What do conservative activists want out of education? Like progressive thinkers, most conservatives have historically hoped for more than just classroom solutions to educational problems. Like progressives, the conservatives I’ve studied have imagined “education” as a broad-ranging, all-encompassing process for young people.
As I clean up my files for my upcoming book, I’ve rediscovered lots of archival documents and images that I couldn’t include. Today, I’d like to share some of the material from the American Legion’s educational activism in the 1930s. Like other conservatives, the leaders of the AL argued for an educational policy that encompassed far more than school reform. Activists in the AL wanted to provide a wholesome intellectual and social atmosphere for young people in order to save them from the clutches of subversives, progressives, and anti-Americans.
American Legion activists in the 1930s thought that education could provide a wholesome moral defense against socialist and communist subversion. Time after time, AL leaders exhorted local posts to engage in a range of activities to provide wholesome and patriotic activities for young people. This included classroom work, but also ranged far beyond.
As the AL’s Americanism Handbook put it in 1930,
While the communist organizes his young pioneers, his youth movement in colleges, and so forth, let us do some organizing. Let us organize Boy Scout troops, ROTC units and boys’ baseball teams, if you please. Let us win and hold the confidence of our boys through such work. While the communist scatters literature among the youth of the land to teach it disrespect for parental authority, let us preach the doctrine of love of parents and love of home. While the communist ridicules the ethics of religion, let us teach its beauty and comfort and hope. While the communist preaches its cowardly philosophy of dissipating the fruits of labor and capital, let us strive to inculcate the manly principles of energy, ambition and thrift in the hearts of our people. While the communist, in the guise of the professional pacifist, spreads his doctrine to palsy the arm of our national defense, let us keep our people informed on matters pertaining to the need and necessity of national defense.
The most active educational leader in the Legion during the 1930s was the AL’s Director of the National Americanism Commission, Homer Chaillaux. In a suggested speech Chaillaux sent out to AL leaders around the country, he spelled out the AL’s broad educational philosophy.
First of all, the AL worked to fight subversion in the classroom. As Chaillaux put it,
It is a well known fact that un-American groups, radical pacifists, communists and others operating under more or less misleading nom de plumes, are using the schoolrooms throughout the nation for the dissemination of their poisonous propaganda. Therefore, we believe that it is only right and proper that organizations interested and engaged in the promotion of Americanism should be permitted to go into the classrooms with activities designed to build up a greater love and appreciation for the sacrifices made by our forefathers and for our form of government, and for the things which have made possible the growth of our nation.
But this was not only a schoolroom campaign. Chaillaux described the wide-ranging activities carried on by the AL: ROTC programs, Boy Scouts, baseball leagues and other sports leagues, oratorical contests, essay contests, and Sons of the American Legion clubs. In all its “Youth Activities,” Chaillaux explained, “the Legion seeks to coordinate the mind and the muscle through a group of activities designed to build physical and mental alertness.”
Does the Junior Baseball program aid in any way in counteracting communism and other un-American activities? That question has been asked a number of times. And the best answer, I believe, is found in a clipping taken from the “Gazette,” Gastonia, North Carolina, under date of July 31, 1934. We quote the clipping herewith:
‘We in Gaston County know from four or five years experience what a valuable and beneficial movement this baseball program has been. It had its beginning in Gaston County in the summer of 1929, the summer that the communist uprising had put Gaston County so unfavorably before the public. Seeds of unrest and bitter partisanship had been planted here that spring by the agitators from the slums of New York and the classic halls of certain New York universities. We had just gone through the sickening and humiliating trial of the gangsters accused of killing the chief of police here: The county was torn to pieces.
‘Along came this Junior Baseball, enlisted the boys from the textile settlement of the county and there began a movement which has been of the most wholesome influence in the county. It has been the best insurance against a recurrence of similar troubles in the county. These boys are learning how to be square and clean shooters, fair and above board in their play and in their dealings with each other and with their superiors. From the Legionnaires who are sponsoring the movement, they are learning principles of Americanism that they will never learn from books.’
Local posts embraced these efforts. And though it may seem heavy-handed and dictatorial, it seems as if many young people really did enjoy these subversion-fighting activities. During my research, I spent some time in the files of one Joseph Hrdlick, an active member of an AL post in Milwaukee. Lucky for me, Hrdlick kept copies of some of the youth activities in which his post engaged. In Hrdlick’s papers, we find examples of a magazine the local Sons of the American Legion post produced during the 1930s. We also see mementoes from activities such as the SOTAL marching band. In this case, the Milwaukee boys marched all the way to New York City, a town not often revered among anti-communist activists.
It’s always hard to distill how the average person felt about these activities, but at least Mr. Hrdlick seemed sincere and enthusiastic in his efforts to help his young SOTAL minions.
Other AL archives from the 1930s contain similar gems. In the Historical Society Archive in Madison, a hundred miles or so west of the Milwaukee collection, I found some examples of student work in AL-sponsored essay contests from the 1930s.
One winner from 1939, in her essay “What America Means to Me,” wrote these stirring words,
Just to look upon the map of America gives me a thrill! . . . America is a free country. It is a haven for political refugees who could not find the freedom they desired in their homeland. . . . America is a land of opportunity, and yet—as there are in every country—there are those who will criticize and tear down our ideals and laws. Their’s [sic] is a destructive criticism; hindering, instead of helping, our lawmakers.
This rhetoric sounds like precisely the sort of anti-subversive, patriotic, engaged attitude that the AL hoped to sponsor in young people nationwide. Again and again, AL activists worked to reform the education of America’s youth. They looked hard at classrooms, textbooks, and teachers. But they didn’t stop there. Like all sorts of educational reformers, these conservative activists worried about the end product of education. Of course, they weren’t the only ones. As I argue in my upcoming book, this sort of conservative activism formed a complex tradition throughout the twentieth century.
But in every case–whether it was the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Pro America, the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, or any of the dozens of local groups and individuals that campaigned for more conservative education in the twentieth century–the archives included far more fascinating tidbits than I could include in the three hundred pages I had to work with.
As I keep cleaning up my files, I’ll post other archival gems that didn’t make the final cut…