restricted access 7. Dissolution: World War II Subverts the Zeitgeist and Youth’s Vision for America
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Disillusion and Dissolution PART III 191 On February 10, 1940,1 American Youth Congress Chairman Jack McMichael2 addressed a crowd of over 5,100 from the portico of the White House as an introduction to the keynote speaker for the National Citizenship Institute—President Franklin D.Roosevelt.In what he styled a “message to the president,” McMichael reminded FDR that “Education, vocational training, employment at a living wage—for all, preservation of the civil liberties proclaimed in the Bill of Rights,— peace—these are our simple aims.”3 And then he pointedly asked the president, “Are we to solve our youth problem by dressing it in uniform and shooting it full of holes?”4 To the larger public listening via radio broadcast and to those who would read the journalists’ depiction of this event, he addressed a third issue, suggesting that America should welcome, and should not fear a young generation aware of its own problems, active in advancing the interests of the entire nation. . . . They are here to discuss their problems and to tell you, Mr. President, and the Congress, their needs and desires. America’s twenty-one million youth are ready to fight—but determined to do their fighting at home-against indifference, intolerance and greed—for jobs, civil liberties and peace.5 Among the listeners that day was AYC member Leslie Gould, who remembered the president adopting a paternalistic tone in his response to the charge implicit in McMichael’s speech that the Administration had not done enough for young people, condescendingly admonishing youth Dissolution World War II Subverts the Zeitgeist and Youth’s Vision for America 7 192 Disillusion and Dissolution activists not to “seek or expect some panacea—some wonderful new law [a reference to the American Youth Act] that will give to everybody who needs it a hand-out or a guarantee of permanent remunerative occupation of your own choosing.”6 The President continued with what has often been referred to as a “verbal spanking” in which he chastised youth activists for passing resolutions concerning the Soviet invasion of Finland7 that FDR claimed were based on“90 per cent ignorance,”therefore amounting to “unadulterated twaddle.”8 The stunned silence that followed marked the end of a decade’s worth of effort to get the problems of youth attended to through a symbiotic relationship between young activists and government officials. As internal disputes pitted some youth leaders who agreed with the President’s foreign policy against others who tried to hold firm their commitment to avoid war, the AYC and its sister organization, the ASU, lost both their momentum and their focus. The dispute concerning what to do about the war danger led to the end of the popular front and, later, the termination of youth programs, the demise of the youth organizations themselves, and thus the end of youth’s vision for America. The Citizenship Institute was not designed to be the showdown between youth activists and the Administration that it became. Planning for the Institute began at the preceding annual conference the summer before. It was supposed to be an opportunity for young people to learn more about how their government worked by participating in a model congress whose overriding theme centered on responsible citizenship while it offered the youth delegates the opportunity to lobby members of Congress to support the American Youth Act.However, developments in Europe that precipitated World War II interceded in the interim, causing many young activists to readjust their policy positions.By February 1940, some still held steadfast to the hope that American involvement in the war could be avoided and therefore opposed any posturing on the part of the Roosevelt Administration that appeared to move America closer to war while others had decided it was time to join the fight and therefore supported FDR’s moves toward intervention. When the war in Europe began, young Americans neither rose up nor walked out to stop it. Instead, they fretted about whether America would—or should—get involved.9 Joseph Lash spent the first two weeks after the German invasion of Poland, he said, thinking of nothing else but what the outbreak of war meant for the youth of America.10 Lash’s support for the popular front had waned so much that by this point, Dissolution 193 however, he had been actively seeking ways to harness the ASU to the Democratic Party.11 After leaving the Socialist Party in 1937, Lash shed his radicalism and recast himself a...


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