Genesis of The American Legion

Genesis of The American Legion

Twenty non-career officers personally selected by Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. were ordered by American Expeditionary Forces Commanding Gen. John Pershing to report to a YMCA office in Paris on Feb. 15, 1919. Their ostensible purpose was to address declining morale among cold, wet, miserable troops awaiting passage home from the war that was supposed to end all wars. But the officers, who met again for dinner the following evening, had something more in mind than the moods of their restless buddies. This was the perfect time, they decided, to talk about a new kind of veterans association, one specifically for them, built on what they had learned from the war. 

Nine of the 20 officers had something else in common: they were alumni of the Plattsburgh Training Camps of upstate New York, where civilian volunteers defied the Wilson White House by preparing to fight in a war the president did not initially want the United States to enter.

U.S. intervention was controversial. Many considered it to be purely a European affair. And with thousands of new immigrants to the United States from the warring nations in Europe, uprisings were a concern if America went in.

After Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on June 28, 1914, armies mobilized across the European landscape, and the Great War was on, a war like none before it. 

Military investment had been relatively high in Europe before the assassination. The opposite was true in the United States. Alec Campbell noted in his 2010 essay “The Sociopolitical Origins of The American Legion” that between the U.S. Civil War and World War I, major European states “enrolled between 0.7 and 1.65 percent of their populations in the military while the United States came in between 0.06 and 0.17 percent. These numbers understate the relative differences, as conscription and reserve forces increased the available fighting power of most European states in that period.”

The United States, an ocean away from Europe, saw no great need for a large standing military, with a friendly
neighbor to the north and only sporadic conflicts on the southern border. The national focus remained on developing the West, building railroads, overcoming native tribes and harvesting the bountiful natural resources west of the Mississippi.  

Even during the Spanish-American War, when future President Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders gained fame, the United States involved only about 72,000 troops. And although limited in scope, the Spanish-American War “could build national accord as well as national character” and resolve “class and sectional hatreds,” Roosevelt suggested.

He recruited troops from elite colleges and clubs and then “scattered eastern swells through (the) entire unit ... purposely bunking cowhands with capitalists.”

According to author M. Perlman, newspapers claimed this was “the most representative body of men on American soil, for in it were cowboys and millionaires, side by side, all men equal.”

In contrast, Europe was much more familiar with military action and political battles. In the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, the continent saw conflicts between Serbia and Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey; numerous uprisings and subsequent suppressions of groups opposing the Ottoman Empire; an attempt by Macedonia to split off; a Russo-Japanese conflict; and numerous peasant revolts. Germany was still consolidating into one, as was Italy. European armies marched into each other, seemingly at the slightest provocation, while America marched westward, away from these distant skirmishes, laying tracks of economic expansion.

The assassination of Ferdinand, however, disrupted America’s manifest destiny and fractured U.S. foreign policy. Roosevelt, as president from 1901 until 1909, had sought to raise America’s international clout by securing the Panama Canal and negotiating peace terms to end the Russo-Japanese War. He launched the sparkling new Great White Fleet with a two-year world tour to demonstrate U.S. naval prowess.

In contrast, Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912 on a platform of neutrality and isolationism, hearkening to a view espoused by Thomas Jefferson, who said that “essential principles of our government (are) peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

The Great War challenged Wilson’s resolve, but in 1916 he was re-elected on a platform summed up by the campaign slogan: “He kept us out of war.”

The Preparedness Movement Roosevelt and others, like former Secretary of the Army Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, were less sure the United States would be able to – or should – stay out of the fight in Europe. They resolved to ensure that if the call to arms came, at least some Americans would be trained to lead. At the time, the U.S. military had less than one-tenth of the personnel needed for the eventual war.

Wood and Roosevelt, along with former war secretaries Elihu Root and Henry Stimson, began calling for preparedness. Wood started the National Security League (NSL) in 1914, and by the middle of that year “the League’s total civilian membership resembled an interlocking preparedness directory,” one author noted. The NSL quickly grew to more than 50,000 members in 155 chapters across 42 states.

The German U-boat sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, validated to many the need for U.S. military intervention. Of the nearly 1,200 who perished in the attack, 128 were Americans. U.S. entry into the war grew ever more likely.

Roosevelt and Wood believed that lists of people were helpful, but modern training was vital. Thus was conceived the “Plattsburgh Idea,” named for a small city near the Canadian border where voluntary training could be conducted by college-educated men, including Theodore Roosevelt Jr., under the watchful eyes of the former president and Wood.

