Williamson’s argument is part of a familiar narrative about the Scouts that goes like this: The Boy Scouts, once a bastion of traditional values and nonpartisanship, remained immune to both politics and change until the late 20th-century culture wars forced them to choose sides.
However, such hackneyed accounts obscure that the BSA has struggled to remain relevant since its founding in 1910, which has required constant changes to the organization. In the process, America’s major boyhood institution has shown an enormous capacity to reinvent itself by identifying and solving problems, all the while trying to avoid challenging the dominant politics of the day. Indeed, the BSA has long striven to keep up with the rapidly shifting center of American politics and to remain a neutral political actor by projecting a kind of metaphysical Americanness that transcends partisan divisions.
Consider racial diversity. In the early 1920s, the nation 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 recruit boys of color.
While most Scout officials favored segregated troops, the organization’s “Inter-Racial Service,” established in 1926, pushed for greater recruitment, particularly in the South. White Scouts in Atlanta and Richmond threatened to burn their uniforms if black youths were admitted to the program. Yet African American membership grew slowly but steadily, advancing a more inclusive idea of boyhood at a time when bitter racial divisions were plaguing the nation.
Or consider international involvement. After the carnage of World War I, many Americans embraced isolationism. The BSA took the opposite approach, sending delegations of young Americans to international Scout festivals in Europe.
At these self-styled “Junior League of Nations” gatherings, the boys and their leaders presented their campfire diplomacy in favorable contrast to official foreign policy. “It is remarkable how we get along over here,” Texas Scout Gibson Sherrard wrote home from England in 1929. “If the older people would have just such a meeting of all nations in a spirit of friendship, I don’t believe there would be any wars.” Just a few years after columns of Boy Scouts had lined up behind Uncle Sam’s war effort, the organization successfully recast its boys as ambassadors of world peace.
Consider also the New Deal. At a time when liberal societies were particularly hard-pressed, not only by economic crisis but also by totalitarian regimes arguing that open societies lacked the muscle to bounce back from the crisis, the BSA redefined its mission: to mold young citizens and youthful men robust enough to resist depression at home and dictators abroad.
That redefinition was as much about self-preservation as national defense. As individualist and business-friendly interpretations of Scout virtues that emphasized traits like resourcefulness and self-reliance lost traction, the Scouts rebranded themselves as New Deal proponents. The Roosevelt administration drafted the Scouts to promote its new recovery programs. Troops marched in support of the National Recovery Administration, waving the Blue Eagle and pushing “I will cooperate” cards into the hands of housewives.
Finally, consider the Cold War. Joining the anti-communist crusade, American Boy Scouts became benefactors to Scouts from other nations. Relief operations such as the World Friendship Fund, which became the BSA’s pet project for aiding scouting in war-torn or underdeveloped countries around the world, transmuted U.S. military power into a conquest for children’s hearts and minds.
As a corollary to this “Junior Marshall Plan,” the BSA introduced the World Brotherhood Badge in 1952, which Scouts could earn by becoming pen pals with a foreign Scout, drawing a map of the nations where Scouting was permitted or talking in a foreign language to a native speaker for five minutes. Incorporated into the country’s soft-power arsenal, Boy Scouts learned American citizenship had increasingly global implications. Their job was to bolster the image of a benevolent free-world empire, not simply to chase merit badges in their own backyard.
All of this is not to suggest that the BSA was always ahead of the curve on issues affecting the nation’s social and political development. History is no morality tale, and the BSA hardly qualifies as a beacon of progressivism. Opening its ranks to boys of color had little to do with training future civil rights activists and everything to do with easing racial tensions and disciplining nonwhite bodies. Gestures of world friendship were often overshadowed by declarations of American superiority. The spectacle of thousands of Boy Scouts lined up to salute Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937 evoked eerie parallels to mass pledges at fascist and communist youth rallies.
Trying to pin a political label on the BSA misses the point. To do justice to an organization that defies easy categorization into left and right, we need more history and less ideology. The Scout Law has not changed. Its meaning, however, remains open to contestation and reinterpretation. Today’s attempt to make the BSA more inclusive is only the latest act in the organization’s century-old quest to occupy a forever-shifting center.