Children, War and Propaganda.


In hippie-era America torn by the war in Vietnam, an angry artist drew an impressionistic sunflower. Words hanging from its leaves, the poster declared, "War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things." Artist Lorraine Schneider's simple statement became part of American culture. In 2010 it was still available through the California peace group formed in the 1960s to protest a war long ended.(1) Perhaps the commonsense statement resonated through decades because the violence and hatred of war seem particularly anathema to the innocence of childhood. Yet people have to be reminded of that, why? Because war is too often fought by children, for children, and in spite of children.

While children certainly have always suffered in war, it was not until the total wars of the last century that they would be made a prime focus of the conflict, and be involved as prime actors. The involvement began in World War I. This total war, as children were repeatedly reminded, was fought for them, for the children, for the future. More than that, if this war were to set children free from tyranny of the enemy, they would have to do their share. Children were not exempt from the rest of society in expectation to report for duty. That duty might be spinning socks or selling bonds, or a dozen other things. For the older, and the boys, it might be training and preparing for their turn to serve. But always, in world wars I and II, children in enthusiasm and by exhortation joined the home front. In doing that, the children found all sorts of opportunities to work together scrapping for Uncle Sam, to learn a trade for better employment, to get fit, or to get hard, physically and mentally. Maybe the poster was wrong. Certainly for America's children, war had its healthy aspects.

At least that is what the wars' propagandists might have intended. Because the propaganda that has become such a well-known feature of total war certainly was part of the child's world as it was part of the adult's. Yet we know little about war propaganda as it affected children's lives when the world was at total war. Scholars during the last century almost never directly addressed propaganda as it related to children, even as they debated it extensively as it related to adults. This is surprising, given the strong and growing interest in child welfare and education throughout the twentieth century. Sociologists have seldom examined children and propaganda. Historians seldom have considered the experiences of American children during these wars. Children have been mostly seen as inconsequential to the history of the American home front, particularly during World War I. Even high-circulation, quality publications for children, such as Boys' Life and Jack and Jill, have seldom been taken seriously as primary sources. Children's periodicals were not systematically archived, and so today even some that circulated in the millions are difficult to find. A compiler of juvenile literature lamented that research libraries did not generally compile collections of children's periodicals; even the Library of Congress had shown limited interest.(2) The kids just didn't seem to matter.

Yet they did. In examining how adults brought children into these wars, we are also examining adult values and ideals. "We can discern the main patterns in adult thinking about children—what adults thought should be done to and with children," observed two scholars of childhood. "They, too, were historical actors who had their own subjective experience and who influenced adults as well…. Simply put, much more of the past becomes understandable when we focus on children."(3) Values, ideas, hopes of one generation for a future one flow through children's literature, noted Hamilton, who added during war children's periodicals may lose some of their independent character to become "a vehicle for national and political propaganda."(4) It is in that vehicle that we will ride through this study. We will examine children's periodicals, but more. We will examine propaganda directed at children from government authorities, private and corporate authorities, educational authorities, religious authorities, and others whose charge was to occupy their time in presenting a world during war to a generation of innocents.

Scope and Approach

This study uses traditional historical research methods in an examination of the militarization of American childhood during both world wars. By historical methods we mean a considered interpretation of events in the past based mainly on primary sources from the past, and construction of a narrative based on that interpretation. By militarization we mean how authorities tried to create a wartime culture for American children using propaganda: what they wanted children to think, what they hoped children would learn, what they intended children to do, what they expected children to accomplish, and what they believed children should not know.

A child here is anyone under eighteen. We recognize, of course, that young children will respond differently than near-adults, and that authorities will often use different approaches and have different expectations for different age groups. But no child was left behind from service during the world wars. Even toddlers under five, during World War I organized into the "Khaki Babes."(5)

We will learn mostly about Caucasian children; authorities examined here almost never considered special appeals to African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, or other minorities. One would expect this during World War I; the emphasis was on "Americanization," not separation by race, class or "hyphen." World War II authorities spoke little of Americanization, but their sensitivity toward children of races other than that of the dominant culture did not seem to change much from that of 1918, at least as reflected in these sources. We do know that popular culture was pervasively racist, particularly in World War II.(6) World wars means the wars during the time the United States was participating, from about 1917-1918, and about 1941-1945. The definition of propaganda is controversial; here propaganda has been accepted in its neutral sense as persuasion neither good nor bad, although to be noted is the troubling notion that children most of the time were manipulated through this material.

