The yarhzeit memorial candles flickered throughout Wednesday night and Thursday for Gilda’s and my parents. Her father died in 1958. Her mother in 2005. My mother in 1996. My father in 1998.
Born between 1901 and 1924, their generation has been dubbed the Greatest, a designation earned mostly for their contributions during World War II. But they experienced and endured so much more in crafting a legacy for their children and grandchildren.
It is not too presumptuous to ask, what type of America will we bequeath to our offspring? Will we match up to the Greatest Generation’s legacy? Consider what transpired during their formative years through 1971, the year the first of them reached 70, the biblical assignment of what constituted a full life.
As they entered their teenage years the world exploded into war. Even before the United States aided in ending the The Great War (World War I), the Spanish Flu ravaged America and societies around the globe. A decade later the stock market crashed, the Depression began, the Dust Bowl exhausted America’s breadbasket. Lucky ones, like my mother and father and Gilda’s father, managed to emigrate from Europe (Gilda’s mother was born in New York).
The Greatest Generation defeated Nazi Germany, Italian fascism and imperial Japan.
Prior to World War II the United States had tilted toward isolationism. But with victory came the assumption of several mantles—liberator and peacemaker, supporter of progressive democracy and enlightened capitalism, developer and exporter of ideas in medicine, science and technology.
Despite the Korean War, McCarthyism, the Cold War with its capacity for nuclear annihilation, political assassinations and the Viet Nam war, the Greatest Generation soldiered on through the post-war economic boom, the civil rights movement, the space program and cultural transformation perhaps best exemplified by the move to suburbia, rock and roll and the sexual revolution.
The Greatest Generation left a global legacy that included the conquering of many diseases, the genesis of the computer age, the rebuilding of war-ravaged regions, the formation of global pacts for defense, health, trade and care of refugees.
All that and more are threatened by a pandemic that descended during a time of retraction from the belief that the United States has a role, an obligation, to lead the world through partnerships, not through isolated example.
Daily we are advised our future will be different from our present, be it by social distancing measures in restaurants, theaters and sports arenas, or through greater reliance on virtual shopping and workplace employment. Almost all aspects of life will be affected.
Truly transformative changes—legacies—require bold action. Will COVID-19 prompt America to finally adopt universal health care and increase the availability of trained medical personnel in rural areas? With Internet access seen as vital for education and employment, will we finally eliminate Web connectivity deserts in our cities and rural areas? With so many unemployed and the need for infrastructure upgrading of our roads, bridges, airports, dams, harbors and tunnels, will we create a Works Progress Administration à la the Depression era New Deal program that employed millions to build up America? With the Internet forcing faster consolidation in the retail industry, will we find new uses for shuttered shopping centers including affordable housing and low risk penal institutions? With the increased realization of the importance of healthcare workers and educators, as well as public servants who provide police, fire, ambulance, correction services, transportation and waste management, will we more appropriately compensate these contributors critical to our collective existence? Will we take steps necessary to flatten the curve of disparity between the incomes of the wealthiest and the remaining 90% of society?
Will any or all of this happen? There is a streak of individualism in the country that shares the same genes with isolationism and averseness to big government. After 80 years of Social Security there remain diehards who oppose it. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities we all live with. We will never be able to guarantee a new virus strain will not emerge some day, somewhere. But we would be able to smooth out any impact it might have if we have in place a more equal society.