The Role of Militarism in BSA Rhetoric - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog

The Role of Militarism in BSA Rhetoric

The following is the second post from NCTE member Leigh Ann Jones’s book From Boys to Men: Rhetorics of Emergent American Masculinity, the latest volume in the CCCC/NCTE Studies in Writing and Rhetoric (SWR) series. You can read the first post here.

(From Chapter 2, pp 52-54)


While the uniform symbolically suggests that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was always resolutely militaristic, the role of militarism in BSA training was contested within the organization early in its history. In a 1912 speech at the National Education Association, BSA Chief Scout Executive James E. West described military training as useful only for the army, not the Boy Scouts. . . . The controversy over militarism and the use of firearms in the Boy Scouts emerged publicly in 1912 when a member of the American Boy Scouts (another Scouting organization for boys) accidentally shot another boy. In his annual BSA report, West referred to that American Boy Scout as an “imitation Scout” and described the BSA as “entirely a peace movement, both in theory and practice in that it bans all military practices and that its program of activities is confined to wholesome achievements for the purpose of building character” (qtd. in Rowan 54). While the 1911 BSA handbook included a Marksmanship merit badge, the BSA awarded none of these badges that year and only twelve in 1912. When Remington Arms began offering the American Boy Scouts .22 caliber rifles in 1913, the BSA refused to adopt it (54).

This relatively pacifist stance generated criticism from some within the organization and without. The most powerful response came from [former President Theodore] Roosevelt, who argued that the organization should police national boundaries by training boys in militarism. Roosevelt refused to appear at a rally for New York City Boy Scouts of America in Madison Square Garden, writing, a Boy Scout who is not trained actively and affirmatively that it is his duty to bear arms for the country in time of need is at least negatively trained to be a sissy; and there cannot be anything worse for this country than to have an organization of boys brought up to accept the mushy milk and water which is the stock in trade of the apostles of pacifism. (qtd. Rowan 54).

A member of the BSA executive board resigned because of a pacifist article by Andrew Carnegie in the November 1914 issue of the BSA magazine Boys’ Life. Both the board member and Roosevelt argued that the article was unpatriotic. By 1915 the BSA began awarding more Marksmanship badges, and West softened his position on militarism, writing in his Fourth Annual Report that while the BSA is not military in “thought, form, or spirit,” it “does instill in boys the military virtues such as honor, loyalty, obedience, and patriotism” (qtd. in Rowan 55).

Murray’s early history of the BSA omits this tension between pacifists and militarists at an early stage in the BSA’s development, telling instead a narrative of Boy Scouts filling a universal need for boys to become fit to represent the nation by bearing arms. However, the conflict between pacifists and militarists points to the important role of rhetoric in the narrative of the BSA as a national organization. Not everyone agreed that it was best . . . to train boys to fight with weapons. Yet there was little possibility for the BSA to remain a pacifist organization and continue to represent the nation because of the strength of the discourse of national masculinity at the time and the scene of embodied competition in which the BSA operated. Thus, the ambiguity over military training became publicly resolved in favor of Roosevelt’s views. The organization’s ties to Roosevelt expanded that scene to include the United States’ growing imperialism. In the public talk about boys in the BSA by its early leaders, militarism, specifically the use of guns, [comes to be] equated with patriotism, and pacifism is aligned with anti-Americanism and effeteness. Guns functioned as an agency for patriotic service, and in the end, a boy who was successfully transitioning into American manhood would need to learn to use one.


Work Cited

Rowan, Edward L. To Do My Best: James E. West and the History of the Boy Scouts of America. Las Vegas: Las Vegas International Scouting Museum, 2005. Print.


Leigh Ann Jones is an assistant professor in Hunter College’s English Department, where she teaches rhetoric and writing to undergraduate and graduate students and co-directs the first-year composition course.