No doubt our parents and grandparents earned the exalted appellation, The Greatest Generation, for defeating fascism and dictatorship in WWII although that cohort accomplished much more that is forgotten, or suppressed. Professor Kaye sets out those achievements in detail. More importantly, he points out that the greatest generation had an unquenchable optimism that they, the people, could bring to fruition the promise of America, a democratic country with ubiquitous freedom of speech and religion and a land unburdened from want and fear.
As Professor Kaye notes so well, President Franklin Roosevelt articulated these ideals in a common sense fashion so that the greatest generation internalized them with an intensity that motivated them to confront the depression, win WWII, and fight for the four freedoms.
Long before the greatest generation vanquished the fascists and imperialists, the American people confronted the Great Depression and an economic system rigged against them by oligarchs and powerful corporations. Unfortunately, the present generation takes for granted the hard won victories that have made the American people more secure and more prosperous like social security, unemployment insurance, and the right to bargain collectively.
During the depression, our government responded to the economic disaster with programs to help people and to maintain long term economic stability. Professor Kaye details the many creative agencies and policies that gave people hope in the face of unemployment, homelessness, and starvation. Worthy of specific mention is the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that gave young people employment and the opportunity to learn trades and skills that helped win the oncoming war.
Professor Kaye’s book reminds us that later generations have become complacent. Those who benefited most by the gains won by their forebears have forgotten that democracy cannot progress without struggle.
The greatest generation gave us the potential to build the most stable and prosperous society in history with equal opportunity for all. Its descendants have squandered this legacy. Later generations stood by as huge financial institutions concentrated wealth and power with a predictable result, an economic contraction that threatened another depression. As it was, the financial devastation required a bailout that will take the people decades to repay.
Later generations have allowed powerful corporations and militarists to prod us into unnecessary wars that have squandered our blood and treasure, and worse, exploited our brave warriors.
Instead of freedom from fear, later generations have allowed the military- industrial complex, which President Eisenhower warned us against, to frighten them to spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined. Who now demands that war profiteers be punished or that the Pentagon account for what it spends?
When the economy verged on collapse in 2008, America could have set up a CCC type national service organization to employ people and re-build our country. Instead, the reactionaries who controlled our government choose to spend trillions propping up big banks and borrowing more to fund a wasteful national security establishment and unnecessary war. As result, millions of Americans are now on food stamps, homeless, and many veterans are wounded in both mind and body.
Instead of freedom from fear, the American people have become so fainthearted that they no longer stand up for basic American ideals. After a terrorist attack much less dangerous than the fascist and imperialist existential threat that faced the greatest generation, the American people became so frightened that they applauded those who tortured people with the same techniques for which America prosecuted Japanese perpetrators after WWII. Now, contrary to basic Constitutional rights, our government routinely monitors our private conversations and political activities.
The present generation is so cowed that it doesn’t demand that those responsible for outrages against our most basic principles be held accountable. Who has the backbone to demand a truth commission to learn how politicians and bureaucrats led us into the unnecessary Iraq War based on fabricated ‘intelligence’? The greatest generation would have demanded answers, and accountability.
Despite the back sliding since the greatest generation, Professor Kaye’s The Fight for the Four Freedoms gives us hope. Our generation can learn from the greatest generation’s legacy, and the most important lesson is that it’s not too late to stand up and fight for the four freedoms and the promise of America. To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, the present generation also has a rendezvous with destiny.
Gene Jones, President FLVCS
World War II Victory Medal featured on the cover of The Fight for the Four Freedoms.
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