American Legion

For other uses of American Legion, see American Legion (disambiguation)

The American Legion was chartered by the U.S. Congress as a patriotic, mutual-help, wartime veterans organization of the United States armed forces who served during a wartime period as defined by Congress. The American Legion was founded in 1919 by veterans returning from Europe after World War I and is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana and also has offices in Washington D.C.. The group has nearly 3 million members in over 14,000 Posts worldwide.

In addition to organizing commemorative events and volunteer activities, the American Legion is active in U.S. politics. While its primary political activity is lobbying on the behalf of the interests of veterans, service members including support for veterans benefits such as pensions and the Veterans Affairs hospital system, it has also been involved in more general political issues, generally taking a conservative position. Most criticism of the Legion is based on its political activities.

The American Legion at the state level, also known as Departments, run an annual civic training event for high school juniors called Boys State. Two members from each Boys State are selected for Boys Nation. The American Legion Auxiliary runs Girls State and Girls Nation. The American Legion also hosts many social events.

The group holds a congressional charter under Title 36 of the United States Code.



The American Legion's Post Officers Guide recounts the organization's founding:

"A group of twenty officers who served in the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) in France in World War I is credited with planning the Legion. A.E.F. Headquarters asked these officers to suggest ideas on how to improve troop morale. One officer, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., proposed an organization of veterans. In 1919, this group formed a temporary committee and selected several hundred officers who had the confidence and respect of the whole army. When the first organization meeting took place in Paris in March, 1919, about 1,000 officers and enlisted men attended. The meeting, known as the Paris Caucus, adopted a temporary constitution and the name The American Legion. It also elected an executive committee to complete the organization’s work. It considered each soldier of the A.E.F. a member of the Legion. The executive committee named a subcommittee to organize veterans at home in the U.S. The Legion held a second organizing caucus in St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1919.

As is confirmed by The National Library of the American Legion and its official supporting documents, the first post of the American Legion is George Washington Post 1 in Washington, D.C. Organized March 7, 1919, it obtained the first charter issued to any post of The American Legion on May 19, 1919. Originally, the post was named the “General John Joseph Pershing Post Number 1” in part to its members’ sincere admiration of Pershing as a man, as well as their appreciation for his career as a soldier in the United States Army. However, at the St. Louis caucus that same year, members decided that posts of the American Legion should not be named after living persons, and therefore the "Pioneer Post" was given its new and current name. The post completed the constitution and made plans for a permanent organization. It set up temporary headquarters in New York City and began its relief, employment, and Americanism programs.

Congress granted the American Legion a national charter in September, 1919. Among the founders was Ernest O. Thompson (1892-1966) of Texas, later Lieutenant General of the Texas National Guard, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, and an expert on petroleum issues.


The first national convention of the American Legion was held from November 10-12, 1919, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at which time the attendees adopted a permanent constitution and elected officers to head the organization. The original purpose of the Legion was to "preserve the memories and incidents of our association in the great war". Prior to World War I, few rural, working-class, or even middle-class Americans traveled to Europe. For a majority of urban Americans, their understanding of Europe had been acquired through the European immigrants they knew. Thus the 2 million Americans who had served in the American Expeditionary Forces had very different experiences than their families, friends and neighbors. The American Legion allowed these young men and women who had served "Over There" to re-integrate into their hometowns and to still remain in contact with others who had been abroad. The Legion served as a support group, a social club and a type of extended family for former service men and women.

Some Legion groups engaged in strikebreaking activities during this time and into the 1930s. In 1919, a new American Legion group in Washington was involved in the Centralia Massacre (Washington).


The American Legion was very active in the 1920s. It was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Veterans' Bureau, now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Legion also created its own American Legion Baseball Program. Commander Travers D. Carmen awarded Charles Lindbergh its "Distinguished Service Medal," the medal's first recipient, on July 22, 1927. American Legion national convention was held in Paris, France in September 1927. A major part of this was drum and bugle corps competition in which approximately 14,000 members took part.

American Legion Politics

The Industrial Workers of the World had attempted to organize longshoremen, sailors and fishermen in the 1920s through their Maritime Workers Union. The largest strike, in San Pedro, California in 1923, bottled up shipping in that harbor, but was crushed by a combination of injunctions, mass arrests and vigilantism by the American Legion.


