Children, War and Propaganda, Revised Edition

by Ross F. Collins (Author)
©2023 Textbook X, 326 Pages


A troubling development of the brutal century recently passed has been the growing use of children for war. World War I became the first "total war" of modern times. To engage in war on immense scale authorities believed everyone must participate. That included children. Relentless campaigns of propaganda in both world wars focused special attention on kids. The immense scope of total war grew to dominate children’s lives, their daily existence militarized by a world preoccupied by conflict.
But we have often ignored wartime contributions of children. What were they expected to do? How were they persuaded to do it? How did it contribute to the war? In what ways did it affect their lives? What did they think about that? This history attempts to respond by examining activities of home-front children in the United States during both world wars.
This revised edition considers recent research to extend the discussion of children’s experiences in war. It includes an examination of comic books, considers fitness standards, and discusses Boy Scouts and other groups for children. It also moves the work beyond the United States to consider activities of children in twenty-first century wars, as observers and, tragically, as participants.
This fully referenced text is of interest to students of war and childhood. But, it is also written for a general audience interested in how children respond to war. Many Americans experienced war as children, and many others have parents who did. This book is also for them.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Definitions, Scope And Approach
  • Chapter One Children Meet Propaganda
  • World War I and After: The Beginning of Modern Propaganda
  • World War II: Propaganda Made Disreputable
  • Post-War America: Power of Propaganda in Question
  • Chapter Two How War Can Make Better Children. How Children Can Make Better War
  • Militarization of Childhood: Death and Its Denial
  • War and Manly Values
  • Hiding the Hideous
  • War as a Way of Childhood
  • Patriotism to Build the Ideal Child
  • The Virtue of Sacrifice
  • School Work Versus War Work
  • How Children Can Make Better War
  • Chapter Three Education, Fitness and Public Policy
  • Child Labor and School Attendance during World War
  • War and Juvenile Delinquency
  • American Education Faces Total War
  • Reaching the Homes: Child as Government Agent
  • Teaching and the Taint of Disloyalty
  • The Libraries
  • Fit to Fight?
  • The Virtue of Military Drills
  • Chapter Four Mobilizing Kids for the Home Front
  • Bringing in the Sheaves: Children and Wartime Food Production
  • Everything under One Roof: The High School Victory Corps
  • Scrapping for Uncle Sam
  • Pitching War Bonds—And Spying for Uncle Sam
  • Chapter Five Youth Groups and Business
  • The Boy Scouts: A Battle for Martial Values
  • Red Cross Work
  • Contributions from Country Kids
  • God and Children Face War
  • Commercialism in War: Jobs for Juveniles and Toys for Tots
  • Advertising the War to Children
  • Chapter Six Militarizing Children’s Magazines
  • American Militarism: A Children’s Debate
  • Explaining War to Children
  • Duty and Duties
  • War Makes the Better Boy
  • A New Media for Kids: The Power of Comic Books
  • The Enchanted World of War
  • Chapter Seven War and the Mind of a Child
  • What Did the Children Think?
  • The Wake of World War: Savagery, Sacrifice, and Children
  • Warriors and Victims: Militarization and Brutalization of Childhood
  • The Militarized Generation

←vi | vii→


A troubling development of the brutal century recently passed has been the growing use of children for war. Before the twentieth century children may have served as valets or messengers. They may have played with war toys, or dreamed of becoming soldiers someday. Sometimes they may have actually fought, lying about their age to reach the battlefields. But children were not generally expected to participate in any organized way. As the Great War of 1914–1918 changed world societies in so many ways, it also changed expectations for children during wartime. World War I was the first “total war,” so designated by the belligerent nations. “Total” was determined to mean that everyone needed to be involved, not only those in the armies. In total war, war on an immense, world-wide scale, everyone participated. Including children of all ages.

But we have often ignored the wartime contributions of children. What were they expected to do? How did it contribute to the war? How did it affect their lives? What did they think? This history attempts to respond to these questions, by examining activities of home-front children in the United States during both world wars. Modern propaganda helped to draw children into those wars. A variety of authorities participated, in the school, on the playground, at work or at home. They promoted military ideals and activities in hopes these might reduce fear, build character, prepare for service, and even tangibly help the war effort. In ←vii | viii→doing so, authorities brought war themes to children on a day-to-day basis, a militarization of American childhood. This research takes a look at how they did that.

Chapter one considers methods used to encourage the transformation, the development of propaganda. The definition of propaganda had been debated in some detail throughout the last century, both as a negative and positive force in modern society. Disagreement continued in the twenty-first century regarding a definition of propaganda. Also considered here is how United States Government propaganda offices operated in both world wars.

Chapter two examines the many methods authorities used to militarize American childhood through both wars, and the challenges they faced. Children were encouraged to accept war values as a way to virtuous character, both physical and mental. Paid war work could be a viable alternative to school work, while children could show their patriotism in many volunteer activities.

