AMERICAN LEGION. The American Legion is the world's largest veterans' organization, with membership open to those holding an honorable discharge from active duty in the U.S. armed forces after 1914. Legionnaires dedicate themselves to perpetuating the principles for which they have fought, to inculcating civic responsibility in the nation, to preserving the history of their participation in American wars, and to binding together as comrades with all those who have fought. They also pledge to defend law and order, to develop "a one hundred percent Americanism," and to help the less fortunate through government and private programs.
Four Allied Expeditionary Forces officers-of-the-line informally started the Legion in February 1919 while still on active duty in Paris, France. These founders—Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Lt. Col. George S. White, Maj. Eric Fisher Wood, and Lt. Col. William J. ("Wild Bill") Donovan—sought both to bolster soldier morale during the post-armistice period and to provide an alternative to other veterans' groups being set up in the United States. A covert aim was to continue the political tenets of the "New Nationalism" of the defunct Bull Moose political party. They enunciated the organization's purposes at the Paris Caucus and saw them reaffirmed at the Continental Caucus, held three months later at St. Louis, Missouri. The Legion received its incorporation from the U.S. Congress on 16 September 1919. By 1925, the Legion achieved all the programs and policies it maintains today.
The Legion assumed the role of representative for all former doughboys even though its 1920 membership of 840,000 represented only about 18.5 percent of eligible veterans. At the onset of every war or military action since World War I (1914–1918), the Legion has persuaded Congress to amend its incorporation to allow veterans of those conflicts to join the Legion. Its membership fluctuated from a low of 610,000 in 1925 to a high of 3,325,000 in 1946, leveling off by 1972 to the 2,800,000 that was sustained through the end of the twentieth century.
Pursuit of its goal of "Americanism" led the Legion into many controversies. Legionnaires have striven to rid school textbooks and public libraries' shelves of perceived alien, Communist, syndicalist, or anarchist influences. During the "Red Scare" of 1919–20, four Legionnaires died in a shootout with Industrial Workers of the World organizers at Centralia, Washington. Legionnaires covertly spied on unsuspecting American citizens for the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee and the Federal Bureau of Investigation from the 1930s until the 1970s.
The American Legion's advocacy of military preparedness started in 1919. During the politically isolationist 1920s, this policy made the Legion unpopular with many, as did its continued support of universal military training into the 1970s. Similarly, its condemnation of U.S. participation in United Nations Economic and Social Council activities and its call for a total blockade of communist Cuba during the 1960s sparked debates. Representatives of the Legion spoke in support of a stronger military at every War/Defense department appropriation hearing from 1919 through 2002.
Through its strenuous efforts to obtain benefits for veterans, the American Legion earned the reputation by the late 1930s of being one of the nation's most effective interest groups. Its demand for a bonus for World War I veterans, finally met in 1936 over the objections of four successive Presidents, and its promotion of the GI Bill of Rights for World War II veterans, achieved in 1944, testify to its highly publicized dedication to all veterans—not just its members. The Legion practically created the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its predecessors. Starting in 1978, the Legion demanded medical and monetary benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Legion works almost as hard to prevent similar beneficial programs for the nonveteran population.
Other, less controversial, activities project the Legion's preferred image. The local posts sponsor individual teams for the nationwide American Legion baseball league. Each state organization operates an annual hands-on political seminar for high school students. The Legion and the National Education Association began cosponsoring "American Education Week" in 1919 to foster local appreciation for good education opportunities for children. Legionnaires annually donate $20 million to charitable causes and 4 million work-hours to community service.
The Legion had five international groups, fifty U.S. state departments, and 14,500 local posts throughout the world as of 2002. The posts report to the departments who, in turn, send representatives to the annual national convention. The convention sets policy for the Legion and elects the National Commander and the National Executive Committee. The latter directs the Legion from national headquarters at Indianapolis, Indiana, between conventions. The Legion's charter forbids formal political activity by the organization or its elected officers. Nonetheless, the Legion does maintain a powerful liaison office in Washington, D.C., and every major contender for national office gives at least one speech to a Legion convention.
"For God and Country: the American Legion, the World's Largest Veterans Association." Available from http://www.legion.org.
Moley, Raymond. The American Legion Story. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966.
