How the Greatest Generation Works

National World War II Memorial relief depicting the homecoming of the victorious soldiers
People in the Greatest Generation lived during great strides of technology and economy in the U.S. UniversalImagesGroup/UIG via Getty Images

What makes one generation stand out as "the greatest"? According to journalist and former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, the young men and women who participated in World War II are the "greatest generation any society has produced." In his 1998 book, "The Greatest Generation," Brokaw praises them as "a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order." Of course, not everyone agrees with this sentimental assessment, but its message clearly resonated with the American public; the book sold more than 2 million copies in its first two years in print [source: Larry King Live].

The generation about which Brokaw writes certainly experienced its share of transformative historical events. These men and women were too young to experience the disillusionment of World War I, optimistically hailed as "the war to end all wars." Many remember the relative economic prosperity of the 1920s, but they came of age during a more difficult period -- the Great Depression. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, men from this generation volunteered by the hundreds of thousands to fight in World War II. Others served a supporting role on the home front, filling jobs left empty by the recently departed soldiers.


Once the war was over, this generation oversaw the American economy as it expanded to become the largest in the world. Its members lived through the turbulent 1960s, when civil rights and the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War tested the country's ability to adapt and progress as a nation. Many lived their final years in an age of rapidly advancing technology where personal computers and the Internet drastically changed how Americans lived. Unfortunately, more members of this generation pass away each day; of the approximately 16 million World War II veterans in the United States, only about 2 million were living in November 2010 [source: Veterans Affairs].

Now that you're more familiar with what "The Greatest Generation" lived through, read on to see how their experiences shaped their lives and how Tom Brokaw came to write a bestselling book about them.

Characteristics of the Greatest Generation

In "The Greatest Generation," Tom Brokaw argues that the World War II generation's perseverance through difficult times is a testament to their extraordinary character. Their remarkable actions, during times of war and peace, ultimately made the United States a better place in which to live. Born and raised in a tumultuous era marked by war and economic depression, Brokaw asserts, these men and women developed values of "personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith." These characteristics helped them to defeat Hitler, build the American economy, make advances in science and implement visionary programs like Medicare. According to Brokaw, "[a]t every stage of their lives they were part of historic challenges and achievements of a magnitude the world had never before witnessed."

Brokaw credits the Greatest Generation with much of the freedom and affluence that Americans enjoy today. "They have given the succeeding generations the opportunity to accumulate great economic wealth, political muscle, and the freedom from foreign oppression to make whatever choices they like," he writes. Despite these achievements, however, Brokaw believes that the Greatest Generation remains remarkably humble about what they've done. He concludes, "[i]t is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices."


In an effort to personify these lofty accomplishments, Brokaw profiles a few dozen members of the Greatest Generation, including some who gained significant notoriety in the years following World War II. Andy Rooney, best known for his segment on television's "60 Minutes," was a young sergeant reporting for the Army's newspaper, Stars and Stripes, during the war. Another notable member of this generation was Julia Child, an American chef who spent the war years working for the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency). Several prominent politicians also served in World War II. George Bush, the 41st president of the United States, was a Navy Air Corps pilot who survived after being shot down during a bombing run on a Japanese target. Another was 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole, an Army lieutenant who was gravely wounded as he led a charge against a fortified German position.

Brokaw is passionate in his favorable assessment of such people and the ideals they represent. Click over to the next page to learn what moved him to write about this generation and how others criticize his nostalgic viewpoint.

Tom Brokaw and the Greatest Generation

Tom Brokaw is not himself a member of the Greatest Generation, but his life and career experiences have given him a healthy respect for its members. As a child, he lived at a United States Army Ordnance Depot in Igloo, S.D. There, his father, Red Brokaw, served as a civilian snowplow and construction machinery operator, as well as a maintenance man. While Red was drafted for service in World War II, the base commander at Igloo called him back home to continue his work at the ordnance depot. Brokaw's father-in-law, Merritt "Doc" Auld was a front-line surgeon in North Africa and Italy during the war. Doc's service was so extensive that he only saw his daughter, Meredith, once during her first five years of life. These figures undoubtedly influenced Brokaw's enthusiastic view of the Greatest Generation.

Brokaw was also exposed to many men and women from the World War II generation during his illustrious 39-year journalism career. In fact, he coined the term "Greatest Generation" while covering an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of D-Day. When co-anchor Tim Russert asked Brokaw what he thought of the assembled crowd of veterans, he spontaneously responded, "I think this is the greatest generation any society has ever produced."


Not everyone agrees with Brokaw's complimentary evaluation of the World War II generation. Brokaw himself admits that the men and women of this time made mistakes when it came to McCarthyism, racism and women's rights. For many critics, however, the problem isn't only what the Greatest Generation got wrong but how Brokaw portrays them and their actions. They see his book as simplistic glorification that glosses over the desperation and bloodiness of war. Furthermore, some skeptics argue, the perceived "greatness" of that generation is due in part to the clear good-versus-evil nature of World War II. It's not known, for example, how the Vietnam generation might have responded to their defining conflict if they had faced off against Hitler instead of the vague threat of communism.

Ultimately, it's difficult to say how the Greatest Generation ranked among the others. As with any generation, they achieved great successes and perpetuated serious failures. Ask Tom Brokaw, though, and he will reiterate, "this is the greatest generation any society has ever produced."

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Brokaw, Tom. "Reflections on the 'Greatest Generation.'" Dateline NBC. Nov. 29, 2004. (May 26, 2011)
  • Brokaw, Tom. "Sacrifice and the Greatest Generation." The Wall Street Journal. June 6, 2009. (May 26, 2011)
  • Brokaw, Tom. "The Greatest Generation." New York: Random House, 1998.
  • Brokaw, Tom. "The Greatest Generation Speaks." New York: Random House, 1999.
  • C-SPAN Booknotes. "Tom Brokaw: The Greatest Generation." March 7, 1999. (May 26, 2011)
  • Department of Veterans Affairs. "America's Wars Fact Sheet." November 2010. (May 28, 2011)
  • Duke, Paul. "The Greatest Generation?" The Virginia Quarterly Review. Winter 2002. (May 26, 2011)
  • Elder, Sean. "The Sappiest Generation?" July 31, 2000. (May 26, 2011)
  • Larry King Live. "Tom Brokaw Discusses 'The Greatest Generation.'" March 6, 2000. (May 28, 2011)
  • LifeCourse Associates. "Generations in Anglo-American History." 2011. (May 29, 2011)
  • "Tom Brokaw, NBC News Special Correspondent." Jan. 16, 2009. (May 29, 2011)
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "World War II: In Depth." Jan. 6, 2011. (May 29, 2011)