Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy
By Mischa Honeck
Scouting, and with it the arcadian images of happy children and caring adults hiking through the woods or sitting around campfires, may have outlived its prime in the early twenty-first century. For most of its existence, however, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has been a standard bearer for national identity. The core values of the organization have, since its founding in 1910, shaped what it means to be an American boy and man. At the same time, those masculine values had implications that extended far beyond the borders of the United States. Writing the global back into the history of one of the country’s largest youth organizations, Our Frontier Is the World details how the BSA operated as a vehicle of empire from the Progressive Era up to the countercultural moment of the 1960s. American boys and men wearing the Scout uniform never simply hiked local trails to citizenship; they forged ties with their international peers, camped in foreign lands, and started troops on overseas military bases. US Scouts traveled to Europa and Africa, and even sailed to icy Antarctica, hoisting the American flag and standing as models of loyalty and bravery. Through scouting, America’s complex engagements with the world were presented as honorable and playful masculine adventures.
After the cataclysm of two world wars and the onset of decolonization, modern empires rarely referred to themselves as such. Embracing the languages of democracy and self-determination, great powers began to frame their geopolitical interests in markedly anti-imperial terms. This is especially true of the United States, where talk of an “American Empire” continues to invite incredulity and outrage. Much of the historiographical debate on the “American Century” has been confined to the questions of whether the exercise of US power beyond the boundaries of the nation-state was tantamount to empire, and why Americans have such difficulty coming to grips with their imperial status. Far less attention has been paid to the cultural mechanisms by which twentieth-century Americans managed to convince themselves and others that their efforts at nation-building at home and abroad were antithetical to empire. Youth and childhood, this book states, constituted one of these mechanisms.
Children sustain the edifice of empire in at least two distinct ways. Modern discourses of childhood and youth have painted the young as future citizens and an investment in the transgenerational stability of existing social and political orders. Empire, according to this logic, worked primarily on young people, as adults were inculcating in the young the lessons of race, class, gender, religion, and international relations that were supposed to make them functioning members of the state. Focusing on the politics of childrearing is important for understanding how children were seen as crucial to securing the longevity of various political projects, but it also risks obfuscating the ways in which empire worked through young people. Building on historical scholarship in which childhood and youth operate as both demographic and symbolic resources, Our Frontier Is the World details how the BSA enabled American boys and men to forge cross-border ties while bolstering the idea that the United States, by virtue of its youth, could retain the luxury of innocence as it was accumulating greater power. This softening of US global power through the figure of the happy and healthy child was an enterprise that was at once international and intergenerational. It drew on positive adult images about youth and childhood as much as it pivoted on young people making their time, bodies, and enthusiasm available to rebranding an expansionist foreign policy as benevolent support for an ailing planet.
The Boy Scouts offered a perfect template for doing empire at a time when “empire” and “imperialism” had become dirty words in the American political lexicon. Although the BSA was never run by the government, it served the interests of the state in numerous ways. Scout leaders closely aligned themselves with major federal institutions such as the Congress, which granted the BSA a congressional charter in 1916, and convinced all American chief executives since William Howard Taft to act as honorary presidents of their organization. BSA administrators formed collaborative relationships with corporate America and staffed their boards with local and national business leaders. Clergymen of diverse faiths—mostly Protestant, but also Jewish and occasionally Catholic—joined the BSA’s ranks as did members of the military, many of whom volunteered as Scoutmasters during or after they had seen active duty. Former Boy Scouts, in turn, who became generals, ambassadors, astronauts, senators, and even presidents spoke out on how scouting had taught them to be resourceful and self-reliant, thus propping up the narrative that the BSA constituted a pipeline to leadership.
