The Girl Scout Red Scare, part three

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.

The Illinois resolution, retyped from a file at GSUSA NHPC.

The Illinois resolution, retyped from a file at GSUSA NHPC.

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.”

The First Book of Negroes was reviewed in the February 1953 Leader magazine.

The First Book of Negroes was reviewed in the February 1953 Leader magazine.

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.”

One of the many editorial cartoons about the controversy.

One of the many editorial cartoons about the controversy.

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

The Girl Scout Red Scare, part two

Several of the problematic 1953 badges

Several of the problematic 1953 badges

Over the 1954 Independence Day holiday, the attacks on the Girl Scouts spread to the US Congress, courtesy of B.J. Grigsby. Again, the Girl Scouts were accused of promoting communism and internationalism in the 1953 Intermediate handbook.

Grigsby, a Chicago businessman, had read the LeFevre article and reprinted it in his own vanity newspaper, the Spoon River Journal.  He also wrote to GSUSA expressing his concern over the new handbook and noting that he had contributed to the Girl Scouts in the past.  The response from Leonard Lathrop, head of public relations at GSUSA, did not satisfy him, so Grigsby contacted his Congressmen.

On July 2, Illinois Congressman Timothy P. Sheehan read LeFevre’s article into the Congressional Record. Sheehan added his own concern that one badge in the new Intermediate handbook “requires a knowledge of the United Nations, but nowhere among the merit badges did [LeFevre] find one that required the Girl Scouts to memorize part of the Declaration of Independence or a statement from the Constitution.” [Those were required for the My Government badge.]

Ten days later, Illinois Congressman Edgar Jonas introduced Grigsby’s response to LeFevre into the Congressional Record. While Grigsby dismissed some of LeFevre’s charges, he agreed with others.  Jonas also included Lathrop’s response to a letter of concern sent to GSUSA by Grigsby.

After the accusations from the Illinois delegation, GSUSA mobilized supporters in Congress. At the request of GSUSA, Representative Robert Kean of New Jersey inserted an article into the July 21, 1954, Congressional Record written by Dr. Lillian Gilbreth, then at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  Gilbreth, a member of the national program committee, was best known for her studies of time management in the household and as the inspiration for the book and movies, Cheaper by the Dozen. Gilbreth argued:

We cannot take comfort in the thought that everyone accepts us as spiritually minded, as patriotic, as trying to be constructive in every thought and deed. We must therefore reaffirm our beliefs, reiterate our pledges. As we think of our motto, “Be prepared,” we must be able to answer for ourselves for others the question, “Prepared for what?”

Today the world needs individuals and organizations prepared to meet the challenge of communism. As Girl Scouts we are prepared to do so because we are imbued with the responsibilities and the privilege of following our Promise and Laws day by day, as best we can. […]

What can communism really offer as it challenges all this? Nothing. What should Girl Scouts do to meet the challenge? Keep busy at our work of  service with serenity of spirit. Try to attain the educated mind, the educated hands, the educated heart which will help us to keep our Girl Scout promise and prove ourselves assets to God, our country, and our fellow men. Girl Scouts try.

 

The tide began to swing in favor of the Girl Scouts, with Indiana Congressman Charles Brownson introducing a rebuttal from Indianapolis civic leader John Burkhart on July 26. The next day, Sheehan seemed to backtrack a bit and read into the Congressional Record a statement from GSUSA President Olivia Layton outlining revisions already underway.

Discussion over submitting Burkhart letter to Congress.

Discussion over submitting Burkhart letter to Congress.

Another pro-Girl Scouts statement was made by Congressman Victor Wickersham of Oklahoma.  In preparing this post today,  I realized that I did not have a copy of his remarks. I searched the Washington Post online and, to my surprise, discovered that two years earlier, Wickersham  had sold 20 acres of land to GSUSA for $30,000 — land that was used to enlarge the entrance to the Rockwood camp outside of Washington, DC.

But, as it turned out, the skirmish on Capitol Hill was merely a lull before an even bigger storm.

In part three, the American Legion escalates the controversy…

©2013 Ann Robertson

The Girl Scout Red Scare, part one

Happy May Day!  The first day of May was always a major event in the USSR and other Communist countries, as it commemorated efforts to improve the rights of workers.

Sixty years ago, in the summer of 1954, the Girl Scouts found themselves embroiled in their own Red Scare.

The problem started with a new edition of the Intermediate Handbook, released in 1953.

The 1953 Intermediate Handbook.

The 1953 Intermediate Handbook.

Robert LeFevre, a Florida-based television personality, took it upon himself to compare the 1953 edition with the 1940 Handbook. He condemned  the revised handbook as UN propaganda promoting socialized medicine, agriculture experiments, prejudice, and other harmful, anti-US values.

LeFevre published his criticism, “Even the Girl Scouts,” in the March 31, 1954, issue of his newspaper, Human Events, and sent copies to many media outlets. Most ignored it, but a few reprinted his piece.

But, in a case of very bad timing, GSUSA was then in the process of revising the Intermediate handbook before its next (5th) printing. Based on reader responses, editors planned to better distinguish between the United Nations and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and to include the full text of key citizenship documents, such as the Bill of Rights, instead of just excerpts.

Rather than sending a list of minor changes to the printer, GSUSA  compiled a 12-page pamphlet detailing the corrections to be made.

Big mistake.

Pamphlet with revisions to 1953 Intermediate Handbook.

Pamphlet with revisions to 1953 Intermediate Handbook.

LeFevre pounced on this pamphlet  and took full credit for triggering the revisions.  To some observers, the changes suggested that LeFevre was right — the Girl Scouts had been exposed as trying to undermine the US government.

GSUSA moved to dampen the criticism and emphasized that the revisions were well underway before LeFevre attacked the organization.

GSUSA Executive Director Dorothy Stratton told the Chicago Sun Times, “The revisions cleared our Program Committee on May 19 and the National Executive Committee on May 27.  The final copy went to the printer on August 5.”

Most important, as GSUSA President Olivia Layton wrote in a memo to council presidents dated August 26, 1954, the changes “were made to clear up misunderstandings and do not represent any change in the basic beliefs of the organization — there never has been anything un-American in the Handbook.

Unfortunately, the attacks on the Girl Scouts only grew worse, as  Congress entered the debate.

(Continued in Part Two)

©2014 Ann Robertson