The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces
Legionaires Parading With Boy Scouts, C. 1941
Contributed by Leon Loupy
The Great War drew to a close. Many members of the American
armed forces still training in the United States or in Europe
awaiting shipment home began talking about creation of a veterans’
organization. They remembered that following the Civil War the
Grand Army of the Republic had flourished.
The subject was treated seriously by four soldiers of high rank
meeting in late January 1919 on fashionable Faubourg St. Honore
in Paris. Front line officers who among them could count seven
wound chevrons on their uniforms, the four were prominent and
able to have their voices heard in important places. They were
Theodore Roosevelt Jr., member of the 1st Division and son of the
just deceased former President; William J. Donovan who had made
his name with New York’s “Fighting 69th”; Eric Fisher Wood of the
88th Division; and George S. White from General Headquarters of
the AEF in France.
The focus of their discussion was how to go about forming such
an organization which would have a reservoir of over 2,000,000
young persons to draw from. At the least, it was reasoned, it would
be a basis for fraternalism, and it was hoped that it could
eventually make its presence felt in matters important to veterans
and to America. A suitable name was bandied about: Liberty
League, American Crusaders, Comrades in Service, or Legion of
Honor. The suggestion of American Legion at first drew little favor.
Enthusiasm evident, presentation of the idea to General John J.
Pershing was called for. The commander-in-chief was initially upset
at having read an early mention of the plan in Stars and Stripes,
which he regarded as a transgression of his rights as head of the
American armed forces. But Pershing could not long ignore the
makings of a runaway popular notion and gave his blessing to
scheduling a prompt and wider treatment of the subject at a caucus
at the Inter-Allied Officers’ Club.
T. Roosevelt, Jr.
The event in Paris held 13 to 15 March 1919 was so successful
that the American Legion today celebrates those three days
annually as its birth dates. Good formative business was conducted
at the caucus with selected officers and enlisted personnel in
attendance. Other distinguished names started to come aboard.
Captain Ogden Mills was one; he would become prominent in the
San Francisco Bay Area (the Mills Building, Mills Field, Mills
Estate) and Secretary of the Treasury in the Hoover Administration. . Hamilton Fish and Bennett C. Clark went on to the national political arena. San Francisco newsman Harold C. Ross would later
found The New Yorker magazine. And adding to the atmosphere in a
major way was the arrival of President Woodrow Wilson to
participate in the treaty conference at Versailles.
A subsequent meeting was decided upon for St. Louis, Missouri,
in May and by that time the name American Legion was adopted,
leading to “Legionnaires” entering the American lexicon. President
Wilson, who like Pershing knew a good thing when he saw it, gave
his endorsement. And Minneapolis was selected to be the site in
November for the initial national convention,
Minneapolis inaugurated the series held annually at other cities,
where Legion parades became a highlight that
entertained the public and served as the nation’s most ambitious
animated tableau of patriotism. San Francisco was an early host in
1923 -- the city, including this spectator, was provided a splendid
show. A placard at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park
commemorates the event. Legionnaire high-jinx were at that time a
part of things until the frivolities were regarded as unacceptable
and harmful to the Legion’s reputation. The leadership initially was devoted to the promotion and
safeguarding of veteran affairs. Then as the membership grew and
more posts opened throughout America, the Legion was encouraged
to portray a larger image in national affairs by dealing with matters
of real importance. Education, land use, immigration and
naturalization, public health and universal military training were
primary causes on the agenda. Lobbying Congress and state
legislative bodies to voice concerns became a must.
With roots established at St. Louis, Minneapolis, and
permanent national headquarters at Indianapolis, the American
Legion was affected by attitudes of the warm, easy-going people of
the Midwest. Included were the heartland feelings on foreign affairs
that tended to favor isolationism and the avoidance of foreign
entanglements. The numerous American individuals and groups
who in the late 1930s crusaded for America First and non-
intervention were a force right up until the bombs fell on Pearl
See also THE PARIS CAUCUS at the
From American Legion Magazine website.
Sources and thanks: Leon Loupy was a founding member of the Great War Society and the first Chairman of our San Francisco Chapter. He passed away before I could bring his first internet article on-line. His primary source was Thomas A. Rumer, The American Legion -An Official
History (New York: M. Evans & Co., 1990) Photos from Ray Mentzer. MH.
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