The Defining Generation
Defining Human Rights
WHO Is My Brother
In 1974 singer/songwriter Harry Chapin released an album containing a song originally penned by his wife and titled "Cat's in the Cradle." The lyrics reflected a common sentiment among the young that their parents had become too preoccupied with making a living to build a life. It was a surprising and perhaps unfair, but valid indictment of men and women of the Greatest Generation who's one desire was that their children would have everything THEY did not.
Certainly it is a noble dream for any mother and father to wish for their children a more prosperous life than they had in their own youth. This was acutely true among the men and women who gave birth to the Baby Boom. These were men and women who had suffered through the Great Depression only to come of age in a world at war where they themselves, by virtue of the demands of service, saw the carefree years of their youth supplanted by the ugly realities of war. In the post-war economic and technological boom it was quite understandable that these men and women would want a better life for their own children.
Sadly however, "enough" was never enough, either in terms of money or conveniences. The drive to succeed and "keep up with the Joneses" spurred a generation of hard working fathers who wanted to give their children everything. Rather than gratefully accept such sacrifice, these young eschewed the long hours and work-a-holic lifestyle that denied them quality time with mom and especially, dad. Chapin's hit song illustrates this well from the standpoint of one such fathers:
"A child arrived just the other day,
(He) came into the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay,
He learned to walk while I was away."
"My son turned 10 just the other day,
(He) Said 'Thanks for the ball now, c'mon lets play.'
'Will you teach me to throw?' I said, 'Not today. I've got a lot to do.'
He said 'That's Okay.'"[i]
The prosperous "Happy Days" of the 1950s provided the young men and women of the Baby Boom with a carefree lifestyle that fulfilled all but a sense of purpose. Middle and Upper Class young, having never known want and need, failed to appreciate the privilege they enjoyed or to understand the underlying history that motivated their parents to prioritize material possessions. Growing civil unrest in the South and inner cities in the latter part of the 1950s vividly illustrated to these teens of a new generation the plight of the American poor and, whether out of compassion or out of a sense of guilt, many found the sense of purpose they had sought for in the challenge of addressing economic inequities in America. Young men and women he had everything found it easy to forsake their own privilege in a desire to help those who had nothing. For them however, the real challenge was in finding a way to address those inequities--a vehicle through which to effect change and "share the wealth." Their zeal and idealism was not always welcome however, especially at a time when our nation was involved in a cold war of ideology wherein any form of socialism was quickly branded "Communism".
Reverend Jesse Jackson, an early leader for social change under Dr. Martin Luther King in promoting programs for the poor said, "Never look down on a person unless you are helping him up." In that, he speaks to two issues; he warns against prejudice and stereotyping the less fortunate, and advocates for assistance to the needy. It is a call to a life process we call "Humanitarianism," defined as "an informal ideology of practice, whereby people practice humane treatment and provide assistance to others; it is the doctrine that people's duty is to promote human welfare."[ii] That informal ideology resounded in the young of the Defining Generation, and motivated them to unprecedented activism, both at home and abroad.
Such benevolence is not,
however, universally approved of or admired. Friedrich Nietzsche
(1844-1900), the German philosopher whose writings were broadly read and
accepted in American society, eschewed programs of social welfare. He
largely saw "charity" as a means whereby the weak and poor took
advantage of the strong and the rich, thereby remaining unmotivated to set
to the work of improving their own lives. A common refrain during the
first half of the Twentieth Century was the statement, "Pull yourself
up by your own bootstraps." While the origins of that quote is
unknown, it became widely popular after it was published in James Joyce's Ulysses
in 1922, and continues to be widely used to this day.
The compassion, concern for community, and cultural co-operation that flourished among the young of the Defining Generation was not unique to them. Humanitarianism speaks of a moral obligation, rooted in Scripture, and thus was an important part of American Society when the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. It was just this sense of community that enabled them to pull together and survive, and even that survival became possible only because of the kindness and concern of their neighbors, the Native Americans. In those early days survival of even the weakest was critical to the success of the whole, demanding that they pull together, help each other out as necessary, and share together in their success. The early Pilgrims shared a strong sense of family and community, a belief that "I am my brother's keeper." It was essential to their survival, critical to the common good. When the first year of crisis was past they gathered together for a communal meal, inviting their brothers of the Indian nation, to give thanks for God's graciousness and for the help of each other.
