During the 1950s, two impulses swept across the United States. One impulse that characterized the decade was detailed in two best-selling books of the times, the 1955 novel by Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the non-fiction The Organization Man, written by William H. Whyte and published in 1956. These books looked at the “American way of life,” how men got ahead on the job and in society. Both are bleak views of the corporate world.
As an editor for Fortune magazine, Whyte was well placed to observe corporate America. It became clear to him that the American belief in the perfectibility of society was shifting from one of individual initiative to one that could be achieved at the expense of the individual. With its clear analysis of contemporary working and living arrangements, The Organization Man rapidly achieved bestseller status.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was one of the great publishing successes of its day, the book–or at least its title–became a symbol for conformism in the business world. In that respect, it connected with a number of non-fiction books published around the same time, including: The Lonely Crowd (1950), and Is Anybody Listening? (1952) as well as The Organization Man (1956)
One phrase from The Lonely Crowd is most memorable. It applies to global capitalism, especially its threat to personal rootedness and sense of place. Other-directed people, said Riesman, were “at home everywhere and nowhere.” They forged bonds quickly but not deeply. That is why the lonely crowd was lonely and one more reason the book is still worth thinking about today.
The other ‘impulse’ at the time of the “Silent Generation” is found in Ayn Rand’s philosophy as expressed in her novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Her philosophy of Objectivism proposed reason as man’s only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. Every man, according to Rand, was an end in himself. He must work for rational self-interest, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. Objectivism rejected any form of altruism.
These were the times, and this was the generation, that would ‘twist away’ their time.
Then in 1958 came a new ‘impulse’ framed in the novel The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene J. Burdick. This book went through fifty-five printings in two years and was, as we know, a direct motivation in creating the Peace Corps.
In a “Factual Epilogue” to their novel, Lederer and Burdick laid out the basic philosophy and modus operandi of what would later be realized in the Peace Corps.
Writing about how America should “help” developing countries, the authors declared: What we need is a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working, and dedicated professionals. They must be willing to risk their comforts and—in some cases—their health. They must go equipped to apply a positive policy promulgated by a clear-thinking government. They must speak the language of the land of their assignment, and they must be more expert in its problems than are the natives.
The book’s hero is such a man, Homer Atkins, a skilled technician committed to helping at a grassroots level by building water pumps, digging roads, and building bridges. He is called the “ugly” American only because of his grotesque physical appearance. He lives and works with the local people in Southeast Asia and, by the end of the novel, is beloved and admired by them.
Attracted to the ideas expressed in the novel, Senator John F. Kennedy, by January 1959, had sent The Ugly American to every member of the U.S. Senate, and the ideas expressed in it, i.e., our inadequate efforts in foreign aid, would be used by Ted Sorensen when he crafted the speech presidential candidate Kennedy gave on November 2, 1960, at the Cow Palace Auditorium in San Francisco six days before the election. In this final campaign speech Kennedy called for the establishment of a Peace Corps: “I therefore propose that our inadequate efforts in this area [foreign aid] be supplemented by a Peace Corps of talented young men willing and able to serve their country….”
Many of the young people coming of age in the 1960s, the so-called Silent Generation, rejected “the American way of life” as described by Sloan Wilson, William H. Whyte and Ayn Rand and saw in Kennedy’s challenge a chance to do something for themselves as well as the country. This desire for adventure, this opportunity not to be the organization man, was an impulse that Kennedy, perhaps unwittingly, tapped into with his campaign theme of a “New Frontier” and the creation of a Peace Corps.
But who made up this “Silent Generation”? And why such a reaction in their early twenties?
This generation was—as I was–born in the mid-to-late 1920s and ending dates ranging from the early-to-mid-1940s. Today we comprise roughly 20 million adults in our 70s and 80s. We are a small generation today due to the financial insecurity of the 1930s and the war in the early 1940s. As a ‘generation’ we were sandwiched between two better-known periods: born too late to be World War II heroes and too early for the New Age.
Some have called us the “children of crisis.” Growing up while older people were fighting wars and making great sacrifices on our behalf.
When we came of age after World War II, it is said, and “we tiptoed cautiously in a post-crisis social order that no one wanted to disturb. “ Unlike G.I.s, we rarely talked about “changing the system,” but instead about “working within the system.” Because they said of us, “we didn’t want anything to go on our “permanent records” and we kept our heads down during the McCarthy era. It was Time Magazine that labeled us the “Silent Generation” in a November 5, 1951 essay entitled “The Younger Generation.” It also applied, by the way, to those who fought in the Korean War, to all of us who were automatically drafted into the army, and to young people beyond the U.S.
We are also labeled the “Lucky Few” by other writers. For example, in the 2008 book The Lucky: Few; Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom, written by two academics from Florida State University.
That all said, we are also the generation of the Beats, who ‘dropped out’ of society and the world-of-work. (Jack Kerovac was 35 when On The Road was published.) We started the civil rights uprising, giving up careers to protest in the first days of the civil rights struggles of the early Sixties.
And we were not alone. The same wave of involvement to better the lives of everyone was sweeping across the globe. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman in her 1998 book, All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s writes that “While the United States government actively championed the Peace Corps as an expression of international altruism, private groups in Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand quietly pioneered in secular volunteering in the 1950s.”
While we–the pioneer Peace Corps Volunteers–were the first, we weren’t the last. We were followed by the Boomers, Generation X, and now the Millennials.
Within each one of these generations, regardless of their ‘peculiarity’ and identification, one thing is common.
While often overwhelmed by the experience of the cultures that awaited us when we stepped off the plane in a strange new land, we, nevertheless, found a richness of experience, and the writers among us have turned those intense experiences into vivid prose, leaving novels and memoirs behind to tell the next “new age” what it is like now to live in another country.
The books that bred the Peace Corps continue. In novels, memoirs and poetry, Peace Corps writers are leaving behind a literary legacy that is claiming its rightful place on the bookshelves of American literature.