BELTON — “We need a second Greatest Generation right now,” Dr. Jeremi Suri said Saturday during the opening of “Our Lives, Our Stories: America’s Greatest Generation,” a summer exhibit at the Bell County Museum.
Prepared by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the traveling exhibit will be at the museum through Aug. 11.
“It’s highly interactive,” Stephanie Turnham, museum director, said of the exhibit. “You can listen to World War II soldiers recount their experiences.” There are a lot of things to touch and do, she said, and it asks a lot of questions for students, such as, “What defines your generation?”
The “Greatest Generation” was born between 1909 and 1930, said Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas. The members of this generation started out under the shadow of World War I, grew up in the Great Depression and came of age during World War II. For those, like himself, who didn’t live through this period, he said, a study of it can give perspective.
“What we can do as historians is look back,” he said. “Good history is history that stimulates us. What can we learn?”
He referred to American leaders of this generation from both sides of the political spectrum. “They thought deeply about what politics is about: finding the better angels in our nature,” he said.
He cited his grandmother, who died at the age of 101, as a member of the Greatest Generation. Her father emigrated from Russia, and worked until he could bring the rest of the family. She started working at an early age, and grew up in the Great Depression. When Suri asked her why she did it, she said, “We did what we had to do.”
He ran down a list of reasons why the Greatest Generation got its name. One of these was that it made high school normal. “Now everybody goes to high school,” he said. “That was not the case before the Greatest Generation.” This development brought about a sense of nationalization and patriotism, he said, overcoming some of the holdovers from the Civil War.
Another distinction of this generation was that a higher proportion of men served in the military, he said. This took people out of their small communities and sent them abroad, where they could see how other people lived.
“They saw the world,” he said. “They saw the U.S. had a role to play in the world.”
Previously, U.S. citizens tended to be isolationists, he said. In 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the U.S. ought to do something about the atrocities occurring in Asia and Europe, it was not well received by Americans. After the war, the country sent large amounts of money to Europe and Japan.
“We go from being isolationists to internationalists,” Suri said.
Suri named more achievements of the Greatest Generation, but said it was not without its flaws. For one, racism, while not as strong as before, was alive and well. “It was difficult to be a black man in the U.S. in the 1950s.”
The civil rights movement gave the American people a chance to say that wasn’t how they wanted things to be, he said.