Posted by: Bill Tracy | January 19, 2010

A Generation To End All Generations?

It’s been 12 years now since television news reader Tom Brokaw published his book, The Greatest Generation. In that time, it’s become a generally accepted notion that the generation of my parents was at least great, if not the greatest. They survived the Great Depression. They fought, and won, World War II. They made this country, so it is said, the greatest nation the earth has ever seen. No other generation in the history of humanity could point to such grand and sweeping accomplishment. It’s a delightful piece of nostalgia, especially for those of us who want to believe our parents were the very best!

Pamphlet on surviving nuclear war

A government published pamphlet explaining how we can survive nuclear weapons raining down upon us.

I’m sure someone could write an equally persuasive book that they were the worst generation. That won’t happen, of course, and I wouldn’t want to see it happen. Worst or best, who knows? I don’t think it’s worth arguing. One thing I do know is they were the last sane generation. They were the last human beings on this planet who grew to maturity without concept or consciousness of instant, human-induced total annihilation anywhere in the recesses of their psyches. No generation of human beings since them have experienced the world as it was, and no generation ever will again.

My generation, the Baby Boom, is the first human generation to develop brains that hold the core reality of potential human-induced annihilation. My parents inherently understood the usual dangers of life – natural disasters, human criminality, famine, dangerous animals, economic deprivation, disease epidemics, perhaps even pandemics. Humans had considered all that a normal part of life for tens of thousands of years, for thousands of generations. But outside of some wild, science-fiction fantasy, their brains never conceived the reality of a few men killing virtually every living thing on the planet in a matter of minutes and with no warning. This is now a fundamental difference in what it means to be human. People today are not the people of yesterday.

I believe this is hugely important, and I don’t think humanity has even begun to ponder seriously what it means, let alone comprehend it. I don’t think we’ve begun to accept that a change of such magnitude has even occurred. If we find a way to survive, I think social scientists hundreds of years from now will see this demarcation as important as the dawn of organized agriculture 10,000 years ago. On the other hand, maybe I’m just a nut who thinks too much!

Nuclear explosion.

Nuclear explosion. Image courtesy U.S. Dept. of Energy

I can’t claim to have done a lot of research into this idea. I’ve seen some writings that suggest the apparent change to an instant gratification society may have been caused by this mental shift. My parents knew they could save money to buy things in the future because the future was reasonably dependable. Their future may not have come to what they expected, but it was always there. The $200 they had put away for a new refrigerator may have ended up going for granny’s gall bladder operation, but life went on. Later generations could not be sure of a future so waiting a year or two to save money for that magnificent big-screen TV was a needless risk – in a year or two the world may no longer exist!

The first time this whole concept became real to me was just after I moved to the Washington, DC area to live in the mid-1980s. I was already trained/indoctrinated/propagandized to think about nuclear non-survival, and in Washington it seemed to have a whole different meaning. I knew this was the real “ground zero,” dead center of the nuclear bull’s eye, or so I thought. I figured at least 10 per cent of the Soviet Union’s full nuclear arsenal had to be trained on Washington. It was sort of a relief living there to know instant death was assured when nukes started flying. No worries about a slow, painful death from radiation poisoning when you were certain to be instantly vaporized.

U.S. B52 bomber aircraft dropping bombs. Image courtesy United States Air Force.

I was walking on the street one day a few months into my Washington stay. It was a warm summer morning on a residential street in Arlington as I walked the half-mile or so to the Metro station. Suddenly, everything seemed too quiet. I looked around and saw no other human beings anywhere. There were no cars I could see moving on any streets. It only lasted maybe 10 seconds, but it was alarming. I really thought it could be the end – that everyone else somehow knew and had taken cover. There I was, all alone, with a hydrogen bomb about to explode right over my head. What normal person, you ask, could even imagine such a thing? Well, I may not be the most normal person around, but I am surely a product of the nuclear age and the 1950’s culture and the so-called Cold War.

