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1938

You Can’t Do That!: The 100% American Legion

Seldes finds that the “program of 100 per cent Americanism is about 100 per cent false in the light of the views and actions of the rebel founders of our country.”

George Seldes, You Can’t Do That:  A Survey of the Forces Attempting, in the Name of Patriotism, to Make a Desert of the Bill of Rights, New York:  Modern Age Books, 1938.  110-127 (Excerpts).

Part Two: Enemies of the People

Chapter 9. The 100% American Legion

 

To foster and perpetuate a 100% Americanism.

—Legion Constitution

Anyone who says he is 100% anything is usually 100% fool.

—BERNARD SHAW

Four years before the Chicago motion picture presented to the American public the indisputable evidence that the forces of law and order engage in violence which approximates mass murder, another newsreel, which failed to provoke undue interest, illustrated the activities of the “better” citizens in suppressing strikes. 

The screen showed a group of workmen. Several had sticks or barrel- staves in their hands, but none was really armed. They talked rather loudly. Suddenly, from outside the picture, came an armed force. It was composed of neither police nor militia, but of ‘deputies” in the pay of a corporation, some in uniform, others in civilian clothes, but all carrying rifles, bayonets, revolvers or tear gas. 

The leaders of armed force advanced threateningly against the strikers. There was a shot to disperse. It was followed by a jumble of curses, yelled arguments, protests. Immediately the leader of the armed force seized a workman whose only offense had been vocal, beat him on the head with the butt of a revolver. This caused a lot of shoving and the tumult increased. The armed men of course beat up the unarmed men, and then the newsreel recorded in picture and sound one of the “soldiers” firing his rifle into the group of strikers, with fatal result. Heads were cracked, blood ran, and the dead were carried away amidst a confusion of curses. 

This terrible picture was watched by some three thousand moviegoers without a trace of emotion. And yet it showed impartially, with mechanical objectivity, that the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, all the common liberties we take for granted, had been destroyed by a private force which had resorted to violence and murder.  The right to assemble peacefully, the right of free speech, the right to organize, the right to strike, the right to demand redress had all been denied by tyrannical violence, yet no one seemed to care. The spectacle on the screen was the exact duplicate of things I myself had witnessed in Italy in 1921 and Germany ten years later, and in less important countries at other times — it was a startling sample of pure Fascism as seen in action in Europe today. 

Who were the “Fascists”? Who were the men who used violence to deny the constitutional liberties of the people? The liberal governor of Pennsylvania later in the year appointed a Commission on Special Policing in Industry, which made inquiry into the Ambridge attack. It learned that the two hundred attackers had been recruited and deputized by the sheriff of Beaver County, Charles L. O’Laughlin by name. The sheriff, after describing the situation in the steel works, boastfully testified: 

“I immediately got William Shaffer, who was commander of the American Legion Post in Aliquippa, which is my home town. … I asked Mr. Shaffer if he could get me seventy-five boys with military experience. He told me, ‘Charlie, I’ll get you a hundred and fifty if you want them.’ He did produce seventy-five men, whom he gathered together in the Aliquippa police station.”  It was also testified that Shaffer, the commander of the American Legion Post of Aliquippa, was an employee of Jones & Laughlin, the steel company which frequently employed armed men against its workers, and that the sheriff was a former chief of the Jones & Laughlin Coal and Iron Police. 

Individuals and posts of the American Legion, in building its reputation as the most reactionary organization in America, have, in addition to thousands of acts of censorship and repression, committed a long series of unlawful deeds ranging from ordinary assault to murder.   Proceedings of the Governor’s Committee on Special Policing in Industry in the State of Pennsylvania. 

Hardly had the organization been perfected before one of its branches began the record of violence with an action which, fortunately, it has not since surpassed in brutality and bloodthirstiness. Reviewing the events of Centralia, Washington, on Armistice Day, 1919, the most objective historian, as well as the most patriotic of Legionnaires, cannot dispute the fact that the Centralia Post is largely responsible for one of the most vicious lynchings in the history of the United States. 

This outstanding act of terrorism had what now appears to be a self-evident economic motivation. On the surface, it was patriotic veterans versus the radical I.W.W.’s who had said that “this war is a businessman’s war and we don’t see why we should go out and get shot in order to save the lovely state of affairs that we now enjoy,” but underneath it there was the lumber industry. 

