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Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, published in 1999, virtually deified the 16 million American men and few thousand women who fought the Second World War as well as those on the home front who supported them. Subsequent generations did not crusade against fascism 1 as the "Greatest Generation" did from December 8, 1941 until the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945. Many believe that all subsequent generations have been found wanting for they have bitched, moaned, been self-indulgent, and selfish. They are mistaken.2 The people of the "Greatest Generation" were not saints.
Although certainly laudatory, those Americans involved in WWII were very human beings with all the strengths and weaknesses of humanity. Here are a few examples. Because of nostalgia, it is easy to forget that over 75% of those who served in the military were forced to do so. They were drafted. Some who volunteered did so to get a better deal than draftees, a form of draft avoidance. Some successfully avoided the military like John Wayne or men in critical occupations or with disabilities or too many dependents. Women were not forced to become part of the military machine; social mores saved them. Corruption in war contracting existed early on so the Senate created the Senate Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program under the leadership of Harry S. Truman.3 Military personnel and civilians engaged in illicit sex, lots of it.
Jane Mersky Leder pricks the notion that men and women of the "Greatest Generation" were all God-fearing true to my wife/sweetheart/husband heterosexual down home innocents. Many were adulterers. Of the some eighty percent of the military personnel away from home for two or more years who admitted to regular sexual intercourse, nearly a third had wives. Then there were those at home. Prostitution, some of it government sanctioned, increased. The military took the wise precaution of providing sex and hygiene education and distributing fifty million free condoms a month. After D-Day, the U.S. Army created two mobile VD treatment centers on trucks to follow the troops as they marched across western Europe.
Men and women did marry, at home and abroad, and more frequently than before. Marriage rates rose to 20% above pre-war levels. In 1946, the first non-war year and after most of them men had returned home, the marriage rate jumped by almost 50%, 118 per 1,000 women fifteen years and older. GIs married women abroad, some one million brides and soon-to-be brides. We do know that well over a million and a quarter wives followed their military husbands around the country even though they could not always spend much time with their husbands. Marriage was important to Americans; WWII taught many men, regardless of how they behaved when they were away from home, that they wanted a wife and children.
Lots of children were born. The Baby Boom generation meant about 50 million children born between 1946 and 1961. The rate of births out of wedlock soared; the illegitimate birthrate averaged 8.3 per million from 1942-45. They also produced children while abroad; we can never know how many, except children born of women married to US military personnel. We know, for example, that there were 2,000 children, more or less, born of British mothers and African-American soldier fathers.
Even though Christianity forbids divorce and most Americans saw themselves as Christian, divorces increased immediately after the war and continue to rise until the present day. Hasty wartime marriages were one reason. Another was that millions of couples were separated for three to four years, a factor that encouraged the development of different interests and goals. The government took 16 million men into the military whether they wanted they wanted to or not, thus creating vacancies in the domestic work force. Women and workers imported from Mexico filled the gap. Women have always worked and one in five American women worked outside the home by 1900. During two years of the Second World War, that percentage rose to 50%.
The social revolution was that the majority were married women whereas traditionally, unmarried women had been the ones to work outside the home. Even so, most men and women in those days believed that women should stay at home and be supported by their husbands. The war, however, disrupted social mores. Many women learned that they were as capable as or more capable than men. With husbands gone, they made the decisions. Women built aircraft and flew them into combat zones; they ran companies. Regardless of where she "worked," being "out and about" meant that they learned they could hold their own with men. It also meant that they met men, which sometimes led to sexual relations.
Women consorted with women and men consorted with men as well, at home and in the military. Homosexuals served and died in the military. We do not know how many because it became a crime to be a known homosexual. Sacrificing one's life for the United States, however, was OK.
People were sexual. Many had sexual intercourse with the opposite or the same sex. They married. They had one-night stands. They had affairs. They were human.
World War II was a watershed event in U.S. domestic history. It truly marked the beginning of big government as the U. S. government spent and spent, finally in 1945 more than the Gross Domestic Product. The military draft taught that individual rights paled compared to national needs and desires. The State was supreme. It taught that massive government spending and incredible budget deficits did not spell economic disaster. With the passage of income tax withholding, Congress was given easy access to the pockets of individual citizens, an access it has never relinquished. The income tax allowed it to set social policy as well as to finance most of its operations. It provided the funds to get women to join the work force and then leave it as the war ended.
Leder is unsympathetic to the millions of men who had served in the military during WWII whether they wanted to or not in that she does not seem to think they that deserved their jobs back when the war ended or she believes that the economy was capable of absorbing the millions upon millions of men who served in the military as well as the women who had taken their places. Most experts would not assert that the economy could absorb twelve million men. She does understand that society and the U.S. government spent time, money, and effort to get women to leave their wartime jobs so that men could get their jobs back.
Thanks For The Memories: Love, Sex, and World War II 4 is more sophisticated than that, of course. Leder consulted various documents and studies about the subject and interviewed a number of those who lived through it. She writes well; the book is a good read.
Donald J. Mabry
1. As the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it "a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition."
2. See James Webb, Heroes of the Vietnam Generation, Sgt. Grit. Webb is a former combat Marine. He was Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. He is a novelist. He was just elected U.S.Senator for Virginia as a Democrat.
3. Donald H. Riddle, The Truman Committee. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1964.
4. Jane Mersky Leder,Thanks For The Memories: Love, Sex, and World War II. Westport: Praeger, 2006. 185pp.