The broader concept was a series of military training camps for business and professional men, similar to programs already operated by the Army on some college campuses in the form of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The Plattsburgh camps took greater shape in the fall of 1915 and were attended by roughly 1,700 men that year. By the end of the 1916 camps, another 17,000 had completed volunteer training. The Military Training Camps Association (MTCA) that would govern Plattsburgh and other regional camps across the country expected 50,000 more to train in 1917. That prediction was obviated on April 6, 1917, when Wilson pivoted and declared U.S. entry in the Great War.

Future founders of The American Legion – many of whom were also members of a nationwide volunteer network called American Legion, Inc. – were quickly commissioned as officers to help lead Pershing’s young force. At war, the future founders realized that physical conditions, discipline and mental sharpness among the mostly drafted U.S. troops generally were inadequate. Literacy, fitness, weaponry, training and supplies were also sorely lacking. In addition, many AEF troops were new U.S. immigrants and had scant understanding of what they were fighting for. To many, the concepts of justice, freedom and democracy were foreign, literally and figuratively, and English was a second language, if they could speak it at all.

“Nine of the initial 20 Legion organizers had been involved as leaders or participants in the Plattsburg(h) movement,” Campbell writes. “Three had been involved in the NSL, and five were National Guard officers. Accounting for multiple associations, 60 percent had been involved in at least one pre-war preparedness organization, and 75 percent had been involved in either a preparedness organization or the National Guard.”

Franklin D’Olier, who in 1919 would be elected the first national commander of The American Legion, never trained at Plattsburgh, but he granted leave to employees of his mercantile business to attend.

Author Ralph Barton Perry, writing in 1922, explained that a typical Plattsburg(h) trainee “discovered new physical values. He learned to view his body in a new light, as something to be cared for, as a man might groom his horse. He learned that he walked on his feet and that his feet had to be respected accordingly. He learned something about his physical energy, its reserves and its limits, and what you can do to increase it ... He discovered extremes of fatigue and hunger that were totally new to him, and the soul-satisfying joy which may exalt such humble things as sitting down by the roadside and drinking warm water from a canteen. When he came to carry his house, his wardrobe and his stores about on his back, he learned how few things a man really needs to keep him going, (needs) and how many things he can get along without.”

Politics 101 Following the February 1919 meeting of officers, and after the formative Paris Caucus a month later, focus among the Legion’s all-officer founders turned to creating a national organization that would represent different parts of the country without regard to socioeconomic, political, educational or military pedigree. The new American Legion would not fall into traps of admitting officers only or taking sides in political contests. 

 “The two great veterans’ organizations with which we were all familiar as boys and girls were highly political and intensely partisan,” D’Olier wrote in 1928. “In the North, the Legion was called the successor to the Grand Army of the Republic, and in the South it was thought of as the heir to the traditions of the United Confederate Veterans. In New York state, the political currents already had caught up Roosevelt and he was, or shortly became, a candidate for the Legislature.”

Before moving to a permanent national headquarters in Indianapolis, the Legion used the MTCA office in New York, conveniently located near the famous Harvard Club, of which the Roosevelts were members.

Manhattan and the Harvard Club were not necessarily the best icons to appeal to a broad cross section of veterans. For the newly formed organization to endure, it would need to diversify. The founders distanced the new organization from the elite optics of northeastern Ivy League culture. To achieve that distance, they installed a sort of Senate, the National Executive Committee, with elected representatives from across the country, representing each state. To identify potential NEC members, the founders turned to the MTCA and recruited from its diverse list of alumni.

“The incidental costs of finding state committeemen were borne by the MTCA, which paid for the hundreds of telegrams sent to potential state organizers,” Campbell wrote. “Moreover, state-level contacts were often made through preparedness organizations.”

Initial attempts to gather names for early American Legion organizing committees in the states were often made by Arthur Cosby, executive secretary of the MTCA, a former Rough Rider who served under Roosevelt but was not a veteran of the Great War and so was ineligible for Legion membership. Cosby helped the cause by using his MTCA contacts to find what he called “the right sort of men.”

D’Olier was particularly cognizant of Roosevelt’s Republican persuasion and how that might be viewed in states that leaned Democrat. To balance it out among the more famous Legion founders, D’Olier, a Quaker, and other early leaders of the organization paired Roosevelt with Bennett Champ Clark, son of U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Champ Clark, a Democrat from Missouri. Clark had graduated from a Plattsburgh sister camp at Fort Myer, Va., and knew the MTCA.

