Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Neiberg, Michael S.
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Rose, Kenneth D.
Accession Number: 209577973
Full Text: Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II. By Kenneth D. Rose (London: Routledge Press, 2008. xvii plus 361 pp.).

A book like this one was probably inevitable. All of the popular sentiment about "The Greatest Generation" was bound to produce a more critical scholarly analysis. Even many members of that generation, most famously Andy Rooney, grew tired of the excessive adulation, aware as they were that they were no more or less special than the men and women of any other generation and, perhaps more importantly, that placing all of the men and women of the World War II generation under one giant label destroyed the tremendous complexity and variety that characterize any large group of people.

Kenneth Rose's purpose in writing this book is to break down the already well-worn cliches about the World War II generation. The goal is laudable, and the book largely succeeds in fleshing out much of the diversity of opinion, controversy, and intense disagreements that shaped the World War II generation. Indeed, their differences, much more than any presumed sense of consensus, made the generation what it was. The usual black eyes of the World War II years, including the racism that produced extensive support for the removal of Japanese Americans and the continuation of a segregated military to fight a war for democracy and freedom, are to be found here.

Much of the book demonstrates that the men and women who fought World War II closely resembled those who had fought America's other wars. There is nothing really all that surprising in this conclusion, but the whitewash of the greatest generation myth has tended to obscure it. The men and women of the World War II generation were, after all, materialistic, not particularly ideological, and interested in the normal vices of sex (much of it extramarital, premarital, or homosexual), alcohol, and greed. The point Rose wants to make is not so much that these vices make the men and women of the World War II generation any less heroic, but that they make them normal.

For the most part this social history carefully walks the fine line between analysis and blunt revisionism. Still, every once in a while Rose takes his argument too far down that road to revisionism. Chapter three in particular places too much emphasis on a supposed lack of patriotism among these men and women. That there was a lack of understanding of the global ideological dimensions of the war does not mean that people did not feel a rise in patriotic sentiment. Similarly, there are a few occasions where Rose is a little too flippant in his myth busting, such as the photo caption on page 93. The image is from the 1943 race riot in Detroit and is captioned "The Greatest Generation in action."

Rose claims to base the book mostly on primary sources and there are many such sources here. But any reader familiar with the recent work of scholars such as Paul Fussell, Gerald Linderman, and John Dower will hear more than faint echoes of their analyses. Rose is therefore more adept at adding to the complexity of this field than he is in breaking any astonishingly new ground. Among those primary sources are many well-known works such as those by William Manchester, Bill Mauldin, Ernie Pyle, and E. B. Sledge. One particular strength of the analysis of primary materials is his discussion of war literature. Rose has demolished the still lingering notion that World War II (in contrast to World War I) failed to produce great works of literature. Rose reminds us that the war produced Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Randall Jarrell, Kurt Vonnegut, and many more. Perhaps more importantly, Rose shows the depth of these works and how they reveal the diversity of American experiences in the years 1941-1945.

Rose follows the World War II generation home, eschewing the usual good news story of the GI Bill, baby booms and a mass exodus out to the suburbs. Instead, he shows the immense difficulties many men (and women) had in readjusting to peace time. The postwar years were marked by soldiers holding grievances against civilians whom they believed had grown rich while remaining safe at home, skyrocketing divorce rates (as well as skyrocketing marriage rates), and the societal difficulties of dealing with large numbers of wounded men. Fears of a massive economic downturn, an unstable post-war world, and the expectation of massive social changes made 1945 both a year of triumph and of anxiety.

Rose argues that it was not so much the greatness of this generation as their ordinariness that matters. There was nothing inherently unique about it that made it more able or more willing to meet the challenges it faced. Rather, what is remarkable from a distance of more than sixty years is the astonishing range of beliefs and experiences of this generation. To make this statement, he believes, is not to denigrate the men and women of these years, but to return to them a sense of humanity and, in historiographic terms, their agency as well. Rather than being members of a group that moved with an odd like-mindedness, they were men and women with interests, beliefs, and motivations that were often at odds with those of their peers. In short, they were not nearly as unusual as the myth suggests. For the most part he succeeds, and students and scholars of the period would be well served to give this book a close read. In the end, Rose believes, it was not so much the generation that was great, but the challenge it faced.

Michael S. Neiberg

The University of Southern Mississippi
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.