Three years ago, I wrote a column titled “The Greatest Generation’s Greatest Failure” for Enter Stage Right. This past weekend, with D-Day anniversary celebrations going on and Ronald Reagan’s death, made me think about that idea again — the idea that the World War II generation was so exhausted after their efforts, so beaten down by the Korean War a scant five years later, that they could not summon the will or the effort to defend or sustain the American way of life against the challenges of 1960s radicalism.
“Those student demonstrations were a mile wide and an inch deep, back then,” I wrote. “They had very few committed leaders. Wholesale expulsions, followed by a refusal to readmit expelled students to any of about 18 top schools — the Ivies, the California state universities, Michigan State, the University of Chicago — would have broken the back of the movement. Thousands of students were lined up on waiting lists to replace the demonstrators. It shouldn’t even have amounted to a hiccup.
“But the college presidents didn’t do it. Not until Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers did we see the kind of guts that was needed…”
Reflecting on Ronald Reagan’s achievements now, it’s clear how revolutionary he was, how much he had to fight against, and how bravely he turned the seemingly unstoppable lava stream of American decline. Because the greatest generation had screwed up thoroughly for about 20 years. Letting leftist rebellion bloom came in the middle.
The reckless, faux tough guys of the Kennedy administration either should have said no to the Bay of Pigs invasion or backed it. The Cuban missile crisis shouldn’t have happened at all. JFK’s assassination and the investigation of it were at the very least complete failures of the executive branch. LBJ relentlessly politicized the Vietnam war — “Reservists vote,” as James Webb has pointed out, so LBJ fought the war with draftees, and hid the budget for it. “The Great Society” set the stage for domestic disintegration. The Civil Rights Act and the follow-on Voting Rights Act, arguably triumphs, have been distorted beyond recognition by legal activism. Nixon, inheriting Vietnam, ended it disastrously. Nixon’s own administration fell apart in a bungle of legendary proportions. Ford was a joke.
By 1980, as Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote on National Review Online last weekend, “President Carter could not govern, desp in both houses of Congress. The U.S. economy was stagnant and beset by a variety of other problems, including soaring inflation and high unemployment, something conventional Keynesian macro-economic policy and the Phillips Curve said was not supposed to happen.” The Ayatollah’s revolution came to Iran, and American hostages languished in captivity.
I wrote three years ago, “Great this generation may have been, and great their achievements, great their valor, their conquests, and the debt we owe them. But it’s equally clear that, when they came home, they wanted no more conflict. Just as one extreme image — raising the American flag after the bloody combat on Iwo Jima — defines that generation’s achievement, another extreme picture — all too familiar to many of us — defines this generation’s post-war career: Dad, boiled on bourbon, face-down in the mashed potatoes after dinner. These guys were tired…”
Ronald Reagan won the election in 1980 to near-instant celebration as the Iran hostages were released. It’s easy to forget — I had forgotten, until the news recaps of the weekend — that Reagan took the last assassin’s bullet of the post-war era mere months after he was inaugurated. Though already 70 years old, Reagan bounced back from that wound to lead the country to a prosperity we still enjoy today, to the defeat of the Soviet Union, to a rebirth of American confidence and elan. Kennedy talked about “vigor.” Reagan really had it.
You can pull lines from virtually any of Reagan’s speeches and hear That Voice again, the Voice that had been missing for so long from leadership in American life, the voice of the confident, happy American go-getter.
Here, from President Reagan’s address at Pointe du Hoc on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, to the Rangers who took the infamous ridge from the Nazis:
The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next.
It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.
Something else helped the men of D-Day: their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause.
I like that phrase in mid-passage as well as any: “You were right not to doubt.” Today, many of our would-be leaders think it a hallmark of intelligence to doubt. They call it “nuance.” This is not intelligence. It is stupid vanity.
Today, we would call Ronald Reagan a “national greatness conservative.” What a pity there should be such a narrow category for what ought to be the dominant strain of our national life — and was, until the “greatest generation” let the banner fall. Thank God Reagan picked it up again. Pray God we do not lose it.