The generation that won WWII made the world a better place. Better, but not perfect

Crowds jammed West Newton Square on Washington Street in 1945 to celebrate the end of World War II. The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

It was a 20th-century moment when Americans could say, as the great patriot Thomas Paine wrote at the dawn of the nation, ‘‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Seventy-five years ago this week, America’s World War II opponents across Europe and the Pacific were defeated and reduced to rubble. The United States possessed the planet’s most powerful weapon and the globe’s most robust economy, its strongest currency, and the most attractive sense of national purpose. We were primed for the biggest consumer revolution ever, for the gaudiest, most pervasive and most dominant cultural explosion of any age, for the most sweeping effort in history to educate its people, and for the most selfless effort at rebuilding a battered continent ever contemplated. America stood unrivaled in military and moral power, and wondered: What’s next?

No wonder that two of the top-10 songs of 1945 were “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time” and “Accentuate the Positive.”

And yet this week, three-quarters of a century after the end of the conflict that left the United States preeminent in the world and the savior of Europe, the dreams seem darker and the positive, elusive. American citizens are banned from entering the Continent because of the rampant spread of the coronavirus in their homeland, the American president is reviled by most of the country’s traditional allies, and the institutions that far-sighted American statesmen used to construct the architecture of the post-war era diplomatic and economic structures are either in tatters, in turmoil, or in trouble.

For Americans, the long look back to the sense of infinite possibility of those days has become a sentimental journey — the title, as it happens, of the number one song of 1945.

We talk loosely of the “Greatest Generation,” those who stepped into the breach to win the war and lived into the promise of the peace that followed. And many great things were in fact begun in those days:

The first slender — slender and appallingly inadequate — stirrings of justice for Black Americans, eight decades after the war that ended slavery. The making of an economic boom that seemed built to last forever, and that might even throttle poverty at last. And the necessary diminution of the power of corrosive nationalism around the world — the malign force that fueled two catastrophic world wars — with the birth, among other historic innovations, of the United Nations.

But retrospect makes it clearer by the day that this was work more begun than completed. Black lives still don’t matter enough. Economic inequality is graver than ever. Nationalism of the most worrisome sort is on the rise, here and elsewhere in the world. And so on, missions still to accomplish.

Still, it is a good time to reconsider those days and those dreams.

That postwar world, weary from 2,194 days of brutal conflict and mechanized death, looked to America — the postwar equivalent of what Churchill had called ‘‘the sunlit uplands” — for leadership, and for inspiration.

“The United States was not only ready to assume this role but it was totally rational that it should do so,” said Jeremy K.B. Kinsman, who has served as Canada’s ambassador to Great Britain, Russia, Italy, and the European Community. “There was nothing bad about it, which is why the Trump phenomenon of ‘America First’ is so troubling to so many of America’s closest friends.”

In abandoning two centuries of isolation, the United States not only joined the international order but also reshaped it.

“Despite all the mistakes and tragedies since then, including two long wars in Asia, there have been some phenomenal successes,” said Adam Roberts, emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford. “In 1989 and 1990 the Soviet Empire, and then the Soviet Union itself, collapsed, and now in 2020 we can celebrate the fact that major inter-state war has been avoided for 75 years. The trouble is that this is no time for celebration. The US, like the UK, is floundering in a COVID-19 mess largely of its own making.”

* * *

General George S. Patton, Jr. acknowledged the cheers of the throngs that gathered along a parade route in Boston in 1945. Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

And so this is a bittersweet anniversary, the sweet coming from the celebratory reflections; the bitter coming from the promise that went unrealized, and the promises unfulfilled.

“I do believe the World War II generation was ideally suited to take on the historic challenge of a two-front war because so many members were hardened by the experience of the Depression,” said broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw, who took the “Greatest Generation” tag for the title of his bestselling book, in an interview for this essay. But he added that when people question the label he has a ready response: ‘‘I said ‘greatest.’ I did not say ‘perfect.’ ”

That great but imperfect generation was so powerful a presence in modern American life that for 14 consecutive elections in the 20th century, at least one of the major-party presidential nominees was involved in the war — 50 percent more elections than those contested by the 18th-century Founders.

“That group of politicians was marked by the war, as people involved in all-consuming events like war are,” said Angus King, who taught a course in leadership at Bates College and Bowdoin College before being elected to the Senate from Maine as an Independent. “We saw it in the Civil War... and today, when politicians who were in Iraq or Afghanistan have an aura. And certainly this is the case with the World War II presidents.”

And would-be presidents.

“World War II changed my life and the lives of countless other Americans,” said the Republicans’ 1996 presidential nominee, former senator Robert J. Dole of Kansas, who was gravely wounded in the last days of World War II and at age 97 is one of the 300,000 veterans of the war still alive. ‘‘We paid a heavy price — I paid a heavy price — but we prevailed. It took me years to recover. I’m still recovering. But it was worth it. Fighting in that war was the most important thing I did in my life.”

Just as important was what followed the war: the high hopes of the veterans, of those on the home front, of millions abroad, in displaced-persons camps, in the squalor of wrecked cities, in countries where the manufacturing base was destroyed and the agricultural prospects minimal.

