Mischa Honeck’s Our Frontier Is the World is a provocative account of how the Boy Scouts echoed and enabled American global expansion in the twentieth century.
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has long been a standard bearer for national identity. The core values of the organization have, since its founding in 1910, shaped what it means to be an American boy and man. As Honeck shows, those masculine values had implications that extended far beyond the borders of the United States. Writing the global back into the history of one of the country’s largest youth organizations, Our Frontier Is the World details how the BSA operated as a vehicle of empire from the Progressive Era up to the countercultural moment of the 1960s. American boys and men wearing the Scout uniform never simply hiked local trails to citizenship; they forged ties with their international peers, camped in foreign lands, and started troops on overseas military bases. Scouts traveled to Africa and even sailed to icy Antarctica, hoisting the American flag and standing as models of loyalty, obedience, and bravery. Through scouting America’s complex engagements with the world were presented as honorable and playful masculine adventures abroad.
Innocent fun and earnest commitment to doing a good turn, of course, were not the whole story. Honeck argues that the good-natured Boy Scout was a ready means for soft power abroad and gentle influence where American values, and democratic capitalism, were at stake. In other instances the BSA provided a pleasant cover for imperial interventions that required coercion and violence. At Scouting’s global frontiers the stern expression of empire often lurked behind the smile of a boy.
Mischa Honeck is Senior Lecturer in History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is the author of We Are the Revolutionists: German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists after 1848 and coeditor of War and Childhood in the Era of the Two World Wars.
Jeremi Suri, author of
The Impossible Presidency:
"The Boy Scouts seem as American as apple pie. This wonderful, deeply researched book describes the growth of the Boy Scouts with a respectful, but critical eye. The author shows how the Boy Scouts contributed to the changing, contested role of the United States as a global power. The Boy Scouts redefined what it meant to be an American boy and man. Anyone interested in the history of American democracy, politics, and foreign policy will learn a lot from this groundbreaking book."
Ian Tyrrell, Scientia Professor, University of New South Wales, coauthor of Empire's Twin and author of Crisis of the Wasteful Nation:
"Our Frontier Is the World is a study of the cultural underpinnings of the distinctive type of empire that the United States became in the twentieth century. It provides much understanding of how American power was aggregated and sustained but also obscured from clear view. The close alliance shown to have developed by the Boy Scouts with the America nation-state distinguishes this work. Cleverly researched and resourceful in its exploration of the psychological mechanism of masculinity and empire building, Honeck’s work is an important addition to the historiography of American imperialism."
Leslie Paris, Associate Professor of History, University of British Columbia:
"Working at the intersection of the histories of American masculinity, leisure, age, and imperialism, and tracing both real and imagined border-crossings, Our Frontier is the World shows powerfully and engagingly how American Boy Scouts and their leaders participated in the cultural work of American power, both abroad and at home."
Daniel Immerwahr, author of Thinking Small:
"From overseas colonies to global wars to military occupations, the Boy Scouts have been there, training millions of boys to carry out the United States’ mission in the world. Mischa Honeck has fastened on an easily ignored but vitally important dimension of political life, and a fascinating one."