As explained by Attorney Arthur Garfield Hays, huge Northwestern lumber monopolies were “piling up millions for profiteers hellbent on licking the Kaiser and lining their own pockets.” Lumber rose from sixteen dollars a thousand feet to about eight times as much, and one patriotic lumberman got a thousand dollars from the government for spruce. But wages were not raised and when trouble inevitably began, gunmen and mobs were hired to kidnap, tar and feather, flog and even lynch, until all this terrorism was made unnecessary by the passage of a criminal syndicalism law. The lumberjacks were now beaten. The I.W.W. was slowly broken up, so that in 1919 only two of their union halls remained in the State of Washington. 

One of them was in Centralia. A private report of the Employers* Association had contained this phrase: “Run your business or quit…Jail the radicals or deport them. Only two communities in Washington allow I.W.W. headquarters.” The insinuation was overt. The economic motive was plain. The lumber barons, tightly hugging their war money to their hearts, were insistent that no threat to their profits should come from organized labor, and especially from an organized labor body which never hesitated to fight for its rights. The I.W.W. must be destroyed. 

In 1918 “respectable citizens” of Centralia kidnapped the secretary of the union and flogged him. On Memorial Day, the patriotic paraders raided the LW.W. headquarters, destroyed its contents in the eluding the American flag, which apparently had become contaminated by too close association with reds, stole typewriters and other valuables and sold them for the benefit of the Red Cross. (Mr. Hays does not state whether or not this humanitarian organization accepted this profit of thievery.) In 1919, blind Tom Lassiter, whose crime was selling I.W.W. publications at his newsstand, was kidnapped, deported, his belongings stolen and burned, his charge of kidnapping ignored by the county prosecuting attorney and the governor.  Finally, in October, the businessmen of the town formed the Centralia Protective Association. In reply to the rumor that the objective of the patriotic business leaders was the destruction of I.W.W., the latter organization issued a leaflet declaring that the profiteering class were “waving the flag over our country in an endeavor to incite the lawless element of our city to raid our hall and club us out of town”; and the next action in the impending tragedy was the meeting of the Centralia Post of the Legion with a committee of the Chamber of Commerce, The Chamber planned an Armistice Day parade which was to pass by the I.W.W. hall. 

Significantly, Attorney Elmer Smith advised the Wobblies that they had a legal right to defend their headquarters against attack. It was apparent that everyone in Centralia knew that an act of illegal violence was coming.  

The parade began. It went by the I.W.W. hall and nothing violent happened, although Postmaster McCleary and ex-Mayor Thompson carried pieces of rope in their hands “as a joke.” But under someone’s order the paraders turned back, and when the Centralia and Chalis contingents came by the hall, according to Ralph Chaplin (in his pamphlet The Centralia Tragedy), a whistle was blown, someone shouted “Let’s go,” and the Legionnaires stormed I.W.W. headquarters.  Shooting began. Warren O. Grimm, who led the attack, was killed. 

In the chase after I.W.W. men, Wesley Everest, an ex-soldier, who had defended himself by shooting Dale Hubbard, a Legionnaire, was taken to jail bleeding from his mouth, nose and ears, but saved from lynching by cooler minds. But that night, Attorney Hays writes, “the lights of the town suddenly went out. A mob broke into, the jail, seized Everest, emasculated — unsexed him…carried him to a railroad bridge and hung him. The rope was short. The victim was pulled up and hung on a longer rope. Again this happened and a still longer rope was used. Everest clung to the bridge. Someone stamped on his fingers. Searchlights were turned on the bloody, swinging body, and it was riddled with bullets. It is said that the phrase ‘as comical as a coroner’ is current in Centralia. This is due to an alleged explanation by Coroner Lingston of the death of Everest.  He broke out of jail, went to Chalis River bridge, and committed suicide. He jumped off with a rope around his neck and then shot himself full of holes.’” 

The authorities made no attempt to find the Legionnaires, businessmen, and other “better” citizens who had indulged in kidnapping, murder and lynching, but they helped in the red-hunt. Mob terrorism continued for days. At the trial of the I.W.W. men who had defended their headquarters, the courtroom was crowded with half a hundred Legionnaires who got four dollars a day for the purpose of intimidating judge and jury. It was never determined who had shot Grimm, but innocent men were sent to prison, and even the conservative weekly Time admits that “ever since the Centralia, Wash., massacre of 1919 the nation’s most potent strikebreaking force has been the American Legion.” 

