Sachleben on Honeck, 'Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy'

Mischa Honeck
Mark Sachleben

Mischa Honeck. Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. 392 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-1618-8.

Reviewed by Mark Sachleben (Shippensburg University) Published on H-Diplo (December, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

My brother-in-law tells a story about his experience in Cub Scouts while growing up in rural Ohio. Virtually every meeting devolved into a big scrum of wrestling among the boys. The den mother, his own mother, a British émigré, in exasperation would call, “Boys! Boys! It’s time to go home,” whereupon the Scouts would look at the clock, see through her ruse, and yell, “We have ten more minutes!” and resume their mass wrestling match. To us, these meetings were about fun and bonding, but Mischa Honeck, in Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy, examines how the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was part of a project to build men and citizens, with the ultimate aim of these meetings being service to American empire.

In a richly detailed and researched book, nearly a quarter of the pages are dedicated to sources and citations, providing a history of the BSA while at the same time exploring the evolution of the United States as an imperial power. Honeck provides details, research, and several sources to make his argument.[1] The book presents a complex and intriguing picture of the intersection of a service organization, empire, and identity in the twentieth century. Honeck notes that previous studies of the Boy Scout movement in the United States have primarily focused on the “national-centered paradigm,” which, in ignoring the international perspective, has “perpetuated the myth of a nonimperial United States” (p. 7). The author argues that the historiography of the Boy Scout movement has focused on its early beginnings in Britain, which does not give the proper balance to the growth of the movement in the United States.[2] The organization, which was founded by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, had its roots in British imperialism. Honeck’s unique contribution to the historiography is his attempt to link that organization with the imperial project of the United States.

In the first chapter, “Brothers Together,” Honeck argues that Boy Scouts were at the forefront of a movement to create a new type of manhood, one in which young men were brave and willingly engaged in self-sacrifice for the good of the community. The development of such characteristics as “character” and “energy,” often vaguely defined, was a response to many of the manifest concerns of early twentieth-century white men, namely increased urbanization and dubious indicators behind the theory of “race suicide.” These twin concerns arose because of increased travel and economic shifts occurring from the late industrial period. Urbanization and immigration in the United States were changing the nature of American social and political life.

Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the early pioneers of the BSA, worried that city life was making young people decadent and immoral. Likewise, another early leader, Daniel Beard, was suspicious that new ideas emanating from feminine or foreign sources were undermining male vitality and the strength of the United States. It followed that the Boy Scouts was necessarily antagonistic to the Girl Scouts, or the prospect of mixed-sex organizations, believing that they would lead to the “sissification” of men (p. 24), or “manly women and womanly men” (p. 40).

Honeck connects this fear of declining masculinity with the rise of the American empire. To the inhabitants of the newly acquired territories of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the American empire looked every bit the same as European colonialism. Through national storytelling, Americans consoled themselves with justifications about democracy and a liberal democratic order, while espousing narratives of the difference between “old” Europe and “new” America. Honeck illustrates that Americans believed that rather than creating an empire, the active engagement of the United States on the world stage was understood as “exporting liberty and morality” (p. 43). The primary media outlet of the BSA, the magazine Boys’ Life, published articles about unselfish Americans working with and helping those inhabiting the newly acquired territories. Nonetheless, Scout pageants and memorials and ceremonies honoring those who waged or died in securing territory, were very similar to colonial ceremonies conducted in European countries.

In the wake of the First World War, wealth, peace, and prosperity tempted young people of the 1920s into new lifestyles of consumption and leisure. Increasingly resistant to activities that prevented contacts between the sexes, particularly with the rise of dating, young people were shunning same-sex organizations and the BSA was searching for relevance. Culture critics who were allied with the BSA worried that boys/young men in the United States were becoming soft, selfish, and infatuated with sex. As Honeck notes, “BSA officials did not seek another armed conflict, but they also feared the emasculating potential of peace” (p. 60). The harsh environments of colonial hinterlands provided a testing ground where Boy Scouts could demonstrate their worth and masculinity, a subject explored in chapter 2. Using two high-profile expeditions, one to Africa and the other to Antarctica in which Scouts were participants, Honeck illustrates how the national organization used news stories and books to solidify the BSA’s claim to making men in the 1920s. The adventures of Paul Siple, from Erie, Pennsylvania, in an expedition with Admiral Richard E. Byrd in the Antarctic, and Robert Dick Douglas, Douglas Oliver, and David Martin Jr., accompanying photographers Martin and Osa Johnson on safari in Africa, generated much-needed publicity and justification for BSA. As suggested in adventure novels such as The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle, colonial territories were places where white men could demonstrate their mastery over nature and superiority over other, nonwhite people. The accounts of Douglas, Oliver, and Martin in Africa inevitably depicted Africans who served as guides in a perpetual state of childhood, suggesting that Boy Scouts were more masculine than those who lived in Africa. While these conceptions were not created by the BSA, the media accounts reinforced the existing narrative and justified the continued practice of colonialism in the early twentieth century.

