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.
Immense controversy continues still about the relief and reform program put through by the new president. Though an economic conservative, I have waged the battle, here and in many other places, including my biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, that he deserves, as Alan Greenspan once put it to me, “a solid 67 percent pass for economics, but an almost perfect 99 percent score for catastrophe-avoidance.” He began his presidency with the famous encouragement that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” provided emergency funds for the banking system (which became preferred shares which the government sold profitably as conditions allowed), reopened and merged banks as appropriate, guaranteed bank deposits, and — of the 17 million unemployed — put 7 million to work in the first year of his administration on workfare programs in conservation and what would today be called infrastructure, but were then known as public works. Thus were built the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge(s), the Chicago waterfront, the Intracoastal Waterway, thousands of miles of roads, and hundreds of parks and airports. The workers also planted tens of millions of trees; Eugene O’Neill taught people how to write and perform plays; the whooping crane was saved; and, “as the storm clouds gathered across the sea,” the aircraft carriers Yorktown and Enterprise (destined to be decisive at Coral Sea and Midway) were constructed by the unemployed, all supervised by Army engineers and Navy shipbuilders. Natural recovery and statutorily reduced hours absorbed another 5 million of the unemployed, and the Social Security system enacted in 1935 provided the safety net for the rest. Farm incomes were reinforced by a referendary agreement among categories of farmers to reduce production, store surpluses, and raise commodity prices to levels at which the agricultural community could survive. This was the successor policy to Hoover’s dumping of surpluses on the global market, and enduring the default in payment of the buyers, while the American farmer was forced off his land by the combined fury of economic hardship, drought, and cyclonic soil erosion.
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.
And, posthumously, FDR had two other bequests to what is now regarded as the Greatest Generation: His G.I. Bill of Rights gave a free year at university for every year in the armed forces and interest-free loans for the start of a small business or acquisition of a farm. He enabled the unemployed of the Thirties to become the middle class of the Fifties. And when Stalin made the stupefying mistake of unleashing the Cold War, it was FDR’s strategic team — Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Charles Bohlen, and others — who devised the containment strategy. This led, with refinements by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Ronald Reagan, to the greatest and most bloodless strategic victory in the history of the nation-state, as the Soviet Union and international Communism simply imploded, collapsed, without a shot being exchanged between the United States and its only remaining rival.
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@example.com.