The Greatest Generation? Not who you think

By Jim Smith

They stopped a war, ended racial segregation, set off an explosion of creativity in arts and music, and changed the world.

The World War II generation? Think again. It was the much maligned generation of the 60s that did all this, and more.

While we respect the generation of our fathers and grandfathers, we cannot pretend that their achievements had the breath or depth of the achievements of the generation of their sons and daughters. Every nation invents myths about itself. Some of the biggest whoppers have to do with World War II. It’s true that the generation called the greatest fought fascism and were on the winning side. Yet 90 percent of the war against Germany was fought on the eastern front by the Soviet Union. The Russians, beginning in 1941, fought, retreated, and ultimately overcame the greatest war machine in the world, the German army. The U.S. and the British fought on the European continent against the Germans for scarcely 11 months. The U.S. did bear the brunt in the Pacific against a much inferior foe, Japan. That engagement ended not in glory, but in the shame of using atomic weapons against a civilian population for the only time in history.

Of course the WWII generation should be praised for playing a role in the defeat of fascism, but here at home they left racial segregation and jim crow laws untouched, and allowed home-grown fascism in the guise of McCarthyism to grow into the biggest threat to our civil liberties of all time, the Bush regime notwithstanding.

Why is the 60s generation the greatest? Because it tore down a lot of walls that needed tearing down. The Freedom Riders - both Black and white - invaded Mississippi without the support of the U.S. Army or National Guard. Some were killed, many were beaten. Yet they were the vanguard of a movement that succeeded in changing laws, and the way people think. They exhibited just as much courage and heroism as did many WWII troops being ordered to advance on enemy positions.

The same thing happened in the fields and barrios of the Southwest. Tens of thousands joined Cesar Chavez’s struggle for the rights of farmworkers. And in the cities, mass marches, strikes and demonstrations did for Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans what the civil rights movement did for Blacks.

Gay Liberation began on June 28, 1968 when gay and transgender people stood up to police harassment at the Stonewall Inn in New York.

The Women’s movement flowed from millions of women entering the workforce in the 60s, and from women intellectuals taking on the male establishment.

The American Indian Movement was reminding the rest of us that they had not all been victims of genocide and were again capable of fighting for their land and traditions.

The student movement began at UC Berkeley in the early 60s with militant demonstrations against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and went on to fight for free speech on campus.

Thousands of 60s students turned universities into democratic institutions, at least for a time. By 1970, students staged the largest strike wave in U.S. history by shutting down more than 500 colleges and universities in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Students became the backbone of the struggle to end the war in Vietnam. The 60s generation drove one president (Lyndon Johnson) from office, and in one of its last acts, created an atmosphere in which another president (Richard Nixon) had no choice but to resign. Scarcely, a few months later, the 60s generation in Vietnam liberated their entire country, finally ending the war on April 30, 1975.

The 60s generation made one mistake, and it was a whopper. We thought the millennium had arrived, that the Age of Aquarius was upon us, where peace would replace war and love would replace hate. We underestimated those who had a vested interest in keeping millions working meaningless jobs to feed their burgeoning profits.

In large parts of the U.S., especially the mid-west and the south, the 60s cultural revolution had hardly penetrated. Here a love-it-or-leave-it silent majority remained that could easily be manipulated by conniving politicians and corporations. The few "heads" in these small towns were "California Dreamin" and soon joined a great migration to the coast. A bohemian necklace of communities, including Venice, formed along the Pacific from Canada to Mexico, where alternate ways of living were the norms and "straight" people were an oddity. This coalescing of the "tribes," and a "back to nature" movement assumed that the battle was over with corporate Amerika, and that we had won. While we dropped-out to enjoy art, life, and each other, think tanks were plotting how to smash our longing for freedom. 

In truth, we had not won, we had only begun to change society and humankind. The empire struck back by creating inflation that forced people to go back to work to pay the bills. They flooded our beautiful new communities with drugs that numbed us instead of providing visions. They cranked up the scare machine: don’t pick up hitchhikers, don’t sleep with your friends, don’t trust other races, and don’t listen to people who live a different lifestyle.

In the end, the 60s generation had stopped a war, made racism a dirty word, and showed us how to dream of peace, equality and a better world. We may not have set the world free, but our greatness lies in the fact that we tried. Oh, how we tried! And we left a subversive blueprint for any future generation to follow.

Now, 40 years down the road, the environment – Mother Earth – is conspiring with us to force a profound change on the world. We may well be entering a period where giant corporations, chain stores and extravagant consumption are like dinosaurs stumbling to their end.

It may be time for a new generation to capture the title of "greatest," by finishing what we of the 60s generation started, and by saving the planet in the process.

Posted: Sat - December 1, 2007 at 07:24 PM