Pencak, William. For God and Country: The American Legion, 1919–1941. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.
Rumer, Thomas A. The American Legion: An Official History, 1919–1989. New York: M. Evans, 1990.
Davis R. B.Ross
The American Legion is a wartime veterans' organization that was chartered by Congress in 1919. The American Legion has almost three million members in nearly 15,000 American Legion posts worldwide. These posts are organized into 55 departments, one each for the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico, and the Philippines. The American Legion's national headquarters is in Indianapolis, Indiana, with additional offices in Washington, D.C. Though volunteer members do most of the work of the American Legion, the national organization has a regular full-time staff of about 300 employees.
Eligibility in the American Legion is based on honorable service in the U.S. armed forces during world war i, world war ii, the korean war, the vietnam war, and military operations in Lebanon (1982–84), Grenada (1982–84), Panama (1989–90) and the Persian Gulf (1990 to the early 2000s). Because membership is based on the period of service, not the place of service, an individual does not have to be stationed in a combat zone to be eligible. Members may participate in a low-cost life insurance program and may receive discounts on moving expenses, car rentals, hotel and motel rentals, eyewear, and prescription drugs. American Legion service officers provide free advice and guidance to veterans who need to deal with the department of veterans affairs (VA) about benefits and other issues.
The American Legion sponsors many community activities and programs. Students showing the highest qualities of citizenship are recognized with an American Legion School Medal Award. In 1996 more than 33,000 students in elementary, junior high, and senior high schools were recognized for their commitment to honor, courage, scholarship, leadership, and service. The organization also awards ten national college scholarships each year. At the state level, 49 departments host Boys State programs each summer for outstanding high school juniors. Local posts sponsor nearly 28,000 young men each year to attend the week-long government education program. Two outstanding leaders from each of these Boys State programs are selected to attend the American Legion Boys Nation in Washington, D.C. The American Legion Auxiliary conducts parallel programs for young women through Girls State and Girls Nation.
Many local posts sponsor Junior Shooting Clubs, which provide training in gun safety and marksmanship for students ages 14 though 20. However, the American Legion is probably best known for its sponsorship of youth baseball programs. In 1996 legion posts spent more than $16 million to sponsor 4,800 baseball teams representing more than 89,000 players. Champions from the state level meet on the national level in the American Legion World Series tournament.
The American Legion has always been a strong advocate for U.S. veterans, appearing before congressional committees to submit information and viewpoints on pending legislation. The Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission (VAR) is a cornerstone of the American Legion, overseeing federally mandated programs provided by the VA for veterans and their dependents. VAR services include assistance with medical care, claims and appeals, insurance programs, burial benefits, and veterans' employment. Staff members also communicate with administrators of state veterans' affairs programs.
American Legion volunteers give more than one million hours of service to disabled veterans annually. Field representatives from the American Legion's Washington office systematically visit VA medical centers, nursing homecare units, and outpatient clinics to evaluate their programs and facilities. The field representatives report resource needs and areas for improvement to the VA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
For a number of years the Legion and other members of the Citizens Flag Alliance have continued to lobby Congress for a Constitutional amendment that would impose penalties for desecration of the U.S. flag. The Legion has also been active in lobbying for mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. After the september 11th attacks in 2001, the Legion established the American Legion September 11 Memorial Scholarship to help defray college costs for children of deceased military personnel.
American Legion. Available online at <www.legion.org> (accessed May 30, 2003).
Moley, Raymond. 1975. The American Legion Story. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood.
Rumer, Thomas. 1990. The American Legion: An Official History, 1919–1989. New York: Evans.
Domestically, the Legion has been a major force for national defense and against radicalism. A number of posts resorted to vigilante tactics during the Red Scare of 1919 and against industrial unionization in the 1930s. The Legion is known for community service and disaster relief, Legion baseball, and for an interest in patriotic school curricula. Although politically conservative, the organization has always supported representative democracy, welcoming a diverse ethnic and religious membership and embracing no economic programs besides veterans benefits. Its aging members disagreed initially with many of the younger veterans of the Vietnam War.
[See also Veterans: Vietnam War; Veterans: World War I; Veterans: World War II.]
William Pencak , For God and Country: The American Legion, 1919–1941, 1989.
Thomas A. Rumer , The American Legion, 1991.