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.
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.
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.