The Greatest Generation: The 1960s

A few years ago I heard a speaker talk about how terrible the 1960s were; his contention was that it was a period marked by immorality, crime, and vice; sure, those things took place as they did in the 1920 or the 1950s — two decades often thought to be a period of morality and righteousness. Moreover, the premise of those two decades was constructed around a sense of myth and falsities. Why not address the lynchings of blacks or the domestic oppression of women? How about the wage earner? Those who were exploited for their labor much like many Mexicans continue to be.  I do believe that the 1960s was the greatest decade ever; it allowed for a transformation that inculcated a belief in true liberty and civil rights. The construction of the constitution failed to do this for the obvious reasons I have stated before:

Democratic ideas are most likely to take root among discontented and oppressed classes, rising middle classes, or perhaps some sections of an old, alienated, and partially disinherited aristocracy, but they do not appeal to a privileged class that is still amplifying its privileges. With a half dozen exceptions at most, the men who had considerable position and wealth, and as a group they had advanced well beyond their fathers.

One of the things Hofstadter writes about in his many works is that of economic elitism. He described the framers as men who created an oligarchy via the Constitution only as an instrument to protect their wealth and status; he questions the democratic nature of the founders and the Constitution. Moreover, he discusses history as an entity protected by the very men who used it to enhance their status.

Howard Zinn writes in his piece on the Greatest Generation:

I would propose other choices if we are to educate the young people of our time in the values of peace and justice.
We might take the generation of the American Revolution, another generation almost universally considered “great.” I would not choose the Founding Fathers to represent it. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison have had enough adulation, and their biographies clog the book review sections of the major media.
The Founding Fathers did lead the war for independence from Britain. But they did not do it for the equal right of all to life, liberty, and equality. Their intention was to set up a new government that would protect the property of slave owners, land speculators, merchants, and bondholders. Independence from England had already been secured in parts of the country by grassroots rebellion a year before the battles at Lexington and Concord that initiated hostilities with Britain. (See Ray Raphael’s A Peoples History of the American Revolution, New Press, 2001.) It is one of the phenomena of modern times that revolutions are not favored unless they are led by people who are not revolutionaries at heart.

Zinn goes on to state:

Those who saw combat in World War II, whether they lived or died, are celebrated as heroes. But it seems clear that the degree of heroism attributed to soldiers varies according to the moral reputation of the war. The fighters of World War II share a special glory because that war has always been considered a “good war,” more easily justified (except by those who refuse to justify any war) than the wars our nation waged against Vietnam or Korea or Iraq or Panama or Grenada. And so they are “the greatest generation.”
What makes them so great? These men-the sailors of Pearl Harbor, the soldiers of the D-Day invasion, the crews of the bombers and fighters- risked their lives in war, perhaps because they believed the war was just, perhaps because they wanted to save a friend, perhaps because they had some vague idea they were doing this “for my country.” And even if I believe that there is no such thing as a just war, even if I think that men do not fight for “our country” but for those who run our country, the sacrifice of soldiers who believe, even wrongly, that they are fighting for a good cause is to be acknowledged. But not admired.
I refuse to celebrate them as “the greatest generation” because in doing so we are celebrating courage and sacrifice in the cause of war. And we are miseducating the young to believe that military heroism is the noblest form of heroism, when it should be remembered only as the tragic accompaniment of horrendous policies driven by power and profit. Indeed, the current infatuation with World War II prepares us-innocently on the part of some, deliberately on the part of others-for more war, more military adventures, more attempts to emulate the military heroes of the past.

I think Zinn presents a few pointos to ponder and think about, though I do not wholly agree withh all of his conclusions; however, he does give me something to take and wrestle with.


8 thoughts on “The Greatest Generation: The 1960s

  1. One Saturday not long ago, I caught an interview during the intermission of an opera and while the other details escape me, one of the interlocuters said that everyone thinks that their youth was a golden age. And he did so as well.

    So yes I realize that I am prejudiced in favor of a generally positive view of the sixties. Despite its excesses. I was born in 1950 and do remember the fifties and that that world needed to change and to be liberated in a number of ways. Everyone’s life is better now because of the sixties.

  2. So I do not have to convince you of the importance of the 60s. This is a good thing; the more I read the more I accept it as the BEST period ever. Talk about a point in which religious folks and secular folks — black and white, came together to bring about a major change in how we live our life.

  3. I think that the whole concept of a “greatest generation” is flawed. Has there ever been a generation that did not produce heroes and scoundrels?

    That said, I think think that Zinn is out of line. No, there is nothing to love about war, certainly. However, US involvement in WWII was not a questionable action or a preemptive strike against a smaller power. Our options were simply fight or be conquered. And I cannot help but admire people who stand their ground at the greatest personal risk imaginable and those who sacrifice for others. “No greater love than this…” and all that.

  4. “I think that the whole concept of a “greatest generation” is flawed. Has there ever been a generation that did not produce heroes and scoundrels?”


    Weighing one era against another makes me cringe a little, but if I had to pick one I’d go with the WWII. That generation:

    – Fought fascism all over the globe.
    – Died in unprecedented numbers.
    – Rose from a middling nation to a world super-power.
    – Fought (and won) on two fronts after starting out with a gimped military.

    I highly recommend Ken Burns’ documentary “The War”. It focuses more on the common man’s view during World War II. Young men discovering war is both necessary and senseless. Women finding more opportunities in the work force. The African-American workers trying to get better pay and equal promotions in the naval shipyards. The Japanese-Americans who opted to leave an internment camp to become the most decorated unit of the war. Men, women, and families doing their duty; coping; dying; surviving. The sheer scale really puts that generation in a special position in our history.

    One thing that goes in the 1960’s favor is that while the scale may have been smaller than a world war, the choice to face the transition was optional. No one was drafted to fight for civil rights. Rather than a fight stemming from an outside influence, this was an inner conflict of morality that was long overdue. America decided to draw a line in the sand with itself, and those are usually the harder battles to fight.

  5. Nice argument Matt S. I will still stick to the 1960s. This period saw a multiracial group gather to bring an end to the greatest injustice since slavery. Some argue that Jim Crow was a for of that. But, it was also a period that brought about a transformation in the courts: 1970s saw gains as it relates to privacy; criminals were given a chance to have a voice — one that was restricted or just not enforced. I guess i could continue. Sad that Charles Manson brought an end to the 1960s the way he did.

  6. I don’t wish to pit one generation against the next, just to clarify and learn beneficial things from each era. I believe that as a result of the 60’s and the way people’s thinking changed, every person, that is, the hypothetical common man, is now more likely to be treated fairly by government and private sector entities (corporations and large organizations of whatever kind). I recall a relative of an in-law who was injured on his municipal job back in the fifties. They came to him in the hospital and made him sign away their responsibility and liability. That is just one example of how it used to be. There was way too much uncritical respect for authority prior to the sixties. That is why you could have people receiving radiation or syphilis without their knowledge and compliance. The orders came down from on high and the people under them acted on the orders without questioning. For an example see

  7. For me, the greatest generation will always be the one that valued its children the most. I don’t know what that generation is, based on criteria, but the most significant thing we can do as a generation is put our children first and ourselves last from my perspective. Kind of a different slant, but it is my slant. 🙂

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