By the end of the year 1920, fifty acts of violence, none equal to murder and lynching however, but all committed by members of the Legion, acting as such, had been reported and verified. Most of them came under the Legion program of patriotism and 100 per cent Americanism: its members cut the electric wires at a Fritz Kreisler concert; drove two men out of Desdemona, Texas; “cleaned out” a newspaper in Astoria, Oregon. In Santa Barbara, a committee of six Legionnaires horsewhipped an editor (and paid a fine of one hundred dollars for their fun); in various places Legionnaires stopped Debs’ meetings and in Great Bend, Kansas, they stopped a Farmers’ Nonpartisan League meeting. They beat up four speakers and tarred and feathered J. O. Stevic, editor of the Non-Partisan Leader, and Carl Parsons, a veteran of the World War, and drove ex-Senator Burton of Kansas and George Wilson of Oklahoma out of the county. On occasions the Legion led in breaking up the meetings of a “red-hot Bolshevik” named Charles A. Lindbergh whose son “Slim” or “Lucky” as he was called, was piloting him around in an airplane. 

Many of the Legion’s prominent public appearances were in the role of strikebreakers. The mayor of Omaha called a meeting of one thousand for aid in a strike situation, and the Legionnaires voted to give it; the Oakland Post armed two hundred as a police auxiliary in a strike. In Detroit, a thousand pledged themselves to fight the Bolsheviki; in the Denver street car strike, five hundred, armed, patrolled the streets. In Youngstown, the Legion patrolled the city during a steel mill strike. In St. Clairsville, Ohio, a grocer who kept open on Armistice Day was attacked by a platoon led by Commander C. W. Fowler of the Belmont County Legion who used tear gas bombs in the raid.  In 1931, in the Imperial Valley, when eight men were sentenced to prison for organizing the strike of the melon pickers, the local legion post commander declared, “The way to kill the red plague is to dynamite it out. That’s what we did in Imperial County.  The judge who tried the communists was a Legionnaire; fifty per cent of the jurors were war veterans. What chance did the Communists have? That’s the way we stamped it out in our country.” 

The great era of Legion activity as strikebreakers, red-hunters, suppressors of public meetings, enemies of liberty, coincided with two eras of financial depressions, economic distress, mass bewilderment in the early 1920’s and the early 1930’s. Also noticeable was Legion participation in the big business movement to check the spread of labor emancipation which followed the birth and death of the Blue Eagle. 

The most notable violence disclosed in 1935 was the Nick Bins case in which several Racine Legionnaires were implicated.  The second largest city in Wisconsin is more completely controlled by bankers and businessmen than most cities its size. There is unfortunately only one newspaper and it plays the game of the employers. With the failure of the New Deal, workingmen engaged in many strikes and won wage increases when they formed a united front. But the Chamber of Commerce businessmen, the American Legion bravos and others of the “better citizens” also formed a united front which found expression in a vigilante movement. 

The red-hunt was promoted with all the usual means: legal, illegal, and extra-legal. A prison term for “distributing leaflets,” which were in themselves legal, is one of the anomalies of Racine justice.  During a strike a window of an automobile was broken for which a Communist was sent to prison for from one to two years despite the fact that another man confessed this “crime.” The climax was the kidnapping and beating of Sam Herman, a Communist organizer, just after the local Legion post had pledged its “moral and physical force if necessary to stamp out Communism.” 

Herman was kidnapped in downtown Racine and after the patriots beat him up they dumped him out in the country. But that was not enough. When, later, after the Federated Trades Council and other respectable labor groups had protested and the authorities did nothing, Herman appeared at the office of the assistant district attorney to swear out a warrant for his assailants, he himself was arrested for libelling Chief of Police Lutter whom he had accused. 