As the politics changed, so too did the Boy Scouts. Chapter 3, “A Junior League of Nations,” recounts and interprets American participation in world jamborees between the First and Second World Wars. The destruction wrought by the First World War, and the subsequent cynicism directed toward the elites who precipitated and governed the carnage, provided an opening for the idea that cross-border brotherhood was possible. While on the surface this may have seemed to be the case, the reality on the ground, as Honeck points out, was much more complex. The interwar years offered new opportunities and impulses. In place of older, overt notions of masculinity, male success was being recast in terms of financial success, particularly in the field of business. The Boy Scouts followed suit. At world jamborees, Americans were characterized as wealthy snobs, seeking to cement relationships through expenditures. There was a sense that Americans thought themselves better than their fellow Scouts, offering an ideal model based on profit and finance rather than engaging in fellowship on equal terms.

International jamborees during the interwar period provided a sense of relief to a world shaken by the horrors of the First World War. The idealistic hopefulness of young men gathered together stood in stark contrast to the difficult negotiations undertaken by diplomats and politicians. Beneath the veneer of internationalism at these gatherings, the Anglo-American expectations of world order were manifested in maintaining dominance and privilege. The physical organization of the camps at jamborees reflected how such a world was organized: British, American, and Western European Scouts were assigned spots surrounding the central headquarters where Baden-Powell was located. Outer districts of the camp were designated for Scouts from “smaller, non-white, and non-Christian” countries (p. 103). The camps thus reflected Anglo-American interpretation of the world, how it was and how it should be.

Any discussion of American history, especially in the context of social organizations, must inevitably discuss and examine race. Chapter 4, with the appropriate title, “A Brother to All?” questions whether diversity could occur inside the ranks of scouting given the state of racial politics in the early twentieth century. The BSA faced a thorny problem: how to recruit minorities into a “brotherhood” of scouting in a society where there was a clear, and fiercely protected, hierarchy of race. The impulse to address the topic was multifaceted, including the diverse nature of the United States, the internationalization of the Boy Scout movement, and competition from other organizations that were more amenable to integration. Through his review of materials in archives, Honeck illustrates the internal debates within the national organization about how to promote the scouting experiences to minority populations. Ultimately, although under one organizational umbrella, individual troops remained segregated, while the national organization was nominally integrated. Yet Honeck understands the efforts to offer scouting to nonwhites as akin to the mission of white teachers and missionaries in colonies since the late nineteenth century: to make imperialism acceptable to the local population by creating “a realm of imperial power where benevolent ‘fathers’ were watching over aboriginal ‘children’” (p. 140).

Chapter 5 explores the seeming contradiction that during a time of economic and political strife during the Great Depression, the Boy Scouts, as well as other youth organizations, enjoyed a tremendous rise in the number of members. Entitled “Youth Marches,” the chapter explores how the Boy Scouts vied for members and relevancy with organizations across the political spectrum. Rarely remembered today is the influence and popularity of extreme ideologies and their youth organizations, such as the Young Pioneers of America (YPA) on the left and the German-American Bund (GAB) on the right. In returning to the theme of race from the previous chapter, Honeck notes, for example, that while the Boy Scouts was reluctant to use images of African American scouts in its promotional materials, the YPA had no such compunction. In fact, African American young men were prominently featured in their public relations campaign. The increased prominence of overtly political youth organizations drained potential members away from the BSA, whereas publicly promoting a fully integrated BSA would have likely driven more potential members with right-wing ideologies from the organization. The solution was to redefine the organization (and its history) as a defender of democracy. As Honeck points out, it was an imperfect solution because democracy demands the elimination of all discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of religion and race. These strains in the plan of the Boy Scouts were evident in the case of Japanese American Boy Scouts who were housed in internment camps during the Second World War, which is expertly examined near the conclusion of the chapter.