In 1930, the American Legion Memorial Bridge in Traverse City, Michigan, was completed. In that year, the Traverse City city commission decided to purchase dedication plaques for $100 at the request of the American Legion.

By 1931, membership of the American Legion had reached 1 million.

The Sons of the American Legion formed at the American Legion's 14th National Convention in Portland, Oregon, on September 12-15, 1932. Membership is limited to the male descendants of members of the American Legion, or deceased individuals who served in the armed forces of the United States during times specified by the American Legion. In 2007, The Sons of the American Legion celebrated 75 years of service to God and Country. The organization has more than 300,000 members.

According to congressional testimony in the 1930s, several of the American Legion's leaders, including its original bankroller Irénée du Pont, plotted a fascist coup against the Government of Franklin D. Roosevelt called the Business Plot. According to testimony, the plot was averted because Major General Smedley Butler warned Roosevelt of the plan.

In 1935, the first Boys' State (Premier Boys State) convened in Springfield, Illinois.

The American Legion's first National High School Oratorical Contest was held in 1938.


In 1942, the original charter of the American Legion was changed in order to allow veterans of World War II to join. Throughout the 1940s, the American Legion was very active in providing support for veterans and soldiers who fought in World War II. The American Legion campaigned for the G.I. Bill, which was signed into law in June 1944.

The first Boys Nation program was held in 1946.


The American Legion asked for a congressional investigation into the ACLU for their petitioning to end loyalty-oath laws for public workers such as school teachers during the red scare.

Veterans of the Korean War were approved for membership in the American Legion in 1950.

The American Legion Child Welfare Foundation was formed in 1954.


On May 30, 1969, the Cabin John Bridge, which carried the Capital Beltway (I-495) across the Potomac River northwest of Washington, D.C., was officially renamed to the " American Legion Memorial Bridge" in a ceremony led by Lt. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, director of the U.S. Selective Service System.


In 1976, an outbreak of bacterial pneumonia occurred among those attending a convention of the American Legion at The Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. This form of pneumonia became known as Legionnaires' disease, or Legionellosis. The bacterium that causes the illness was later named Legionella.


After a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the American Legion launched and funded an unsuccessful campaign to win a constitutional amendment against harming the flag of the United States. The Legion formed the Citizens' Flag Honor Guard and it later became Citizens Flag Alliance.


In 1993, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts renamed a bridge in the city of Chicopee to the "American Legion Memorial Bridge".

Also in 1993, two members of Garden City, Michigan American Legion Post 396 shared an idea that would bond motorcycle enthusiasts in the Legion from the idea of Chuck Dare and post commander Bill Kaledas, the American Legion Riders was born. Joined by 19 other founding members the group soon found itself inundated with requests for information about the new group. As a source of information a website was set up, and it continues to be a source of information worldwide.

In a letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton in May 1999, the American Legion urged the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia. The National Executive Committee of The American Legion met and adopted a resolution unanimously that stated, in part, that they would only support military operations if "Guidelines be established for the mission, including a clear exit strategy" and "That there be support of the mission by the U.S. Congress and the American people".


The Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), announced that he planned to eliminate the annual congressional hearings for Veterans Service Organizations that was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In response, National Commander of the American Legion Thomas L. Bock had the following to say:

"I am extremely disappointed in Chairman Buyer's latest effort to ignore the Veterans Service Organizations. Eliminating annual hearings before a joint session of the Veterans Affairs Committees will lead to continued budgetary shortfalls for VA resulting in veterans being underserved."

By 2007, the American Legion Riders program has grown to over 600 chapters in the United States and overseas.

Membership eligibility requirements

Eligibility for American Legion membership is limited to those honorably discharged veterans and current personnel of the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard or Air Force who served at least one day of active duty during any of the following periods:


  • WORLD WAR I:  April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918
  • WORLD WAR II:  December 7, 1941, to December 31, 1946
    Note: U.S. Merchant Marine eligibility runs Dec. 7, 1941, to Aug. 16, 1945.
  • KOREA:  June 25, 1950, to January 31, 1955
  • VIETNAM:  February 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975
    Note: Some sources incorrectly begin Vietnam eligibility on Dec. 22, 1961, but the official start date is Feb. 28, 1961.
  • LEBANON // GRENADA:  August 24, 1982, to July 31, 1984
  • PANAMA:  December 20, 1989, to January 31, 1990
  • GULF WARS (Desert Shield // Desert Storm // Operation Iraqi Liberation // et al):  August 2, 1990, through today — and continuing until cessation of hostilities as determined by the U.S. government; open eligibility thus applies to ALL current active-duty service members.

