This Thursday, August 14, marks 69 years since the surrender of Imperial Japan – and with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II coming up next summer we are sure to see significant efforts around the country during the next twelve months to once again honor the memory and legacy of the Greatest Generation.
Just as we have many times before, we will undoubtedly celebrate “the Spirit of ’45” and tell those who remain of that generation that we will never forget or forsake all that they accomplished. And yet the sad truth is that we have already forgotten and forsaken what they – our parents and grandparents – did in the face of the worst economic and social catastrophe in American history and the global march of Fascism.
If we want to properly honor the generation of the 1930s and 1940s – the generation that for all of its faults and failings carried out a revolution between the 1930s and 1970s and created the first-ever Middle-Class Nation – we need to better remember what they did. Indeed, if we want to truly honor those men and women, we need to renew the struggles they undertook to enhance American life. We need to remember that our parents and grandparents not only saved the nation from economic ruin and political oblivion and turned it into the strongest and most prosperous country on earth, but also accomplished all of that – in the face of powerful conservative, reactionary, and corporate opposition – by making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.
Now, when all that they fought for is under siege and we too find ourselves confronting crises and forces that threaten the nation and all that it stands for, we need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the most progressive generation in American history. We are the children of the men and women who articulated, fought for, and endowed us with the promise of the Four Freedoms.
Led by President Franklin Roosevelt, our parents and grandparents didn’t beat the Great Depression of the 1930s by limiting government, lowering the taxes of the rich, and deferring to the captains of industry and consciousness. They made America, as FDR hoped they would, “fairly radical for a generation.” They raised the taxes on the rich and subjected big business to public account and regulation. They empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people and established a social security system. They mobilized and organized labor unions. They fought for their rights and broadened and leveled the “We” in “We the People.” They expanded the nation’s public infrastructure and improved the environment. And they cultivated the arts, refashioned popular culture, and expanded educational opportunities. Doing so, they imbued themselves with fresh democratic convictions, hopes, and aspirations – and fortified themselves to meet their “rendezvous with destiny.”
And when they went into battle in December 1941 against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, they did not give up their democratic hopes and aspirations. They not only went “All Out!” in the war effort. They also continued to fight for the Four Freedoms at home. Despite continuing antidemocratic opposition, they expanded the labor, consumer, and civil-rights movements, subjected industry and the marketplace to greater public control, reduced inequality and poverty, and further transformed the “We” in “We the People.” Moreover, they endorsed the prospect of new initiatives to expand freedom, equality, and democracy at war’s end – most notably their four-time-elected President’s call for a Second Bill of Rights, an Economic Bill of Rights to assure jobs, food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, and recreation for all Americans. Admittedly, a conservative congressional coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats (sound familiar?) blocked the enactment of these social-democratic rights. But they could not prevent the enactment of the GI Bill of Rights – the greatest public welfare program in US history, a program that enabled 12,000,000 young Americans to better themselves and the nation.
At war’s end in 1945, the military issued a Victory Medal to every man and woman who served in uniform between 1941 and 1946. And on the reverse of that medal was inscribed “FREEDOM FROM FEAR AND WANT – FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND RELIGION.” That’s what they fought for – and continued to try to secure and assure when they responded to the popular challenges of the 1960s and passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, launched a War on Poverty and created Medicare and Medicaid, reformed immigration, and enacted laws to protect the environment, workers, and consumers.
The question is “What have we done?” For 40 years now we have seen the forces of reaction set the public agenda in America. We have seen Republicans besiege our parents’ and grandparents’ achievements and Democrats fail to adequately defend them. And we have failed to mobilize to stop them. What are we going to do?
For a start, it’s time to remember. It’s time to remember what conservatives don’t want us to remember and liberals have all too often forgotten. As the great progressive radio producer and writer Norman Corwin wrote for national broadcast on August 14, 1945: “Remember [the fallen] when July comes round… They’re dead as clay for the rights of men/ For People the likes of you/ And they ask that we do not fail them again/ Tomorrow, tomorrow.“
It’s time to remind ourselves and our fellow Americans of all that our parents and grandparents, the most progressive generation in American history, accomplished – and how did they did it. And let’s remember what they came to remember: That the only way to truly secure American democratic life is to enhance it.
But it’s not only time to remember. It’s also time to act. Our fellow citizens are already stirring. The making of a progressive populist majority is underway. Let’s honor our parents and grandparents in the fashion they deserve. Let’s make America “fairly radical for a generation.”
Harvey J. Kaye is professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the new book “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye./em>