In 2009, I attended the 50th reunion of my high school class in Kansas City, Missouri, where I grew up. All of my classmates had been born in 1940 or 1941. And they all contributed brief biographies of their lives since graduation. Most of them had become lawyers, doctors, teachers, or nurses. While none of them were famous, they had led productive lives.
At the time I was writing a book about the impact of foreign cultures on the United States, called Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture—a book that was published in 2011. Yet I was also beginning to think about my generation, the people who had been born during World War II, from 1939 to 1945—people I began to think of as “war babies.” No one had ever written about us as a distinctive generation with special contributions to make to American culture and politics. People constantly referred to the “greatest generation” of the 1930s and postwar years, a term coined by Tom Brokaw who was in fact a war baby, born in 1940. Plenty of books and articles had been written about Baby Boomers, but we were invisible in American history.
Except that we weren’t.
Once I began to do some research into my generation, I was astonished to discover how many major figures born during World War II became leaders in movies, music, journalism, and politics. In film, for example, the war babies included directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas; and actors like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Faye Dunaway, as well as a host of other actors who helped shaped movies from the 1970s to the present. Similarly, almost all the music we associate with the 1960s was written and/or performed not by Baby Boomers but by war babies: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin. In journalism, the war babies included the only two journalists in American history—Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—who helped bring down a president. War baby politicians include John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi (the first woman Speaker of the House), Barney Frank, Joe Biden, and Dick Cheney. And among social activists on the issues of race and gender equality, the war babies numbered Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Muhammad Ali, and Billie Jean King.
So I decided to write about this generation and their accomplishments. The result is a book, soon to be published, called War Babies: The Generation That Changed America. I think anyone who buys and reads the book will find it a revelation, changing their views about who was important in transforming American life over the past 50 years.