This Is Your Propaganda, Kids: Building a War Myth for World War I Children

Article excerpt

This article examines war propaganda as reflected during World War I in three prominent United States children's magazines: American Boy, St. Nicholas, and The Rally. War themes in these primary sources were evaluated, using a framework (the Myth of the War Experience) developed by George Mossé. For children, a militarized approach to daily life could teach them valuable skills and virtues, and propaganda presented war as not an event to fear or dread but as one to welcome and even covet. This study concluded that American children's publication editors generally employed the myths as outlined by Mossé but with some differences. Missing from this propaganda were traits that did not help to build the Myth. These included values of independent thought and action, toleration, and pacifism.

What should children know about war? Should they think of it as a good thing or a bad thing? Should they be encouraged to participate or to stay out of it?

Perhaps those are questions surprising to some. How can adults explain to children that such a frightful thing as war really is a pretty good idea? How can they possibly expect the little ones to respond positively to a call for war?

This article relies on historical research and interpretation to consider the question of how a society ought to involve children in a war. Specifically, this study looks at one way propaganda worked to draw United States children into the first total war on a global scale, World War I, during the months of American participation, 1917-18. The war crystallized modern techniques of propaganda with every belligerent nation launching enormous propaganda campaigns. It was aimed at everyone, including children.

Framing this examination of propaganda directed toward children is a concept that the late historian George Mosse called the Myth of the War Experience.' The myth, he believed, emerged in World War I and came to dominate much of the century.

Propaganda expressly aimed at children during this era may have come from a variety of places, published sources, or adults whose charge was the education and training of youth. However, this research focuses on one source: influential value-based magazines written for children. Such publications, seldom researched and sometimes hard to find today, could be expected during the world war to have self-consciously fashioned a world view designed to persuade young readers. Writing prepared for children, emphasized a scholar of childhood in 1 972, "serves as a means by which a society transmits its most cherished ideas, attitudes and values, in the hope that they will be carried on in the child."2 If war consumed most of the world's attention during those years, it might have consumed the culture of the child as well.

American editors reflected that preoccupation in their juvenile publications. War themes dominated from 1917 until the end of the war, and editors had no doubt that they were prime movers in molding opinions of their readers. In an argument against a proposed postal rate raise, a publisher's advertisement in American Boy pointed out in August 1918, "The newspapers and magazines are the chief educational agencies of our country. Widespread opportunity of reading means efficient patriotism."3

To examine the propaganda of children's publications, a researcher must first consider whether this material was propaganda. The definition is slippery. While the word dates from the 1600s, propaganda had no negative connotation even up to World War I. In 1917, an editor could still tell parents he would devote "an occasional page of the journal to a propaganda for better obstetrics."4 The World War I-era Committee on Public Information (CPI) promoted the government's war views under the assumption that propaganda suggested nothing negative.5

World War I changed that. Disillusionment of the 1920s persuaded many Americans not only that it had been a mistake to join the war but propaganda was to blame unseemly war enthusiasm in 1917-18. …