With the threat of massive destruction and annihilation, post-World War II realities brought yet another evolution in the identity of the BSA. Honeck argues, in the chapter entitled, “Are You a Crusader?” that middle-class men found that there was a disconnect between the impulse of self-fulfillment and the de-individualizing mechanisms of mass society. In response, the BSA adopted the imagery and language of medieval crusaders, compete with iconography and language that addressed the challenges to the security of the United States by focusing on three areas: civil defense, scientific discovery, and creating a bond of friends among those in the free world. This gave males (boys, young adults, and men) a raison d’être in a time in which it was abundantly clear there was little to do in the face of weapons that could destroy the world. Nevertheless, the work of civil defense perfectly matched the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared”; the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union prompted “boy training and space exploration [to become] entangled in rallying calls to restore U.S. supremacy” (p. 225), and individual and local efforts to help Boy Scouts in parts of the world destroyed by war to recover and reestablish programs reflected the Boy Scout Fourth Law of friendliness.

The final substantive chapter of the book explores the symbiotic relationship of Boy Scout troops with American military bases abroad, specifically East Asia and Germany. It is a unique examination of what some scholars refer to as the intimate side of empire. From this perspective, the Boy Scouts was part of a larger contingent of civil society and service families that acted as unofficial ambassadors on behalf of the United States. Honeck argues that the military stationing, or occupation, was a visceral example of American hard power. Yet organizations such as the Boy Scouts and military wives and families were an American soft power asset, projecting friendliness and neighborliness. At first glance, the relationship between the military and the Scouts might appear to be seamless and natural. But as Honeck’s research indicates, through interviews, contemporary media reports, and documentation, even though the military could provide these Boy Scout troops located on the front lines of the Cold War with unique opportunities, the relationship was not always easy. Neither was participation particularly high among the sons of US service personnel; the vast majority of boys on US army bases abroad did not even join the Scouts despite the seeming convergence in ideals and purpose.

In an intriguing epilogue, which I wish had appeared in a foreword, Honeck discusses his time as a Cub Scout in Oregon before his family moved back to Germany. What is missing from this history of the Boy Scouts is the lived experience of the everyday Scout (which both he and I were). Of course, this is understandable. Archives usually do not account for the experiences of the masses. But it is an important part of the equation. How much did the policies and stances of the BSA impact the Scout who wanted to spend time with his friends? The memoirs and stories that are preserved in archives are those of elite Scouts. For example, in his description of those who participated in the expeditions to Africa and Antarctica, Honeck notes that the selection process by the national organization eliminated bookworms, smart alecs, and muscle-bound boys early on, and the conception of the ideal Scout was white and generally Protestant (pp. 62-63). What of the experience of those who were in the Scouts and who did not match the expectations of the national organization, even many white Protestants? I found myself thinking about the work of Hayden White, and asking the question as to what is left out.[3] As Gayatri C. Spivak asks, who speaks for the subaltern?[4]

Honeck notes that the complexity and nuance of post-Second World War and early Cold War politics was most likely lost on most Scouts. Yet, there was a genuine interest in promoting friendship, helping those in need, and helping those recovering from the war. Many Scouts collected money and surplus materials to send to Scouts in war-ravaged countries. Honeck comments, “The expectation was that subaltern youth would repay white gestures of friendship with unconditional allegiance” (p. 237). But what of the Scouts who earnestly undertook efforts to help? Did they draw the same lesson? Or did they learn a valuable lesson in cheerful service? If Alexis De Tocqueville’s image of “a nation of joiners” is deeply embedded in American political culture, then certainly many Scouts and Scout leaders joined to help improve their communities. But their stories will likely never be told because archives rarely tell them. Honeck’s fine work chronicles the intentions of the BSA, but it remains an open question as to what the effects were on everyday Scouts.


[1]. In addition to an impressive array of global newspapers, primary sources from Scouting, oral histories, and secondary sources, Honeck utilized records and information from over twenty archival sources, in the BSA Archives in Irving, Texas, the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the World Scout Bureau Archives in Geneva.

[2]. For example, Honeck notes, John Springhill, Youth Empire, and Society: British Youth Movements, 1883-1940 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1977); and Michael Rosenthal, The Character Factory: Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout and the Imperatives of Empire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986).

[3]. For example, Hayden V. White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), ix-x, 4-5, and 7-11; and Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty,” American Historical Review 93, no. 5 (1988): 1193-99.

[4]. Here (p. 38) Honeck cites Gayatri C. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

Citation: Mark Sachleben. Review of Honeck, Mischa, Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

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