Michael Barone

Over the last seven decades, 115 veterans of World War II have served in the United States Senate. This week, the last of them, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, died.

Two World War II veterans still serve in the House -- Ralph Hall of Texas, who was a Navy pilot, and John Dingell, who joined the Army at 18 and was scheduled to take part in the planned invasion of Japan.

There aren't likely to be any more members of what Tom Brokaw labeled the Greatest Generation to serve in Congress. All surviving World War II veterans (except a few who lied about their age) are at least 85 years old.

In the 68 years since World War II ended, veterans of the conflict have played an outsized role in American politics -- more than veterans of any other conflict since the Civil War.

No one paid much notice when Barratt O'Hara, the last Spanish-American War veteran in Congress, died in 1969.

Nor did anyone direct much attention to the retirement from Congress of the last two World War I veterans in the 1970s -- Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana (who lied about his age to enlist) and Sen. John Sparkman of Alabama (who served in the Students Army Training Corps).

In contrast, World War II veterans made a big splash in politics starting shortly after the war ended. Dozens of young veterans were elected to Congress in 1946, including future Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The two had offices near each other and, as Christopher Matthews chronicled in his 1996 book "Kennedy and Nixon," were on friendly terms until they became political rivals.

When they ran for president in 1960, both were in their 40s -- a vivid contrast with the much older presidents of the previous two decades.

From Kennedy's victory that year until George H.W. Bush's defeat in 1992, a period of 32 years, every president served in the military during World War II, although Lyndon Johnson's service was brief and Jimmy Carter did not graduate from the Naval Academy until after the war was over.

Many other members of the Greatest Generation entered politics early and made a mark. Lloyd Bentsen, first elected to Congress in 1948, and George McGovern, first elected in 1956, were both bomber pilots, an extremely hazardous duty.

Three future senators -- Philip Hart of Michigan, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Bob Dole of Kansas -- first met in a rehabilitation center in Battle Creek, Mich., where they were recovering from serious wounds.

More than 400,000 American servicemen died in World War II -- 100 times the American death toll in Iraq -- and the lives of millions were disrupted. But wartime service also opened up opportunities for many.

Michael Barone

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2011 THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER. DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM