Much-admired Greatest Generation values missing in half the country during pandemic
Every Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and Father’s Day you can count on baby boomers and Gen Xers to post Facebook tributes to the so-called “Greatest Generation,” expressing eternal gratitude for the men and women who persevered through the Depression and World War II to deliver freedom and prosperity to their children and grandchildren.
I’ll tell you what else the Greatest Generation did — they got their kids vaccinated against polio. They didn’t question the vaccine. In fact, it was eagerly awaited and widely embraced. Its developer, Dr. Jonas Salk, was a national hero, like Joe DiMaggio in a lab coat.
The Greatest Generation had lived for many years with the threat of polio. Franklin Roosevelt, the president through depression and war, had been paralyzed from the waist down by the contagious disease.
In 1952, there was a polio outbreak that infected more than 57,000 Americans, killed 3,145 and paralyzed another 20,000. Three years later, on April 12, 1955, after the largest clinical trial the world had ever seen, its director reported the Salk vaccine as safe and effective. The first truckloads of vaccine arrived in Baltimore within a week and state health officials began vaccinating schoolchildren across Maryland.
Soon the vaccine was being administered throughout the country. Despite a bad batch and a disastrous inoculation effort in some Western and mid-western states, Americans continued to get the shots. By 1957 the number of polio cases dropped to below 6,000. The vaccination’s success continued into the 1960s, with cases falling into the mere dozens. The government recorded no polio deaths in 1969.
Americans like to attribute all kinds of wonderful characteristics to our 20th century ancestors. The history of the Greatest Generation mostly overlooks the racism and other prejudices that influenced life in the United States during that time, and not for the better.
Nonetheless, most of us consider our parents and grandparents, our aunts and uncles, as the generation that marked a high point of American life. We regard them as courageous, hard working, patriotic and civic-spirited men and women who took seriously the concept of personal responsibility, believed in education as a path to progress and saw government and science as forces for good.
So, while it was most definitely fear that drove them to embrace the polio vaccine 60-plus years ago, we should give members of the Greatest Generation credit for more than that. They also had a high regard for the common welfare, instilled by the New Deal and the war effort. “We’re all in this together” was a widely shared belief.
That belief has diminished over time, as the pandemic revealed.
The absence of altruism and community spirit are major reasons why, almost seven months into vaccinations against COVID19, less than half of Americans eligible for the shots have had both. We’re at about 45%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Why aren’t more people vaccinated? Why was there so much resistance to wearing masks when the coronavirus was killing thousands of Americans each week?
My take: Too many Americans refused to accept those precautions for the greater good because they don’t have an appreciation of the greater good.
Too many resent being told what to do. They prefer personal freedom to shared responsibility. They reject medical science, and vaccinations particularly, as some sort of liberal conspiracy.
Some are just uninformed or misinformed.
Recent conversations with two men who refuse to get vaccinated left me speechless. One guy, a plumber, said he wasn’t getting the vaccine because, “I never buy a new car in the first model year,” suggesting a risk in taking a vaccine that about 150 million Americans have by now safely received. The other guy? I was visiting Trump country, in central Pennsylvania, and sensed a certain impenetrableness, so I didn’t pursue the subject with him.
Which leads to something at play in the coronavirus pandemic that did not afflict the Greatest Generation in the time of polio — the politicization of public health.
Look at some of the states where vaccination rates are lowest — Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Idaho, West Virginia, Oklahoma and South Carolina. Texas ranks 34th nationally and Florida is 27th. These are all red states that Donald Trump won in the last two elections; they each have Republican governors.
Maryland, a blue state with a Republican governor, ranks 8th nationally, with close to 54% fully vaccinated. We live in a place where the government and most citizens took seriously the threat of the virus from the start. Even now, as restrictions lift, I see people wearing masks when they probably don’t have to.
My neighborhood supermarket has a sign on the door that says if you’ve received both vaccination shots for COVID-19, you don’t have to wear a mask. And yet, over the weekend, most shoppers still did. I assume they were being cautious, given that there’s a chance of spreading the virus even after you’ve been vaccinated. (The CDC says it is still studying that.)
So, judging from the behavior of my fellow Americans during this extraordinary public health crisis, it looks to me like the tank is just a little more than half full — that is, about half of the country keeps some remnants of the much-admired Greatest Generation values we inherited.
And that’s good.
(The Greatest Generation) had a high regard for the common welfare, instilled by the New Deal and the war effort.