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Friday, February 19, 2021

February 19, 2021: Non-Favorite American Myths: The Greatest Generation

[Given my overall 2021 goal of better remembering all of American history, for this year’s post-Valentine’s non-favorites series I wanted to highlight some of the historical myths of which I’m decidedly not a fan. Share your own non-favorites, historical and every other type, for a crowd-sourced weekend airing of grievances that’s always one of my favorite posts of the year!]

On the limits to a mythic vision of an iconic American community.

First, two paragraphs from Of Thee I Sing’s World War II chapter:

“Those celebratory patriotic images of an American community unified in its fights against and triumphs over first the Great Depression and then World War II’s adversaries have endured over the decades since, and toward the end of the 20th century were given a particularly clear expression in journalist Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation (1998). Brokaw builds on the period’s celebratory views, including an emphasis on “ordinary” Americans who nonetheless rose to face and conquer extraordinary—in Brokaw’s argument genuinely unprecedented—challenges. As he puts it in his Preface, “I began to reflect on the wonders of these ordinary people whose lives are laced with the markings of greatness. At every stage of their lives they were part of historic challenges and achievements of a magnitude the world had never before witnessed.” While this Greatest Generation ideal built on the celebratory patriotisms I’ve traced in each chapter and time period, it also took that form of national celebration to a whole new level.

That celebratory patriotic emphasis on unity would seem to suggest, if not indeed depend upon, all Americans being part of those struggles and triumphs. But instead, many American communities were purposefully left out of those celebrations, and not only through political calculations like Roosevelt’s decision to exclude African Americans from many New Deal programs in order to secure the support of the era’s white supremacist Southern Democrats. Both the Depression and World War II likewise featured exclusionary myths, visions of the United States that defined particular communities as outside of their unifying definitions of the nation, often with divisive and destructive consequences for those excluded Americans.”

That’s the real issue I have with collective myths like the Greatest Generation narrative. It’s not that it doesn’t genuinely capture certain elements of its subject—as I’ve argued here, for example, my paternal grandfather Art Railton did reflect this community’s greatness. It’s that far, far too often, these American myths focus on white Americans, and in this case they do so in two equally frustrating ways: ignoring the kinds of exclusions I mention in that second quoted paragraph; and, relatedly, leave out some of the period’s greatest communities (such as the Varsity Victory Volunteers or the Tuskegee Airmen) because they don’t fit that white supremacist narrative. In many ways America during this period was not at all great—and when it was, it was often due to members of oppressed communities challenging those discriminations and embodying an America that truly reflects our greatest, most inclusive and inspiring national ideals. As I’d say about all of our national myths, including the Greatest Generation narrative, a vital first step is thus redefining and expanding them to include all American communities.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: what do you think? Non-favorites (historical or otherwise) you’d share?

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