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Many might assume the American Legion is an apolitical gathering-hub for veterans. But as evidenced by its opposition to gay rights in recent years, this is not the case. In fact, the Legion has been a reactionary force since its founding in 1919. Here I will look at two examples of the organization’s early conservative activism: physically assaulting labor activists and leading the opposition to releasing a socialist leader from prison.
“In its early years the organization was best known,” Ernest Freeberg writes, “for its devotion to ’100 percent Americanism,’ a program that included protecting the nation’s schools and public squares from the subversive influence of political radicals. The Legion proposed a new federal law to bar ‘un-American’ literature from the mail and pushed for schools to add a ‘morale hour’ to the curriculum. ” The organization’s Commander Alan Owsley would even endorse fascism, saying, “If ever needed, the American Legion stands ready to protect our country’s institutions and ideals as the Fascisti dealt with the destructionists who menaced Italy.”
In 1919, writes William Ray Walker, the American Legion post in Centralia, Washington, “held a parade to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Armistice.” According to Robert K. Murray, local members of the Industrial Workers of the World, an anti-capitalist union, had heard rumors their meeting hall would be raided that day, and prepared defenses accordingly.
Twice, parading legionnaires marched past the IWW hall. “On the second trip, Centralia Legion members rushed the hall and broke through the door,” Walker writes. “IWW member and World War I veteran Wesley [Everest] fired at the raiders, and other Wobblies [as the union's members were called] posted in several locations outside began firing, leaving three dead legionnaires in their wake. Other marchers overwhelmed the defenders and destroyed the hall.”
Everett escaped and a posse was soon sent to find him. Eventually cornered, he shot a fourth legionnaire before he was successfully captured. According to Murray, “his gun now empty, and no longer able to defend himself, Everest was quickly seized, beaten, kicked, cursed and had his teeth knocked out by a rifle butt before he was carried back to town and thrown into jail.”
Later that night, vigilantes broke into the jail and dragged Everest into the street, where, according to Murray, “he was again beaten unmercifully. He was then thrown into a limousine and en route to the Chehalis River was emasculated by one of his kidnappers in an orgy of brutal sadism.” Everest was lynched from the girders of a railroad bridge after multiple failed attempts to do so. Finally, his body was shot full of holes for good measure.
In 1918, Eugene Debs, perennial presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for an anti-war speech in which he declared, “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder…And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.”
As Freeberg writes, “The American Legion took a lead role in organizing the opposition to amnesty, treating the Debs case as a litmus test to distinguish true patriots from dangerous radicals and deluded liberals.” According to Freeberg, the organization’s Commander Alan Owsley stated, “If the American Legion is unanimous in just one thing, it is in opposition to the pardoning or releasing of Eugene Debs.”
Despite fierce opposition from the American Legion, Debs was released on Christmas Day, 1921, by Republican President Warren Harding. According to the New York Times, the elderly socialist was greeted by a crowd of 50,000 supporters upon returning to his home in Terre Haute, Indiana.
While posts represent informal gathering centers for many communities, we should not forget the American Legion is a conservative organization and has been since it’s founding.
Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.