WW II was felt by Americans, at the time and afterwards, to be a ‘good war’, as regards American participation. We were defeating the evil aggressors, and we were liberating people in Asia and in Europe. There was some pacifist sentiment, but the overwhelming majority of people totally supported the war effort.
Actually, ‘supported’ is too weak a term. There was a spirit of ‘collaborating to defeat the enemy’, with everyone playing their part. People planted Victory Gardens, bought War Bonds, put up with rationing, invited soldiers for Thanksgiving dinner, and so on. And most families had children or relatives in the military, making for a strong sense of participation in the war effort. Those who were GIs or who worked in war plants – and there were millions of those – felt the strongest sense of participation & collaboration.
It was a case of We the People working hand-in-hand with the government, as partners, pursuing a shared noble goal, to achieve victory in the field over the evil aggressors. And after the war, with victory achieved, the government rewarded its partner, the people, with the GI Bill and the FHA program. Ex-GIs could go to college, start families, and own their own homes, all with the help of a grateful Uncle Sam.
The wartime experience was emotionally intense, with the vicarious life-threatening drama of the war reports, with the personal connections to those events, and with the general sense of participation in the drama. Such an experience of emotional intensity, one that extends over years, has a deep impact. The sense of being part of an important We, of being a participant in ones national destiny, becomes deeply embedded in ones sense of self. That sense of ‘being part of the We’ was reinforced by the postwar support from Uncle Sam, and even more by the postwar boom, where that generation become the most prosperous that America had ever seen: We won and we justly prospered in the aftermath.
This victorious WW II generation didn’t have it so good in its youth – which was spent living through the Great Depression of the 1930s. That was also an emotionally intense experience, particularly for children. For many it was a scarring experience, a time of suffering, a time one wants to forget. The war years lifted America out of these Great-Depression Blues. The sense of shared suffering, that preceded the war years, created an even stronger sense of being part of a ‘victorious We’, a We that arose from suffering, defeated evil foes, and lived on to prosper. A We that was ‘We as a Nation’.
That’s the key idea here: ‘We as a Nation’ – a strong linking between citizen and nation, between ‘us’ and ‘America’ – I see that as a core characteristic of the WW II generation. It crystallized during prolonged traumatic experiences, in which there was a spirit of participation and collaboration. And it’s a precious thing, to feel that you belong, to feel you are an active part of a supportive and benevolent larger community. Once achieved, you’d want to hold on to it, that feeling. And as long as that feeling persists – We as a Nation – any criticism of America is perceived as a personal criticism, and one that cuts deep. Deep into issues of ‘who I am’, ‘what I’ve been through’, and ‘what I feel part of’.
We children of that generation, we of the Vietnam Generation, the Sixties Generation, didn’t really understand these things about our parents, the depth of the experiences they had been through, the reasons why they always seemed to believe what the government was saying, to take the government’s side. We saw it, I think, as stubborn conservatism, or as some kind of middle-age dullness of mind. We didn’t know what we were asking our parents to give up, when we asked them to accept that the US was wrong in Vietnam, that ’they as a nation’ had become the aggressor.
We also didn’t really understand how lucky we were – in our parent’s eyes – to be living in a prosperous peacetime, experiencing none of the struggle and trauma that had marked their lives. We were living the good life, and we owed it all to what our nation had accomplished, with everyone working together. When we started complaining about America, our parents saw us, with considerable justice, as ungrateful brats.
We lived in one world, and our parents lived in another. Their world was one they struggled to create, and they were enjoying the well-earned routine of their lives. Our world was there when we arrived, and we saw it as full of opportunity, and of potential adventure. Our parents had experienced trauma at the security level, on Maslow’s scale, and experiencing security was now for them its own reward. For us, security was a given, our minds were free of the chains of fear, and we yearned to make something of our freedom.
Our minds were also largely free of religious inhibitions, as we tended to be a less religious generation than were our parents. And there was the ubiquitous pill. Drugs, sex, and rock & roll were a celebration of life, of the freedom to enjoy oneself in imaginative ways. It was a bacchanalian revival, and I’d say it brought a much-needed cleansing of the American social psyche. It rinsed out just a bit of our residual puritanism.
In retrospect, each generation was naive in its own way. Our parents were naive to believe that America had in fact become the land-that-only-does-good. We were naive to believe that America could be ‘restored’ to being such a land. We didn’t have the visceral bonding-with-nation experiences of our parents, but we bought into the mythology we learned in history class. We believed in the Founding Fathers, the democratic system, and in basic American goodness. We didn’t have a clue about the real history of the United States, and the real meaning of the events that make up that history.