Brokaw Honors the Greatest Generation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Television news anchorman Tom Brokaw published The Greatest Generation, a book that honored the heroism, patriotism, and accomplishments of the generation of Americans who survived the Great Depression, fought and won World War II, and created a postwar economy that resulted in more than two decades of financial prosperity for the United States.

Summary of Event

In June, 1984, Tom Brokaw, the anchorman of television’s NBC Nightly News, traveled to Normandy Beach on the northern coast of France to cover the fortieth anniversary commemoration of D day, the name that history bestowed on the massive Allied attack of June 6, 1944, on German-occupied France. For Brokaw, the trip was a life-changing experience. Born in 1940, Brokaw grew up among decorated veterans who had survived frightful combat in World War II, but he had failed to appreciate fully their patriotism, sacrifice, and heroism until he walked the beaches of Normandy and interviewed men who had fought there so bravely four decades earlier. Brokaw made another visit to Normandy ten years later to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of D day. By then, Brokaw, in his NBC newscasts, had begun to refer to the generation of Americans who had struggled through the Great Depression and won the war as the“greatest generation.” In 1998, he published The Greatest Generation to honor his heroes. Greatest Generation, The (Brokaw) [kw]Brokaw Honors the Greatest Generation (1998) [kw]Greatest Generation, Brokaw Honors the (1998) [kw]Generation, Brokaw Honors the Greatest (1998) Greatest Generation, The (Brokaw) [g]North America;1998: Brokaw Honors the Greatest Generation[09880] [g]United States;1998: Brokaw Honors the Greatest Generation[09880] [c]Publishing and journalism;1998: Brokaw Honors the Greatest Generation[09880] Brokaw, Tom

For two decades after World War II, the American heroes of that conflict had been honored in films such as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Battle Cry (1955), and The Longest Day (1962) and in television series such as Combat! (1962-1967). During the mid- and late 1960’s, however, a new generation of Americans, born during the late 1940’s and the 1950’s and tempered by an unpopular war in Vietnam, had grown increasingly skeptical of war and the American military. These so-called baby boomers even began to view World War II, their parents’ war against Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan, with moral ambiguity. During the Vietnam War, young Americans embraced antiwar novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) Catch-22 (Heller)[Catch Twenty Two] and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), Slaughterhouse-Five (Vonnegut)[Slaughterhouse Five] both of which became hit feature films, and antiwar films such as M*A*S*H (directed by Robert Altman, 1970). M*A*S*H (film)[Mash (film)]

Tom Brokaw.

(David Shankbone)

By the time Brokaw published The Greatest Generation, however, a reexamination of World War II and the Americans who fought it was well under way. In books such as Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest (1992), D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994), and Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945 (1997), the historian Stephen E. Ambrose Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers (Ambrose) D-Day, June 6, 1944 (Ambrose)[D Day, June 6, 1944] Citizen Soldiers (Ambrose) paid homage to the patriotism and courage of the American fighting men of World War II. During the summer of 1998, a short time before Brokaw’s book appeared, director Steven Spielberg Spielberg, Steven released his film Saving Private Ryan, Saving Private Ryan (film) which depicted the fury and chaos of D day and its aftermath and the steadfast determination of the soldiers who fought on Normandy Beach and pushed into France. By the year’s end, The Thin Red Line Thin Red Line, The (film) (directed by Terrence Malick), another World War II film, this one set in the Pacific theater, had also opened. Americans had begun to rediscover and appreciate anew the valor and grit of the World War II generation just as the members of that generation were approaching their twilight years.

In The Greatest Generation, Brokaw profiles more than forty Americans who fought in and lived through World War II. Some of the individuals featured in the book had long remained unknown outside of their families, small circles of friends, and hometowns. They fought heroically in Europe, Africa, or the Pacific theater, then returned home, married, raised children, and took advantage of the postwar economic opportunities. They started businesses, earned college degrees, taught in schools, ran for local public offices, and immersed themselves in the activities of their communities and churches. They spoke little about their combat experiences, preferring, when they talked about the war, to recount the humorous episodes of basic training and camp life with comrades. As he heard their stories, Brokaw discovered in these individuals a quiet dignity and an ethic of personal responsibility that was shaped, to some extent, by testing in horrific combat.

