Children, War and Propaganda.

Chapter Two: How War Can Make Better Children

Stars and Stripes, March 7, 1919.Patriotism to Build the Ideal Child

Worry of authorities that they would have to address a child's anxiety and fear over war seldom was addressed in 1917-18, and began to shrink after 1943. It became obvious that the nation's children were not going to be bombed—although not completely obvious, as that did indeed happen one time, in 1945. Bomb-packed balloons from Japan floated near Bly, Oregon, killing six curious children who chose to investigate. This was the only fatal raid by air in the continental United States during World War II. Despite the earlier frenzy of drills that by this time had waned, this actual incident was censored, not so much to stay panic among children as to avoid giving Japan information on success of their unusual weapon.

Of more lasting interest during both wars was not a concern over children's physical safety, but a focus on children's moral development. A child no longer fearful could be encouraged to play a wide variety of roles in wartime that could both help the country and help the child. Qualities that war could engender generally fell into four categories: acquisition of skills, improvement of health and fitness, development of civic spirit, and enhancement of moral character.

The hub around which all these virtues fell was patriotism. Wartime patriotism could drive the child, sometimes indolent, often cranky, to motivate herself or himself toward the goals authorities would hope to develop. Patriotism was particularly a helpful beginning, because it sprang from emotional, and not rational sources. Children were presumed to be driven by emotions. "Fortunately the feelings and emotions can be utilized for useful ends as well as evil ends," observed an author writing for elementary school educators in World War II. "A moderate, reasonable and wise appeal to these emotions can be properly used in the schools. Patriotism is an emotion." World War I authorities similarly suggested patriotic appeals, "primarily to the imagination and to the emotions."

Patriotism was an emotion also widespread among the country's adult population, and in both world wars probably formed the single most significant force driving the country into war. The strength of World War I-era superpatriots such as Theodore Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood who, under the general heading of "preparedness," hoped to thoroughly militarize the schools and the country before 1917, was resisted fairly successfully by groups such as the American School Peace League. The league, organized by Fannie Fern Andrews in 1908, found support at the highest levels of government. Federal Bureau of Education commissioner Philander Claxton invited Andrews to advise the office on international peace studies and pacifist literature choices. League efforts spread to Europe as well before the war. In fact, in 1914 French and English governments presumed international pacifism was such a force that it might blunt appeals to the colors. That turned out to be a straw in the wind compared with the appeal of nationalism.

Nationalism, the idea that members of a race or historic class of people care about their identity as a separate state, was presumed in the early twentieth century to be a mostly spent force in world affairs. It is the wellspring of patriotism, both based on emotional feeling of independent rights and gratitude for one's country. Nationalist force today has proven over and over to be capable of cruelty to the point of genocide. Mossé's examination of the last century's incredible violence grew from his "concern with modern nationalism and its consequences." Comparisons can be made regarding each world war's ghastly fests of human extermination, but both grew in their own momentum beyond anything initiators expected, black hurricanes destroying millions of lives in ways more hideous than anyone could imagine—or would want to, even today. Patriotism as the engine of morale sustains the home front, and feeds men to the battlefields to make continuation of war possible. World War I, as many Germans believed by 1939, was not lost on the battlefields. The German army had not disintegrated. The German home front had. Hitler was able to exploit this and rebuilt an über-patriotic military state to disastrous end. What American authorities knew in 1941 was that the war was going to be won only if home front support could be maintained. And that demanded a searing level of patriotism from old and from young.

No one could question the extremes of adult patriotism exhibited by those whose charge was to influence children during either war. In fact, to exhibit less than those extremes was to risk censure, harassment, jail, even physical danger. In World War I, teachers who remained neutral concerning patriotism could be fired, as ten were in New York City, of hundreds in many incidents across the nation. In World War II little evidence exists showing many were fired for flaccid patriotism. But patriotic fervor certainly drove authorities in their attentions to children, as home-front morale was now clearly known to be a critical factor in sustaining total war. In World War I many educators were commanded to sign a guarantee of their patriotism, and to teach it. As the National Education Association itself heard, "It is the sacred obligation of the schools to instill the love of country into the hearts of the growing generation, when the roots of habit, and therefore character, sink deep into the plastic mold of youth."

