‘Iowa Idea’ still endures nationwide

When people think of Iowa, they might think of the classic 1989 movie “Field of Dreams.” The line “if you build it, they will come” is actually an oft-repeated misquote from the film, but it could easily describe one of the Iowa American Legion’s most enduring and successful projects.

Affectionately called “the Iowa Idea,” the concept was developed by the department’s delegation to the Legion’s Fifth National Convention in San Francisco in 1923.

The San Francisco convention was notable for another reason I will mention, but first let’s explore why the Iowa Idea is so important. The proposal was that “a concrete and practical program of service to community be put into effect” throughout the Legion’s 11,000 posts. In addition to its other work, the National Americanism Commission was instructed to create “a community and civic betterment bureau,” helping transform the Legion from a strong advocate on national policy to a grassroots organization dedicated to providing service to communities as well. The idea evolved to become one of the Hawkeye State’s most successful programs: the Iowa American Legion Foundation.

“If you look back at the Iowa Idea when Hanford MacNider was candidate for national commander, that’s really where the Legion’s community service program came from,” says Dave Rehbein, past national commander and current foundation president. “He believed, through the Iowa Idea, that in order for The American Legion to really be a successful grassroots organization we had to be deeply involved in our communities. That’s why the Iowa Foundation places its emphasis on funding good things that other people are doing.”

Today, the foundation provides scholarships for veterans and children, supports veterans homes and funds other outstanding community projects. It has touched thousands of lives over the years, including participants of a camp for disabled children and toddlers who benefit from home eye-test kits. It has funded park projects and playground facilities, and educated the public about the sacrifices veterans have made for their country. In short, the Iowa Foundation is a textbook example of how the Legion makes differences in local communities.

Do you know what else was remarkable about the San Francisco convention? Resolution No. 407, Law Enforcement and Tolerance. At a time when the Ku Klux Klan wielded great influence across our nation, delegates at the Legion’s 1923 convention resolved that individuals, groups or organizations that create or foster racial, religious or class strife “are un-American, a menace to our liberties, and destructive to our fundamental law.” Further, these groups are “inconsistent with the ideals and purposes of The American Legion.”

I see a connection between the Iowa Idea and Resolution 407. While the former is about enriching communities through service and the building of public projects, the latter sends a message that there is no place in those same communities for hate and bigotry.

As we approach our organization’s centennial, I am convinced that membership in our American Legion Family is just as vital today as it was in 1919. The vision of our founders still resonates.