The American Legion credits a group of twenty officers who served in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France in World War I with planning the Legion. AEF Headquarters asked these officers to suggest ideas for improving troop morale. Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. proposed an organization of veterans. In 1919, this group formed a temporary committee and selected several hundred officers. About 1,000 officers and enlisted men attended the first organization meeting in Paris in March 1919. The meeting, known as the Paris Caucus, adopted a temporary constitution and the name "The American Legion." It also elected an executive committee to complete their organizational work. It considered each soldier of the AEF a member of the Legion. The executive committee named a subcommittee to organize veterans in the U.S. The Legion held a second organizing caucus in St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1919.
The first post of the American Legion, General John Joseph Pershing Post Number 1 in Washington, D.C., was organized on March 7, 1919, and obtained the first charter issued to any post of the Legion on May 19, 1919. The St. Louis caucus that same year decided that Legion posts should not be named after living persons, and the first post changed its name to George Washington Post 1. The post completed the constitution and made plans for a permanent organization. It set up temporary headquarters in New York City and began its relief, employment, and Americanism programs.
Congress granted the American Legion a national charter in September 1919. Among the founders was Ernest O. Thompson (1892–1966) of Texas, later Lieutenant General of the Texas National Guard, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, and an expert on petroleum issues. Another Texan founder was Clayton W. Williams, Sr., an oilman, rancher, geologist, and historian from Fort Stockton.
The first national convention of the American Legion was held from November 10–12, 1919, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at which time the attendees adopted a permanent constitution and elected officers to head the organization. The original purpose of the Legion was to "preserve the memories and incidents of our association in the great war". Prior to World War I, few rural, working-class, or even middle-class Americans traveled to Europe. For a majority of urban Americans, their understanding of Europe had been acquired through the European immigrants they knew. Thus the 2 million Americans who had served in the American Expeditionary Forces had very different experiences than their families, friends and neighbors. The American Legion allowed these young men who had served "Over There" to re-integrate into their hometowns and to still remain in contact with others who had been abroad. The Legion served as a support group, a social club and a type of extended family for former servicemen.
The American Legion was very active in the 1920s. It was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Veterans' Bureau, now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Legion also created its own American Legion Baseball Program. Commander Travers D. Carmen awarded Charles Lindbergh its "Distinguished Service Medal," the medal's first recipient, on July 22, 1927. American Legion national convention was held in Paris, France in September 1927. A major part of this was drum and bugle corps competition in which approximately 14,000 members took part.
The Legion invited Mussolini to speak at its convention as late as 1930.
Some Legion groups engaged in strikebreaking activities in the 1920s and 1930s. Many American Legion posts that supported labor unions or whose membership included significant numbers of unionized workers were expelled from the American Legion. During these years, the American Legion was known for its support of factory owners to prevent radical penetration of labor unions.[page needed]
In 1924, the Legion and other veterans organizations won their battle for additional compensation for World War I veterans with the passage of the World War Adjusted Compensation Act. Most payments were scheduled to be paid in 1945.
The Sons of the American Legion formed at the American Legion's 14th National Convention in Portland, Oregon, on September 12–15, 1932. Membership is limited to the male descendants of members of the American Legion, or deceased individuals who served in the armed forces of the United States during times specified by the American Legion.
In the spring of 1933, at the very beginning of his presidency, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to balance the federal budget by sharp reductions in veterans benefits, which constituted one quarter of the federal budget. The Economy Act of 1933 cur disability pensions and established strict new guidelines for proving disabilities. The American Legion generally supported the FDR administration and the Act, while the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) was loudly opposed. After a VFW convention heard speeches denouncing FDR's programs, the American Legion invited Roosevelt to speak and he won the convention's support. Nevertheless, the Legion's stance was unpopular with its membership and membership plummeted in 1933 by 20% as 160,000 failed to renew their memberships. The VFW then campaigned for a "Bonus Bill" that would immediately pay World War I veterans what they were due in 1945 under the 1924 World War Adjusted Compensation Act. The Legion's failure to take a similar position allowed the much smaller, less prestigious VFW to rally support while accusing the Legion of ties to the FDR Administration and business interests. In December 1933, retired General Smedley Butler, a popular and colorful speaker, toured the country on behalf of the VFW, calling on veterans to organize politically to win their benefits. Butler believed the American Legion was controlled by banking interests. On December 8, 1933, explaining why he believed veterans' interests were better served by the VFW than the American Legion, he said: "I said I have never known one leader of the American Legion who had never sold them out–and I mean it."
In November 1934, Butler told the New York Evening Post and a congressional subcommittee that representatives of powerful industrial interests and the American Legion were trying to induce him to lead the Legion in a campaign to preserve the gold standard and to engineer a coup against President Roosevelt with Butler's aid in marshaling the support of veterans. Everyone implicated denied involvement and the press gave the story little credence. Nevertheless, Butler's charges, elaborated by articles in the Communist newspaper New Masses, gave birth to an enduring conspiracy theory, known as the Business Plot, that powerful business interests in alliance with the Legion planned to overthrow the federal government.
In 1942, the charter of the American Legion was changed to allow veterans of World War II to join. Throughout the 1940s, the American Legion was vactive in providing support for veterans and soldiers who fought in World War II. The American Legion wrote the original draft of the Veterans Readjustment Act, which became known as the G.I. Bill. The original draft is preserved at the Legion's National Headquarters. The American Legion vigorously campaigned for the G.I. Bill, which was signed into law in June 1944.
The first Boys Nation program was held in 1946.
Veterans of the Korean War were approved for membership in the American Legion in 1950, and the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation was formed in 1954.
On May 30, 1969, the Cabin John Bridge, which carried the Capital Beltway (I-495) across the Potomac River northwest of Washington, D.C., was officially renamed to the "American Legion Memorial Bridge" in a ceremony led by Lt. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, director of the U.S. Selective Service System.
In 1976, an outbreak of bacterial pneumonia occurred in a convention of the American Legion at The Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. This pneumonia killed 29 people at the convention and later became known as Legionnaires' disease, or Legionellosis. The bacterium that causes the illness was later named Legionella.
After a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the American Legion launched and funded an unsuccessful campaign to win a constitutional amendment against harming the flag of the United States. The Legion formed the Citizens' Flag Honor Guard and it later became the Citizens Flag Alliance.