From a perspective of religious faith the moral obligation to help those in need is aptly and bluntly defined in I John 3:17 "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him." At Plymouth Rock, numbering only slightly more than 100 souls, it was easy to see every person in the community as a "brother." This was a manageable "circle of responsibility." One hundred fifty years later more than 2,000,000 souls lived in the American colonies and it became much more difficult to define to whom each American had a debt of responsibility in time of need. Biblical teachings still greatly influenced American society with its challenge toward brotherhood, but due the sheer size of the American population the question became:
"Who is my
Obviously, of course, brotherhood is first and foremost defined within the context of the contiguous family (mother, father, children, grandparents), and then broadened to include the extended family (uncles, aunts, and cousins). Historically Americans, as well as other world societies, have "pulled together" within the family to aid and assist each other for the common good. We are however, a social species, and the term brotherhood has generally been expanded to include a social network such as church and secular fraternal organizations. In smaller communities, such as those that arose in the desolate West, entire communities became rather familial. In thinking of the frontier one cannot escape visions of wagon trains banded together for security and the common good, or the traditional "barn raising" when an entire community turned out to help a brother and his family.
As our nation has grown and our people gained a sense of nationalism, brotherhood has further expanded often to theoretically include ALL who are Americans. By the 1860s our population had increased to more than 31 million souls and, during the Civil War of that period, we are reminded that the conflict pitted "brother against brother," both figuratively and literally. Furthermore, during any time of war those who serve in uniform develop a keen sense of brotherhood, as aptly illustrated in the popular World War II series "Band of Brothers". During World War II that "brotherhood" numbered 16 million, a very large circle of familial responsibility.
Thus broadly defined in history, with a mounting sense of personal responsibility to one's brothers and sisters the 60s generation was still confronted with the question as to how large was that brotherhood to whom they had a responsibility. For the first time in American history it would take on a global perspective to include ALL humanity, a brotherhood and sisterhood numbering 3 billion people.
While we would not in any way wish to take away from the generous heart of previous generations of Americans, from the birth of our nation in 1776 until January 20, 1961, the United States remained largely isolationistic. American society pulled together in difficult times, uniting for the common good. The nineteenth century did produce great philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie who gave millions to improve American society. Global needs were addressed by visionary young men and women who, like their foreign counterparts, traveled to underprivileged and pagan nations as missionaries, supported by the charitable contributions of churches at home. For the most part however, until the Great Depression forced state and federal programs of benevolent assistance to the poor, there existed few government programs to address our nation's most needy. Furthermore, beyond those who became foreign missionaries there was little personal concern in America for poverty, disease, and human rights abuses abroad. Essential, one did his "Christian duty" by giving to the church, when then dispatched and supported those idealists who became missionaries of doctors abroad.
Before one judges too harshly the isolationist tendencies of early America, it is important to remember that while world population was small (only about 1.5 billion before 1900), until the Twentieth Century our world was geographically a very large and expansive place. It took weeks to travel from the United States to foreign nations either to the East or to the West. From a standpoint of practicality, with the exception of neighboring Canada and Mexico, what happened in the rest of the world "was not our concern" because we remained isolated not only by philosophy but by distance. While those miles that separated us would remain static however, advances beginning with the Wright Brothers successful flight in 1903, suddenly made our world much smaller. Even then, however, Americans tended to keep to them selves, concentrate on problems at home, and look the other way when distasteful events happened elsewhere around the globe.
In 1916 Woodrow Wilson won election to a second term as President under the slogan, "He kept us out of war." The conflict that had begun two years earlier was seen by the American public as "Europe's War," certainly no concern for America. One year later American Doughboys were at last sent to France to join the battle under a new slogan, "The world must be made safe for democracy." Admirably, within 18 months American intervention turned back the tide of aggression and freed a continent.
In his April 6, 1917,
speech to Congress calling for American intervention in World War I,
President Wilson placed a priority upon bringing "peace and safety to
all nations and (making) the world itself at last free." It was an
admirable goal, reflecting a new role for the United States in world
affairs and amplified by President Wilson's efforts to enroll the United
States in a new League of Nations that was proposed in the Paris peace
talks that ended the Great War. Wikipedia notes: "The League's goals
included disarmament, preventing war through collective security, settling
disputes between countries through negotiation diplomacy and improving
global welfare. The diplomatic philosophy behind the League represented
a fundamental shift in thought from the preceding hundred years."[iii]
Admirable as was the concept behind the League of Nations, for President Wilson it was a hard sell. Article X called for member nations to be prepared to deploy military forces around the world to confront any aggression. For an American public that was welcoming home 2 million men and women who had already sacrificed for the security of Europe and that mourned the loss of 100,000 of them who had paid the ultimate sacrifice, the idea of having to go back and do it all again was reprehensible. The U.S. Senate, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge who had long proposed a grander role for America in world affairs but who opposed the League of Nations as undermining American sovereignty, refused to ratify this new world community. Over the next two decades the United States was to become vociferously isolationistic, avoiding global conferences and treaties, restricting trade, and even capping the influx of foreign immigrants into the United States.*
In 1920 the American public
in general wanted only to be left alone to enjoy the fruits of the
industrial boom and a strong economy, giving way to the hedonism of the
"Roaring Twenties." Still, there remained some who were
forward-thinking enough to be concerned for conditions around the world.
