The “Fourth Turning” and the Memory We Lost
There is a lesson screaming at us from the past
Big ideas can have big consequences. In 1997 William Strauss and Neil Howe published a book entitled The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, part of what is now referred to as part of “Strauss–Howe generational theory”. It is an effort to describe patterns and predict the future based on cycles of generational cohorts. The Fourth Turning, among others of their books, helped popularize terms familiar to us, e.g. Millennials and Generations X, Y, and Z. A basic theme of the book is “…the idea that every 80 years of American history has been marked by a crisis, or 'fourth turning', that destroyed an old order and created a new one.” Strauss and Howe suggested that after around 80 years the people that most vividly remember the last calamity—and were most affected by it—have died off, and with them has died much of the generational memory of that last cataclysm. With that lost of generational memory of the last major trauma comes the likelihood of repeating it.
Steve Bannon, once called “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement” (by Andrew Breitbart), and the man who turned Trump’s 2016 faltering campaign into an electoral success, was so fascinated by The Fourth Turning that he, in 2010, wrote and directed a documentary film entitled Generation Zero based on the book, produced by David N. Bossie for Citizens United Productions (yes, that Citizens United).
Last Monday, Memorial Day, as some of us paused to remember those who died in the cataclysm of World War II, Professor of History Heather Cox Richardson published a piece that, for me, brought the Strauss-Howe concept of die off of memory leading to a fourth turning to full circle. In a Substack column (copied below), Richardson pulled quotes from an eight page pamphlet published March 24, 1945 by the U.S. Army, entitled “FASCISM!”. If you have a few minutes, I urge you to click that link and read the original (as well as Richardson’s post). If you read the original keep in mind that it was written and disseminated as the war still raged, before the beginning of the Cold War, before the communist takeover of China under Mao was complete, and before the “Red Scare” of the McCarthy era. In other words, place the pamphlet in its proper place in history.
Richardson’s post based on the WWII pamphlet offers a stark reminder for me of exactly the loss of generational memory we are now experiencing as the last of WWII veterans go to their graves—and their stories with them. We would do well to see the parallels between the fascism described in the pamphlet and the actions of prominent parts of the modern day Republican Party. We would do well to remember not just those who fought and died in WWII but why they fought and died, lest The Fourth Turning, with the aid of the like of Steve Bannon, forces us to re-live something like that horror.
Keep to the high ground,
MAY 29, 2023
Beginning in 1943, the War Department published a series of pamphlets for U.S. Army personnel in the European theater of World War II. Titled Army Talks, the series was designed “to help [the personnel] become better-informed men and women and therefore better soldiers.”
On March 24, 1945, the topic for the week was “FASCISM!”
“You are away from home, separated from your families, no longer at a civilian job or at school and many of you are risking your very lives,” the pamphlet explained, “because of a thing called fascism.” But, the publication asked, what is fascism? “Fascism is not the easiest thing to identify and analyze,” it said, “nor, once in power, is it easy to destroy. It is important for our future and that of the world that as many of us as possible understand the causes and practices of fascism, in order to combat it.”
Fascism, the U.S. government document explained, “is government by the few and for the few. The objective is seizure and control of the economic, political, social, and cultural life of the state.” “The people run democratic governments, but fascist governments run the people.”
“The basic principles of democracy stand in the way of their desires; hence—democracy must go! Anyone who is not a member of their inner gang has to do what he’s told. They permit no civil liberties, no equality before the law.” “Fascism treats women as mere breeders. ‘Children, kitchen, and the church,’ was the Nazi slogan for women,” the pamphlet said.
Fascists “make their own rules and change them when they choose…. They maintain themselves in power by use of force combined with propaganda based on primitive ideas of ‘blood’ and ‘race,’ by skillful manipulation of fear and hate, and by false promise of security. The propaganda glorifies war and insists it is smart and ‘realistic’ to be pitiless and violent.”
Fascists understood that “the fundamental principle of democracy—faith in the common sense of the common people—was the direct opposite of the fascist principle of rule by the elite few,” it explained, “[s]o they fought democracy…. They played political, religious, social, and economic groups against each other and seized power while these groups struggled.”
Americans should not be fooled into thinking that fascism could not come to America, the pamphlet warned; after all, “[w]e once laughed Hitler off as a harmless little clown with a funny mustache.” And indeed, the U.S. had experienced “sorry instances of mob sadism, lynchings, vigilantism, terror, and suppression of civil liberties. We have had our hooded gangs, Black Legions, Silver Shirts, and racial and religious bigots. All of them, in the name of Americanism, have used undemocratic methods and doctrines which…can be properly identified as ‘fascist.’”
The War Department thought it was important for Americans to understand the tactics fascists would use to take power in the United States. They would try to gain power “under the guise of ‘super-patriotism’ and ‘super-Americanism.’” And they would use three techniques:
First, they would pit religious, racial, and economic groups against one another to break down national unity. Part of that effort to divide and conquer would be a “well-planned ‘hate campaign’ against minority races, religions, and other groups.”
Second, they would deny any need for international cooperation, because that would fly in the face of their insistence that their supporters were better than everyone else. “In place of international cooperation, the fascists seek to substitute a perverted sort of ultra-nationalism which tells their people that they are the only people in the world who count. With this goes hatred and suspicion toward the people of all other nations.”
Third, fascists would insist that “the world has but two choices—either fascism or communism, and they label as ‘communists’ everyone who refuses to support them.”
It is “vitally important” to learn to spot native fascists, the government said, “even though they adopt names and slogans with popular appeal, drape themselves with the American flag, and attempt to carry out their program in the name of the democracy they are trying to destroy.”
The only way to stop the rise of fascism in the United States, the document said, “is by making our democracy work and by actively cooperating to preserve world peace and security.” In the midst of the insecurity of the modern world, the hatred at the root of fascism “fulfills a triple mission.” By dividing people, it weakens democracy. “By getting men to hate rather than to think,” it prevents them “from seeking the real cause and a democratic solution to the problem.” By falsely promising prosperity, it lures people to embrace its security.
“Fascism thrives on indifference and ignorance,” it warned. Freedom requires “being alert and on guard against the infringement not only of our own freedom but the freedom of every American. If we permit discrimination, prejudice, or hate to rob anyone of his democratic rights, our own freedom and all democracy is threatened.” And if “we want to make certain that fascism does not come to America, we must make certain that it does not thrive anywhere in the world.”
Seventy-eight years after the publication of “FASCISM!” with its program for recognizing that political system and stopping it from taking over the United States, President Joe Biden today at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, honored those who gave their lives fighting to preserve democracy. “On this day, we come together again to reflect, to remember, but above all, to recommit to the future our fallen heroes fought for, …a future grounded in freedom, democracy, equality, tolerance, opportunity, and…justice.”
“[T]he truest memorial to their lives,” the president said, is to act “every day to ensure that our democracy endures, our Constitution endures, and the soul of our nation and our decency endures.”
War Department, “Army Talk 64: FASCISM!” March 24, 1945, at https://archive.org/details/ArmyTalkOrientationFactSheet64-Fascism/mode/2up