FDR’s radio address before canceled 1935 National Jamboree still resonates today

It was supposed to be the largest gathering of Boy Scouts ever.

Some 30,000 Boy Scouts from every point of the compass were to gather in Washington for the first-ever National Scout Jamboree, set to begin Aug. 21, 1935.

“But the best-laid plans,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “sometimes go awry.”

As excitement builds for the 2017 National Jamboree, I thought we’d look back at the very first Jamboree. The Jamboree that wasn’t.

The bad news

The culprit was a serious outbreak of infantile paralysis — now better known as polio. The U.S. Public Health Service, consulting with officials from D.C. and surrounding states, told the BSA that holding a Jamboree might be a bad idea.

The BSA agreed, and the cancellation announcement came Aug. 8.

On Aug. 21, Roosevelt was set to address Scouts in person on the Jamboree’s opening day. Thousands of Scouts would have lined Constitution Avenue for his official review. After that, Roosevelt would’ve hosted Scouts and Scouters for a party on the White House lawn.

But then polio happened. And so instead of an in-person address, Roosevelt made use of “that modern wonder, the radio, to accomplish his purpose,” as the announcer with WABC radio of New York put it.

The ensuing radio address, broadcast from the White House, is now part of the National Archives and can be heard in its entirety here or read at the end of this post.

A president speaks

The listening audience would have included a large percentage of the millions of Scouts and Scouters who were BSA members in 1935. Many gathered at their troop meeting places to listen together.

Millions more non-Scouts no doubt tuned in as well, getting an unexpected earful about Scouting’s awesome power.

The speech, despite being more than 80 years old, includes comments about Scouting that still hold true today.

“Scouting is essentially and clearly a program for the development of that unselfish, cooperative attitude of mind,” Roosevelt said. “Scouting revolves around not the mere theory of service to others but the habit of service to others.”

Scouting instills in young people values of service and citizenship, Roosevelt explained. Those skills weren’t then — and still aren’t — commonly found in under-18 Americans.

“Even before you become of voting age, you actually have a part in civic affairs, and you bear a responsibility in your home communities,” he told the Scouts.

Not holding back

Scouting, the president continued, encourages young people to head outside and become more comfortable in nature.

“Do not ever fall out with nature and her wide-open breathing spaces,” Roosevelt said. “Love them. They will sustain and strengthen you in later years when confining circumstances of life may tend to narrow the spirit or the soul that is in you.”

He also was reminded of a saying in the U.S. Navy: “the speed of a fleet is no greater than the speed of the slowest ship.”

In life, Roosevelt said, there are people who pull you down through negativity or laziness. Don’t be those people, Roosevelt told the Scouts.

“When you go out into life, you have come to understand that the individual in your community who always says ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’ or ‘I don’t,’ the individual who by inaction or by opposition slows up honest, practical, far-seeing community effort, is the fellow who is holding back civilization and holding back the objectives of the Constitution of the United States,” he said.

Roosevelt ended his remarks with hopes that another Jamboree could be scheduled “for some time in the future.”

Two years later

The president didn’t have to wait long.

At the 1937 National Jamboree, held 80 years ago this summer, Roosevelt watched Scouts build a city of tents in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

I’ll let Scouting magazine (March-April 2003) pick up the story from here:

Scouts were greeted at their campsites with copies of the Jamboree Journal, a photograph of FDR on page one. The president’s message of greeting praised Scouting as a great source of training in the virtues of good citizenship.

FDR gave his personal attention to the huge gathering. After taking 12 Eagle Scouts to baseball’s annual major-league all-star game, he toured the jamboree site. Accompanied by James West and National Scout Commissioner Dan Beard, he stopped at the Sea Scouts’ camp and then visited the Scouts from Duchess County, N.Y., whose construction of a large replica of the Roosevelt family home at Hyde Park, N.Y., attracted his attention.

The president, from his touring car, awarded an Eagle badge, spoke with leaders, examined some handicrafts, and posed for photographs. As his car moved out of the jamboree site, many Scouts swarmed around it, seeking a look at the president.

The jamboree concluded with a “grand national review.” A procession of automobiles reviewed a two-mile assembly of Scouts on both sides of Constitution Avenue.

Full remarks: FDR on canceling the 1935 National Jamboree

Fellow Scouts, for more than a year I have been looking forward to taking part in the great National Scout Jamboree to be held here in Washington, but the best-laid plans sometimes go awry.

A splendid program and a wonderful camp have been prepared for the reception of 30,000 Boy Scouts and Scouters in the national capitol.

You were coming here from every point of the compass, and in addition to the American Scouts, our brother Scouts from 27 other nations had accepted invitations to send delegations.

But, alas, a rather serious epidemic of infantile paralysis arose in the vicinity of Washington, and on Aug. 8, the United States Public Health Service and the health officers of the district and the nearby states concluded that to hold the Jamboree would be a hazard and a danger.

