The Extraordinary GI Generation

May 11, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- Now and for months to come, much of the world can celebrate the achievements of the generation of men and women who fought or endured World War II. It was a famous victory for our side, and the Americans, the British and the Russians of a certain age deserve these garlands of praise and thanks. But enough is enough.

It seems significant to me that in the United States, the political debate of the moment is about the cost of Medicaid, a program timed to reward and protect the GI generation. And the most powerful lobby in the country, the American Association of Retired People, was really created as an institutionalization of that generation.

They lived in extraordinary times and did great things, as did their fathers, the generation celebrated in a new book by David Fromkin of Boston University, ''In the Time of the Americans -- The Generation That Changed America's Role in the World.''

In Mr. Fromkin's definition, that generation is symbolized and was led by the greatest of them, Franklin D. Roosevelt. ''Born in the 1880s,'' he writes, ''FDR and his peers were old enough to fight in the First World War and to command in the Second.''

True. And the generation of Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, George C. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower were also wise enough and generous enough to give their children and allies the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan, rewarding combat and suffering with the tools to build a better world.

But remember, too, that the GI generation kicked out the command generation the first chance they got. A Navy lieutenant from Boston ran for Congress in 1946 with the slogan ''The New Generation Offers a Leader.'' Fourteen years later, that lieutenant, John F. Kennedy, was running for president as a Democrat against a Republican, Richard Nixon, who had also been a young lieutenant in the Pacific.

The GI generation went on to hold that political power for another 32 years. The symbolism of the presidency passing down from the World War II's supreme commander, Eisenhower, in 1952 to the youngest lieutenant in the Navy, George Bush, in 1988 tells a great deal about the United States and its view of the world over those decades. The mind reels in wonder and admiration at the thought that an Army lieutenant from those days, Robert Dole, might grab the gold ring for his generation for another eight years.

They were a mighty bunch, a mighty oak that has shaded or stunted the generations trying to grow under their canopy of sacrifice, bravery and triumph. They persevered and ultimately won their ideological struggle with their disagreeable allies of the Soviet Union -- though part of the price of victory was the crippling of their children (or perhaps the nation itself) in Vietnam.

Nothing and no one seemed to grow very tall after them. The in-between, silent generation, the Americans who grew up in the 1950s, did wonderfully well for themselves -- because there were so few of them produced by the low birth-rates of World War II and the great depression before it -- but could not even manage to produce a single president. Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Jack Kemp, Mario Cuomo -- none made it.

The baby boomers, the generation born after the GIs came home wives and suburbs, could not break the political hold of the war generation until 1992, when Bill Clinton, a Vietnam war protester, won over Mr. Bush with just 43 percent of the vote. Mr. Clinton was, he said, anti-authoritarian -- and so is much of his cadre. They doubt themselves.

Newsweek columnist Joe Klein, a peer of the president, wondered recently whether anyone of their generation deserved to govern because their common life experience was so thin compared with the generations that survived the Great Depression and World War II.

That is quite a question. David Fromkin ends his book with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with an unflattering contrast between Roosevelt's time and generation and our own:

''The United States that was personified by Roosevelt thrived on challenges, and had learned from the president to try to do what others said was impossible. Had FDR been told over dinner by ambassadors from former Soviet-bloc countries that they were unable to find the American financing needed to reconstruct themselves as constitutional democracies, he would have thrown back his head and roared with laughter. 'Come by my office tomorrow morning,' he would have said, 'and we'll take care of it.'''

Maybe. But FDR can't help now, and neither can nostalgia about famous victories. When this golden-anniversary party ends, it will be time for the rest of us to grow up and take a new look at the world as it really is. It's our world now!

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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