Don’t look now, but a new generation of Americans is taking over—taking over our politics, our lives and our very culture.
That’s right, the Baby Boomers, the group about which so much has been written and discussed, is slowly losing its once iron-clad grip on the way our society is run as it gives way to Generation X. You can see the effects of that change everywhere, from politics to movies to music. And right behind Gen X are the Millennials, waiting to have their turn at the forefront of civilization.
There’s a generation, however, upon which our current society was built, a generation without whose contribution America would be a vastly different place. It’s a generation that author and cultural commentator Richard Pells writes about in his new book, War Babies: The Generation that Changed America (Cultural History Press).
The War Babies, as Pells call them, are a special and distinct category of Americans born between 1939 and 1945. Unlike the so-called “Greatest Generation,” they didn’t suffer through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and many of them were only children during World War II. But they would grow up to reshape cultural and political life in America in a profound and permanent way.
“It’s difficult to conceive of a generation that had a greater effect on America’s music, movies, journalism and politics” writes Pell. “These were people who experienced as children the most global war in human history, followed in their adolescence by the Cold War and McCarthyism.
“As adults,” Pell explains, “they invented a culture and politics that were more personal and individualistic than those of their parents. So the War Babies are a special generation whose contributions to American life we’ve all come to share.”
What did the War Babies do that were so special? One shining example is that they led the civil rights movement. “The Baby Boomers were too young to organize and speak at the March on Washington in 1963,” Pell said. “Boomers were also too young to endanger their lives in the summer of 1964 traveling to Mississippi to register African-American voters. And it’s certain that the civil rights movement could not have prevailed without the efforts, oratory and bravery of War Babies like John Lewis and Jesse Jackson.”
War babies also left an indelible mark on the American political landscape, according to Pell. It was War Babies Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who unraveled the most vital political story of the 20th century, which lead to the historic and unprecedented downfall of a presidential administration.
“War Babies also used the media to transform both American culture and American politics—mostly by bringing their own personalities to bear on the issues they were probing,” Pells said. “Pundits and news executives—none more so than George Will and Roger Ailes—employed their personal allegiances to shape political debate in America.”
War Babies also transformed popular entertainment in ways never before seen, according to Pells. He points to such legendary musicians as Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Carole King as proof. “Many singers and songwriters used music to deal with private tensions and pain, and in doing so, were able to connect intimately with a mass audience who often felt similarly,” he said. “Their songs continued to give meaning to Boomer’s lives as they, in turn, struggled to comprehend the upheaval in 1960s and 1970s society.”
As War Babies took over the hit music charts, they also transformed Hollywood, notes Pells. “Thanks to War Baby directors and actors, movies became more personal and idiosyncratic,” he said. “Directors like Frances Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, and actors like Faye Dunaway, Al Pacino and Robert DiNiro helped convert films from mass entertainment to personal works of art.” Classic films such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Easy Rider, The Godfathers: Part I and II, and Taxi Driver are prime examples of War Baby films that helped define the generation and alter the way films were made.
While the Baby Boomers have probably gotten the most attention and as Generation X is taking over, the accomplishments of the War Babies shouldn’t be overlooked, Pell said. “As a generation, the War Babies experienced and accomplished quite a bit for which they aren’t credited,” he said. “While the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers shouldn’t be dismissed, it’s only fair to recognize that War Babies are a special generation who contributions to American life we have all come to share.”