William R. Burke of California assumed leadership of The American Legion at a remarkable crossroads in history. Elected national commander in 1960, his was a time of wrenching U.S. anxiety over Cuba and Red China, the space race and the atomic age. He labeled the years ahead of the United States as "the decade of decision."
To him, it was a time for the nation to restate and reaffirm its most important principles, and he believed the Legion should play a leading role. "No one has a clearer mandate nor more solemn obligation to participate in the restatement of American purpose than those who laid aside their safety in order that the national purpose might be safeguarded," Burke said.
To help clarify the Legion's vision for the new decade, the commander combined several American Legion conferences and commission meetings that usually occurred over a span of a few weeks in January and February into one major event in Washington. Rather than "scattering our shots," he said, "we will be able to demonstrate to both the Congress and our executive and administrative leadership the size, scope and the importance of The American Legion."
The First Annual Washington Conference - Feb. 25 to March 3, 1961 - drew some 1,700 Legionnaires from across the country, including more than 400 members of Congress. The commander testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a Democrat at the time, urged the Legion to join him in support of ROTC as a critical asset "in the struggle being waged between a free America and the forces of godless communism." NBC Executive Robert Sarnoff received the Public Relations Award, and news anchor David Brinkley joined him onstage.
Legionnaires prowled Capitol Hill, meeting with congressional delegations and sharing the organization's vision. By consolidating the meetings, the commander got his wish: Washington's undivided attention at a time of global stress and growing concern about the nation's treatment of aging veterans. America looked to The American Legion for leadership on such matters. It still does today.
Here we are on the cusp of another new decade, again in the midst of global uncertainty and military conflict. As before, we face daunting challenges to assure veterans receive the benefits they are due, and in a timely manner. We fight for their employment and business opportunities in a shaky economy. We support the troops and their missions, from Afghanistan to Haiti and every place in between.
The 50th Washington Conference this month will not be an anniversary party of cake, confetti and champagne. It will be another relevant work session, complete with a service-officers school to improve delivery of VA benefits, a job fair and a business workshop tailored for veterans' needs, a symposium on the challenges veterans face when they become college students, and presentations on the state of national security, foreign affairs, economic and Americanism. Some of the nation's most influential leaders will speak to our members - and learn from them - because The American Legion stands for values too often forgotten in Washington. For a half-century, this conference has reminded them.