With great reluctance, therefore, we had to call it off.

Except for this unfortunate happening, I would’ve reviewed this day the thousands of Scouts lined up the whole lengths of Constitution Avenue. And later we would’ve had a party on the White House lawn.

I want you in your own hometowns tonight to know how sorry I am that I cannot be with you myself. I am in spirit with each and every one of your gatherings tonight. You boys, old and young, in every part of this broad land, present Scouts and former Scouts, your numbers running into the millions, you constitute a very real part of our American citizenship.

We are bound together — together in a democracy operating under a Constitution whose purpose was and is to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

The success of that Constitution is dependent on the attitude of mind and the degree of the spirit of unselfish cooperation that can be developed in individuals.

Scouting is essentially and clearly a program for the development of that unselfish, cooperative attitude of mind. Scouting revolves around not the mere theory of service to others but the habit of service to others.

Scouting makes the individual boy conscious of his obligation to his patrol, to his troop, to his community, to his state and to his nation.

Even before you become of voting age, you actually have a part in civic affairs, and you bear a responsibility in your home communities. We older citizens are very proud of the many contributions that individual Scouts and Scout organizations have made to the relief of suffering, the relief of the needy, to the maintenance of good order and good health, and to the furtherance of good citizenship and good government.

You who are active Scouts are, in addition, learning many, many useful things. Knowledge that will stay with you all the rest of your lives. You are having opportunities to fall in love with and understand the great outdoors. Do not ever fall out with nature and her wide-open breathing spaces. Love them. They will sustain and strengthen you in later years when confining circumstances of life may tend to narrow the spirit or the soul that is in you.

I do not have to tell you to throw yourselves with all the enthusiasm and energy that you have into your Scout work. Into the programs of your patrols, your troops and your councils.

But I do want to express to you the very deep hope that when you grow older and get out into the stream of life, you will retain that same enthusiasm and energy, and that you will apply it to every day and every year that you live.

Our Scout Motto — Be Prepared — applies just as much to the wider service which is your opportunity when your full civic responsibilities are attained. And just as you are individually a necessary part of your patrol or troop today, so will you become necessary parts of the citizenship of your communities.

I do not have to remind you that one individual who lags behind slows up the whole troop. In the United States Navy, we had an old saying, that the speed of a fleet is no greater than the speed of the slowest ship.

When you go out into life, you have come to understand that the individual in your community who always says “I can’t” or “I won’t” or “I don’t,” the individual who by inaction or by opposition slows up honest, practical, far-seeing community effort, is the fellow who is holding back civilization and holding back the objectives of the Constitution of the United States.

We need more Scouts. The more the better. For the record shows that taking it by and large, boys trained as Scouts make good citizens.

I hope that a Jamboree in place of the one that we missed this year will be planned for some time in the future.

And in the meantime, fellow Scouts, I send you my warm greetings, personally and as the honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America.

Good luck to you, each and every one. And carry on.

2 Comments

  1. These responses from over 80 years ago to the disappointment and new challenges they brought were remarkable then and demonstrated the high status and respect Scouting then enjoyed in our society.
    I believe that the foundation that generated such high praise and standing then is still in place. We simply have to find a way to bring it to the fore again. The tenets initiated by Baden Powell and incorporated in some similar form throughout the world stand on their own.
    Prior to WWII there was a campaign from certain political ideologies that rose to the surface during the world wide depression, and in turn, played a great part in the tragedies of WWII brought on by the AXIS powers. In the late 30’s, the Greater NY Council developed a promotional piece, actually in reality propaganda, they called “America’s Answer”. The easel type of book they published in red, white and blue contained large poster sized photos from both the anti U.S. propaganda that focused on our youth, and comparative photos of Scouting in America. Scouting, they proposed, was America’s answer.
    Now we are besieged in a similar manner by anti-intellectualism, conspiracy fears, and a general deterioration of common civic decency. Scouting still is at least part of the answer. The Oath, Law and other tenets stand firmly as anchors if we only choose to keep them by simply “doing our best”.
    I hope that Scouting as a viable world-wide group might again put its best foot forward. There was a reason that during and after WWII Scouting was banned in the AXIS countries, and later behind the Iron Curtain.
    But it will not happen if we let ourselves lose track of the basic foundations of Scouting and become distracted by pettiness and political clamor and correctness. And it still falls on the individual, as I call them, “in the trench local units” to make it happen. Their local councils and National as well have the challenge of finding ways to help them succeed.
    It can be done. The true tenor of Scouting has gone somewhat dormant, but it can again be viable and once more become “Americas Answer”.

  2. Bryan: Just for info, I tried to enter a comment using FB twice and it did nothing but sit there with circle going around. I finally went back and used WordPress. Is there an issue currently?

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