The “Greatest Generation.” That’s how Tom Brokaw described them in his book. We have just spent a week remembering what some members of that generation achieved 75 years ago on the beaches of Normandy, but there was so much more to their accomplishments than that.
This was the generation that lived through and overcame the Great Depression. For anyone not a part of that generation, it is hard to truly appreciate the hunger and desperation that gripped the country during those years. We have known nothing to compare to it.
That generation of Americans was not perfect, however. Just ask the Japanese-Americans who were rounded up and placed in “internment camps.” Or ask a black returning war hero in 1946 rural Virginia. He was undoubtedly disillusioned at having to drink from a separate water fountain, not being welcome in certain stores, not being able to get a decent job and required to send his children to inferior, separate schools.
No, America was not perfect back then.
But that’s part of the reason the Greatest Generation was so great—they fought to change injustices. Those 20-year-olds who stormed the beaches of Normandy became 40-year-olds in the 1960s, and they saw what working together could do.
They understood that social security could help provide a safety net for retirees. They saw the benefits of having unemployment insurance. They developed programs so no one would have to starve to death. They built strong unions which helped to create a middle class.
They also insisted that civil rights apply to all, regardless of race, creed, color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or any other discriminatory category.
We owe a debt of gratitude to them for all they accomplished by building our infrastructure, park systems, environmental safeguards, social programs to fight hunger or death for lack of medicine or health care, and a business and industrial base that is the envy of the world.
We inherited a better country because of what they accomplished, but what will the present generations do with it? Could Americans of today someday be called the Greatest Generation?
Many would answer a resounding, “YES!”
Technology has never been more advanced. Our education system has made great strides in assisting every child in finding success. New medical advances help people live long and productive lives. We continue to fight for the human rights of all, both in our own country and elsewhere. The list of accomplishments is much longer.
We must, however, learn to emulate earlier generations. They looked forward, not back. They believed in Reagan’s “shining city on the hill,” and they worked to attain that vision. The present generation must continue to find ways to improve America and be willing to make the financial, visionary, and hard work commitments necessary to move forward.
Earlier generations fought vigilantly against bigotry in all of its forms. They recognized the sins of the past and took full strides to create laws to make improvements. They also fought against isolation and saw America as a good and just leader in the world; a role model, and not a country cut off and focused on self-interest alone.
They were men and women of character. They believed in honest labor, justice, fairness, decency toward others, and the common good. They rolled up their sleeves and accomplished goals by working together, not by creating winners and losers, haves and have nots.
Our country is still comprised of good, honest, hardworking men and women today. Yes, some leaders lie, denigrate others, are dishonest or beholden to special interests, but the vast majority of people are men and women of character who disdain that kind of behavior.
Millions of Americans today believe America is the greatest country in the world, not because of wealth or resources alone, but because of our drive to make “a more perfect union,” where “land of opportunity” is forever true.
There is no utopian past, but there is a universal belief that America’s greatest days are ahead of us, because Americans don’t move backward or even stand still, but strive always to move forward and become better people and a better country.
We owe a lot to the Greatest Generation. We can repay them in part by continuing to build on the gifts they’ve given us.
Every generation has the potential to be “great,” but it takes commitment, vision, respect for diversity, hard work and true collaboration to be successful.
Let’s get to work.
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.