Lodged in the nation’s white, largely Protestant middle-class, the organization nonetheless gradually accepted African American, Native American, and colonial boys as members, even as the BSA’s white leadership considered them racially inferior. In the early 1920s, Americans experienced a surge of racism that buoyed a reformed Ku Klux Klan and exploded into a series of race riots. In that environment, the BSA expanded its efforts to enlist boys of color, particularly in the South. While most Scout officials favored segregated troops, the organization’s “Inter-Racial Service,” established in 1926, pushed for greater recruitment based on concurrent experiments with native youths in British Africa and America’s overseas possessions. At the same time that BSA executives developed a cautious approach to making scouting available to domestic and colonial boys of color, Filipino, African American, and Native American boys wrestled with their subordinate status in the movement and, where possible, refashioned it to serve their own interests.
Race, ethnicity, and nationality continued to shape encounters between Scouts of diverse origins as the BSA experienced something akin to a golden age in the 1950s and 1960s. With the influx of the baby boomers and the drawing of Cold War battle lines, the organization more than tripled its membership from two million in 1945 to over six million by the late 1960s, which included troops stationed at US military bases primarily in Western Europe and East Asia. Ideologically, people affiliated with the BSA proclaimed that the Scout values of kindness, courtesy, and friendship did not stop at the water’s edge. Strengthening the fraternity of citizens at home and building a “world brotherhood of boys,” they held, were indistinguishable civic duties for males of all age groups.
The prominence of the term “brotherhood” in Boy Scout parlance hints at the movement’s distinctive contribution to fusing the spheres of organized youth and liberal empire. Unlike other child-centered initiatives of the twentieth century, the Boy Scouts imagined the task of asserting the supremacy of the “American Way” not only as youthfully rejuvenating but also as inherently masculine. Scout organizers prided themselves on knowing how to make boys into men in post-frontier societies, but the movement’s romanticized ideas about white, devout boyhood also invited Scout leaders to embody a younger, morally untainted version of themselves—often at the expense of women and nonwhite youth. This “boyification” of manhood, which shrouded power relations in the emotionally resonant valences of youth such as flexibility, purity, and the promise of new beginnings, has eluded most historians who have explored the intersection of age and gender in scouting. Our Frontier Is The World, on the other hand, presents the Boy Scouts as a homosocial, intergenerational movement that at once enhanced the political productivity of boys and allowed men to recapture the innocence ascribed to young age.
Finally, while acknowledging that widening the BSA’s external footprint served establishment interests, the book also probes the extent to which the organization’s cross-border activities opened up spaces where US Boy Scouts could engage with the wider world on their own terms. This means accounting for the tension intrinsic to any youth organization between representations of youth and young people as historical actors, as well as coming to grips with the contradictions between adult prescriptions and the practices of actual youth. It would be misleading, though, to conflate understandings of agency in the context of organized youth with rigid notions of resistance or subversion. Rather, it was a collaborative effort involving boys and men that made it possible to practice the “politics of deflection,” a phrase coined by the political theorist Jeanne Morefield to describe how Anglo American elites have historically donned the mantle of civilization to turn attention away from the violence and systemic inequalities of race, class, and gender endemic to white male supremacy.
Innocent fun and earnest commitment to doing a good turn, as brightly as they may shine in the BSA’s annals, were not the whole story. The good-natured Boy Scout was a ready means for soft power and gentle influence where American values, and democratic capitalism, were at stake. In other instances, the BSA provided a pleasant cover for imperial interventions that required coercion and violence. At scouting’s global frontiers, the stern expression of empire often lurked behind the smile of a boy.
Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).
Mischa Honeck is a former Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and is currently Max Weber Research Fellow at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
 On the agent-representation duality in youth and childhood studies, see Richard Ivan Jobs and David M. Pomfret, eds., Transnational Histories of Youth in the Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); and Mischa Honeck and Gabriel Rosenberg, “Transnational Generations: Organizing Youth in the Cold War,” Diplomatic History 38, no. 2 (April 2014): 233–39. On children as political symbols, see Liisa Malkki, “Children, Humanity, and the Infantilization of Peace,” in In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care, ed. Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin (Durham, nc: Duke University Press, 2010), 58–85.
 Jeanne Morefield, Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 6.
Citation: Mischa Honeck, Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.08.2018 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/12510.