The roster of American diplomats has grown substantially in recent years. Thanks to historians including Penny Von Eschen, Christopher Endy, and Donna Alvah, we now know how jazz musicians, tourists, U.S. military families, and scores of other ordinary people shaped the relationship between the United States and the world. Jennifer Helgren adds an intriguing new entry to this list: American girls. In her book American Girls and Global Responsibility: A New Relation to the World during the Early Cold War, Helgren charts a new internationalist ethos that flourished in girls’ institutions following the Second World War. Organized youth groups such as the Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and YWCA Y-Teens, along with publications for youngsters such as Seventeen magazine, encouraged girls to see themselves as world citizens tasked with promoting international peace and goodwill. Emphasizing pacifism and intercultural tolerance, these organizations enjoined young women to support the United Nations, send abroad gift packages, consume foreign products, and correspond with peers around the world. In these ways, youth leaders hoped, American girls would strengthen the bonds of world friendship and prevent another world war. Helgren argues internationalist programs charged girls with important global responsibilities, while drawing on girls’ presumed innocence and feminine moral authority to legitimate America’s expanding global hegemony. Scholars have only recently turned their attention to the international dimensions of American scouting, and American Girls and Global Responsibility adds to an already stimulating conversation on the intersection of youth, gender, and empire.1 Helgren clearly charts the differences between boys’ and girls’ organizations. While the Boy Scouts’ version of “world brotherhood” emphasized males’ martial duties to the nation, she notes, girls’ organizations promoted pacifism and intercultural understanding. “The more precarious relationship of girls and women to the nation-state made them in some ways more likely global citizens,” Helgren writes (15). The new figure of the global girl citizen emerged from the confluence of a number of postwar trends. The end of World War II stoked American enthusiasm for efforts to build “one world” united in harmony, a project made particularly urgent by the specter of the atomic bomb. Popular support for “world-mindedness” converged with an expansion of women’s responsibilities during the war, a newly thriving teen culture, and the growing popularity of youth organizations. Endeavors on the part of youth leaders and educators to mold young internationalists were also buoyed by new psychological theories that stressed the malleability of children and the importance of eradicating personal prejudice in the service of global peace. Thus, in the late 1940s, American girls’ institutions began embracing internationalism as a new responsibility of citizenship. Youth groups and publications for girls took seriously youngsters as significant players in the quest for peace. They imparted information on atomic energy, enlisted girls in civil defense activities, and explained the structure and goals of the United Nations. Alongside tips on beauty and dating, Seventeen magazine carried reviews of serious political tomes. “You may be told that this is a matter for the military or a highly specialized group of civilians,” the magazine wrote in its 1946 review of One World or None, a collections of essays on the atomic bomb. “Don’t listen. You can understand; you can act” (30). Global citizenship training also included lessons in intercultural tolerance. The Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and YWCA were “early adopters of inclusion policies,” and their emphasis on multiculturalism would help lay the groundwork for later civil rights activism (45). Rooted in the traditionally feminine tasks of relationship building and moral persuasion, girls’ duties as global citizens were distinct from their male peers. Nonetheless, young women and girls were regarded by educators and policymakers alike as an integral part of the “one world” project. Lessons in global unity found concrete expression in activities sponsored by youth organizations. Thousands of American girls penned letters and wrapped packages to send to their peers overseas. Drawing on girls’ letters—a particularly difficult-to-find resource—Helgren demonstrates how the personal intersected with the political. Youth leaders looked to pen-pal relationships as a way of broadcasting American democracy overseas, and some girls’ letters did promote a positive vision of the U.S. abroad. Personal communications also served to reimagine Germany and Japan as friends rather than enemies. But youngsters sometimes strayed from the expected script. Some girls wrote candid assessments of their schools, peers, and race relations; one American teen confided in her Austrian pen-pal that she “would much rather live under communism than be dead” (74). Helgren’s most innovative chapter, titled “Playing Foreign Shopper: Consuming Internationalism,” explores the ways American girls were taught to connect to the world through consuming foreign items. From wearing internationally-inspired fashions to collecting dolls in various national costumes, American girls embraced a cosmopolitanism that was closely tied to material goods. Helgren deftly teases out the contradictory messages inherent in such activities, shedding light on Americans’ own ambivalence about materialism and consumption at mid-century. While contemporary adults saw girls, by virtue of their feminine relationship-building skills, as uniquely capable of bridging national divides, girls’ gender would eventually throw into jeopardy their role of goodwill ambassadors. During the Red Scare in the early 1950s, popular support for “one world” rapidly eroded. Both the YWCA and the Girl Scouts found themselves facing accusations from male leaders that their feminine naiveté had rendered them guileless pawns for un-American interests. Such accusations helped push girls’ organizations into partnerships with the U.S. government, a move that allowed them to preserve their internationalist programs but cast such programs as serving the interests of the Cold War nation-state. President Eisenhower’s People-to-People program, Helgren demonstrates, built upon international connections that private organizations like the Girl Scouts had already fostered for many years. Helgren’s narrative ends in the late 1950s, but girls’ organizations would continue to embrace internationalism for decades to come. Readers would have benefitted had Helgren extended her nuanced analysis of the global girl citizen into the 1960s and beyond. The same is true for the pre-World War II years. While Helgren succeeds in dismantling “a popular misperception that young people’s internationalism began with the Peace Corps,” her assertion that girls’ internationalism represented “a new relation to the world” during the postwar period could have been better supported (158). To what extent was girls’ early Cold War internationalism novel, and to what extent did it connect to global activities pursued both earlier and later? Nonetheless, American Girls and Global Responsibility is well-researched and incisive. It earns a welcome place on the bookshelves of scholars interested in the histories of childhood, gender, and the early Cold War. Footnotes 1 See, for example, Mischa Honeck, Our Frontier is the World: An Imperial History of the Boy Scouts of America (forthcoming with Cornell University Press) and Marcia Chatelain, “International Sisterhood: Cold War Girl Scouts Encounter the World,” Diplomatic History 38, no. 2 (2014): 261–270. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 1, 2018
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