During the Great War Eddie
Rickenbacker earned acclaim as America's Ace of Aces by killing Germans
and shooting down airplanes. Witnessing the post-war poverty of his former
enemy, he actively called for American aid to rebuild that nation. In 1922
he proposed his Rickenbacker Plan
for World Peace. "I likened Germany to a tramp, out of a job,
hungry, poorly clothed and desperate--practically in the gunner," he
wrote in his autobiography. "Some might have said it served the
German people right, but I could not feel that way
that we in America should help those people realize their
It was now in our own interest to lend a hand to lift
the German people to their feet again
If we did not come to Germany's
aid, I could foresee some kind of dictatorship arising."[iv]
the Rickenbacker Plan for World
Peace received positive attention in the media, due largely to the
man's celebrity, "the public
was not interested."[v]A
limited amount of foreign aid was in fact provided to the struggling
nation, but it fell far short of what was needed to lift them above the
tragedy their defeat in war had wrought. Indeed, they began looking
elsewhere for a "savior."
In the closing months of the "Roaring Twenties" the bottom fell out and the United States found itself in a Great Depression, millions of Americans faring little better than the poorest citizens of third world countries. That economic collapse was universally felt at about the same time around the world. Canada was hit harder than any nation other than the United States. Great Britain's exports dropped 50% and unemployment reached more than 20%. In an Australian economy dependent upon selling its agricultural products abroad, unemployment reached 29%. In Japan, which was a growing economic power in the world, more than 3 million workers became unemployed, personal income dropped 30%, and the value of exports plummeted by 50%.
Perhaps the hardest hit was
the nation of Germany, still struggling to rebound from the destruction of
World War I and faced with continuing to pay war repatriations. To further
compound the problem, American financial aid to Germany for its rebuilding
effort dried up with the collapse of our nation's banking system. In 1934
the German people finally found the savior they sought as Adolph Hitler
ascended to power as Chancellor. He was indeed the dictator Eddie
Rickenbacker had warned might arise and 45 years later he wrote, "I
still believe that (the Rickenbacker Plan for World Peace) would have
worked. It is certainly a tragic and inescapable fact that World War II,
the most terrible in the history of mankind, did occur. It cost the United
States alone $600 billion to fight that war. Had we spent 2 percent of
that sum in 1922 (to help
The impact of the New York
Stock Market crash and subsequent ripple effect around the globe clearly
demonstrated that whatever happened in the United States impacted the rest
of the world. Conversely, it was hard for struggling depression-era
Americans to perceive that what happened in the rest of the world effected
With world attention being
focused inward Japan took advantage of the distraction to invade and
occupy Manchuria in 1931. Perceived by both the
Japanese imperialism and aggression continued into China over the years that followed, becoming increasingly violent and brutal. On December 12, 1947, Japanese aircraft made an unprovoked attack upon the U.S.S. Panay, an American gun boat on patrol in the Yangtze River to protect American merchant shipping. Three American sailors were killed, 43 sailors and 5 civilians were wounded, and the Panay was sunk. The incident created international tension, but the United States, eager to avoid war, settled for an apology and payment of an indemnity of $2,214,007.36.
Exactly a year and a day after the Panay Incident, Japanese military forces marched into and took control of the Chinese capitol of Nanking. For the next six weeks the invaders pillaged the city, raping and killing in a fashion that would rival the atrocities of Nazi Germany. No accurate tally of casualties is available to this day, but estimates put the death toll at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Chinese, most of them civilian men, women and children. Japanese media didn't shy away from the massacre, reporting on the action in a militaristic manner that would justify it in the homeland. Reports smuggled out to free world media told of pregnant women being raped, then their bellies opened up so that the unborn fetus could be tossed into the air and caught on the point of a bayonet. It was said that Japanese soldiers beheaded so many Chinese that their arms became sore.
Reports of the genocide were published in the New York Times, Reader's Digest, Time Magazine, and other reputable news outlets. But the nature of the atrocities reported were so heinous and incomprehensible, most of the American public opted to believe they were untrue embellishments. Furthermore, people of the United States had little concern for what was happening in Asia. A far-more-fearsome threat loomed in Europe.
