" A Grand and Glorious Feeling:" The American Legion and American Nationalism Between the World Wars

Nehls, Christopher Courtney, Department of History, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

During the period between the world wars the veterans' organization the American Legion became the most significant purveyor of nationalism in American political culture. Legionnaires' grassroots activism during the interwar period knitted together distant American communities into specific conception of nationhood. The Legion devised a variety of civic and educational efforts to encourage citizens to think of their civic and political behaviors as part of a collective effort for Americans to live up to the democratic ideals of their nation. Many of the Legion's efforts, like youth sports, GetOut-the-Vote drives, and Boys and Girls State, concentrated on teaching Americans to respect the process of American democracy as a way to ensure the survival of the nation's exceptional and defining institutions. It took the lead in patriotic holidays and in commemorating World War I as a nationalistic touchstone, engaged in community service to put its citizenship values on display, and Americanized immigrants and commemorated their naturalization. The Legion's nationalizing efforts made the organization a unique and important conservative force within American political culture of the 20 th century. Its conservatism sprung from its demand that citizens behave with disinterest in civic and political life, acting for what was the best interest of the nation first rather than of particular class, ethnic, or racial affiliations. As the right-wing Progressives who had inspired the ideological outlook of Legion founders had done as well, Legionnaires denied the legitimacy of class or ethnic consciousness, preferring citizens instead think of themselves as "100-percent" Americans with single, nationally-focused civic identities. The organization's skepticism about immigrants' capacities to understand and appreciate iii the need to defer ethnic identity for a new American one and become good democratic citizens led it to advocate restrictive immigration policies during the 1920s and 30s. Its conception of democratic national identity also undercut radical political causes as fundamentally "un-American." Legion vigilantes chased members of radical leftist groups from the public sphere and broke strikes throughout the interwar period. This conservative activism presaged Cold War antiradicalism and the kind of class and colorblind interpretation of citizenship that would be vital to American conservatism through the rest of the 20 th century.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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