- Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancyby Mischa Honeck
Empire and imperialism are two currently hot topics, particularly as scholars move toward an understanding of the historical relationship between the United States and the world. Studies of hard and soft imperial power as well as formal and informal colonialism are ubiquitous, yet authors often run the risk of reading empire into everything. Mischa Honeck's work is not one of these studies. Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancyis an expansive examination of the global history of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and the organization's role in promoting "American ascendancy" in cultural, political, and even military realms. Rather than use the organization's focus on masculinity to assess the gendered dynamics of the United States' tireless efforts to achieve a dominant global presence, Honeck argues that the group's extolling of boyhood and youth "provided a beguiling solution to America's imperial dilemma" (p. 5). From the Progressive era through the Cold War and beyond, Honeck charts the rise of the BSA and the organization's ability to construct an "empire of youth" by trusting boys to educate men on the virtues of adventure and vitality, rather than men instructing boys in the traditions of masculine military might (p. 113). Ultimately, Honeck has succeeded in writing a "border-crossing history" of the BSA, while "prioritizing a point of view that is mindful of but not bound by national developments" and is "closely tied to the changing international fortunes of the modern United States" (pp. 5, 3).
Our Frontier Is the Worldis organized chronologically, while delineating the crucial themes for understanding the trajectory of the BSA. Chapter 1 details the rise of the BSA and its international roots, while chapters 2 and 3 describe two [End Page 724]major expeditions (one to Africa and another to Antarctica) sponsored by the BSA and the organization's participation in global events—jamborees—that were akin to "a junior League of Nations" (chap. 3). However, such international gatherings were not, as chapter 4 details, without racial antagonisms and the underpinnings of white supremacy displayed by American Boy Scouts. Chapter 5 highlights the BSA's clashes and competition with communist and fascist youth groups during the interwar years through World War II, while the last two chapters look at the BSA's role in creating young Cold Warriors in the 1950s and expanding alongside America's military empire on overseas bases.
Honeck's focus on the young men who were drawn to the BSA is a refreshing way of not simply connecting imperialism to the group but also demonstrating the agency that children often exercised by working with or against the aims of the organization. For example, while many boys eagerly signed up to sell war bonds or even drilled with real guns during World Wars I and II, they also repeatedly rebelled against their leaders' insistence that scouts, to stay pure, should refrain from interacting with young women and shun Girl Scouts, and they often openly defied the restriction on interactions with scouts of different races (chapter 4 might be of particular interest for readers of this journal, as it details the history of segregated BSA troops in the United States and beyond). Additionally, the role of youthful verve and devotion among scouts in the early days of the Cold War perfectly connects themes of nuclear power, religion, and expansionism in chapter 6. It was no coincidence, as Honeck notes, that Boy Scouts were featured prominently in films guiding the youth of America on how to respond to nuclear attacks. While more discussions of the connections between the BSA, expansionism, and capitalism or consumerism would have been appreciated, Honeck's book is a critical addition to the field.