Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Post 3: Origins: Homefront

The origins of my book on the World War II home front and the activities of the Boy Scouts of America during the conflict is a lot more complicated than the one on the battle of Manila.  The idea came from several different sources and took a while to jell.

Before beginning, I should add that “writing” several books at once is a good way to spin your wheels and not do any writing.  With that said, some book projects overlap.  I have often started research on one project while a previous project is in production—the typesetting, proofreading, physical design, etc.  I have also written articles that are completely unrelated to the main book project of the moment.  Some energy being directed to side projects here and there is okay in small moderation.  Writing two books is a lot more dangerous, because neither is a side project and you have to be extremely careful in time management—a skill set that most academics do not possess in large measure.

The first stop in this process was a visit to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York.  My wife and I were returning from a family trip to Pennsylvania and stopped off at the Library as nothing more than tourists.  In one of the museum displays was the Silver Buffalo that the Boy Scouts of America had awarded to Roosevelt in 1930.  The award is the highest honor that the BSA gives for service to youth at the national level.  The Silver Buffalo does not require that work be as a member of the BSA and many, many recipients have had little affiliation with Scouting.  It is also fairly pro forma for a President of the United States to receive the award.  What is unusual is for a President to receive the award before entering the White House.  The only other White House resident to receive the honor before their term in office was Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Knowing presidential history, I also knew that Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1930.  End result, Roosevelt received the award as a private citizen.  That was a big indicator to me that he actually deserved the honor.  I was more than a little flabbergasted.  The display said he received the recognition for his fundraising work for the BSA.  I have since looked at the amounts he raised in the 1920s and when adjusted for inflation it comes in just under a billion dollars.  Yep, he deserved that Silver Buffalo.

About a year later, my friend Alex Tymes suggested I write a history of the Boy Scouts of America.  It was 2010 and the centennial of the organization.  Alex and I had been Philmont Rangers together and were in the same troop at the 1985 Jamboree.  (If you are unfamiliar with the BSA, that means we knew each other as Scouts).  We had not seen each other in years, but had reconnected via Facebook.  It was a great idea.  There is a ton of writing on Scouting, but much of it is generated by the organization or by members and often are chronicles.  There is also a huge collecting community of current and former Scouts and they can tell you how many units of a certain patch were ordered, why the insignia was issued and so forth.  All well and good and it serves a purpose, but it is not the type of analytical and narrative history that I have try to write.  So, there is plenty of room for a history on Scouting and a lot of serious, important questions could be asked and answered: How did Americans take an organization designed to bolster British imperialism and adopted it for their own social needs?  Why has Scouting been so successful in the United States?  How has a social organization typical of the mid-Progressive Era not only survived, but prospered for decades?  And so on.  There is also a huge, immense paper trail to follow.  The organization has published two magazines for a century and issued scores of official handbooks with dozens and dozens of editions.  Not to mention the letters, correspondence, and meeting minutes that stored in archives in various locals.  Although a good idea, it was one that would require an immense amount of work and one I wish I had heard ten years earlier.

Despite that rejection of Alex’s idea, it sat there in the back of my head, percolating.  Then, I decided to act on it...a bit.  I thought it would be fun to look at the relationship between the Oval Office and the BSA.  I figured this topic would be an unconventional way to use presidential libraries; researching youth culture, which is not exactly what you think of when you think of a presidential library.  Roughly a year after my first trip, I returned to the Roosevelt Library and spent a good day, collecting material on FDR's relationship with Scouting.  It was interesting to track his correspondence with youth members—there was a lot—which surprised me a bit.  He seemed to respond mostly to Scouts that had some type of physical disability. 

Then, I went to the 2010 National Jamboree at Fort A. P. Hill.  I was doing some last minute research at the Virginia Military Institute for my book Making Patton: A Classic War Film's Epic Journey to the Silver Screen.  While I was in Virginia, I visited the Jamboree.  The museum display was stunning and I say that not only as a Scout but as a historian.  The display documented the founding of the organization and problems it faced, like racial segregation and its role in desegregation.  As a diplomatic historian, I found the international relations displays eye opening.  I was stunned to discover that the BSA had a Scout troop in Saigon, South Vietnam during the 1960s.  I could not believe that Americans were arriving in country with their families, much less the fact that the BSA ran a troop there for a decade—and a fairly sizable one from what the display indicated.  Talking to the curator of the museum, he said he thought that a history about the Eagle Scout Award would serve a real useful need for the BSA.  I instantly saw real merit in the idea and began developing ideas for the book project.  I would write the book on the Eagle Scout Award and an article on Oval Office and Scouting.  I quickly developed a questionnaire and the National Eagle Scout Association announced my project in one of their electronic newsletters.  I got hundreds of responses, but hundreds is pretty small statistically when you realize there are over two million Eagles.  I applied for research grants to the Eisenhower, Truman, and Ford Presidential Libraries and got two.  I took trips to the Nixon, Regan, and Kennedy Presidential Libraries, before going to the Midwest.  For a time, I thought there was a book in the White House and Scouting project, but by the time I was done, the material in the libraries did not even support an article.  For the most part, Presidents of the United States—even the ones that like Scouting—do little with the organization other than pose for a photograph every February during Scouting's annual report to Congress in compliance with requirements for its Federal charter.

The tricky thing is I found useful material at the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower Libraries.  I had dinner with my uncle after doing research at the Eisenhower Library, and he asked if it had been a good trip.  I replied, "I went looking for gold and found oil instead."  There was good documentary record, but it focused mainly on the World War II years. 

With that fact in mind, I decided to write an article on the BSA and the homefront in World War II.  That decision required another trip back to the Roosevelt Library.  I decided while I was there that there was a book waiting to be written about FDR and the BSA.  There was a huge, huge paper trail, and I started copying all of it. As I went through these records, I discovered there was little of Roosevelt  in it. Most of it was incoming letters, and memos documenting meetings that FDR was absent from.  There was, though, a lot on World War II.  A lot.  I then spent several weeks going through the World War II era issue of Boys' Life and Scouting, the two magazines that the BSA publishes.  There was a good deal in those two publications on the organizations contributions to the homefront.  So the article was still a solid project. 

I sat down and started writing my outline.  Be it for an article or a book, I try to write a detailed outline and work out a lot of issues before I get to the actual writing stage.  The project started to grow and grow.  I slowly began to realize that I had a book rather than an article. 

When I finally grasped that I was writing a book, I got the annual reports that BSA delivers to Congress.  These documents were huge—400 to 200 pages in length—and are very detailed with narrative reports and statistical tables.  If you want to know how many Scouts earned the First Aide merit badge in 1942 or how many issues of Boys' Life the BSA published in 1943, it is in these reports.  It took a long time to wade through these reports, and many of the facts at seemed less than useful, but I soon realized, the fact that these documents tell me how many Scout troops and Cub packs were located in San Diego or Detroit in 1944 and 1945 was also a good way to track demographic changes in the homefront, and a way to examine how families dealt with the social turmoil of the war years. 

Long story made short: it has not be an efficient undertaking, but I got an interesting, fun...and important project on my hands. 

No comments:

Post a Comment