When was America great?


President Trump constantly tells us he is “making America great again.”  It’s was  a rallying cry in the campaign and continues during his presidency.  When does he think America was great?  I didn’t think I ever heard.  I knew it wasn’t during the Clinton or Obama years.  His criticism of Bush and Reagan policies seemed to eliminate those years.  Hopefully not Nixon.  Certainly not the Kennedy years or 60s and 70s. So I googled it.  The only reference I found was a New York Times interview from March, 2016.  In the NYT article, Trump explained  America was great at the turn of the century with military and industrial expansion and in the 1940s and 1950s.  Given our 250 year history, it seems according Trump, we weren’t great very much.

I had guessed the 40s and 50s.  But why?  I immediately thought of ” The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw.   My parents were part of it.  They grew up in the 1930s depression.  They sacrificed and triumphed during the 1940s war years. During WWII, there were clear cut bad guys — real bad.  We with our allies were the good guys.  We would defeat the Italians, the Germans and the Japanese.  It was a good war. America was great.


In the 1950s, the greatest generation married and raised families.  Interstate highways were built; steel plants expanded; Levitt and others constructed thousands of suburban houses.  Cars rolled out of Detroit; TVs and new electric appliances flooded the market.  Wages rose; the economy was good.  In his best seller, Brokow records the good lives of the greatest generation.


It’s understandable why Trump would look nostaligacally at the 40s and 50s.  But was everything great?  During  the war, African Americans were segregated in the military.  At home conditions were unacceptable.  Civil rights for Blacks simmered as a major issue (and continues today, decades later).   After the war, women were sent back to the kitchen.  Most gays remained in the closet.  Communities worried about juvenile delinquency.  More electrical production and cars produced more pollution.  The turmoil of the 1960s didn’t just happen, it was fermenting in the 40s and 50s (and before).  There were problems during the period of Trump’s “America was great.”


And of course in the 50s, there was the Cold War.  The United States was up against the godless Soviet Union and China. Were we always great?  In addition to interstate highways, cars and consumer goods, the federal government spent, and spent more, on nuclear weapons, ICBMs, bombers, submarines.  And then there was the Berlin Wall, Korean War and the beginnings of Vietnam.  Greatness, good times are not perfect.


The 1940s and 1950s as a time when America was great struck me when I recently re-read Bob Greene’s “Once Upon a Town.”  Its the amazing story of North Platte, Nebraska’s canteen during WWII.  Residents came together and fed the soldiers passing through on troop trains.  During the war years the community serviced 25 or 30 trains a day.  They fed millions.  Why? It was the right thing to do. Greene interviews people in the town and servicemen who passed through.  He writes about small town America, Main streets, mom and pop stores, traditional values.

Another Greene “when America was great” book is titled “Duty: a father, his son and the man who won the war.”  Greene’s father was a WWII veteran.  Bob only learned to understand his father and the war generation after his father died. His dad admired Paul Tibbits, the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima?  How could he drop the bomb and kill all those people Bob thought, until he met Tibbits after his father’s death.  Bob, who was critical of America, Vietnam, his father’s generation, learned to appreciate the “greatness” of Tibbits and his father.  Bob saw greatness in America.

I can agree with Trump there was a great America in the 40s and 50s.  But there were also problems and issues that weren’t all great.  Similarly in the 1960s there was greatness as Americans struggled to provide rights for all Americans.  There was greatness in our attempts to alleviate, reduce, poverty in America.  There was greatness in the 1970s when we began to liberate women from male domination. There was greatness in our growing awareness of environmental problems and possible solutions.  There greatness in our attempt at nuclear reduction and the end of the Cold War.   Of course there were issues and events in the 60s and 70s that weren’t great. And many of those problems continue today.


My point.  Trump’s slogan that he will “make America great again” annoys me.  It recalls a golden age which never existed.  History and greatness is not black and white. There is a mix, greatness and failure.  On another level many do not see Trump’s actions as President as great.  His rolling back on environmental regulations may be good (maybe not in the long run) for business but not for environmental quality.  His attitude toward immigration isn’t very great.  His health care reforms haven’t been proven great.  His administration’s attacks on civil rights and those in poverty isn’t great.  His criticism and attacks on the courts, Congress, FBI, and Justice Department are not great.  His support for women is far from great.  It’s probably too early to totally judge his foreign policy.

In short Trump sold a dream — America was once great and he will restore that greatness. A percentage of the population believed him.  It sounded good.  Some still believe.   Others believe that he’s mining the past for beliefs and policies that are a return to many things that have not been great.  Although some like what he’s doing, I think it’s far from a majority and I don’t recall any “greatness.”  I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment.

Instead of invoking a nostalgia for a great perfect past that never existed,  we need to articulate and demand things that will build on what is great about America.  More on that later.





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