Chapter three considers the single most important focus of authorities working to militarize childhood, the schools. Schools could serve as clearinghouses for a child’s war education and activities. Children could also be counted on to bring wartime messages from the classroom to their parents at home. If parents were away doing war work or in the service, the schools could help children take on wartime roles to avoid delinquency.

Chapter four describes the most significant jobs children were expected to undertake for war services, and how those jobs were coordinated. Food production in particular would be a focus for children, as well as scavenging for material of military use, and selling war bonds. The High School Victory Corps was the largest of many formal programs governments relied on to coordinate children’s war work.

Chapter five considers the non-governmental groups interested in bringing children into war. These ranged from private values-building groups such as the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross, to marketing appeals and war toys.

Chapter six devotes attention to the juvenile press, editors of children’s publications from literary to comic interested in presenting the war to their readers and parents.

Chapter seven examines how American children responded to war, and how they responded as later adults. It also moves beyond the United States to consider the role of children in war around the world, and how that role has changed since 1945. It concludes that child participation in war has evolved through the century from a militarized home life to actual combat. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, nearly one-quarter of the world’s armies recruited adolescents; almost one-fifth drafted children under twelve.

←viii | ix→

Notes on the Revised Edition

A substantial body of recent psychological research regarding children’s response to recent wars has changed the debate regarding the extent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the presumed victimization of children in war. This material is covered in chapter seven. Also new to this edition is an extended consideration of comic books as propaganda during World War II, including an examination of important primary documents. Updates undertaken throughout the book include added material on Boy Scouts, the Junior Red Cross, the High School Victory Corps, the YMCA, and development of physical fitness standards for children. New information also covers scrap drives and farm work during World War II. Statistics regarding children in war worldwide have been updated to 2022. More than 60 sources have been added to the bibliography of works cited.

←ix | x→ ←0 | 1→


Common sense would lead us to presume that war must be a heinous tragedy for children. This is usually true if the child lives in a country torn by violent conflict. In 2020, 19 percent of the world’s children lived in such conflict zones, that is, where actual fighting took place.1 While this can’t be anything but bad, children in war also may live in countries that are fighting somewhere, but not on home soil. That was the case for American children during the world wars. And while war is tragic, the experience of the American kids who didn’t actually see death and destruction was obviously not the same as those who lived in a war zone. The effect of their experience can be debated. Some authorities, and some adults looking back fondly on their time during the war, have argued that it was not so bad. Others have disagreed. It is the experience of those children that we examine in this study.

While children certainly have always suffered in war, it was not until the total wars of the last century that they would be made a prime focus of the conflict, and be involved as prime actors. The involvement began in World War I. This total war, as American children were repeatedly reminded, was fought for them, for the children, for the future. More than that, if this war were to set children free from tyranny of the enemy, they would have to do their share. Children were not exempt from the rest of society in expectation to report for duty. That duty might be spinning socks or selling bonds, or a dozen other things. For the older, and the boys, it might be training and preparing for their turn to serve. But nearly always ←1 | 2→in both world wars, American children, typically with enthusiasm, responded to patriotic exhortations of authorities directing kids to do their part on the home front. In responding, children found all sorts of opportunities to work alone or in teams. They could collect scrap for Uncle Sam, plant and harvest, pick up practical skills, get fit and get hard, physically and mentally. Unquestionably for America’s children war had its healthy aspects.

At least that is what the wars’ propagandists might have intended. Because the propaganda that has become such a well-known feature of total war certainly was part of the child’s world as it was part of the adult’s. Yet we know little about war propaganda as it affected children’s lives when the world was at total war. Scholars during the last century almost never directly addressed propaganda as it related to children, even as they debated it extensively as it related to adults. This is surprising, given the strong and growing interest in child welfare and education throughout the twentieth century. Sociologists have seldom examined children and propaganda. Historians seldom have considered the experiences of American children during these wars. Children have been mostly seen as inconsequential to the history of the American home front, particularly during World War I. Even high-circulation, quality publications for children, such as Boys’ Life and Jack and Jill, have not often been taken seriously as primary sources. Children’s periodicals were not systematically archived, and so today even some that circulated in the millions are difficult to find. A compiler of juvenile literature lamented that research libraries did not generally compile collections of children’s periodicals; even the Library of Congress had shown limited interest.2 A historian writing about English and Canadian children during World War I observed that archivists and librarians didn’t always regard children’s literature as worth saving for the space it required. “Even some serious-minded war materials for children have nearly disappeared.”3 It seemed that the kids just didn’t matter.

Yet they did. In examining how adults brought children into these wars, we are also examining adult values and ideals. “We can discern the main patterns in adult thinking about children—what adults thought should be done to and with children,” observed two scholars of childhood. “They, too, were historical actors who had their own subjective experience and who influenced adults as well…. Simply put, much more of the past becomes understandable when we focus on children.”4 As children represent the future, noted Fisher, they guide a culture to define itself through childhood values. Values, ideas, hopes of one generation for a future one flow through children’s literature, noted Hamilton, who added during war children’s periodicals may lose some of their independent character to become “a vehicle for national and political propaganda.”5 It is in that vehicle that we will ride through this history. We will examine children’s periodicals, but more. We ←2 | 3→will examine propaganda directed at children from government authorities, private and corporate authorities, educational authorities, religious authorities, and others whose charge was to occupy their time in presenting a world during war to a generation of innocents.