On anniversaries like this, we salute how much was accomplished in those 75 years. And yet:

It would have been inconceivable to those imagining the postwar world, that life expectancy in the United States would be lower today than that of Poland, Germany, Italy, and Japan, countries left destroyed by ground combat and airborne assault. It would have been beyond comprehension that the cost of a college education, brought within the reach of millions because of the generosity of the GI Bill, would be beyond the grasp of millions in 2020. It would have beggared belief that American prosperity had not reached into the bottom quarter of the workforce. It would have astonished the 350,000 women who enlisted in the armed forces and the many hundreds of thousands who worked in wartime factories — 310,000 of them in the aircraft industry alone, 65 percent of the total aviation-manufacturing workforce — that 75 years later, women would still be fighting for equality in the workplace and were earning on average about 81 cents to the dollar that men were earning.

‘‘Very seldom do you get a crack in time when there is so much to be rebuilt,” said Stephanie Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “We blew it after World War I but after World War II it looked as if we might do it, though we did not include Blacks and women. At times like this we don’t look back at the way things were, but at the way we hoped things were becoming.‘’

Moreover, in the peace that emerged after the war it would have been difficult to imagine that Americans of color, many of whom joined in the fight for freedom around the world, still do not enjoy the fullness of freedom and equality at home — or anything close to it — and that the ethnic and religious hatred that the soldiers, sailors, and aviators of World War II thought they were eradicating from the face of the earth would have remained a scourge on the earth.

“World War II uncovered — laid bare for us — that hate is capable of bringing on the greatest evil,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where two years ago 11 Jews were murdered while he led them in Sabbath prayer. “It makes me pause and wonder 75 years later whether we have accomplished all that much. The good people on this earth have been engaged for millennia in this work, and the anniversary of the end of the worst period of hate in history reminds us that there is so much more work to be done.”

* * *

Three-quarters of a century is, to be sure, a long time. It is the distance between Shay’s Rebellion in Western Massachusetts and the outbreak of the Civil War in Charleston, S.C., between the election of Benjamin Harrison and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, between Pearl Harbor and the inauguration of President Trump.

The America of 1945 was without supermarkets, freezers, dishwashers, even ballpoint pens. Since then the shopping center sprouted, was converted to a mall, and then just about died. Popular music went from 78s to LPs to eight-tracks to CDs to iPods to streaming services. The births of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Trump, Dolly Parton and Cher were a year away.

But an economic explosion was imminent, fueled by consumer demand that had been building during the Depression and war years. In the immediate postwar period, personal consumption expenditures created an average annual growth rate of per-capita GDP of 2.5 percent, according to a study that senior analyst Nick Bunker prepared in 2014 for the liberal-leaning Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

But that galloping growth would not prove to be equitable growth — not nearly.

The gap between those high on the income ladder and those in the middle and lower rungs did not change substantially from the end of the war until the 1970s, when the gap began to widen. The share of income growth captured by the top 1 percent in Massachusetts between 1945 and 1973, for example, was 2.9 percent. That figure rose to 50.4% in the period from 1973 to 2007, then to 58.4 percent in the eight years that followed, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Today, in fact, the average income of the top 1 percent of Massachusetts residents is $1,904,805, while the average income of the other 99 percent is $61,694, a top-to-bottom ratio of about 30 to 1.

The result is a different United States from the one many dreamed of at war’s end. “In effect,” the anthropologist and author Jared Diamond has written, “the U.S. is a country of 328 million inhabitants that operates as if only 50 million of them matter.”

All that, despite the massive exposure of Americans to education, regarded for generations as the sturdiest ladder of social and economic mobility.

In years leading up to the war, the United States, in the characterization of the Harvard economist Claudia Goldin in a 1998 study, “pulled far ahead” of the rest of the world in high-school graduation, with a rate of 50.8 percent. There are conflicting figures for high-school graduation today, but there is a consensus that the figure has risen by more than half since then —and that the rate for Blacks and for Hispanics is lower than that of whites. An engine of opportunity has stalled.

The GI Bill opened the college gates to World War II veterans in what Ira Katznelson, the Columbia historian, called “the single most important piece of legislation ever passed in America to create a modern middle class.”

Today the typical college graduate earns about $80,000 while those with only a high school degree earn about $36,000.

But in education, as in all areas of American society, the cruelest dividing line was race.

The benefits of the GI Bill for Black veterans were, to be sure, substantial, but they were not equally distributed, in part because of the role the states played in the program. State legislatures, for example, voted enough money for every white person to attend universities in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, but not enough for Black person to enroll in the states’ historically Black colleges.

“It was a period when middle-class America was invented among whites,” said Ivory Nelson, who was president of Lincoln University, a historically Black institution in Pennsylvania, from 1999 to 2011. “But middle-class America for Blacks doesn’t exist even now.”

The effect was to cement, even to widen, the distance between white America and Black America, despite the achievements of the civil-rights movement and the advancements — some now under siege — of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“The country never dealt with the race question,” said Larry Davis, founder of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh. “It didn’t want to deal with it because it wouldn’t admit guilt. We let the South have its way. ... After World War II the country continued to sacrifice Black people to keep the South happy. Can you imagine how much wealth of Black people was lost?”

