Last week I received a message from a distinguished retired general and head of a strategic institute in Canada, wringing his hands at the pusillanimity and ambivalence of most current world leaders and the apparent lack of any public appetite for the assertion of any recognizable principles in international affairs. He asked whether I thought the contemporary West could chin itself, if necessary, on facing the sort of challenges that were served up to and mastered by, as they have become known, “the greatest generation.” (This was Tom Brokaw’s coinage, referring to the generation of Americans and, broadly, British and Canadians also, of the period from 1930 to 1960.)
I replied that I did not think it was such a great generation spontaneously; it rose to great challenges, and lived in what was ultimately an immensely successful time, because of the leadership it enjoyed. That leadership devised and executed the strategy that brought the West through the Great Depression and World War II, and to the creation of the alliances and institutions that won the Cold War and secured the triumph of democracy and the free-market economy in the world.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, estimates of the level of unemployment varied from 25% to 33% (the figures were compiled by the states, and rather unreliably in some cases). Banks had been closed in 46 of the 48 states for some days, and the two remaining states confined bank withdrawals to $10. All stock and commodities exchanges were closed; the Dow Jones Industrial Average had declined 90%, to 34 (it’s now around 16,000, A though inflation is at least half of the gain); there was no direct relief for the unemployed, who could beg, steal, or starve as career options; and there were machine-gun emplacements at the corners of the great federal