Formation of the American Legion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Members of the American Expeditionary Forces stationed in Europe during World War I convened in Paris to make a plan to support returning soldiers as they made the transition to civilian life. The organization they established, the American Legion, helped soldiers reintegrate into society in several crucial ways.

Summary of Event

At the close of World War I, nearly 2.1 million American soldiers were faced with the options of returning to the United States, remaining in Europe, staying in the military, or becoming civilians in a society unprepared to deal with their psychological, emotional, and financial needs. The intensity of the soldiers’ experiences fighting abroad did not easily disappear. Some felt they must continue to promote American democratic values abroad, but their attempts—including an unsuccessful effort to form an American troop (or legion) in the Polish army in 1919—met with mixed results. Others, including the founders of the American Legion, wanted to honor the soldiers once they returned and protect what they came to label “Americanism”: devotion to the core values and freedoms of American democracy. To that end, in January of 1919, four officers of the American Expeditionary Forces—Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., George A. White, Eric Fisher Wood, and William J. Donovan—developed the nucleus of a new kind of veterans’ organization. Roosevelt presented their plans to his commander, General John J. Pershing, for approval. The fledgling organization intended to address morale, plans for demobilization, the idea of ongoing military training in peacetime, and the plan to create a standing army. American Legion World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period American Expeditionary Forces;demobilization [kw]Formation of the American Legion (Mar. 15-May 9, 1919) [kw]American Legion, Formation of the (Mar. 15-May 9, 1919) American Legion World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period American Expeditionary Forces;demobilization [g]United States;Mar. 15-May 9, 1919: Formation of the American Legion[04700] [c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 15-May 9, 1919: Formation of the American Legion[04700] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 15-May 9, 1919: Formation of the American Legion[04700] Roosevelt, Theodore, Jr. D’Olier, Franklin Taylor, John T. Lea, Luke White, George A. Wood, Eric Fisher Donovan, William J.

From February 15 to 17, 1919, the Temporary Committee of Twenty, chaired by Roosevelt and Wood, planned a pair of mass meetings, first in Paris and then in the United States. On March 14, 1919, Wood placed an ad in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes that invited American soldiers stationed in six countries to attend the meetings. On March 15, 1919, the first meeting was held in the Cirque de Paris. Wood and White led the meeting; Roosevelt was scouting locations in the United States. Soldiers sat in groups under banners as Wood guided them through their first orders of business: preparing for the U.S. meeting, writing a constitution, electing officers, and deciding on a name for the group. Caucuses and committees were formed to allow for maximum participation. Within three days, the group had accomplished all its tasks, including adopting American Legion as its name. On March 28, 1919, Stars and Stripes became the first media outlet to report on the Paris meeting using the name American Legion.

Stories about the Paris caucus were subsequently carried in newspapers in New York and Chicago, and the dates of the St. Louis meeting (the city had been chosen because of its location in the middle of the United States), were set for May 8-10, 1919. Roosevelt and the members of the executive committee opened an office at 19 West 44th Street in New York City to facilitate Legion business. At the St. Louis meeting, participants elected Henry D. Lindsley, former mayor of Dallas, Texas, as chairman and Eric Wood as secretary of the American Legion. Sailors were approved for membership, the name American Legion was formally adopted, a public relations committee was created, and Minneapolis was chosen for the first convention site. Legion members agreed to launch lobbying efforts to promote the idea that the country’s World War I debts be paid by citizens’ subscriptions to Victory Bonds offered by the federal government. The resolutions committee proposed new pension and insurance plans, and another committee decided that local branches would be called “posts.” The official preamble was also crafted; it emphasized the promotion of “peace and goodwill on Earth.”

From June through November, 1919, when the Minneapolis Convention opened, the Legion’s officers created a dues structure, organized the publication of The Weekly (the first issue of which appeared on July 4, 1919), selected Indianapolis as the site for the national headquarters, and crafted its charter under the leadership of Luke Lea. On June 9, 1919, the executive committee approved the Legion’s emblem, and on September 16, 1919, Congress gave the American Legion its charter. At the convention, members focused on developing resources for disabled veterans, and their efforts led to the “Washington rehab” conference in December of 1919. They also approved the opening of a second office in Washington, D.C., which facilitated members’ work with Congress.

