One hundred years ago this week, World War I veterans gathered in St. Louis to promote “100 percent Americanism.” This was the first domestic gathering of the American Legion, which quickly grew into the largest and most influential veterans’ organization in the country. The St. Louis Caucus, as it is known in Legion lore, took place May 8-10, 1919, in downtown, mostly at the Shubert Theatre, located at 12th and Locust.
This was where the American Legion officially adopted its name. The group’s call for “100 percent Americanism” helped launch a period of intense xenophobia and anti-immigrant policies in interwar America. It is a legacy that continues to affect our political landscape today.
While the early American Legion billed itself as non-political and non-partisan, it regularly staked out pointed positions on the issues of the day. Support for the suddenly swelled number of veterans was a high priority, of course. (Later, the American Legion would play a prominent role in promoting the landmark 1944 G.I. Bill.) But so was denouncing perceived enemies on the home front, namely labor union radicals, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, Communists — the Bolshevik Revolution was not yet two years old — and conscientious objectors to the recent war, which we now call World War I.
The Legion blamed immigrants for undermining American democracy and contributing to social upheaval. At the Caucus in St. Louis, they urged Congress to pass a law to deport “alien slackers” who were unequipped for assimilation. “There is no place in America for such a creature,” the Legion wrote in its newsletter. “He is worse than a parasite; he is a menace.”
Never mind that tens of thousands of immigrants volunteered for the armed forces in World War I or served their adopted country in myriad other ways. In pronouncing this version of Americanism, the Legion drew upon the worst of the nation’s wartime tendencies: rising xenophobia.
President Woodrow Wilson had initially invoked the idea of Americanism before his re-election victory in 1916, five months before the U.S. entered the war. It was an assertion of patriotism in a nation on the cusp of world power status. Yet it was also defensive, suggesting that not every member of society could participate equally in this national project.
German-Americans were obvious targets during the conflict. After the armistice, attention turned to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who were accused of importing radical ideologies and promoting worker militancy. In the postwar years, the rebirthed Ku Klux Klan candidly voiced the belief, present from the founding of the nation, that the normative American was white and Protestant. In this version of nativism, Catholics and Jews were tainted by foreignness, while African Americans were, at best, not taken seriously as full citizens.
The most dramatic legislative outcome of postwar Americanism was a wave of anti-immigration legislation, climaxing with the Immigration Act of 1924. The law sharply restricted immigration from Italy, Greece, Russia and the former lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Asian immigrants were banned entirely.
The arrival of Jews, Catholics and other non-Protestants slowed to a trickle. The quotas stayed in place even when desperate refugees from Adolf Hitler’s Europe sought a safe haven in the United States. The discriminatory restrictions survived until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
The thrust of the St. Louis Caucus, and early activities of the American Legion as a whole, was not as overtly racialist or ethnocentric as the most extreme forms of 1920s nativism. However, a key legacy of the St. Louis Caucus is the notion that being a true American meant something more than being a legal citizen, or even thinking of oneself as patriotic. This view of Americanism associated martiality with patriotism and dissent with subversion.
A century after the St. Louis Caucus, we live in a moment again shaped by the politics of Americanism. Some things have changed; many others have stayed eerily similar. Now, the debate about immigration concerns arrivals from places outside Europe. These countries, and by extension the people who hail from them, are derided in excremental terms by the president. Now, it is Muslims, not Catholics, whose loyalty is questioned. Tragically, anti-Semitism and racism endure.
An unmistakable line of continuity runs from “100 percent Americanism” to “Make America Great Again,” and from the St. Louis Caucus to a chief executive who has trouble remembering that he serves all of the nation. What connects the two is the implication, sometimes the outright assertion, that some of us are more American than others. Our nation is too varied for the label “American” to ever become self-defining. All the better, then, to err on the side of inclusion.
Steven P. Miller and Warren Rosenblum teach history at Webster University.