To truly honor our World War II heroes, we also have to honor their progressivism that made this a freer and more equal country. **Photo is Harvey's father, Murray N. Kaye (1923-1990), from his days in the US Army during WWII. He was drafted out of college, trained as an engineer with the ASTP at Washington State, and then served with the 11th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge where he was wounded, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart.
This past Saturday, April 2, Florida Republicans launched a six-months-long, seven-city "Greatest Generation Tour" in Pensacola's Veterans Memorial Park. Declaring their intention to recognize and honor the patriotic sacrifices and achievements of those who served the country in World War II -- and noting that more than 1,000 of those veterans are passing away each day -- state GOP spokesperson Don Salter stated that "we need to show our appreciation before it's too late."
Nice words -- spoken, I am sure, with the utmost sincerity. And yet I seriously doubt that the Sunshine State Republicans will -- or even can -- properly recognize and honor the achievements of those whom we have come to call the "Greatest Generation." It's not simply that previous celebrations and commemorations have repeatedly failed to fully appreciate what those then-young Americans actually accomplished. It's also that Republican conservatives -- no, let's face it, reactionaries -- essentially have placed the memory and legacy of those who confronted the horrors of the Great Depression and the Second World War under siege.
Over and over again, Americans, both right and left, have failed to properly acknowledge how much the men and women of the 1930s and 1940s actually accomplished. Against historical expectations, in the face of powerful opposition, and despite their own terrible faults and failings, those Americans not only rescued the nation from economic destruction, defended it against political tyranny, and turned it into the strongest and most prosperous country on earth, but at the very same time made it freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before. Arguably the most progressive generation in U.S. history, they not only rejected the easy temptations of authoritarianism and isolationism and responded with courage and determination to Franklin Roosevelt's democratic New Deal and vision of the Four Freedoms. They also subjected big business to public account and regulation, empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people, organized labor unions, fought for their rights, reconstituted the "We" in "We the People," established a social security system, expanded the nation's public infrastructure, improved the environment, and -- having imbued themselves with fresh democratic convictions, hopes, and aspirations -- went on to fight and defeat Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan.
I feel confident that the Florida GOP's Greatest Generation Tour will both warmly register our shared admiration and affection for our parents', grandparents', and great-grandparents' wartime labors and sacrifices and clearly highlight their faith, courage, and determination. However, if past events of this sort are anything to go by, I do not imagine it will recount our elders' achievements in regulating capital, creating Social Security, securing the right to bargain collectively, and pursuing the vast array of New Deal public works projects that transformed the American landscape and public good for the better. I doubt that it will recount the energies, efforts, and enactments of relief, recovery, reconstruction, and reform that not only rebuilt America and enabled the country to turn itself into the "Arsenal of Democracy" and then destroy its enemies on two fronts, but also enabled millions of veterans, boosted by the grand public initiative known as the G.I. Bill, to get educated, housed, and ready to work and thereby turn themselves into the great American middle class.
Of course, it must be granted that the majority of 1930s Republicans despised both the New Deal and working people's struggles to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy. Indeed, all but writing the script for today's political and economic right, they charged that FDR's New Deal was leading the country to either fascism or communism and that President Roosevelt himself was intent upon establishing a dictatorship. So, having opposed the Greatest Generation's Depression-era labors back then, why should we expect them to make much of those things now?
But in that case, why do today's conservative Republicans feel empowered to make so much of the Greatest Generation's wartime struggles when their political ancestors opposed not only the initiatives of the New Deal but also, right up until we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, the prospect of the United States standing forcefully against Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan's ruling military clique? Committed to isolationism and eager not to antagonize the Axis powers, most GOP congressmen voted against FDR's defense requests to revise America's neutrality laws, expand the American military, institute a military draft, and create a "Lend-Lease" program for Britain and its allies to sustain their resistance to fascism. They voted against it even as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were overrunning Europe and East Asia, respectively, and showing every likelihood of coming after us next.
Lest I be misread, let me make myself absolutely clear. I heartily endorse the Florida GOP's efforts to honor the Greatest Generation. However, I urge them not to slight those same men and women by failing to appreciate all that they actually achieved for this country, for themselves, and for us. And having said that, I urge Republicans from Florida to Alaska to stop dishonoring the memory and legacy of the Greatest Generation with their assaults on Social Security, the rights of working people, and the public good.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye