Saving the World’s Children: International Child Welfare and Global Politics in the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 43
Society for the History of Children and Youth 1
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michael C. Grossberg, Indiana University Bloomington
Michael C. Grossberg, Indiana University Bloomington

Session Abstract

The twentieth century witnessed an explosion of international action on behalf of children. Initiated by private foreign aid organizations and governments alike, programs for children aimed to improve the lives of youngsters around the world. International child welfare and educational programs also intersected with efforts to promote cultural diplomacy, stimulate foreign development, negotiate Cold War tensions, and manage the flow of people across national borders. Exploring programs on behalf of children not only reveals a largely unexamined chapter in the history of child welfare but also sheds light on the inner workings of some of the twentieth century’s larger political projects.

This panel brings together two fields of history rarely considered in tandem: the history of childhood and the history of foreign relations. In doing so, it casts children and their caretakers as players—and pawns—in global politics. Taylor Jardno’s paper investigates how U.S.-sponsored international schools in Mexico City and São Paulo supported America’s “good neighbor” policy in Latin America. Maura Elizabeth Cunningham’s paper focuses on foreign aid organizations working with children in China in the immediate aftermath of the Communist revolution and considers the implications of their experiences with regard to the larger narrative of Chinese history at mid-century. Sara Fieldston’s paper explores the efforts of American voluntary agencies to “modernize” the developing world through programs that targeted children and their mothers during the 1950s and 1960s. Rachel Winslow’s paper examines the “maverick humanitarians” who spearheaded policymaking with regard to international adoptions from Vietnam during the mid-1970s. 

Taken together, these papers provide a new lens for understanding the United States’ relationship with Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. They raise fresh questions about the connections between voluntary agencies and the state—and about the boundary between the “private” act of child-rearing and the “public” projects of nation-building and diplomacy.

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