Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The War


I've gotten into the habit of rewatching Ken Burns' heartrending World War II documentary about once a year. It's the one popular work that truly matches up with my grandparents' descriptions of the war: Both what it was like to be deployed abroad, and at home in the US on the industrial front. The series does a gripping job of conveying how uncertain and at times how dire events were, and what it was like not truly understanding the significance or necessity of the conflict until its final, ugly days. The War also depicts a very different United States. One that is fast receding behind us as historical change moves ever quicker and grinds ever finer.

Growing up, the conflict was woven into the backdrop of daily life. Everything from the stories of grandparents to the Japanese-influenced home decor of those who'd served in Japan during the occupation, to bridges and enormous steel building and other West Coast infrastructure that had been hastily built to help send history's largest armadas steaming out into the Pacific. Even forty years later The War had a physical and cultural presence, which didn't begin to fade from view until the 1990s.

A Different Narrative 

Public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons
Another narrative that was part and parcel of life growing up as a member of Generation X (the 1965 - 1980 cohort), was that the generation that fought in World War II was racist. In Hollywood action films of the 1970s and 80s you almost always knew who the white baby boomer hero was because he had "ethnic" friends, and he stood up to old crusty whites guys who hated "those people." Racists at movies and on television overwhelmingly belonged to a specific age group.

The reality, as always, was vastly more complex. Before the baby boomers graduated high school, the World War II generation, both black and white, had done nearly all the heavy lifting of the Civil Rights Era. They'd organized protests and boycotts in the south. They marched and were beaten, or had acted as observers and Freedom Riders (the latter were more the Korean War generation) and were clubbed down. They tried court cases and won. They sat in judgment on the bench, and struck down Jim Crow laws across the southern states. In the legislative bodies they enacted laws to dismantle institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing, and most importantly, at the ballot box. When militant southern politicians of an older generation tried to block the court-ordered integration of schools by inciting mob violence or mobilizing the organs of law enforcement and the National Guard, members of the World War II generation went into the south as regular army troops and federal marshals to open those schools to black children. In national elections they installed legislative majorities and presidents who finally tackled America's most contentious and long-lived political issue: full equality for blacks under the law. One that in many ways had been the third rail of American politics since the 1880s.

And all before most the boomers were old enough to start voting.

A Different Perspective 

During my undergraduate days (a whole three years ago) I spent several months immersed in the 1940s - 50s courtesy of some cultural and regional history courses. The view found in documents and cultural artifacts from that period was far more complicated than the one I grew up with in boomer-produced popular culture. The World War Two generation had flocked to hit Broadway shows and award-winning movies that addressed race, as well as wrote and read numerous works of literary science fiction and later produced and watched television that explored the same. More interestingly, most members of that generation saw themselves as more enlightened and opened minded than their parents on these issues. Earlier, whites of the WWII generation had been condemned by many of their elders for the amount of "race music" they listened to in the form of jazz and swing in their youth and during the war years. Traditionalists during the 1930s had despaired about the future of the country in their hands.

One of the more interesting interviews I came across as a student, touching on the 50s was one with the NAACP's first field director in Portland, Oregon, recollecting his arrival here in the city. The local status quo had been upended during the war when thousands of black workers had moved into the area to work at the Kaiser shipyards on the Columbia River. Steady progress was underway after the war in dismantling practices like redlining, in which white realtors and bankers would only sell and fiance houses for black people within segregated neighborhoods. The director credited most of those advances to funerals. Namely that it was an older generation dying off during the 1950s that cleared the way for more open-minded individuals to move into power and enact changes they had been fighting for during the 30s and 40s.

There were of course racists in what Tom Brokaw termed The Greatest Generation. Almost certainly more as a percentage than in succeeding cohorts. Which makes the accomplishment of so radically altering the legal and social fabric of the US all the more laudable. In the end, it wasn't easy, and it was certainly much more complicated than our present and often self-serving political narratives let on.

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