Founded in Paris, France on March 19, 1919, the American Legion quickly became America’s most influential veteran’s organization. Just a year after its founding, the American Legion led the movement to create the Veteran’s Bureau, the forerunner of the Veteran’s Administration.
In addition to its advocacy and policy work, the American Legion became an important community for many veterans and helped to extend the sense of unity forged during the war. This would have complicated implications, as can be witnessed by the American Legion’s role in creating some of the most restrictive anti-immigration legislation in American history. You can learn more about that here.
After its founding at the end of the First World War, the American Legion quickly became a powerful political force in the United States. While the American Legion is perhaps most celebrated for its work in shaping the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the “G.I. Bill,” the first significant piece of legislation championed by the American Legion did not concern veterans, but rather, immigrants. Along with other famed American institutions such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Grange, the American Legion was a key champion of the Immigration Act of 1924, one of the first significant pieces of legislation in American history aimed at limiting the arrival of immigrants.
From the time of its founding, the United States has wrestled with its identity as a “nation of immigrants,” a self-perception that frequently has come into conflict with the complicated politics of race that have dominated so much of American life. The first significant limitations on immigration to the United States exclusively target immigrants from Asia: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1917. It was during the period between these two pieces of legislation when large numbers of Southern and Eastern European, including Greek immigrants, began to enter the United States. While these new Americans did not always meet with warm welcomes, there was no legal impediment to their arrivals, though as early as 1909 proposals were made in the Senate to limit their numbers. In large part, this is because those arriving from the Russian Empire and the Mediterranean were not seen as entirely “white” and many feared the influence that these people and their cultures would have on the American character. This included the fact that many of these immigrants were Catholic, Jewish, and Orthodox--religious traditions seen as corrupt, foreign, and dangerous by America’s Protestant majority. By the end of the First World War, there was intense pressure for Congress to act.
Chief among the groups lobbying to limit these immigrants was the American Legion, an organization that, as you have seen in this exhibition, included among its ranks, immigrant veterans of the Great War. In the lead up to the Immigration Act of 1924, the American Legion took out advertisements in newspapers and held rallies decrying “hyphenated Americans” who would seek to “alter the nation’s bloodline.” In doing so, they helped create the language that is still used against immigration today. While we will never know for certain, it is interesting to consider what an immigrant member of the American legion, like George Phillos, might have thought of this campaign. What does this tell us about how he might have seen himself and his own experience? What does this say about how he saw America?
Postcard promoting Ten Reasons for Joining the American Legion.
George Phillos was a proud longtime member of the American Legion.
The American Legion Jug Band at an Illinois State Convention on September 10, 1923.
The men of the American Legion Jug Band at the Illinois State Convention in Daville, Illinois in September, 1923. George Phillos stands to the right of the man in the middle wearing the checkered suit.
Official membership card of the American Legion. George Phillos, member. Louis E. Davis Post No. 56 No. 1. Book No. 1095. Bloomington, IL.
Official membership card of the American Legion. George Phillos, member. Hellenic Post No. 343 Chicago, IL Preamble of constitution on the reverse side. #K47638 Red "Early Bird" sticker.
Commemorative card from the American Legion presented to George Phillos for 40 consecutive years of membership. Post #343 Department of Illinois Signed by George Phillos on the reverse side. Stamped by Thomas E Rigas, Adjutant, 8814 E. Dante Avenue, Chicago 19, Illinois with signature.