From the Archives: Saving Hearts and Minds in the 1930s and 1940s

What do we need to do to educate young people? Conservative activists, just like their progressive or leftist opponents, have long recognized that education goes far beyond school. Doing archival research for my upcoming book about conservative educational activism in the twentieth century, I found abundant evidence of conservative activism that ranged far beyond the classroom walls. Unfortunately, due to space considerations, much of that material did not make it into the final book draft.

Today, I’d like to share some of the gems from the conservative patriotic activism of the American Legion, things I couldn’t fit in the book. Throughout its long existence, the AL has made education one of its primary concerns. Only if young people learned to love America, generations of AL activists have argued, would the nation remain strong. As this 1941 cartoon makes clear, some Legion members believed education was the “unguarded gate” through which un-American and anti-American sentiments could sneak into America’s body politic.

"The Unguarded Gate," from a 1941 magazine.

“The Unguarded Gate,” from a 1941 magazine.

Other Legion activists emphasized the need to fill children’s minds, souls, and schedules. Only by matching the energetic activism of communist subversives, some Legion voices claimed, could patriotic education match anti-patriotic. As national AL leader Homer Chaillaux warned in 1934, the Legion must provide a full menu of educational opportunities for young people, including baseball leagues, military training, Boy Scout groups, citizenship classes, and school awards. “The average citizen,” Chaillaux warned,

has either never heard of or knows nothing of the background of the Young Pioneers (a youth Communist group), the International Economic Conference of Students (a radical and pacifist student group), the Industrial Unions (at least 42 Communist Unions), the National Students’ League, the Trade Union Unity League, the American Civil Liberties Union (supposedly an organization standing for free speech, but we find them rising in defense of every Communist when in trouble), and numerous others traveling under camouflaged nom de plumes.

With this sort of foe, the American Legion wanted to be sure young people had patriotic, traditionalist American alternatives. Across the nation, local posts organized a wide array of youth activities.  I found these relics of such organizing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  As did posts around the nation, Legion adults set up youth chapters of the Sons of the American Legion, as well as marching bands, baseball leagues, essay contests, and a host of other activities meant to educate boys and girls into a firmly patriotic, socially conservative anti-communism.

A memento from a Milwaukee-area Sons of the American Legion Marching Band trip to the national championships.

A memento from a Milwaukee-area Sons of the American Legion Marching Band trip to the national championships.

From the same Milwaukee-area SOTAL club, a cover from a 1936 newsletter.

From the same Milwaukee-area SOTAL club, a cover from a 1936 newsletter.

As one Legion writer put it in 1930, these efforts must range far beyond just exhortation. They must envelop young people into a profound spiritual web of learning and becoming. In this writer’s words:

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. … While the communist gathers up boys and girls and sends them to colleges and universities of his own endowment for the purpose of making teachers of communism and atheism out of them, let us make opportunity for patriotic and religious education more universal, in order that the schools and pulpits of tomorrow will be filled with right-thinking men and women.

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Donna

     /  April 2, 2014

    Are the three Eagle required Boy Scout Citizenship merit badges ( World, Nation, Community) part of the Citizenship training you’re talking about? Do you know the background of those merit badges?

    Reply
    • I don’t know anything about those! I do know the American Legion tended to be earnest supporters of the Boy Scouts in general. My hunch is that local AL posts cooperated with local BS groups to help young people work on those Eagle badges.

      Reply
      • Donna

         /  April 4, 2014

        I looked at meritbadge.org

        “Civics is a discontinued merit badge. It was one of the original 1911 merit badges, but was renamed Citizenship by the 1948 revision to the Boy Scout Handbook. That badge was then replaced by Citizenship in the Nation in in 1951 and Citizenship in the Community and Citizenship in the Home in 1952 (later renamed as the Family Life merit badge). At the same time, the World Brotherhood merit badge was introduced, and these four badges constituted the “Citizenship Group” of merit badges, any two of which were required for Eagle. In 1972, the Citizenship in the World merit badge replaced World Brotherhood.”

        So there was one merit badge on the topic (Civics) when scouting first began. After it was divided, two of the four were Eagle required. Now all 4 are Eagle required merit badges (there are 13 Eagle required now). Citizenship in the World, Cit in the Nation, Cit in the Community, and Family Life.

        The original list of requirements for Civics (1911-1951)

        1. State the principal citizenship requirements of an elector in his state.
        2. Know the principal features of the naturalization laws of the United States.
        3. Know how President, Vice-President, senators, and congressmen of the United States are elected and their terms of office.
        4. Know the number of judges of the Supreme Court of the United States, how appointed, and their term of office.
        5. Know the various administrative departments of government, as represented in the President’s Cabinet.
        6. Know how the governor, lieutenant-governor, senators, representatives, or assemblymen of his state are elected, and their terms of office.
        7. Know whether the judges of the principal courts in his state are appointed or elected, and the length of their terms.
        8. Know how the principal officers in his town or city are elected and for what terms.
        9. Know the duties of the various city departments, such as fire, police, board of health, etc.
        10. Draw a map of the town or city in which he lives, giving location of the principal public buildings and points of special interest.
        11. Give satisfactory evidence that he is familiar with the provisions and history of the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States.

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