This failure cut especially deep for Blacks who had high hopes that World War II would be not just a chance to save the world for Democracy but to perfect our own. This was a vision captured poignantly in the so-called “Double-V” Campaign, begun after a 26-year-old wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, a Black newspaper, asking: “Should I sacrifice to live half American?”

What came of his question was a new push for two victories, one overseas, the other at home.

Some progress has been made, to be sure. But according to research by Patrick Bayer and Kerwin Kofi Charles set out in 2018 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Black-white wage gap has returned to Truman-era levels.

“We may have won victory in World War II but we haven’t achieved the second ‘V’ in the Double-V Campaign,” said Rod Doss, the Courier’s current editor and publisher.

* * * *

In no war was the home front more important than it was in World War II, and in no conflict did war produce more changes at home, including an increase in home ownership from about half of Americans in 1945 to two-thirds today, according to the Census Bureau.

And there were tremendous changes in gender roles inside those homes. “The numbers of women at work went up during the war,” the Harvard historian Nancy Cott said, “but what was more important was the kind of work — highly paid industrial work — women were doing.” By 1952, there were 2 million more working wives than there had been during World War II.

But another big change came shortly after the war, when changes in the federal tax code favored married couples who had one primary earner. The result was that a man who supported a woman not employed outside the home paid substantially less in taxes than a single man making as much money.

“Women’s gains were often sacrificed,” said Rebecca Davis, a University of Delaware historian. “It became clear that society thought it more important to preserve men’s jobs.... It helped explain a lot of anger women had in the 1960s and even now.”

And as the late 1940s rolled into the 1950s, vast transformations were underway in American domestic life.

“The 1950s were a unique moment in the history of marriage and the family,” said Christine Whelan, director of the Money, Relationships and Equality Initiative at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “Never before had so many people shared the experience of courting their own mates, getting married at will, and setting up their own households. Never had married couples been so independent of extended family ties and community groups. Never before had so many people agreed that only one kind of family was ‘normal.’ ”

There is, thankfully, no such agreement today.

Americans also roared out of World War II with enormous confidence in progress through science. Nuclear weapons technology could be used for peaceful energy. The DuPont Co. had spoken of “better living through chemistry” since 1935, but after 1945 it became a conviction rather than a slogan. Scientists began to understand DNA, to battle disease with new and more powerful tools, and to achieve remarkable feats of exploration through NASA.

The decade after the war was the true high point for doctors and scientists; the pinnacle may have been Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine, with research financed by the March of Dimes and its more than 100 million Americans contributors.

“We came out of World War II with science in the ascendancy,” said Richard Scheines, a Carnegie Mellon University expert in the philosophy of science. “We thought we could feed the world. We thought there could be clean energy, It turns out that the world is more complicated than we thought. It turned out that we couldn’t figure everything out.“

That was never so clear as it has been this year, when the coronavirus consumed more American lives than the Korean and Vietnam conflicts combined.

“There was confidence science could solve all the problems the world faced — and that all infectious diseases could be taken care of,” said Jason Opal, a McGill University historian who is writing a history of epidemic diseases in the United States with his father, Steven Opal, a clinical professor of medicine at Brown. “Now we know better, and we have lost confidence in our ability to solve our problems. The decline in science is part of the decline in the morale of America.”

That is not the only decline from World War II-era heights that America is experiencing today. Its decline in international prestige and global influence is one of the themes of the era.

“The US was the key player in establishing a liberal international order,” said Kiron Skinner, former director of policy planning in the State Department in the early Donald J. Trump years. “Today the international order is adrift and the ideas the US helped shepherd are being contested not only by other powers but also inside the US.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the United Nations, founded amid soaring rhetoric and hopes in the war-ending year of 1945.

“It was the silver lining of the Second World War,” said Stephen C. Schlesinger, author of a 2003 history of the San Francisco conference that created the UN. “These people had seen 30 million people die in the First World War and 60 million in the Second World War and wanted to make sure that a Third World War would never happen.... Today nobody is happy with it today except that it has lasted 75 years.”

When World War II ended, there was no doubt that the strongest economy was in the United States. It was the collective sense of the global markets that US government bonds were the most risk-free asset and that the dollar was the world’s reserve currency, notions codified in the fixed exchange rates that came out of the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944.

“If we lost the war, none of that would have been the case,” said Matthew J. Slaughter, the dean of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business Administration and a member of George W. Bush’s council of economic advisors. “A lot has changed, but the US dollar is still the world’s most important currency.”

“We had licked the Depression and won a just war, and the country was punch-drunk at VJ Day,” said David M. Kennedy, the prominent Stanford historian. “The world was wide open for those of that generation who survived. A lot of the aspirations of the moment were fulfilled. But we look a little less triumphant today. For sure we have some steps to go, and I wonder whether this journey ever ends.”

And where it will take us. The generation that won the war and prospered in peace, made the world, in many ways, a better place. Better, but not perfect.

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