This first political and social history of the American Legion in Illinois from its formation in 1919 to the onset of World War II focuses on the organization’s influence on the two political parties and on public opinion at the state and local levels. Gauging the singular influence of the organization in a particularly turbulent time in Illinois and American history, Thomas B. Littlewood argues that the local orientation of individual posts was probably more important to most Legionnaires than the activities of the organization’s national leaders. At the same time, he shows how the conflicts within the Legion mirrored those in the larger society.
Soldiers Back Home: The American Legion in Illinois, 1919–1939 traces the origins of the organization nationally and in Illinois, showing it to be the biggest and most politically committed of the several organizations of World War I veterans. First and foremost a fraternal association of men whose military service set them apart, it was also a social mechanism through which veterans contained and redirected their anger and alienation. Littlewood details how the organization developed quickly into a vigorous pressure group working to influence public policy on behalf of veterans and their families. Concentrating at first on the welfare of children who had lost their fathers in the war, the Legion later became involved in a variety of community service activities and served as a political training ground.
World War I was the first conflict to be fought by a largely conscripted army. When the soldiers returned from the war, labor unions were pressing hard to organize American workers in rapidly growing concentrations of industry. Business enjoyed generally high esteem, but the ensuing social and economic turbulence led to a shattering of civil order in some parts of Illinois. Prohibition, bootleggers, and organized crime gave way to the crumbling of the economy and the lean, hard years of the Depression. While these events were unfolding in Illinois, rural citizens resisted the rebalancing of power caused by massive migrations of citizens from farm to city by refusing to reapportion legislative districts.
Organized thematically, Soldiers Back Home traces the Legion’s impact on politics, community life, labor relations, race relations, and the struggle for veterans’ benefits in Illinois. Littlewood maintains that the Legion experienced significant divisions along regional lines, especially over the issues of the Ku Klux Klan and labor. Likewise, brutal sectional tensions grew between rural and urban populations. Littlewood looks at the role of the veteran in American politics and society, discussing the careers of famed Illinois leaders such as Scott Lucas, William Dawson, and Everett Dirksen and their involvement with the Legion. He also addresses issues of diversity and division within the organization.
Resisting the polemics of some contemporary interpretations of the American Legion and avoiding the tone of the sanitized official histories of the organization, Soldiers Back Home is a major contribution to the history of the interwar years—in Illinois and nationally—that will interest general readers and historians alike. The volume is augmented by thirteen illustrations.