The Boy Scouts of America at 100

Article excerpt

February 10 marks the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). In a century of service, the Boy Scouts have contributed immeasurably to the character, citizenship and self-reliance of the more than 100 million American youths who have been members, and to the welfare of the communities in which they reside. Given certain mutual interests, the paths of the U.S. Army and the Boy Scouts of America often intersect. Both have aspired to "make" raw boys into worthy men. Both emphasize such values as loyalty, integrity and selfless service. Each has provided important assistance to the other. Their differences have been important, too: From the beginning, the Boy Scouts have taken great pains not to be viewed as paramilitary, nor as an extension of government. Let us briefly examine the shared history of these two organizations.

In legend, the story of the Boy Scouts of America begins with the famous "unknown Scout," who assisted disoriented Chicago publisher W.D. Boyce through the streets of London on a foggy night. Upon reaching their destination, the young man refused a tip, commenting that he was a Boy Scout doing a good deed for the day. (Scouting had begun in Britain in 1907.) Boyce was so impressed he called upon British General Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout Association in the United Kingdom, to find out more about his organization. Returning to the United States, Boyce incorporated the Boy Scoute of America in February 1910.

The timing was right, and the movement caught on. Industry had displaced agriculture as America's dominant economic endeavor, and within a decade more Americans would live within cities than outside them. The Progressive movement was in full swing, and its adherents feared for the virtue and self-reliance of American youth in the absence of a character-building lifestyle on the farm or frontier. Boyce and his colleagues franchised Boy Scouting at the local level through networks of local commissions, councils and troops. Like-minded precursor organizations were readily absorbed, and within a year more than 2,500 people had applied to be leaders and 150,000 to be Scouts.

Although given to uniforms, badges of accomplishment and discipline, the Boy Scouts of America were careful not to appear too militaristic. They emphasized good citizenship and the peaceful resolution of disputes, and downplayed any appearance of being junior soldiers. In this they set themselves apart from a rival organization of the time, the American Boy Scouts. Consciously paramilitary, the American Boy Scouts even went so far as to endorse the Remington rifle for marksmanship, a practice much encouraged by the National Rifle Association. The American Boy Scouts experienced considerable embarrassment when one of their boys shot another in the course of a dispute in 1912, and the organization fizzled within a decade.

Scouting initially focused on ages 11 through 17, and soon even younger boys were drawn to its activities. In due course, the Cub Scouts of America evolved to accommodate boys as young as eight, who graduated to become Boy Scouts as preteens and teenagers. Direct supervision of the younger boys came to be the purview of adult women, mostly mothers of Scouts, and the older boys were supervised by adult men, often fathers of Scouts. Neither the mothers nor the fathers were eager to envision their boys as soldiers at such a young age. The BSA's emphasis was upon character and education, to which the criteria for achieving rank and merit badges attested.

Despite cautiousness about appearing too military, the Boy Scouts intersected with the Army in at least three important ways by mid-century. Eager to be good citizens during World War I, Scouts raised more than $352 million in war bonds and $101 million in savings bonds. They also served as message runners and coast watchers, and in other miscellaneous security roles. They similarly served the war effort in World War II, adding the collection of scrap metal and recyclables to their duties. …