Brokaw also recounts the careers of World War II veterans who became famous, such as George H. W. Bush, Bush, George H. W. who was elected the forty-first president of the United States; journalists Andy Rooney Rooney, Andy and Ben Bradlee; Bradlee, Ben author Art Buchwald; Buchwald, Art U.S. senators Daniel Inouye Inouye, Daniel and Bob Dole; Dole, Bob historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.; Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. and Caspar Weinberger Weinberger, Caspar and George P. Shultz, Shultz, George P. who served as members of presidential cabinets. Brokaw points out that during World War II, the sons of the rich and the poor, the famous and the unrenowned, went off to war. More than 290,000 Americans, from all stations of life, died in combat.

Brokaw devotes an entire chapter of The Greatest Generation to women, both in and out of uniform. During World War II, American women played crucial roles within the military and on the home front. Brokaw profiles nurses who served in combat zones, women officers who filled important administrative posts, and a woman pilot. More than 350,000 American women served in uniform during the war. Millions of American women who did not join the armed services filled jobs vacated by men who went to fight overseas. These women kept factories churning out war matériel, worked in stores and banks, and taught in schools. Brokaw credits these women with holding together the fabric of American society while American men fought the war. After the war, the performance of these women opened doors in the job market for a new generation of American women who demanded economic equality with men.

Although The Greatest Generation proudly salutes the patriotism and essential decency of the World War II generation, its author is sharply critical of the racism and prejudice that were still deeply seated in American culture during the war and the postwar years. In a chapter titled “Shame,” Brokaw profiles African Americans and Latino Americans who encountered sharp prejudices within the military and in their communities when they returned home after the war. American troops were still racially segregated during World War II. Brokaw also recounts the stories of Japanese Americans Japanese Americans, internment who had their homes and businesses taken from them and who were moved into detention centers during the course of the war, the result of an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as a necessary measure in time of war.

Within a few weeks of its publication, The Greatest Generation soared to the top of the best-seller lists. Reviews were uniformly positive. Encouraged by the success of the book, Brokaw went on to author two more books on the greatest generation: The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections (1999) Greatest Generation Speaks, The (Brokaw) and An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation (2001). Album of Memories (Brokaw)


The Greatest Generation played an important role in encouraging Americans born after World War II to reexamine the contributions of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Many baby boomers had grown into adulthood during the turbulent 1960’s and had been sharply critical of their parents’ values. Many World War II veterans and their sons and daughters disagreed vehemently about the war in Vietnam, causing strained family relations and creating the so-called generation gap of the 1960’s. The baby boomers dressed differently from their parents, listened to different music, embraced radically different sexual mores, and aspired to very different lifestyles. Brokaw’s book, and other literary and cinematic efforts during the 1990’s, helped build a bridge of understanding between the World War II generation and succeeding generations of Americans. By the time the decade had ended, young Americans were also swing dancing to the big band music of the 1930’s that their parents and grandparents had so much enjoyed.

The effort spearheaded by Brokaw, Spielberg, Ambrose, and other chroniclers of the “greatest generation” continued in the twenty-first century. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers became a popular television miniseries. In 2000, James Bradley’s book Flags of Our Fathers Flags of Our Fathers (Bradley) profiled the author’s father, John Henry Bradley, and the five other Marines who raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, an image preserved in the most famous World War II photograph and in a massive monument in Washington, D.C. Flags of Our Fathers became a best seller, and in 2006, director Clint Eastwood released a critically acclaimed film version of the book. As they advanced into old age, the Americans whom Brokaw honored in The Greatest Generation received belated recognition for their deeds of a half century earlier. Greatest Generation, The (Brokaw)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. A prominent historian salutes the ordinary citizens who fought and defeated the Germans in World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradley, James, with Ron Powers. Flags of Our Fathers. New York: Bantam Books, 2000. Presents the life stories of the six Marines who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998. Brokaw’s testimony to the World War II generation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections. New York: Random House, 1999. Collection of some of the correspondence Brokaw received from readers of The Greatest Generation.

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Categories: History