Last week I received a message from a distinguished retired general and head of a strategic institute in Canada, wringing his hands at the pusillanimity and ambivalence of most current world leaders and the apparent lack of any public appetite for the assertion of any recognizable principles in international affairs. He asked whether I thought the contemporary West could chin itself, if necessary, on facing the sort of challenges that were served up to and mastered by, as they have become known, “the greatest generation.” (This was Tom Brokaw’s coinage, referring to the generation of Americans and, broadly, British and Canadians also, of the period from 1930 to 1960.) I replied that I did not think it was such a great generation spontaneously; it rose to great challenges, and lived in what was ultimately an immensely successful time, because of the leadership it enjoyed. That leadership devised and executed the strategy that brought the West through the Great Depression and World War II, and to the creation of the alliances and institutions that won the Cold War and secured the triumph of democracy and the free-market economy in the world.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, estimates of the level of unemployment varied from 25 to 33 percent (the figures were compiled by the states, and rather unreliably in some cases). Banks had been closed in 46 of the 48 states for some days, and the two remaining states confined bank withdrawals to $10. All stock and commodities exchanges were closed; the Dow Jones Industrial Average had declined 90 percent, to 34 (it’s now around 16,000, though inflation is at least half of the gain); there was no direct relief for the unemployed, who could beg, steal, or starve as career options; and there were machine-gun emplacements at the corners of the great federal buildings in Washington on Inauguration Day, for the first time since the Civil War. The economic system had collapsed; the Hoover administration’s policy prescription, as we now know, was the worst that could have been devised: higher taxes, higher tariffs, and a shrunken money supply, all of which inadvertently poured gasoline on the fire of the Depression. President Hoover, as future Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s mother put it, left office “to the sound of crashing banks.” Thousands of them had failed, and there was no deposit insurance. The whole nation, and the whole Western world, was terrified by the mighty and voracious Depression.
There were many other measures in the New Deal, ranging from genius to poor, but Roosevelt gave the nation hope, got the country through, and eliminated unemployment — by recourse to workfare (which is traditionally, and unfairly, not counted in the statistics of employed people), and then by rearming America in response to the world crisis (which is how the European powers and Japan reduced unemployment — by drafting everyone into the armed forces and defense-production industries). Having been terrified by economic impoverishment, the young and early-middle-aged people of the country learned the virtues of work, collegiality, and a practical application of national spirit. The president led the distressed and afflicted people in coordinated self-help.
Roosevelt recognized that without America, the forces of democracy in the world would be insufficiently strong to prevent the totalitarians from dominating the entire Eurasian land mass, and, as FDR put it in a conflation of two of his speeches, in the tense year of 1940: “We in this hemisphere would be living at the point of a gun . . . fed through the bars of our cage by the pitiless and contemptuous masters of other continents.” He broke a tradition as old as the republic by seeking and winning a third term and mobilized opinion behind supporting the democracies (Britain, Canada, and Australia) against Germany, and shutting off the supply of oil and the ingredients of steel to Japan unless it ceased its aggression against China and Indochina. When Japan attacked the United States and Great Britain at Pearl Harbor and across the Pacific, he led a united country into war for the only time in American history (there was practically no dissent); 13 million men volunteered or were conscripted, and Roosevelt appointees Generals George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz led the United States and its allies to the unconditional surrender of Germany in the West and Italy and Japan altogether. Three hundred thousand Americans died, every one a tragedy, but a 2.5 percent fatal-casualty level against such fierce, powerful, and courageous enemies as Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan was a miraculously light price to pay, strategically, to bring Germany, Japan, France, and Italy into the West as flourishing democratic allies and to ensure the victory of democracy and the free market in most of the world.
Thus, an American born in 1920 who remained active to his or her early seventies saw the country plunged to the depths of economic and psychological depression, pulled up from those depths, attacked by the forces of militant evil, and emerge victorious in the ultimate just war when led by outstanding commanders. That American saw the country challenged by its erstwhile ally (the USSR took over 90 percent of the casualties in subduing Nazi Germany, but the West took 90 percent of the geostrategic assets at stake), and saw the victorious conclusion of the struggle between the superpowers without a general war. It was a Great Generation that did all this, but it was inspired leadership that gave that generation the opportunity to be great. Of the ten presidents, five of each party, who contributed to this magnificent sequence, the only one who was not altogether adequate was Jimmy Carter, and he had his moments. The rest ranged from the brave decency of Gerald Ford to the uneven qualities of JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon, to the solid distinction of Truman and Ike, to the uplifting success of Reagan, to the genius of FDR — but the really great thing about the Greatest Generation was that it elevated fine leaders. If this generation of Americans would do the same, it would be great also. They are capable of it, of attracting and electing great leaders and of responding to them. In a democracy, it starts and ends with the people; if the people want greatness, they have to find leaders who will bring it out of them. It can be done, and looking at the deterioration of the United States in absolute and relative terms in the past 20 years, it must be done, and so, it will happen. “The fault, Dear Brutus” (who was an assassin), “is in ourselves.” So is the greatness.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].