When President Obama gave his farewell address on January 10, 2017, he took on the momentous task of consoling supporters crushed by the results of the 2016 election. Despite his own frustration and disappointment, Obama did his best to strike a positive note:
That’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than I was when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves. This generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.
Back in January, I was struck by the hope he invested specifically in young people. I, too, wanted to believe that the current presidency is a bump in the road, that a new generation would be able to restore the forward momentum of justice and equality. Even with a historian’s cynicism about the illusion of “progress,” I still hope that the era of Obama’s optimism will have instilled in my generation the courage to dream of a better world.
This key theme of Obama’s speech recently came back to me as I began researching the First World Youth Congress held in Geneva in 1936. An initiative of the International Federation of League of Nation Societies (IFLNS), the Congress brought together young people from across the world to discuss the pursuit of peace through internationalism. A Second Congress was held in the United States in 1938. One year later, the world was at war.
Young people comprised a key demographic in the ideological struggles of the 20th century. From the Boy Scouts and the YMCA to the Hitler Youth and the Young Communist International, adults have long sought to mobilize the youth in pursuit of nationalistic, theological, or ideological ends. But I would contend that young people held a special significance in liberalism and still do today. Because the narrative of progress is one of unfinished work, young people represent the potential for the world to continue “moving forward” even after their forebearers reach the limits of what can be achieved.
In some ways, it’s easy to look back and ridicule the Congress for what it was trying to achieve. What could 700 young people do to avert the coming of the Second World War? Even without reading history backwards, the situation was dire for liberal internationalism. Yet that’s what makes it all the more interesting that the IFLNS would invest its hopes in a project that guaranteed no immediate results.
The Official Record of the First World Youth Congress opens with the following reflection on the desperate circumstances that gave rise to the event:
The Ex-service Men of the Great War had already tried to introduce a new spirit of peace into the conduct of public affairs. Unfortunately without much success. . . . Thus it was felt that the hour had come for the generation which was not old enough to have participated in the world war itself to take action for the reform of international and social policies that their elders had followed with such unhappy results.
The assembly of delegates that arrived in Geneva looked very different from the decision-makers of the previous generation. For one, the World Youth Congress made a special effort to attract students from across the political spectrum. The organizers wanted the Congress to be a big tent, hoping they could include everyone from communists and fascists to Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Unfortunately, Germany and Italy refused to send representatives and the event was rejected by some as a communist plot even though only a small fraction of the delegates were communists. In addition, the Congress was well-attended by mainstream youth organizations operating out of democratic countries. The International Bureau of the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and British University League of Nations Union all sent delegates. The attendees themselves were also strikingly diverse for the era. The Congress prided itself on including both young women and people of color. In fact, the delegate who spoke on behalf of North America was a young African American activist named Edward Strong. The World Youth Congress was thus an initiative both of its time and before its time.
I’m hoping to use Concerning History as a platform to begin refining my thoughts as I continue to do research on the Congress in the coming months. My project will surely evolve during that time, but I hope that this post has given you a broad sense of what I’m working on. Perhaps young people today will be just as impotent in the face of impending catastrophe as they were in the 1930s. After all, we can’t rely on young people to dig us out of problems of our own making. Even still, for those of us who stubbornly cling to our idealism, they may represent our last best hope for a better tomorrow.
Edit: Further information that complicates the story presented here and changes the direction of my research can be found at this more recent post.
“President Obama Farewell Address. Full Text.” CNN. January 11, 2017. Accessed October 15, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/10/politics/president-obama-farewell-speech/index.html.
World Youth Congress. Youth Plans a New World: Being the Official Record of the First World Youth Congress, Geneva. Geneva: International Federation of League of Nations Societies, 1936.