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What We Really Need to Remember on Memorial Day

This Memorial Day will see the opening of the National World War II Memorial to all those who made American participation in the victory over the Axis powers possible. It will honor the 405,000 Americans who died, the 671,000 who were wounded while serving, and the millions of others who participated in the military conflict and in the home front production and volunteer efforts that were a vital part of the struggle.

The dedication of the new memorial will open a 100 day series of events, “America Celebrates the Greatest Generation.” Tom Brokaw coined the term “the greatest generation” in his 1998 book by that title. Brokaw conceived of the idea when he was at Normandy for the fortieth anniversary of the D-Day landing in June 1984 and was deeply moved by the veterans he met who had returned to the battle site for the occasion. Although it was awareness of the sacrifices of the soldiers that inspired Brokaw to write, he widened his vision to include the stories of people on the home front and of groups facing discriminatory barriers to full participation. The sponsors of “America Celebrates the Greatest Generation” have followed Brokaw’s lead and include exhibitions and events on the roles of women and racial minorities in both the military and home front struggles. The emphasis on inclusiveness and diversity stems in part from the increased egalitarianism in our country since the 1960s, but it also reflects the truth of the World War II experience and the reality that these formerly overlooked groups were present and active.

It is fitting for the country to a pay a full tribute to a generation whose members are increasingly leaving our visible presence. The contributions and sacrifices they made to us, their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren are enormous.

An important part of the story we will celebrate on Memorial Day weekend will be the meaning imparted to patriotism, military discipline, and national unity. As significant as these ideas and values were, they are not abstractions that can be transplanted to another era by an act of will. To truly learn from, as well as honor, the World War II generation, we need to understand the historical context that led the country to come together on the battlefield and on the home front and to persevere for nearly four years until victory was won. Understanding fully and accurately the role of those Americans who participated in the defeat of the Axis powers means, first, comprehending where those Americans came from, second, grasping the specific role of Franklin Roosevelt, and, third, appreciating how we as a nation fit into the global struggle against fascism.

The generation that came together to fight the Axis powers after the attack on Pearl Harbor had lived through a decade of depression. One third of the nation was jobless at the worst point in the depression. Many searched for work, faced pay cuts if working, or experienced hunger, homelessness, failed businesses and farm foreclosures. Although individualism and blaming oneself remained common, a new emphasis on cooperation, sharing, and holding the government and corporations accountable for the crisis emerged as millions of the unemployed, workers, farmers, professionals, students, writers, artists, and homemakers joined a variety of protest organizations.

In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, following his decisive 1932 victory over Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt responded to the new “temper of our people” and emphasized putting people to work and strong government action. He declared: “ The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. . . . We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well.” Two years later, Roosevelt and New Deal Democrats and their allies in Congress enacted a series of advanced reforms that embodied a vision that emphasized caring, social values, and interdependence. They created a social security system which provided old age pensions, unemployment compensation, and aid to the elderly poor, dependent children, and the disabled. Equally important was the passage of the Wagner Act, which encouraged the formation of unions. Workers had already begun a massive campaign to establish a measure of industrial democracy in the nation’s workplaces. The Wagner Act gave that grass roots movement an important boost. By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, union membership stood at 10.5 million, nearly three times the pre-depression figure. At the same time, led by unions, working people gained a more important seat at the table of American politics than they had ever had before.

Americans sacrificed together in World War II not because of clever publicity efforts and not solely because of Pearl Harbor. They were shaped by the suffering of the depression and by successful struggles to achieve a new more democratic United States in which working people had more respect and more rights than ever before. Ordinary people defended a country whose democratic promise had expanded. Inclusion of women and minorities was also growing and civil rights advocates were beginning to place the goal of full equality on the nation’s agenda.

Roosevelt won a landslide reelection in 1936 and was reelected again in 1940 and 1944. During the Roosevelt era in American politics, a pro-labor liberal served in the White House and leftists, liberals, and trade unionists joined together in an array of coalitions for social reform at home and a foreign policy based on the values of peace and justice. Roosevelt led the nation in creating a new more democratic and caring social policy framework in the 1930s and then led the united national struggle in World War II, passing away four weeks before victory over Germany and twenty weeks before victory over Japan. Although during World War II Roosevelt worked with the business leaders who had often opposed him, workers’ organizations and left-center coalitions continued to play important roles on the local and national scenes. Roosevelt continued to hold to a vision of social reform. Indeed, sixty years ago in an anniversary that passed almost unnoticed this past January, Roosevelt proposed an Economic Bill of Rights in which all would have the right to a useful job, a decent house, a good education, adequate medical care, and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health. The presence of a charismatic leader who cared about ordinary people and emphasized shared sacrifice is a large part of the reason that the people of the United States remained fairly united in World War II.

Understanding America’s greatest generation would be incomplete if we did not see that we were an important part of a much larger struggle. While we gave the British significant aid, after the fall of France they essentially stood alone for many months against a German onslaught in the Battle of Britain. Resistance to Axis occupiers took place in dozens of countries and was particularly effective in China, Vietnam, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The most critical battlefront was that in the Soviet Union. Invaded by the Nazis, the Soviets at first lost a vast territory where 45 percent of its prewar population lived, but they mobilized their society, received aid from the U.S., fought back, and succeeded in destroying three-quarters of the Nazi forces. In the course of making the most important contribution to the victory over fascism, the Soviets lost 20 to 25 million people.

The generation of Americans who joined others to defeat fascism in World War II were part of a world struggle to eliminate a system that promoted nationalism, militarism, domination of other countries, terrorism against opponents, destruction of independent unions and all other democratic institutions, subordination of women, and in the Nazi case, an ideology of racial superiority. The anti-fascist coalition came together for such positive goals as self-governance, economic cooperation among nations, improved labor standards and social security, peace, and a new system of security against future wars that would become the United Nations. We need to remember our allies and to appreciate the democratic vision that underlay our joint struggles. In honoring those who contributed to a decisive event in world history, the Allied victory over fascism in World War II, we should remember all those who participated at home and abroad and understand as well the struggles they had experienced before war loomed and the values for which they fought. Patriotism, military discipline, and national unity were important themes of World War II. They developed in the context of a caring government led by a charismatic leader who responded to and helped strengthen a grass roots movement among the nation’s working people for jobs, social security, industrial democracy, inclusion, and respect. Our government worked cooperatively with others governments in the anti-fascist struggle and, at the same time, supported the grass roots anti-fascist resistance movements throughout the world that aspired to a better and more democratic life for their peoples. We can learn from as well as honor the legacy of the Roosevelt generation.