Americans at the End of the Age

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, the surviving 16 million men and women who had served in World War II had reached an average age of 56 years. 

The president at the time, Richard Nixon, was just a bit older at 60, but he had been a Navy commander in the Pacific war, so a little seniority would be expected. Nixon and his fellow veterans had been in civilian life for more than 25 years, long enough to have mostly raised their families and to have reached the commanding positions of commercial, cultural, and public life. 

Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the decision, and presiding Chief Justice Warren Burger were of a slightly older vintage. Burger was 34 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He wanted to serve, but a bout with polio as a child disqualified him. He served at home on a war production board. Blackmun, Burger’s Minnesota childhood friend and best man at his wedding, was a year younger; but Blackmun had gone to Harvard undergrad and law school, not the hometown St. Paul College of Law like Burger. By the time the war came, Blackmun was operating in some pretty rarified air.

The other five justices who joined in the decision were: Potter Stewart, who was one day shy of his 58th birthday when the decision came out and had served on Navy oil tankers during the war;  Lewis Powell, 65, who had served as an intelligence officer in Sicily and North Africa; William Brennan, 66, the leading liberal on the court, who made Army colonel serving as a legal officer stateside; Thurgood Marshall, 64, who had not served, but by the start of the war was already deeply engaged in the fight at home against legal segregation; and William Douglas, the last of the true New Deal progressives on the court, who was 74 and a stateside veteran of World War I.

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