Definitions, Scope and Approach

This study uses traditional historical research methods in an examination of the militarization of American childhood during both world wars. By historical methods we mean a considered interpretation of events in the past based mainly on primary sources from the past, along with secondary research, and construction of a narrative based on that interpretation. By militarization we mean how authorities tried to create a wartime culture for American children using propaganda: what they wanted children to think, what they hoped children would learn, what they intended children to do, what they expected children to accomplish, and what they believed children should not know.

We define a child by age using the standard definition adopted by the United Nations: any human being under age eighteen.6 We recognize that while persons in this age group generally are defined as children, it is an arbitrary number not accepted by all cultures. We also note that worldwide many military authorities, including the United States, have set the age in which a person can be accepted for service at seventeen.

We also recognize, of course, that young children will respond differently than near-adults, and that authorities will often use different approaches and have different expectations for different age groups. But no child was left behind from service during the world wars. Even toddlers under five, during World War I organized into the “Khaki Babes.”7

We will learn mostly about Caucasian children; authorities examined here almost never considered special appeals to African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, or other minorities. One would expect this during World War I; the emphasis was on “Americanization,” not separation by race, class or “hyphen.” World War II authorities spoke little of Americanization, but their sensitivity toward children of races other than that of the dominant culture did not seem to change much from that of 1918, at least as reflected in these sources. We recognize that American youth groups and popular culture were typically racist, particularly in World War II.8 We recognize that African American children and other minorities did shoulder a considerable amount of service during both world wars, but that racism and stereotypical depictions in ←3 | 4→youth groups and children’s publications generally did not recognize their equality with white children.9 We also recognize that authorities generally treated girls as an afterthought. Certainly, however, girls contributed in a variety of ways during both wars, often doing the same things as the boys and showing strong interest in supposedly “male” areas such as aviation, military drills and tales of combat in comic books and juvenile literature.

World wars means the wars during the time the United States was participating, from about 1917–1918, and about 1941–1945. The definition of propaganda is controversial; here propaganda has been accepted in its neutral sense as persuasion neither good nor bad, although to be noted is the troubling notion that children most of the time were manipulated through this material.

The grooming process to militarize American children was undertaken primarily by four groups. These are the groups we mean when we generally refer to “the authorities”: government, educators, private children’s organizations and industries, and juvenile media. The last three took cues from the first, as of course in both wars it was the U.S. Government which declared and directed war policies. But despite the almost universal underlying belief in the correctness of the government’s choice to go to war, groups and individuals displayed a variation in concept and philosophy of how children should be brought into wartime culture. Differences existed in the approaches taken during World War I and World War II. But in common was agreement over positive values and skills children could gain from living through a total war. War was a disaster in principle. But in practice it could be a good opportunity to build a child’s character on the home front.

We rely on written documents designed for consumption by children themselves, or by their adult charges such as teachers and scout leaders, that is, those whose main interest was to serve as guides for the journey through childhood. This focus suggests some primary sources on the pop culture periphery are excluded from study. In fact, it is acknowledged that media children consumed during the world wars extended beyond the literary children’s publications. Movies were popular during both wars; in 1918 they already attracted 10 million viewers a day.10 By World War II, radio had grown to the point where three-fourths of Americans used it as their major source for war information.11 Obviously children made up a share of this audience, and some programs appealed directly to them. It is also obvious that children consumed adult-aimed media. A World War II study showed children as young as ten already had a reasonably good knowledge of the war, presumably based in part on their consumption of adult-aimed radio and publications.12 By World War II, as well, comic books had become popular; more than 90 percent of younger children read them regularly.13 This revised edition adds an extended examination of the comic book genre. Other publications examined ←4 | 5→presumed a more literary and instructional tone, perhaps slightly preachy. Clearly editors of children’s publications such as Boys’ Life and American Girl were interested in values-based education, and so deserve a place in a study of authorities, their propaganda, and militarization of American childhood. It is presumed that broadcast sources cared mostly about “low-brow” entertainment, although the author will quickly agree that this was not always true, and that it does not mean these should not be the focus of a future study.

In direct quotations from primary sources, obvious spelling anomalies of the period have been updated (e.g., to-day/today). Other grammar and usage patterns have been preserved, even if they do not conform to contemporary practice.


X, 326
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (May)
children war propaganda world war child psychology militarism total war childhood Children, War & Propaganda Ross F. Collins
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2023. X, 326 pp., 10 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Ross F. Collins (Author)

Ross F. Collins is a professor of communication at North Dakota State University, Fargo. He has published seven books and about two dozen academic articles and monographs. A former president of American Journalism Historians Association, Collins earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Title: Children, War and Propaganda, Revised Edition
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338 pages