What Washington institution did the Legion, and its first national historian, help push into being?
The National Archives. Massachusetts native Eben Putnam held the office of national historian from 1920 to 1933 (it did not become a yearly appointment until 1969). Remembrance has been one of the Legion’s highest priorities from the beginning, and Putnam was certainly the right man for his office – he edited and published genealogical and historical magazines in New England, and had been historian at the post he was a charter member of. He started his military training as early as 1915, while in his 40s, and entered the Army when the United States entered World War I.
In 1921, Putnam hooked up with J. Franklin Jameson – a pioneer in the academic field of history, a co-founder of the American Historical Association (AHA), and director of the Bureau of Historical Research at the Carnegie Institution. The need for a national repository of some kind for government papers and materials had been seen for decades – at the time, most government agencies kept their own records, often in damp and musty attics and basements that were susceptible to fire – but Jameson’s vision went beyond a records hall to a building active with people researching and staff there to assist, and he had been pursing this vision since 1906.
Getting government and elected officials to agree that such a thing was necessary was one thing – getting enough focused attention on it to get a bill passed was quite another, which is where The American Legion came in. The Legion was a young organization with a booming political voice; its main concern was (of course) war records, especially individual service records, but that theory was easily expanded to include all government papers. At the 1921 National Convention in Kansas City, Mo., the Legion dwelled heavily on the fact that the United States was the only nation in its peer group without such a facility. A Commerce Department fire that year, which destroyed census records dating to 1790, reaffirmed the need.
Starting in 1922, the Legion passed resolutions every year calling for an archives building. Other organizations, like AHA, the Daughters of the American Revolution and Hearst Newspapers, were also part of the push. In 1926, under President Calvin Coolidge, the first appropriation for an archives building was passed by Congress as part of a larger public-buildings program for the city center. In 1934, Congress formally established the National Archives as the centerpiece of U.S. record-keeping. The groundbreaking was held in 1931, the cornerstone laid in 1933, and staff transferred over in 1935. Today, the National Archives and Records Administration, still headquartered in Washington, D.C., oversees everything from the Federal Register to presidential libraries.