The fate of a quarter million or more Chinese savaged by Japan, millions of Soviet citizens massacred by Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin in the Great Purge of the late 1930s, or the 6 million Jews who were murdered by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime during the Holocaust, bear sobering testimony to the cost of indifference to world affairs. Although in the latter example the full range of that atrocity was not revealed until 1945, there was ample evidence of the growing genocide as early as 1939. Tragically, for the general public and the politicians who controlled American policy in that decade, it was easier to go into denial or isolate the problem by asking, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Ultimately 16 million children of that indifferent generation would pay for the isolationist views of their parents at the cost of nearly a half-million lives lost in combat.
To the credit of The Greatest Generation, not only did they confront and defeat the mass-murders that had inflicted historic levels of violence and depravity upon man kind, they learned from the mistakes of their parents. In 1947 the Marshall Plan, named for the U.S. Secretary of State, set forward programs of financial and humanitarian assistance to rebuild war-torn Europe. That aid however came with a caveat, tied to issues of human rights; recipient nations had to agree to admirable but fundamental civil rights for their people. Unwilling to make those concessions to freedom the Soviet Union opted out and we entered more than a decade of Cold War. Through the Marshall Plan more than $13 billion in aid was delivered to needy countries that acquiesced to the human rights stipulation. By the time the plan had run its course, all but Germany had returned to an economic growth above their pre-war levels.
The Marshall Plan was a proactive step, in light of the lessons learned from post World War I policy, to grow democracy and freedom by spreading prosperity. That philosophy may be best echoed in the words of General Lucius Clay. After the war ended there was concern that the extreme poverty of war-devastated Germany would drive that nation to cling to our new enemy, the Soviet Union. In defense of the Marshall Plan Clay noted, "There is no choice between being a communist on 1,500 calories a day and a believer in democracy on a thousand."
Further to the credit of lessons learned from past mistakes, even while World War II was at its zenith the United States entered into discussions with our allies for creation of a global fraternity similar to, or supplanting, the League of Nations. When the United Nations was formed to replace the earlier League that the U.S. Senate had spurned, this time the United States became not only a member, but an active participant.
In yet another irony, during the 1950s while the United States adopted a more global mission and additional programs were proposed to address world inequities, the chasm between the American middle class and those who lived in abject poverty seemed to expand. It would not be inaccurate to say that as we became more concerned on a global scale, we lost sight of the needy at home. The Roosevelt programs of the 1930s became the first major steps in government programs of financial assistance to the needy (as opposed to previous programs of social welfare as frequently a charitable program from within America's churches.) In contrast to developing social welfare programs of the 50s and 60s however, the New Deal focused primarily on providing work through Federally created job forces and stimulating the economy through public spending (salaries) on projects, rather than on welfare handouts. Unearned subsidies to American needy were often denigrated by many hard-working Americans bent on achieving success and the American Dream through the sweat of the brow. In was in this context that an earlier refrain gained new prominence, "Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps."
In his autobiography one of
the great success stories of the Defining Generation, General Colin Powell,
addressed this continuing philosophy when two decades after the turbulent
60s he served under two Presidents who had grown up under the bootstrap
mentality. He noted: "Never in the two years I worked with Ronald
Reagan and George Bush did I detect the slightest trace of racial
prejudice in their behavior. They led a party, however, whose principal
message to black Americans seemed to be: lift yourself by your bootstraps.
All did not have bootstraps; some did not even have boots."[vii]
On January 21, 1961, our President introduced a new concept in the war on poverty, illiteracy, and human rights. For nearly two centuries our country benefited from PHILANTHROPISTS who gave of their wealth to build schools, libraries, orphanages, and hospitals. During that time CHARITIES had time and again addressed the needs of people in crisis, tended to the poor, and donated funds to missionaries both at home and abroad. HUMANITARIAN organizations like the American Red Cross provided needed goods, medicine and services around the world as well as at home.
Speaking to all of America, President John F. Kennedy told us on that day, "The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life." It was a reminder to think globally--to develop a sense of brotherhood not only locally or nationally, but globally.
Narrowing his focus to the young he continued: "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
The President concluded with a challenge that would resonate for decades to come. It is, perhaps, that president's most-remembered phrase and became the anthem of the Defining Generation: "Ask not what your country can do for youask what you can do for your country." It was a call to VOLUNTEERISM, giving not only of our resources but giving of ourselves.
In that moment many of the young men and women of the Defining Generation at last found the vehicle to give their own lives a new sense of meaning and purpose.
In 1921 the
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