Between Conservatism, Cold War and Counterculture – The American Legion in California, 1950–1980

The American Legion, standing at 2.8 million members in 1965, was the largest and most influential veterans' organization in United States history. Since its foundation in 1919, it sought to be much more than a special interest group lobbying for the extension of veteran support programs as a means of honoring soldiers’ service and facilitating their reintegration into society. With the rise of the New Right after World War II, the American Legion became a notable presence in conservative politics at the grassroots level and exerted considerable influence on public opinion and legislature.

Political activism of Legionnaires was underpinned by the conviction that service for the nation did not end with withdrawal from a combat zone. It continued in the homeland, which had to be safeguarded from subversion. Legion officials called for more "Americanism", law and order, respect of the Constitution, and a sustained fight against Communist and New Left influences. Their activism sought to preserve "traditional America" in a country that supposedly had lost its constitutional and moral footing, particularly in certain zip code areas.

"The history of California", novelist Wallace Stegner once remarked, "is American history in extremis." For my purposes, placing the study in California facilitates a close look at the way political polarization permeated US society in the postwar years. In the Golden State, both left and right garnered strong support and were locked in symbiotic combat. What Legionnaires meant with notions such as "Americanism"materialized in demarcation from leftist practices deemed unbearable. California, a Communist Party hotbed, home of free spirit musicians and Hollywood actors, and epicenter of New Left activism, led the Legion to constantly position itself on issues of contention. In other words, Cold War California could be described as a laboratory of confrontational politics that have since then spilled over to the United States as a whole and to this day continue to agitate its citizens.



Prof. Sebastian Conrad