A Generation’s Moment

By James P. Kushlan

1941 was a great time to be an American. Big bands belted out sassy swing in dance halls, in towns as big as New York and as small as Gallitzin, Pennsylvania. Cars had curves, they were built of real metal, and gas was cheap. Cigarettes weren’t bad for you, nor were red meat or carbs.

Fashion was in a golden age; even everyday clothes made people look good. Practically every man sported a broad-brimmed hat. Nylons and high heels were de rigueur for women, whose legs were objects of men’s fond reverence. Most movies were still in black and white, but they packed a wallop of drama, comedy, music, and spectacle complete with cartoons and newsreels—for less than a gumball costs today!

1941 Americans worked hard, families were close-knit, manners mattered, and faith was important. Sure, there were problems, challenges America had yet to face. But no challenge seemed too great for an America that was definitely on the upswing.

Just as everything really did seem to be "coming up roses," the warplanes of a rising empire appeared over Battleship Row in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. 1941 ended with the shrill shock of infamy and war. But Americans jumped into action. All the restless energy of 1940s America had suddenly found its outlet: war.

Not just any war, mind you. Unlike most conflicts in our history, this one was brought on by a direct attack on the United States. It quickly became a two-pronged fight to halt the onslaught of the would-be overlords of Europe and Asia.

The sharp contrast between the practices of the Allies and the Axis powers made World War II into a battle of freedom against oppression, democracy against totalitarianism, good against evil. Americans were the good guys; they were on the right side, and that gave them courage and determination to risk their lives in the armed forces, to make sacrifices on the home front, and to press on to victory despite the heavy and heartbreaking cost.

The people who lived through that heroic, colorful, difficult, and painful chapter of America’s story went on with their lives after the war. They built homes, lovingly raised record numbers of children, and transformed America into an economic and military powerhouse with unparalleled global influence. But what would always define them was that great adventure of their youth, World WarII.

For those of us who met them as Mom and Dad, Aunt and Uncle, or Grandma and Pap-Pap, their stories—of hardship at home, terror at the front, and irreplaceable losses, all mixed with good times, good friends, victory, and the joy of survival and reunion—infected us with a permanent curiosity, a desire to understand. And they gave us the first hint that maybe, just maybe, there was a little more to them than they liked to let on.

This magazine is about their moment of greatness—and one of America’s best.

James P. Kushlan, former editor of Civil War Times and Columbiad magazines, is the editor and publisher of America in WWII. This column originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of America in WWII. Order a copy of this issue now.

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