D’Olier noted that in letters to recruit MTCA alumni as leaders of The American Legion, “most of the delegates were obtained by dealing through men in the different states that some of us knew. In dealing with Democratic states, we would sign Clark’s name to telegrams, and in Republican states, we would use Roosevelt’s. In doubtful states, both names.”

“It would be unfortunate to place The American Legion in conflict with the political parties,” opined Brig. Gen. William G. Price, a veteran of Cuban service during the Spanish-American War who later led the 28th Infantry Division. “But (the Legion) will uphold what is right so firmly and forcefully that whatever party is wrong will learn to fear it. It is the brotherhood of men who have realized thoroughly their responsibility to the nation.”

As the organization took shape, membership recruitment was the foremost concern, and a “Speakers Bureau” of Legionnaires took the group’s message from the local meeting hall to the public square.

As one such Legion speaker noted, “readjustments in social and labor conditions are taking place, and it is a very vital function of The American Legion to show ... not only why it is to the interest of all to become members of the Legion but also the great part which the Legion does play in national affairs.”

George Wheat noted in his 1919 “The Story of The American Legion” that “... it became most necessary to properly present the Legion to those men who had remained at home and who had gotten out of the service, and to those who were incoming from France and rapidly being demobilized, as it was upon them that the success of the Legion depended. Furthermore, their opinions were the soil upon which the various state organizations had to work, and at that particular time it was vital that the Legion should be widely known and thoroughly understood; that its aims and ambitions should not be misconstrued either willfully or unintentionally, nor its precepts perverted.”

The Drive for Members  As Roosevelt, D’Olier and others worked out of the MTCA offices in New York to raise money and get the Legion up and running, state officers were hitting the streets to find eligible veterans to join. 

“It was a long, hard-working summer and fall,” D’Olier wrote. “By July 1, six weeks after the St. Louis Caucus, we had less than a thousand posts going. But by Aug. 1, the number had more than doubled, and by Sept. 1, it had quadrupled. On Oct. 1, the number of posts was 5,670, and we felt that the Legion was right and would win.”

At the first national convention in November that year, D’Olier found himself on the ballot for national commander, a position he had not asked for, dreamed of or even particularly relished.

“I left for Minneapolis a candidate for nothing except some railroad tickets to take my family on that promised vacation,” he wrote. “Bill Donovan and Ted Roosevelt talked me into permitting my name to go before the convention. They picked me for my negative qualities. I had never made a public speech in my life. I had never given an interview to a newspaper reporter. I had never been in politics and would never get in because I lacked the qualifications. I was thought to be capable of giving the Legion a quiet, plain business administration, which was felt to be a good thing during a presidential year.”

D’Olier, beholden to no one, and without any obvious political persuasions or desires, was just what the Legion needed to avoid the politicization that had divided previous veterans organizations.

“I was no orator, had no desire to become one ... and anyway felt that the country was a bit fed up on oratory and that the public would be more interested in plain business statements as to what the Legion was actually accomplishing and intended to do ... I felt that the public would be more interested in brief communiqués from the front than in oratorical effort.”

Campbell wrote that “the organizational model for the Legion was the MTCA, which had sought mass-based participation. The Legion was not meant to be a tightly controlled elite organization like the NSL. Ideologically, the Legion’s leaders believed in what they were doing and that the vast majority of common Americans shared their views.”

Unsurprisingly, many of the first resolutions passed by the Legion dealt with preparedness. The Report of the Committee on Military Policy set forth unambiguously its belief that “a large standing army is uneconomic and un-American. National safety with freedom from militarism is best assured by a national citizen army and navy based on the democratic and American principles of the quality of obligation and opportunity for all.” 

Universal military training – and, importantly, not universal military service – would long be a priority of the Legion. “We have had a bitter experience in the cost of unpreparedness for national defense and the lack of proper training on the part of officers and men,” the committee reported. “We favor a national military and naval system based on universal military obligation, to include a relatively small regular army and navy, and a citizen army and navy capable of rapid expansion sufficient to meet any national emergency.”

The Plattsburgh Idea had become official policy of the brand-new American Legion. The committee added in its first report that “we favor the continuance of training camps for the training and education of officers to serve in case of national requirement.”

Physical and mental discipline, military preparedness, promotion of democracy, and strengthening of young people all were undoubtedly topics discussed among future founders of The American Legion between training-camp exercises before the war. And when they had proof of their convictions fresh in mind in the winter of 1919, they turned their principles into an organization that would long outlive them all. 

Mark Seavey is a writer and digital media specialist for The American Legion.