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Washington faces loss of its last veteran of Second World War

The U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington.

LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

Amid all the end-of-an-era proclamations of this season in American politics – marked on front pages across the globe by President Barack Obama's determination to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan combat by 2016, followed by his plan to create a $5-billion (U.S.) counter-terrorism campaign as part of his effort to shift the focus of American foreign policy – there was a great American transition that received far less attention.

It represented the true end of an era – and not just any era but one that produced unprecedented American military, economic, social and cultural power. It gave the world John Kennedy (and his New Frontier) and Richard Nixon (and his Watergate debacle). It provided the liberal social programs of the War on Poverty and the Great Society and the conservative surge of the New Right. It accounted for the excitement of Project Mercury and the tragedy of Vietnam.

The earthquake that produced this monumental transition occurred not in one of the United States' great cities, nor in one of America's great corporate office suites, nor even in one of the garages or laboratories that spawned the country's huge technological leaps forward. It occurred instead in the farm towns of the Red River Valley of Texas, in small cities like the country-music seat of Texarkana and in the exurbs of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

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It was there that Representative Ralph Hall – a onetime Democratic congressman turned Republican, a loyal supporter of energy interests and of low taxes, but known mostly for being the oldest person ever to serve in the House – was defeated in a bruising congressional primary election. He is 91 years old.

But that's the least of it. The defeat of Mr. Hall, a noted raconteur who, in his prime, won election by eye-popping landslide margins, means that when Congress convenes in January not one of its 535 members will be a veteran of the Second World War.

Nine American presidents were in some way involved in the Second World War, along with scores of members of the House and Senate.

The conflict's veterans include such giants as George H. W. Bush, a Navy veteran who served as a member of the House, diplomat in Beijing and the United Nations, vice-president in 1981 and president in 1989; Bob Dole, who served in the House and Senate and was the 1996 Republican presidential nominee; George McGovern, a pilot who was the anti-war 1972 Democratic presidential nominee; and of course Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded Allied forces in Europe, was president of Ivy-League Columbia University and a two-term president beginning in 1953.

And then there were Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kennedy. They both were Navy lieutenants who served in both the House and Senate before ascending to national office, Mr. Nixon to the vice-presidency in 1953 and then the presidency in 1969 and Mr. Kennedy directly from the Senate to the White House in 1961.

Mr. Hall, who was defeated in the Republican primary by a Tea-Party challenger, was an aircraft-carrier pilot in the Second World War. That wartime experience, like that of so many others, many far better known, shaped American foreign policy for two generations. (Neither the Korean War nor the Vietnam War produced a president, and today only one-fifth of members of Congress are veterans, a growing number of them from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.)

The departure of the Second World War generation from the Washington political scene means the end of the influence of a generation that possessed an infectious (and highly effective and efficient) can-do optimism that more than balanced out the just-like-you conformism of the period.

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More important, perhaps, the passing of the Second World War generation from American politics also means the passing of men – there were no female veterans of the conflict in high office – whose world view was shaped by Hitler and Tojo and who could identify the significance of the phrase "Dieppe Raid" or even "Juno Beach," important military and cultural touchstones not only for Canadians. It means that the lessons of Munich – or more precisely, the interminable debate about whether Munich has enduring lessons – now are of less moment to American decision-makers.

It means there are no longer lawmakers in Congress who experienced the delirium of liberating France one hedgerow at a time, or even know what a hedgerow was. It means, too, that there are no longer lawmakers in Congress who felt the surge of possibility that Americans experienced after V-J Day, or even know what, or when, V-J Day was.

These transitions are not without precedent. Seven 19th-century American presidents (eight, if you include Abraham Lincoln, who held the title of commander in chief) served in the Civil War, the string ending with William McKinley, who died in office in 1901. Five American chief executives served in the War of 1812, the last being James Buchanan, who left office in 1861. And four served in the Revolutionary War, including, of course, George Washington.

The departure from the scene of the Second World War generation means the torch of American leadership has been passed to an entirely new generation, men and women with experiences and perspectives all their own, from Vietnam to the September, 2001, terror attacks to the twin wars in Asia.

When Mr. Kennedy, the hero of PT-109 in Second World War fighting in the Pacific, became president in 1961, he used the "torch" metaphor made famous in the 1915 poem In Flanders Fields by the Canadian John McCrae. The 35th president described his own generation as having been "tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world."

The Americans Mr. Kennedy described in that famous inaugural address – which included the classic Second World War-era admonition to "ask not what your country can do for you" – no longer are in power on Capitol Hill, or indeed anyplace else. And yet much of that description can be applied to this new generation of American leaders, presented the torch, as the poet said, "from falling hands" – hands, it must be said, that shaped our world.

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