But that was preaching to the choir. Nearly everyone was perfectly patriotic during both wars, and pleased to bring the sacred fervor of patriotism to children. Patriotism as the queen value was never in serious debate. Encouraging the feeling of duty and love to one's country had long been a central goal for a variety of authorities. The founder of St. Nicholas, considered the best children's magazine of the era, declared in 1873 that "love of country" would be one of her goals. A wellspring of patriotism among its readers demonstrated that these goals had been achieved, or probably reflected in the patriotism children learned in the home, because the editor noted writing contest entries "show our young artists to be fairly bristling with patriotism, as we all ought to be about this time, and so the editor wishes for the loyal Leaguers a joyous and 'glorious' Fourth." This was before World War I began. When the United States entered the war, editors reminded all children to read Wilson's speech, "a historic utterance, nobly voicing the true patriotism of the American people in this world crisis, and worthy to rank with the immortal messages of Presidents Washington and Lincoln." The Committee on Public Information urged primary school teachers to enhance patriotism and Americanism by teaching the "Flag Salute":

I give my head
My hands,
And my heart,
To God and my country—
One country,
One language,
And one flag.

Patriotism was described during World War I in religious terms, a "sacred" duty. This was as close as authorities came to presenting war to American youth by way of religious words and metaphors. In both world wars, American children were presented with a program thoroughly secularized, unless perhaps "patriotism" or "love of country" could be considered a religious ersatz in a country bound by religious variety. Despite the occasional reference to a generic "God," as in the poem above, the near-universal refusal of authorities to bring religion very far into war for children smartly contrasts with the experience of children living in European belligerents. World War II researchers found children separating war adversaries into religious metaphor: "They never talk about the British fighting against the Germans but of a conflict between God and Hitler. Mossé observed that in Europe Christian ideals of morality were co-opted for nationalistic goals, and became in symbol and blessing part of the war myth experience. Audoin-Rouzeau found evidence in his research of children in World War I France that Catholic authorities in particular tied religious virtue to war, bringing the Christian ideal of Jesus' sacrifice to the soldier who does the same for his country.

The few authorities who found themselves uneasy with the overtones of racism and hatred behind United States patriotism saw little tolerance for their viewpoint. E. M. Robinson, director of the Boy Scouts of America, who was Canadian, in 1917 incautiously let drop the remark that Scouts "needed to learn the difference between patriotism and jingoism." When the group altered its federal charter to deny membership to anyone not an American citizen, Robinson had to resign. The Boy Scout Movement in the United States clung to a stern nationalistic fervor far after that power waned in other areas of American life, and played it out through patriotic suspicion of the slightest disloyalty, even into the 1930s.

But other authorities in World War II in many ways tried to temporize the white-hot rhetoric of World War I, including calls to patriotism. In particular educators worried that too emotional a patriotism would again have its flip side in the kind of jingoism that marked the last war. While certainly many pop-culture authorities reheated the old emotionalism, others urged a revised patriotism with restraint. World War II educators, for example, expressed the underlying presumption that children would be patriotic only in passing, and worried of its excess. "The best teaching of patriotism avoids the teaching of hatred," cautioned an assistant in the federal education department. "It is well for us to say we will not teach hatred even for our enemies. It might be a quite different problem to keep hatred from creeping into the minds of children." The natural patriotic emotions of children should be channeled to creative work, music, art, drama and other programs. Fortunately the feelings and emotions could be utilized for useful ends as well as evil ends.

Patriotism as the linchpin emotion could maintain its strength among children (and most adults) during these wars because its appeal reached beyond reason. Confident that they could rely on this quasi-religious, "sacred" virtue, authorities built an entire system for character development using war as a sourcebook. By militarizing a child's life in school and out, authorities could mold a character in three areas most coveted in the ideal citizen:

Physical and mental toughness.
Moral and civic competence.
Professional and practical skill.

© 2011 by Ross F. Collins. All rights reserved.