When Fran Randall joined the Girl Scouts in 1938, she wore a long green dress with long sleeves, a belt and an ace scarf.
Technical issues delayed this final installment of the Girl Scout Red Scare, but I have a treat that is worth the wait!
On August 6, 1954, the Illinois chapter of the American Legion passed a resolution withdrawing American Legion support for the Girl Scouts for supposedly subversive, anti-American content in its 1953 Intermediate handbook.
GSUSA President Olivia Layton contacted Irving Breakstone, the newly elected commander of the Illinois chapter, to discuss the matter. Breakstone distanced himself from the Clammage resolution and assured Layton that it would never reach the floor of the National American Legion convention, set for August 30-September 2 in Washington, DC.
Breakstone was wrong.
Legionnaires from across the United States gathered at the Washington Armory over Labor Day weekend, 1954, and voted on a series of proposals calling for vigilance against communism, including universal military training. They passed a resolution praising McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Regarding the Girl Scouts, convention delegates commended GSUSA for taking “remedial action” (revisions underway long before the Legionnaires got worked up over the handbook) and called on GSUSA to disclose the author(s) who had inserted the “un-American influences” into the text and whether or not they still worked for the Girl Scouts.
Furthermore, Legion National Commander Arthur J. Connell reneged on a promise to let the Girl Scouts defend themselves if the handbook issue made it to the floor.
Layton was furious, especially as she lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and could have been at the convention with less than an hour’s notice. Layton blasted the vote, saying,
They promised to get in touch with me if anything at all was to be done. Then they went ahead and did this, without even letting me know a thing about it, until I read in the paper Wednesday that the resolution had been passed.
Connell’s reply seemed to suggest that Layton should find a scapegoat to preserve the movement’s wholesome image:
All organizations, including the American Legion, could be infiltrated, and it seems to be that it might be well for the Girl Scout leaders to see who in their organization was responsible for the changes in their handbook, that ought to be blamed rather than any individual in the Legion.
As it turns out, the author of the Intermediate Handbook was Margarite Hall, an old friend of Nation’s Capital who worked at Camp May Flather when the camp opened in 1930 and later on the council staff. In 1953 she was the Intermediate Program Advisor at GSUSA and hardly a rabble-rouser.
Although the controversy over the Handbook had to be frightening at the time, by 1990 Hall could laugh about the incident, as she did in a 1990 presentation at Rockwood Manor, outside Washington DC.
Now that the recording of the presentation has been digitized, I’ll let Margie have the last word on the Girl Scout Red Scare:
©2014 Ann Robertson
Sixty years ago, on August 6, 1954, the Illinois branch of the American Legion denounced the Girl Scouts for “subversive and un-American influences.”
It was the latest battle surrounding the 1953 Intermediate Girl Scout Handbook.
When we last examined the allegations of Girl Scouts promoting communism, it was July 1954 and the debate had reached the US Congress. Florida radio personality Robert LeFevre had published an article in his obscure newspaper suggesting that the new handbook promoted a dangerous world order instead of patriotism for the United States. When LeFevre heard that a handbook revision was underway, he crowed that it was because of his complaints. In fact, the revision process was already well underway, so that a newer edition would be in Girl Shop shops in time for the start of the school year.
Several Illinois Congressmen inserted LeFevre’s accusations into the Congressional Record, but tempers seemed to calm on July 27 when Illinois Representative Timothy P. Sheehan read a statement from GSUSA President Olivia Layton explaining the revision process. Congress adjourned for a summer break and all seemed well.
Then came the bombshell.
On August 5, a reporter called the National Office from the Illinois State American Legion Convention. Edward Clamage, head of the Anti-Subversive Commission for Illinois, was about to introduce a resolution withdrawing American Legion support for the Girl Scouts. He had never examined the Handbook or bothered to contact a single Girl Scout, but he had read LeFevre’s article. The local council mobilized and gave him additional information about the revisions that already gone to press.
Clamage remained unswayed, and his resolution was presented on the convention floor on the evening of August 6.
He repeated, almost verbatim, the pro-United Nations accusations first leveled by LeFevre, but the “certain pro-Communist authors” accusation was new.
It referred to a review of the book First Book of Negroes by Langston Hughes that had appeared in the February 1953 issue of Leader magazine. In a memo to field staff, GSUSA summarized the criticism about the book review and explained that it had been “carefully read by our editors and members of our Program Department” and was selected for “its clear presentation of the history and accomplishments of the Negroe race, and its contribution to increased understanding of an important aspect of our American heritage and culture.”
However, Hughes had been called to testify before the Joseph McCarthy and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in March 1953 on charges of Communist sympathies. The Girl Scouts risked guilt by association.
After 90 minutes of debate on the convention floor, a minister got up and read Hughes’ poem “Goodbye Christ,” which includes these lines:
“Good-bye, Christ Jesus,
Lord, God, Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here now,
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all.
A real guy named ‘Marx, Communist, Lenin, Peasant, Stalin, Worker, me.”
Although that poem was written 20 years earlier, published only in Europe, and did not appear in the book reviewed in Leader, that recitation sealed the deal. The resolution passed.
The press had a field day, mocking the resolution, and numerous organizations came forward to defend the virtue of the Girl Scouts. The Chicago Daily News called the incident “berserk patriotism” and Eleanor Roosevelt agreed with one Legionnaire who’d shouted out, “How Screwy Can We Get?” National Capital Post 15 of AmVets told the New York Times that they had conducted their own investigation and determined, “They favor marshmallows and Gregory Peck. They oppose homework and mosquito bites. None of these are on the Attorney General’s (subversive) list.”
GSUSA National President Olivia Layton issued a response on August 9, rejecting the “unwarranted and unfair charges”:
Layton also had several telephone consultations with Irving Breakstone, who was elected commander of the Illinois American Legion at the convention and was embarrassed by the mess. Breakstone told the Chicago Sun-Times that he deplored “the method used to call attention to the mistakes made by the scouts’ leaders. It was unnecessary because the scouts themselves already were in the process of making corrections.”
Layton was concerned about the resolution going to the National American Legion convention set for August 30 through September 2 in Washington, DC. Breakstone assured Layton that the resolution would not reach the floor in Washington — but that would not be the case.
© 2014 Ann Robertson