How the Greatest Generation Works

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."

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