Link to The American Legion Post Officers Guide

From The American Legion Questions and Answers page:

Q: How do I know if I am eligible for membership in The American Legion?
A: Our organization was founded on the premise that all those serving in the U.S. Armed Forces during times of national crisis, regardless of place of service, are eligible to belong to The American Legion. Our membership is based on period of service, not place of service. Therefore, if you have served at least one day of "active duty" during the eligibility dates, are presently serving in the military or have been honorably discharged, you may become a member. Certain members of the Merchant Marines are also eligible for the American Legion if they served overseas during World War II through the Vietnam War. For details, prospective members should contact any American Legion Post Adjutant.

Organizational structure


The Post is the basic unit of the Legion and usually represents a small geographic area such as a single town or part of a county. There are roughly 14,900 posts in the United States. The Post is used for formal business such as meetings and a coordination point for community service projects. Often the Post will host community events such as Bingo, Hunter breakfasts, holiday celebrations, and etc. It is also not uncommon for the Post to contain a bar open during limited hours.


Each Department is divided into Divisions and/or Districts. Each District oversees several Posts, generally about 20, to help each smaller group have a larger voice. Divisions are even larger groups of about 4 or more Districts. The main purpose of these "larger" groups (Districts - Divisions) are to allow one or two delegates to represent an area at conferences, conventions, and other gatherings, where large numbers of Legionnaires may not be able to attend.


The Posts are grouped together into a state level organization known as a Department for the purposes of coordination and administration. There is a total of 55 Departments; one for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico, and the Philippines. Canada was merged into Department of New York several years ago. The 3 Departments located overseas are intended to allow active duty military stationed and veterans living overseas to be actively involved with the American Legion similar to as if they were back in the states. The Department of France consists of 29 Posts located in 10 European counties, the Department of Mexico consists of 22 Posts located in Central America, and the Department of Philippines covers Asia and the Pacific Islands.

National headquarters

The main American Legion Headquarters is located on the Indiana War Memorial Plaza in Indianapolis. It is the primary office for the National Commander and also houses the historical archives, library, Membership, Internal Affairs, Public Relations, and the Magazine editorial offices. The Legion also owns a building in Washington D.C. that contains many of the operation offices such as Economics, Legislative, Veterans Affairs, Foreign Relations, National Security, and Media Relations, and etc.

List of National Commanders

References in popular culture

John Dos Passos included in his U.S.A. trilogy a detailed description of the Centralia Massacre, taking the IWW side in this affair.

The 1949 story "The Long Watch", by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, was commissioned by the American Legion and published in the Legion's magazine. However, the story was reportedly "heavily edited" before being published - presumably because its theme - a one-man rebellion by a future space officer who sacrifices his life to foil a military coup and the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations - can be read both as extolling patriotic self-sacrifice and as extolling rebelliousness and disobedience.

On their 1989 album, Key Lime Pie, the alternative rock band Camper Van Beethoven referenced the American Legion in their song "When I Win The Lottery", with the lyrics,

And when I win the lottery, gonna buy the house next to Mr. Red, White and Blue, and when I win the lottery, gonna buy Post 306 American Legion, paint it red with five gold stars.

In chapter 9 of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, it's revealed that Jay Gatsby was a member of the American Legion.


Veterans organizations of the United States

Veterans Service Organizations

Official U.S. Government Resources

Veterans organizations in other countries

External links

Further reading

  • Richard Seelye Jones. A History of the American Legion (1946)
  • Thomas B. Littlewood. Soldiers Back Home: The American Legion in Illinois, 1919-1939 (2004)
  • William Pencak. For God & Country: The American Legion, 1919-1941 (1989)
  • Thomas A. Rumer. The American Legion: An Official History, 1919-1989 (1990)
  • George Seldes. The George Seldes Reader. Barricade Books, 1994

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