The government of this country knew the psychological war benefits provided by the fearsome specter of nuclear weapons. After the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan, leaflets were dropped saying this unimaginable new bringer of mass death would continue to be used until Japan surrendered. And Japan surrendered, post haste. However, the government was also later concerned about the psychological effects on the people of this country once we knew the Soviets had the bomb too. So they went to work on what they called “emotion management” in the populace. The Web site of the Wessels Living History Farm in Nebraska reports:

“So, a new Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) was set up in 1951 to educate – and reassure – the country that there were ways to survive an atomic attack from the Soviet Union. They commissioned a university study on how to achieve ‘emotion management’ during the early days of the Cold War.

“One of their approaches was to involve schools. Teachers in selected cities were encouraged to conduct air raid drills where they would suddenly yell, ‘Drop!’ and students were expected to kneel down under their desks with their hands clutched around their heads and necks. Some schools even distributed metal ‘dog tags,’ like those worn by World War II soldiers, so that the bodies of students could be identified after an attack.”

School children cowering under their desks hoping to survive nuclear war.

School children cowering under their desks hoping to survive nuclear war. Image courtesy the Cold War/Peace Museum.

This was the beginning of “duck and cover” drills so many children of the 1950s remember. The Carnegie Corporation of New York reports much the same thing although they suggest the possibility of its practical ineffectiveness as well as its psychologically formative aspects:

“Plumb the depths of any Baby Boomer’s psyche and you will, sooner or later, come upon the ‘Duck and Cover’ drills. Tucked into some fold or flap of paranoid, formative experience—cross-referenced to Sputnik Fear and Cuban Missile Trauma—there is the childhood recollection of this oft-repeated exercise.

“Officials at the highest levels of America’s civil defense fully recognized that this exercise provided no real physical protection. Instead, according to a seminal study funded by the Federal Civil Defense Administration at the panicked-dawn of the nuclear arms race, these exercises were to serve as a psychological girder for ‘emotion management,’ providing American youth with the nonsensical notion that they were saving themselves.”

Civil Defense Sign

This Civil Defense sign was everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s. It's cheerily patriotic colors no doubt were meant to inspire hope and confidence in a frightened populace.

Some cities, such as New York, began doing mandatory “civil defense” exercises. When an air raid siren sounded everyone was required to take cover immediately and get off the streets. It pleases me greatly that the Catholic Worker movement saw through this propaganda exercise and resisted. Dorothy Day, Ammon Hennacy and others were repeatedly arrested for violating the ridiculous law behind this fear mongering. They sat quietly on park benches and said at the time it was propaganda aimed at inspiring fear and a foundation of unthinking compliance. Nevertheless, the collective psyche was marked by it.

By the time the 1960s roll around, the effects of this Armageddon mentality are apparent in the popular culture. We have by then accepted the wholly ludicrous national defense policy of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. For those who don’t recall, that policy said neither side would start a nuclear war because they knew it would result in annihilation on both (all) sides. This was seen as good, sound and rational national defense policy at that time – and was the basis for having enough nuclear war devices to destroy the world  hundreds of times over.

In 1964 we actually had a popular new movie entitled, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The movie is pure artistic relief aimed at a very real and pervasive fear. If we can find a way to laugh, surely we can find a way to live with our daily terror. Jean Shepherd, (a Greatest Generation member, born in 1921) the radio storyteller now best known for creating the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, had seen something happening. In a mid-sixties radio broadcast in New York City, he talked about fundamental change that seemed to be making people more willing to take risks. He said in that broadcast:

“Many men live their lives in a straight line. Their lives are the lives of the simple and non-dangerous. They get out of high school, immediately get married, get a job, and they stay behind that lathe or machine or filing cabinet until they cart them out feet first.

“There is a growing population of guys living their lives on the knife-edge of the chasm. They pretend it is not so. They pretend that big dark hole off to their right is just a deep place in the water; you just swim over it. I don’t know. That’s an awful bottomless pit.”

Shepherd is clearly seeing the difference between the way life was lived prior to this time and the newly emerging world of the unreliable future. People were beginning to be less satisfied with a secure career when the future itself was obviously not secure. Typically when a man took a job in the fifties or sixties, he expected to stay with the company a long time, more often than not until he retired. And when he did retire he received a pension from that company. Well, pensions have gone the way of bows and arrows, and today no one would expect to work for one company more than a few years. “Careers” are not cultivated that way.