The grooming process to militarize American children was undertaken primarily by four groups. These are the groups we mean when we generally refer to "the authorities": government, educators, private children's organizations and industries, and juvenile media. The last three took cues from the first, as of course in both wars it was the U.S. Government which declared and directed war policies. But despite the almost universal underlying belief in the correctness of the government's choice to go to war, groups and individuals displayed a variation in concept and philosophy of how children should be brought into wartime culture. Differences existed in the approaches taken during World War I and World War II. But in common was agreement over positive values and skills children could gain from living through a total war. War was a disaster in principle. But in practice it could be a good opportunity to build a child's character on the home front.

We rely on documents designed for consumption by children themselves, or by their adult charges such as teachers and scout leaders, that is, those whose main interest was to serve as guides for the journey through childhood. This focus suggests some primary sources on the pop culture periphery are excluded from study. In fact, it is acknowledged that child media consumption during the world wars extended beyond children's publications. Movies were enormously popular during both wars; by 1918 they already attracted 10 million viewers a day.(7) By World War II, radio had grown to the point where three-fourths of Americans used it as their major source for war information.(8)

Obviously children made up a share of this audience, and some programs appealed directly to them. It is also obvious that children consumed adult-aimed media. A World War II study showed children as young as ten already had a reasonably good knowledge of the war, presumably based in part on their consumption of adult-aimed radio and publications.(9) By World War II, as well, comic books had become popular; more than 90 percent of younger children read them regularly.(10) But these media were not generally under direct control of authorities as we have defined them, and they presented themes of pure entertainment and popular culture more insistently than the children's publications considered here.

The publications examined presumed a more literary and instructional tone, perhaps slightly preachy. Clearly editors of children's publications such as Boys' Life and American Girl were interested in values-based education, and so deserve a place in a study of authorities, their propaganda, and militarization of American childhood. It is presumed that movies, radio, and comics cared more about "low-brow" entertainment, although the author will quickly agree that this was not always true, and that it does not mean these should not be the focus of a future study. In direct quotations from primary sources, obvious spelling anomalies of the period have been updated (e.g., to-day/today). Other grammar and usage patterns have been preserved, even if they do not conform to contemporary practice.


1. "History," Another Mother for Peace,
2. R. Gorden Kelly, ed., Children's Periodicals of the United States (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984), ix.
3. Joseph M. Hawes and N. Ray Hiner, American Childhood. A Research Guide and Historical Handbook (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), x.
4. Karen L. Hamilton, "St. Nicholas at War: The Effects of the Great War on a Prominent Children's Magazine, 1914-1919" (Master's thesis, University of Minnesota, 1972), 1.
5. Florence Woolston, "Billy and the World War," New Republic, January 25, 1919, 369-371; reprinted in David F. Trask, ed., World War I at Home. Readings on American Life, 1914-1920 (New York: John Wiley, 1970), 92.
6. W. Linwood Chase, Wartime Social Studies in the Elementary School (Washington, DC: The National Council for the Social Studies, 1943), 12.
7. Emma Gary Wallace, "Moving Pictures—The Fifth Dimension," Child-Welfare Magazine (became PTA), August 1918, 262.
8. William M. Tuttle, Jr., "Daddy's Gone to War." The Second World War and the Lives of America's Children (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 150.
9. Robert William Kirk, Earning Their Stripes. The Mobilization of American Children in the Second World War (New York: Peter Lang, 1994), 15.
10. Tuttle, "Daddy's Gone to War." The Second World War and the Lives of America's Children, 159.
© 2011 by Ross F. Collins. All rights reserved.