All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1990

The Advance Guard of Freedom

andrew E. Barniskis is an aerospace engineer and consultant in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

I was born a few weeks before the end of 1945, which placed me just in front of the leading edge of the Baby Boom. While I may not meet the technical definition of a Baby Boomer, I feel that those of us who were born late in World War II and early in the postwar period have always formed the Advance Guard of the Baby Boom, and we have always set the pace that our younger brothers and sisters would follow.

It was the Advance Guard that first watched “American Bandstand” on TV after school, and danced to music that is played regularly to this day. The birth of the Detroit “muscle car” coincided with the Advance Guard earning the first paychecks which would pay for them. Today, while the center of gravity of the Baby Boom may be 30-something, more and more of the people portrayed in advertising appear to be closer to 40 than to 30—sometimes closer to 50. My local newspaper adopted a larger, more open typeface shortly after I acquired my first pair of bifocals.

If the Advance Guard shares a common denominator other than age, it’s that we come closer to sharing the memory of World War II, without having experienced it, than any later group. Our baby albums contain pictures of us being held by fathers or uncles in uniform, taken the day they returned from overseas, in our dreamlike memories of early childhood street scenes, the cars are square-backed, black, and ‘30s vintage—cars which disappeared overnight once postwar production got into swing. The old magazines stacked in our childhood closets contained war maps and centerfolds of fighter planes, and war memorabilia was the mainstay of show-and-tell during our early school years.

If we inherited little pieces of our parents’ immediate past, there’s no doubt we inherited big portions of their beliefs and prejudices from that period. I clearly remember, at the age of 4, announcing bravely that I’d “kill any of them Japs who came over here,” and my mother explaining sadly that it wasn’t Japanese, this time, but people called Koreans, who had started the new war that had just been announced on the radio.

Along with nationalistic prejudices, we also inherited the foundations for our future political beliefs. There were two political absolutes that I recall believing as a small boy. One was that it was impossible, in the purest sense of the word, for the United States to lose a war. The other was that the government had an unlimited amount of money, which it could use to accomplish anything it really wanted to. In retrospect, these beliefs were significant, not because they represented the naivete of a child, but because they represented the naivete of the adults from whom the child acquired his earliest ideas.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that in the United States we seem to treat the Baby Boom as an entirely American phenomenon. I started to think about this after a friend of about my age, from a Communist country in Eastern Europe, related some of his childhood memories from the early postwar period. His parents had survived unimaginable horrors during the war, and, though left destitute, moved into top-level government and management positions in the postwar period, simply because there were so few educated or competent survivors. They were not philosophically committed to Communism, but were caught up in the momentum of history; political philosophies paled in importance compared to the memories of what they had witnessed a few short months before. The philosophy of their lives had become that nothing succeeds like survival—so the party in power must have done something right, because it not only survived, it prevailed.

These observations are hardly original. One of the geopolitical clichés of the postwar period has been to explain the Soviet psyche in terms of their memories of the Great Patriotic War. In documentary interviews, Soviet citizens often explain, even defend, their acceptance of authoritarian regimes by recalling the hardships of World War II. That explanation is entirely plausible, since the only way the human mind may be able to create a sense of order out of memories of the insanity and deprivation of a protracted war is by justifying the horrors as a necessity of survival. Mother Russia promised victory in return for unspeakable hardships, and the promise was kept. Should Soviet citizens not then have believed the promises of future prosperity in return for the comparatively minor hardships of a regimented society?

A generational view of history becomes more significant in light of the tremendous political upheavals that have taken place in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China in recent months—upheavals that in some cases could not have been predicted mere weeks before they happened. It is not only the magnitude of these changes which is amazing, but that similar changes are happening everywhere simultaneously. Could a partial explanation of this phenomenon be the coming to real power of the Advance Guard of a generation which has no firsthand memories of a Great Patriotic War?

I find this thought intriguing, not only for what it portends for the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, or China, but for what it could mean within our own society. I have often been puzzled by World War II veterans who explain what it means to be a “real American” in terms of, “I went on the beach at Anzio (or Iwo, or Normandy) and . . . .” their sentences trailing off as if the fact that they had nearly died explains everything one needs to know about America. All too frequently, their next words advocate concentration camps for casual drug users, death penalties for flag desecrators, or suspension of Constitutional rights “to straighten out what’s wrong with this country.” Their ideas often come discomfortingly close to the realities from which the citizens of the Communist world are now trying to escape.

To what extent has America’s recent history been shaped by the experiences of a generation that came of age during what has been termed, “The Good War”? In the early 1950s, it was suggested that the acceptance of housing developments “all made out of ticky-tacky,” that “all looked just the same” was made possible by a generation that had reached adulthood living in rows of Army barracks. More significantly, the socialization of America—the acceptance of central planning, and the de facto “nationalization,” albeit at the state or regional level, of most of the transportation, utility, and education industries—reached a peak just as those boys who went on the beaches during World War II were coming into their first years of real political power. Could there have been a greater parallel between the Eastern European and American postwar political psyche than we’ve cared to recognize? If there is the slightest chance that it is true, the question for our future becomes, will we soon follow the rest of the world in abandoning the failed theories of socialism, or must the disease run its full course, and reduce America to Eastern Europe’s level of virtual Third-Worldism, before we awaken?

World events have made me guardedly optimistic that we can change course short of disaster. Instead of emerging victorious from a Great Patriotic War, my generation of Americans fought a war that accomplished nothing but to erase years from our lives, and to erase entirely the lives of many of our friends. The parade- ground promises of the infallibility of discipline and authoritarian-ism proved false, and the siren song of collectivism has never rung true for many of us since. With our own war long behind us, and our careers reason ably secured, some of us in the Advance Guard are now working to bring America back to freedom. Our number, commitment, and influence remain to be seen. But then, only a year ago, who would have predicted two million people joining hands across the Baltic nations, seeking liberty?