This state of terrorism might have continued and the part the brave Legionnaires played might never have been known had not George Wilbur, secretary of the professional group in the Milwaukee branch of the League Against War and Fascism taken it upon himself to investigate. Mr. Wilbur is the son of a wealthy lumberman and moves easily in the best circles. In Racine he had no difficulty in making an appointment with the man the whole town knew was the chief kidnapper. The meeting took place in the law offices of Smith, Beck & Heft. Posing as an employer who also faced labor troubles and needed a kidnapping similar to that in Racine, Mr. Wilbur persuaded the self-confessed kidnapper to call at his uncle’s home in Waukesha, where several persons including a newspaper reporter listened to the boastings, confession, and agreement to commit a crime which is punishable with death. 

The man who boasted he had kidnapped Herman gave his name as Nick Bins, unemployed salesman, member of the Racine American Legion, active in its drum-and-bugle corps. He had kidnapped Herman.  But who had hired him for that job? Dar Vriesman, secretary of the Racine Chamber of Commerce, was the reply. Nick Bins was also the man who had smashed up Communist headquarters and thrown bricks with notes attached through windows of the merchants who went Herman’s bond. He had gotten instructions in the Chamber of Commerce, the notes had been typed there, it was good business because Racine employers were going to end labor agitation, drive out the agitators “who got their instructions in Moscow”; in fact, this whole anti-radical program of which Mr. Bins was the executioner was part of the Legion’s Americanization program. 

Now as to the little job wanted in Waukesha, did the would-be employer know that he had tried to break both of Herman’s legs? They hadn’t heard? Well, he would not kill the Waukesha victim when he had kidnapped and slugged him. “Even though you work in full cooperation with the authorities,” continued Mr. Bins, seated near the concealed microphone and not suspecting that every word was being taken down by a stenographer and a reporter, “you can’t get away with a killing. But I’ll make him wish he’d never been an agitator.” 

The would-be employers thought it was marvelous the way Bins had gotten away with it. Not at all, Bins continued. The kidnapping car, for instance, had been driven by a Chicago federal agent; all the Racine judges were ” 100 per cent okay,” and especially Judge Belden of the circuit court, a “brother Legionnaire.” It would be easy. 

And as for references, why “call up Chief Lutter of Racine, call any prominent attorney down there, call Dar Vriesman… .” Mr. Wilbur called the secretary of the Racine Chamber of Commerce and was told that “Bins is all right for the job.” As for money. Bins would let the Chambers of Commerce of the two towns make the arrangements, meanwhile he would take a retainer, and he took a marked ten dollar bill. 

But despite this passing of money, despite the voluntary confession of crime heard and witnessed by several persons, the Wilbur group encountered the greatest difficulty in setting the wheels of Racine justice in motion. Neither the Waukesha nor the Racine district attorney cared to arrest a confessed kidnapper when the kidnapping was that of a labor agitator and the kidnapper a Legionnaire; and when finally Bins was taken to Racine, Chief of Police Lutter did not so much as come to see him in his cell. But Bins was not lonesome. All night long there was an entertainment in the cell, most of the visitors being members of the American Legion post who assured Bins that everything would be “fixed” in due time. 

The Milwaukee Journal played up the story, ran the confession, told how it was engineered, demanded that Legionnaire Bins pay for his crimes. The Racine Journal-Times, which had led the red-baiting campaign for months, published an editorial saying that the legal way of settling questions was, after all, by and large, and in the long run, the best way. Vriesman issued statements in all directions, denying, admitting, denying the telephone conversation; Fred Heinisch, Legion commander of Racine, first denied Bins was a member but when the first excitement paled he issued a call for a defense fund for “Bins, a fellow Legionnaire.” The Chamber of Commerce began advertising the virtues of the town. When Herman was tried before Judge Belden, only two of his twenty witnesses were allowed to testify, and he was found guilty in nine minutes, and later in the month the Journal-Times published photographs of Legionnaires including Dar Vriesman pinning Legion Americanism medals on public school children. 

