I am a member of what is called 'The Silent Generation.' Generations have loosely prescribed, overlapping boundaries but can be characterized by similarities in philosophies and behaviors. Common sense typified the Silent Generation, but that trait is conspicuously absent in succeeding generations. Below are recollections of the Silent Generation and its relation to what followed.
The Silent Generation is that relatively complacent period wedged in between two turbulent societal epochs: the 'Greatest Generation' and 'Baby Boomers.' The Greatest Generation was characterized by hardship, families suffering through the Great Depression and stress-fully uprooted by World War Two. Husbands and grown sons were wounded, permanently handicapped, or killed in action. Women were compelled to do men's work in factories, and goods and services were rationed. But all the hard knocks didn't alter this Generation's love of country.
At the other extreme was the trouble-free society and thriving economy inherited by Baby Boomers. It was a naively idealistic time of protesting, eliminating traditions, and 'social justice.' Boomers tried to replace the existing culture with a counterculture, a Utopian society where everyone was equal. This seemed possible in the 1960s, because differences in achievements were thought to be caused by society rather than individual abilities. Unfortunately, the 1960's society-altering strategies have continued to this day.
The Counterculture dismissed the Silent Generation as “conformists”; a serious insult in 1960s thinking. It is true that there were no serious challenges to the customs of our time, and our college years were used to acquire knowledge and prepare for jobs rather than protesting. Also, we didn't assume we were better informed than our elders. The transition from adolescence to adulthood wasn't drawn out over time as it is today, and before our mid-twenties, we were usually gainfully employed and married with children.
Contrary to hackneyed portrayals of the Silent Generation, we weren't afraid to speak out. But our objections were made with civility, without disrupting city streets, or college campuses. The most popular non-fiction book was Philip Wylie's shrill critique of the era, “Generation of Vipers.” This widely read book found fault with most aspects of society, and readers were split between those who agreed with its arguments and those who disagreed. It was referred to simply as “Vipers” and intellectually it is on a higher level than literary works of following generations.
The construction of the Mt Rushmore sculpture occupied several years of the Silent Generation. There was considerable excitement as likenesses of our most admired presidents emerged from the mountain's granite face. When the sculpture was completed, we felt we had created a lasting work of art for posterity. Little did we know that the presidents depicted and the sculpture itself would become objects of scorn and threatened with eradication.
A highlight of the Silent Generation was the famous Civil War Reunion in 1938. It took place on the first four days of July in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the 75th anniversary of that important battle. Among the Confederate and Union supporters that participated were elderly veterans of the Civil War who were still alive. As part of the ceremony, those representing the Union and the Confederacy stood on opposite sides of a low wall, a significant Gettysburg Battle location, and shook hands over the wall with their opponents. With a crowd estimated at 250,000, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the unveiling of the “Eternal Light Peace Memorial.” As of this writing, the 'Peace Memorial' hasn't been demolished by angry mobs or craven politicians.
It is unlikely that an observance like the 1938 Civil War Reunion could take place in today's socio/political environment. In 1938, there was a feeling of unity and Union and Confederacy were essentially viewed comparably. But contemporary interpretations of history malign the Confederacy, and praise the Union.
The Silent Generation was the last generation that had a traditional news media. Television's opinion-based news reports were not widespread at that time. There were television offerings, but programming wasn't 24/7, and TV viewing hadn't become the public's number one pastime, or its sole source of information. Early on, television networks began to define new kinds of social problems – open-ended problems such as sexism, racism, homophobia - problems that no matter how much was done to solve them, more was always needed.
The Silent Generation has been chided for not taking aggressive action to resolve racial discrimination. Admittedly, governmental interference to resolve racism didn't begin until later generations. However, general agreement was reached by the Silent Generation's population on sporadic actions to redress individual acts of bigotry. These measures have been dismissed as piece meal; their collective efforts taking too long to mitigate the effects of racism. However, following the inclusive 1964 anti-discrimination legislation, we have had almost 60 years of governmental-forced compliance with anti-racism regulations to no avail - we have to wonder what the Silent Generation's society-approved corrections would have accomplished if continued for six decades.
Generations gradually phase out rather than end abruptly. But Internet and social media enthusiasts expect precise dates for events. To accommodate them, I designate the 'symbolic' end of the Silent Generation as January 11, 1954. On that date, President Eisenhower appointed former California Governor Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Warren Court was the first judicially activist Supreme Court, with progressive social considerations taking precedence over constitutional interpretations. The long-term effect of the Warren Court's politicized rulings spawned a “Constitutional Revolution”, greatly altered society, and made the Silent Generation obsolete.
Gail Jarvis is a Georgia-based free-lance writer. He attended the University of Alabama and has a degree from Birmingham Southern College. His writing is influenced by years of witnessing how versions of news and history were distorted for political reasons. Mr. Jarvis is a member of the Society of Independent Southern Historians and his articles have appeared on various websites, magazines, and publications for several organizations. He lives in Coastal Georgia.