Legion birthday: a celebration of values

Its official name had not yet been adopted when The American Legion’s purpose was stated in the form of a one-sentence paragraph. It was Monday morning, March 17, 1919, and a weekend gathering of officers and enlisted members of the American Expeditionary Forces was coming to a crescendo in Paris. The paragraph was what we might today call a “mission statement.” It came from the Committee on the Constitution, chaired by G. Edward Buxton, who had been the commanding officer of Medal of Honor recipient Pvt. Alvin C. York, also in attendance. The paragraph read:

We, the members of the Military and Naval Service of the United States of America in the great war, desiring to perpetuate the principles of Justice, Freedom and Democracy for which we have fought, to inculcate the duty and obligation of the citizen to the State; to preserve the history and incidents of our participation in the war; and to cement the ties of comradeship formed in service, do propose to found and establish an association for the furtherance of the foregoing purposes.

Elements of that paragraph would later shape the Preamble to The American Legion Constitution, recited at the beginning of every official Legion meeting. Moreover, the values within the paragraph would come to life in innumerable ways over the next nine decades, all wrapped around key terms like “we, the members,” “we have fought,” and “to cement the ties of comradeship.”

Not all military officials in France were thrilled about an unregulated rendezvous of officers and enlisted personnel at that time. Four months had passed since the armistice was signed. U.S. soldiers still in Europe were restless and ready to go home. Morale was a major issue. Many were going AWOL. Gen. John Pershing cautiously agreed, and passes were granted to summon members of the AEF to brainstorm ideas to improve their own spirits. In response, they formed The American Legion.

Bishop Charles H. Brent, senior chaplain for the AEF, was among the officials worried about what this gathering of battle-worn men might concoct. Political radicalism was a possibility. Brent was relieved to learn that all these troops wanted was to stay connected, help one another, never forget their wartime experiences, and defend the values and ideals for which they had fought. Some officials found it odd that these soldiers and sailors came away from the Paris Caucus expecting nothing from anyone other than each other.

Many wars have passed since the Meuse-Argonne Offensive when Alvin York made history under G. Edward Buxton’s command, before both became dedicated Legionnaires. The first sentence of that first committee report, however, is as meaningful as ever today, as American Legion posts celebrate this organization’s 93rd birthday and welcome home a new generation of patriots who long for little more than to stay connected, help each other, remember their wartime experiences, and protect the ideals for which they fought, expecting nothing from anyone other than themselves. They are us.