The American Legion itself took no notice of the actions of its Racine Post members, but it immediately suspended the Rahman-DeBella Motion Picture and the John Philip Sousa Posts for picketing in uniform. In other words, you can assault “reds” in uniform, you can lynch in uniform, you can break strikes every day for a decade in uniform, but you must never picket for the cause of labor in uniform.  There is a limit to what the Legion will stand for — in uniform… 

In “Suggestions for combating un-Americanism” the Legion soberly declares that “the Red movement must be met and overcome, but that that cannot best be done by ‘viewing with alarm,’ ‘red-baiting,’ riding professional martyrs on a rail, and vainglorious ‘flag-waving.’ When an emergency calls for militant action in dealing with the Reds, the function properly belongs to constituted authority, which can always draw on the loyal citizenship of the country to carry out its mandate…”  

Legionnaires have condemned, or suppressed, or passed resolutions against Jane Addams, Frederick J. Libby of the National Council for the Prevention of War, Mrs. Lucia Ames Mead, Fritz Kreisler, Dr. Harry F. Ward of the Union Theological Seminary, Roger Baldwin of the Civil Liberties Union, Sherwood Eddy, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, Sir Norman Angell, John Strachey and hundreds of college and public school teachers. Mr. Strachey denied he was a Communist although he admits he has written books in explanation and in favor of communism; and none of the others is a Communist. Several were denied the right of free speech and assembly in many cities because they were persons of intelligence and not obscurantists of the kind who control the Legion. 

Nothing in the history of the American Legion illustrates better than the “Americanism” booklet dispute the fundamental ignorance of Legion leaders of what constitutes Americanism. Nothing illustrates better their anti-libertarianism… 

In 1937, the Legion held its usual rowdy convention in New York.  (One of the new features was an electrical machine with which they shocked women.) It was expected that the spirit of liberalism which was invading the nation would make itself known through the voice of the national commander, Harry Colmery. In the early months of the year there had been strikes, vigilante raids, much violence, in which Legionnaires everywhere had engaged. Would the national commander denounce such actions? Mr. Colmery, in fact, took notice of them. He warned the American Legion that in the future its fights with organized labor, with men striking for better wages, for the right to organize, to hold meetings, to assemble and listen to speeches, should no longer be fought by the Legion wearing Legion uniforms. Vigilanteism, which is the purest form of Fascism in America, was endorsed, but the vigilantes must leave uniforms and buttons and Legion caps at home. This is the so-called new liberalism of the Legion. 

It gave a brilliant example of its reform when it ushered in the year 1938 in Jersey City by becoming the chief “stooge” of the Chamber of Commerce campaign against union labor. At the mass meeting in support of Mayor Hague, which was broadcast throughout the United States, and which was tantamount to a call for a civil war between the Haves and the Have-nots, the Legionnaires were given the place of honor. 

The Hudson County posts wearing white “monkey hats” instead of the official Legion caps, marched in behind their chromium-helmeted Irish-green jacketed band, accompanied by four men in United States Army uniforms, one waving an American flag, the others carrying rifles. 

The Lewis labor organization, the C.I.O., which has some four million members, or one hundred times the total strength of all “reds” in America, was denounced by Chamber of Commerce speakers as communist. These statements were false. The Newspaper Guild was called communist. That statement was a falsehood. The Civil Liberties Union and its leaders were called communists or communistic. These statements are falsehoods. 

But the American Legion led the applause, the shouting, the merrymaking and the display of vulgarity with its accustomed uninhibited spirit. 

No Legionnaire, apparently, was intelligent enough to realize that the Chamber of Commerce of Jersey City is fighting high wages and working condition reforms which a strong unionized city usually gets. 

The Legion, by its own boastful history, has on hundreds of occasions been the leader in the fight against Free Speech. Of course it always flew the flag of Americanism in attempting to suppress all persons whose views on economics, war, capitalism, patriotism, politics, social security, differ from those of the bankers and business men who usually head the Legion or control the chosen officials. 

Under the same flag it has also been an exponent of militarism. Its leadership in red-baiting is one of its boasts although it denies the term “baiting”; it is merely being 100 per cent. 

It has been an out and out enemy of academic freedom. 

It has allied itself with Hearst. 

Its program of 100 per cent Americanism is about 100 per cent false in the light of the views and actions of the rebel founders of our country whom the Legion claims as its guiding beacons. 

It is regarded by leaders of reaction and progress alike as the logical instrument of a Fascist attempt to seize the government in much the same manner as the legions of Italy, Germany, Spain, and other nations have been used by the industrial-financial oligarchy to establish a dictatorship. 

Unless the rank and file realize how they are annually betrayed by the secret forces which guide the Legion, there is every reason to fear that what is already called the second reactionary power in America may be used as the first line troops against our liberties.

This is part of a series