007 · 5 comments

in Civil Rights, Organizing, War and Peace

By Jim Smith
They stopped a war, ended racial segregation, set off an explosion of creativity in arts and music, and changed the world. The World War II generation? Think again. It was the much maligned generation of the 60s that did all this,and more.

While we respect the generation of our fathers and grandfathers, we cannot pretend that their achievements during WWII had the breath or depth of the achievements of the 60s generation of their sons and daughters. Every nation invents myths about itself. Some of the biggest whoppers have to do with World War II. It’s true that the generation called the greatest fought fascism and were on the winning side. Yet 80 percent of the war against Germany was fought on the eastern front by the Soviet Union. The Russians, beginning in 1941,fought, retreated, and ultimately overcame the greatest war machine in the world, the German army. The U.S. and the British fought on the European continent against the Germans for scarcely 11 months. The U.S. did bear the brunt in the Pacific against a much inferior foe, Japan. That engagement ended not in glory, but in the shame of using atomic weapons against a civilian population for the only time in history.

Of course the WWII generation should be praised for playing a role in the defeat of fascism, but here at home they left racial segregation and jim crow laws untouched, and allowed home-grown fascism in the guise of McCarthyism to grow into the biggest threat to our civil liberties of all time, the Bush regime notwithstanding.

Why is the 60s generation the greatest? Because it tore down a lot of walls that needed tearing down. The Freedom Riders – both Black and white – invaded Mississippi without the support of the U.S. Army or National Guard. Some were killed, many were beaten. Yet they were the vanguard of a movement that succeeded in changing laws, and the way people think. They exhibited just as much courage and heroism as did many WWII troops being ordered to advance on enemy positions.

The same thing happened in the fields and barrios of the Southwest. Tens of thousands joined Cesar Chavez’s struggle for the rights of farmworkers. And in the cities, mass marches, strikes and demonstrations did for Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans what the civil rights movement did for Blacks. Gay Liberation made the headlines on June 28, 1968 when gay and transgender people stood up to police harassment at the Stonewall Inn in New York. The Women’s movement flowed from millions of women entering the workforce in the 60s, and from women intellectuals taking on the male establishment. The American Indian Movement was reminding the rest of us that they had not all been victims of genocide and were again capable of fighting for their land and traditions.

The student movement began at UC Berkeley in the early 60s with militant demonstrations against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and went on to fight for free speech on campus. Thousands of 60s students turned universities into democratic institutions, at least for a time. By 1970, students staged the largest strike wave in U.S. history by shutting down more than 500 colleges and universities in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Students became the backbone of the struggle to end the war in Vietnam. The 60s generation drove one president (Lyndon Johnson) from office, and in one of its last acts, created an atmosphere in which another president (Richard Nixon) had no choice but to resign. Scarcely, a few months later, the 60s generation in Vietnam liberated their entire country, finally ending the war on April 30, 1975.

The 60s generation made one mistake, and it was a whopper. We thought the millennium had arrived, that the Age of Aquarius was upon us, where peace would replace war and love would replace hate. We underestimated those who had a class interest in keeping millions working meaningless jobs to feed their burgeoning profits.

In large parts of the U.S., especially the mid-west and the south, the 60s cultural revolution had hardly penetrated. Here a love-it-or- leave-it silent majority remained that could easily be manipulated by conniving politicians and corporations. The few “heads” in these small towns were “California Dreamin” and soon joined a great migration to the coast. A bohemian necklace of communities formed along the Pacific from Canada to Mexico, where alternate ways of living were the norms and “straight” people were an oddity. This coalescing of the “tribes,” and a “back to nature” movement assumed that the battle was over with corporate Amerika, and that we had won. While we dropped-out to enjoy art, life, and each other, think tanks were plotting how to smash our longing for freedom.

In truth, we had not won, we had only begun to change society and humankind. The empire struck back by creating inflation that forced people to go back to work to pay the bills. They flooded our beautiful new communities with drugs that numbed us instead of providing visions. They cranked up the scare machine: don’t pick up hitchhikers, don’t sleep with your friends, don’t trust other races, and don’t listen to people who live a different lifestyle.

In the end, the 60s generation had stopped a war, made racism a dirty word, and showed us how to dream of peace, equality and a better world. We may not have set the world free, but our greatness lies in the fact that we tried. Oh, how we tried! And we left a subversive blueprint for any future generation to follow.

Now, 40 years down the road, the environment – Mother Earth – is conspiring with us to force a profound change on the world. We may well be entering a period where giant corporations, chain stores and extravagant consumption are like dinosaurs stumbling to their end.

It may be time for a new generation to capture the title of “greatest,” by finishing what we of the 60s generation started, and by saving the planet in the process.

Jim Smith is an activist and contributing writer for the Journal of Peace and Freedom and the Venice (CA)Beachhead newspaper. ###

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Sparling December 23, 2007 at 7:43 pm

As a child in WW2 I of course admire the generation that fought in the conflict directed by the relatives and close friends of the same Merchant Bankers that bring us “w” the crusaders two CRUSADES.

As a adult in the 60’s I didn’t live in Selma I lived in Phoenix Arizona. I was busy raising a family and could only give moral support to the brave people who fought the good fight for human rights.

Now as the OLD HERMIT NAMED DAVE I can use my computer and voice to continue the good fight


Richard Nadeau December 23, 2007 at 10:38 pm

Please Get Here Soon!

The “greatest generation better get here soon and help us abolish the number one and most immmediate threat to the human spoecies – nuclear weapons.

There are now 27, 000 nukes, 20,000 in the hands of the US and Russia. The COLD WAR ended but the stockpiling of nukes didn’t.

Worse yet, the nukes are now in more hands as a result of nuclear proliferation. There is even the outside chance that non-state terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda could get a hold of one.

Ridding the world of nuclear weapons, as well as the threat of nuclear war, would require unprecedented international cooperation. Ironically, the same kind of international cooperation will be needed to fight climate change and global warming, the second most dangerous threat to our species and top civilization.

Unfortunately, with regard to both of these problems, the US is acting like a horse galloping backwards with its eyes blindfolded.


Stu December 24, 2007 at 3:35 pm

Isn’t every generation the “greatest Generation” Our Generation fought against and in the Vietnam war, racism and other injustices but the same generation produced Geo W and his cronies. What about the generation of today they are busy producing interesting blogs and certainly some are indeed trying to save the world as some of us tried and continue too. Our parents generation left the farm to fight the big war while their fathers fought the war to end all wars. And before that the Civil war. Unfortunately each generation has there own war and that I truly don’t understand. Yet many of the warriors believe they are fighting the good fight against the evil empire or against the ones tryimg to kill us.


J.Stone December 26, 2007 at 11:28 am

While I mostly agree with the post, my response would be to Stu. The fact that this generation (speaking in the present) has allowed the Bush machine free rein to dismantle the Constitution, & the Bill of Rights. I find it hard to believe the Greatest Generation Jim Smith speaks of would have sat silently while this was happening to the country.


Molly M December 27, 2007 at 3:38 pm

Just for J. Stone: it isn’t over yet. This historical point in time has still to be played out. Perhaps the ‘greatest gen’ can still do the right thing and prevent the slide into police statism. Apparently the Ob Rag poll showed most readers think we’re already in a police state or close to it.

My other point is, with agreeing to the gist of the article, is that many more in terms of numbers went off to fight in the wars during WWII than went off and fought southern segregationists. The war from 1941-45 directly affected millions, whereas the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement during Viet Nam indirectly affected millions but compared to the over-all numbers, only a handful actually were involved and living dangerously in the 1960s.


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