The American Legion’s Anti-Socialist Roots

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.

More articles by:
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It