U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

One of hundreds of U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles placed all over the country ready to deliver human annihilation within minutes. Image courtesy Wessels Living History Farm.

One of the big beer sellers came up with a marketing slogan around this time, “Go for the gusto.” In one of their television ads, they close with this compelling entreaty:

“All the gusto in the world’s out there. And now is the time to get it. You only get one crack at life. So you look for all the gusto you can.”

In other words, you can’t afford to wait. It must be now. Life is short and may not be there even tomorrow. A fearful populace collectively nods its head and buys more beer.

The message reverberates through the popular culture and its advertising. A popular movie in 1989 was Dead Poets Society where we were urged Carpe Diem or go for the gusto right now, today! In 1990 a book, Life is uncertain – Eat Dessert First! is published. I haven’t ever read the book, but it seems that by this time we aren’t even sure life will last long enough to finish our meal, and apparently no one questions this. Before atomic bombs there was no such thing as “fast food.” After atomic bombs, a multi-billion dollar industry springs up devoted to getting people fed before the world suddenly ends. At home, microwave ovens and frozen, pre-cooked food dominates the kitchen. I know I sure don’t want to take a chance on waiting an hour or so while my potato bakes in a conventional oven. Anything could happen.

Prior to transistors and solid-state circuitry, when you turned on a television or radio you had to wait a minute or so while it “warmed up.” Today all such devices are “instant on,” something that was a selling feature when it first appeared. We now need the news of our impending doom without delay.

Today the world has become simply frenetic. No right-minded person would ever write a letter with ink on paper and send it through the mails; that would take days! Even email has become too slow and uncertain. Text messages must be sent instantly to phones and such devices. And we have no time to read so the Twittering world now demands we say what we must in 140 characters or less – by conventional word count that’s less than 30 words. If the world hasn’t vaporized by then, you get another 30 words, but don’t count on it. Anything could happen.

First atomic bomb ever used in war.

This odd looking piece of machinery is what started it all. Named "Little Boy," it was the first atomic bomb used against Japan on August 6, 1945. This thing killed 140,000 people in and around Hiroshima. Image courtesy U.S. Dept. of Energy.

I often sit and think long and hard what it must be like to live in a world that is not like a bundle of TNT with a dangling fuse waiting for the inevitable spark. Such a world as this actually existed before I was born. As good as my imagination is, it is not good enough to show me that world so readily experienced by every human being who preceded me, every human being.

And then I wonder, somewhat more mysterious and puzzled and dark — could this be the real legacy of the “Greatest Generation”?


  1. Every time I hear that term “greatest generation” I want to throw up. I remember that generation (my parents’) as racist, sexist, homophobic, and hidebound. But the worst thing about them is — they won the “good” war and they used the atom bomb and they think that was just fine. “It saved the lives of our American boys.” Who cares about the Japanese? Or the 50 million who died in that “good” war, nine out of ten of them noncombatants. They created this dismaying nostalgia for war that has sent our children to the slaughterhouse over and over again since WWII, always arguing that our brave soldiers are risking their lives in “defense of liberty.” Hogwash! Were our liberties threatened by the Koreans? The Vietnamese? The Panamanians, the Grenadans, the Haitians, the Iraqis, the Afghanis? Or any other country we’ve invaded or in whose governments we’ve meddled?

  2. I think you give too much credit to the “ME” generation. The ColdWar was an abstract to most of them. Instan gratifation came about with the availability of all that STUFF. For many, ME, included YOU, be you black, female, gay, or somewhere else. That was the most significant to happen to any generation for a long time.
    Is instant gratifation/convenience two sides of the same coin ? Seems to me every generation has had it’s own bomb. I picture myself worrying about the BLACK DEATH or the eruption of the near-by volcano. The axiom “All politcs is local ” to me also relates to “All worries aer local” and thats where they end…

  3. Well-written, thoughtful. Thanks for making connections between then and now.

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