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The sociopolitical origins of the American Legion

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The American Legion was one of the most politically consequential organizations in the twentieth-century United States. It was a local bedrock of anti-communism in two post-war red scares and throughout the cold war. It also built a lavish and cross-nationally unique welfare state for American veterans. In this article, I examine the origins of the American Legion and demonstrate that it was organized by rentier capitalists acting in their intraclass and interclass interests. Most importantly, the Legion was an organization that fought the “battle over class” by denying the importance of class as a social concept and proposing “Americanism” as an alternative. I also argue that the Legion’s extreme anti-communism combined with its dedication to welfare provision for American veterans altered the course of American welfare state development.

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  1. 1.

    Geographical diversity and non-elite status makes biographical information on state committeemen difficult to find. I found biographical information on all the primary organizers but on less than half of the state committeemen. For this reason, I do not present occupational information on these men.

  2. 2.

    The claims in this and the preceding paragraph are based on my examination of the original telegrams sent to prospective state committeemen. These are available in the State Files of the American Legion Archive.

  3. 3.

    This is based on the unlikely assumption that every pre-war guardsman became a veteran. The actual percentage is certainly lower.

  4. 4.

    The Social Register identified those with World War I service. Using this information, I estimate less than 0.3% of veterans eligible for Legion membership were in the Establishment.

  5. 5.

    See Baltzell 1953 for the distinction between Who’s Who and the Social Register and the corresponding distinction between the elite and the upper class.

  6. 6.

    Popular culture reflected this in the lines of Woody Guthrie’s Union Maid, “And when the Legion boys came round she always stood her ground.”

  7. 7.

    The standard alternative to a counterfactual analysis is a comparative analysis. Both methods make inferences about causes. Causes have to be inferred because observing a cause would require observations of both the presence and absence of the causal factor operating on a single unit at the same moment in time. This is the fundamental problem of causal inference (Berk 1988). Comparative analysis relies on the “unit homogeneity assumption,” which states that cause can be inferred from the results of an experiment in which two identical units are subjected to the presence and absence of a cause. Most experiments use a version of this approach in which random assignment assures that the differences between two units are clearly understood as a function of sampling error. In experiments, the units (treatment and control groups) are not identical but the differences are statistically well understood. In historical analysis, samples are too small for this approach and random assignment impossible, so everything turns on the comparability of the compared cases. No adequate comparative case exists for the Legion. The unique history of militarism and class development along with the very different experiences of the World War (shorter and far less deadly) make the United States case unique. In this situation, a counterfactual analysis is the best approach.

  8. 8.

    Attending to causal mechanisms is crucial. Randomized experiments allow causal inference without any understanding of causal mechanisms. If a drug improves health outcomes in a large sample randomized experiment then we can confidently assert that the drug causes the improvement even if we don’t know how it works. However, not all science proceeds in this manner. Consider the inference that human actions cause global warming. The evidence for global warming does not come from an experiment in which we randomly assign planets to receive industrialization or not. The evidence comes from a compelling understanding of the causal mechanisms that produce global warming. In a similar way, a counterfactual analysis has to rely more on an understanding of causal mechanisms and less on the formal logic of comparison.

  9. 9.

    In comparison the combined cost of all the New Deal emergency programs was about 12.5 billion dollars (United States Bureau of the Census, 1975).


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Correspondence to Alec Campbell.



Edwards (1982) provides the names of the members of all the standing committees of the NSL in an Appendix. For the MTCA, Clifford (1972) names the fifteen signers of the original Lusitania telegram. The names of executive council Leaders and participants come from the Roster of Attendants at Federal Military Training Camps 1913–1916 published by the MTCA in 1916. The names of the original founders of the American Legion come from several histories of the Legion (Jones 1946, p.24; Wheat 1919, p. 7–8; Pencak 1989, p. 53). The names of the original nine stateside founders come from Jones (1946, p. 30) and Wheat (1919, p. 33). The names of the state organizing committees come from Wheat (1919) and the New York Times. The names of the financial contributors to the early American Legion come from the files of the American Legion Archives located at the American Legion headquarters in Indianapolis. The names of the founders of VFW come from Bottoms 1991). I gathered the names of AVC leaders from the AVC Bulletin, which listed all Field Secretaries and members of the National Executive. The names of AVC incorporators come from the Congressional Record. The names of Rotary Lions and Kiwanis Leaders come from Rotary International (1954), Martin (1991), and Arnold (1949). Social Registers from the 1920’s are difficult to locate, particularly for the several cities that had registers for only a short period. I tried to use the 1920 Social Register but in every case used a Register from the twenties.

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Campbell, A. The sociopolitical origins of the American Legion. Theor Soc 39, 1 (2010).

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  • Social Register
  • Preparedness Organization
  • National Guard
  • Welfare Provision
  • Preparedness Movement