Under Frank D’Olier, the group’s first national commander, the American Legion lobbied for what it called “beneficial legislation” to improve the quality of veterans’ lives. Members worked the Congress to secure landownership rights, create employment opportunities, and reduce mortgage loans for houses. By 1923, John T. Taylor, the Legion’s first lobbyist, was joined by John Robertson Quinn, and together they pressured the administration of President Warren G. Harding to create the U.S. Veterans Bureau (now known as the Veterans Administration) Veterans Administration on August 9, 1921.

During the 1921 annual meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, the Legion decided to partner with the National Education Association (NEA) in its efforts to obliterate illiteracy among veterans by collaborating on National Education Week. Together, the organizations promoted English as the standard language, teacher training, and compulsory school attendance. They enlisted the help of churches, movie theaters, and businesses in the literacy campaign. In June of 1923, the Legion’s Executive Committee wrote “The Flag Code,” which describes the proper handling of the U.S. flag in public and private. In 1926, the Legion founded its popular American Legion Junior Baseball League, which produced such prominent alumni as Frank Robinson and Bob Feller.

In 1934, Taylor presented the Legion’s Four Point Program, which requested congressional aid for widows and children of soldiers, more support for the hospitals and pensions, and a review of some thirty thousand individual soldiers’ claims for veterans’ benefits. On April 25, 1936, veterans began receiving their first “bonuses” or service recognition payments from bonds that had been issued beginning in 1925. In June of 1935, the American Legion Boys State was launched in Springfield, Illinois, to promote knowledge of the U.S. government among young men. At the end of September 1940, the Legion met in Boston, where roughly one million members were represented by fourteen hundred delegates. With the escalation of World War II, the Legion faced a major change in both its membership and its role within society as the World War I veterans felt compelled to support universal military training even as they lobbied the government to stay out of the war.

Significance

In a period of one year, the American Legion became the leading voice of the American soldier and the American veteran. Using the talents and creativity of like-minded men, the Legion moved rapidly through its formative stage and on to working for issues that advanced a practical agenda highlighting the debt that American society owed its veterans. In December of 1943, the Legion wrote the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (1944)[Servicemens Readjustment Act] (also known as the G.I. Bill of Rights), G.I. Bill of Rights (1944) the passage of which on June 22, 1944, is considered the Legion’s foremost legislative accomplishment.

After a great debate on October 29, 1942, the Legion voted to accept veterans of World War II as members, and by August 28, 1946, Legion membership approached four million. At the close of the 1940’s, the ambitions and desires of the organization’s founders had been realized in the Flag Code, the Education Week campaign, and the many advances the Legion had helped to make in improving the quality of the lives of disabled veterans. American Legion World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period American Expeditionary Forces;demobilization

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Littlewood, Thomas B. Soldiers Back Home: The American Legion in Illinois, 1919-1939. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Political and social history of the American Legion’s first twenty years focuses on the organization’s impacts and experiences in Illinois, but also discusses the national organization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pencak, William. For God and Country. The American Legion, 1919-1941. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989. A concentrated history of the Legion between the wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rumer, Thomas A. The American Legion: An Official History, 1919-1989. New York: M. Evans, 1990. Based in archival materials and sanctioned by the Legion, Sections 1-8 address the founding and growth of the Legion to 1944.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tidwell, Cromwell. “Luke Lea and the American Legion.” Tennessee Historical Society 28, no. 1 (1969): 70-83. Concentrates on the role of Colonel Luke Lea at the founding meeting; his work in writing the charter and the constitution; and his role in creating the War Memorial Building in his native Nashville, Tennessee, to honor World War I veterans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulrych, Richard. “General Tadeusz Rozwadowski and the Attempt to Establish a Volunteer American Legion Within the Polish Army, 1919-1920.” Polish Review 37, no. 1 (1992): 95-109. Describes how American soldiers attempted to continue their military service with the Polish army to fight the spread of Communism from Russia. These soldiers’ efforts were adopted by the American Legion in their fight against internal and external enemies of the United States.

Outbreak of World War I

Poppies Become a Symbol for Fallen Soldiers

United States Enters World War I

U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I

Demobilization of U.S. Forces After World War I

Treaty of Versailles

Geneva Protocol Is Signed

All Quiet on the Western Front Stresses the Futility of War

Bonus March

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