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The Exclusionary White Men of the American Legion

The veterans’ organization has long been plagued by racism and sexism. Staff and members say history is repeating in the Trump age.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
Members of American Legion Post 416 in Encinitas, California, watch President Donald Trump speak about his planned border wall on January 8, 2019.

Nestled in the heart of Indianapolis is the national headquarters of the American Legion, the largest and most influential veterans’ service organization in the world. Indianapolis is second only to Washington in its number of war memorials; some of the monuments here stand on Legion grounds. The most prominent—a granite black tomb surrounded on four sides by golden busts of regal eagles—expresses a solemn reverence to those who served and sacrificed in World War I. Left unsaid is an uncomfortable fact: The Legion spurned countless veterans of color who came back from that conflict. 

A century on from the Great War, the organization remains exceedingly white and exclusionary. Today, the atmosphere inside headquarters is so toxic that Black staff have been counseled to avoid it at all costs. One source summed up the warning they received as: “Be careful when dealing with anyone in Indianapolis.”

A rare ray of diversity exists inside the Legion’s Washington outpost. Yet staff here are frequently reminded of the organization’s homogeneity, including when they walk down a hallway displaying the Legion’s past 101 national commanders, none of whom are Black. (The Legion installed a Chinese-born Vietnam veteran in 2012 and its first female commander in 2017.) While the veteran population today is increasingly diverse, the Legion’s current slate of vice commanders is entirely white, and its list of commission and committee leaders includes only one person of color. (“Most of our past national commanders are deceased and we do not speculate on their ethnicity,” Legion national spokesman John Raughter said in a short email response to The New Republic’s questions.)

This pattern of white rule and de facto segregation runs deep throughout the Legion—from executive suites down to local posts—and has spurred at least one federal inquiry into potential civil rights violations. (“Every post has the right to select its members. You’re not supposed to select them on race or creed, but sure they do,” one Black legionnaire told the Chicago Tribune when that inquiry opened in 1991. “It’s one of those things you’re going to live with.”) In upholding this structure, the Legion has avoided meaningful discussion or action on issues concerning gender, race, or sexual identity in the military and veteran communities. Instead, white voices rise to the top, and regressive beliefs fester. 

This was evident last summer, when National Commander James Oxford and his team visited Washington to be briefed on the Legion’s legislative priorities. According to two knowledgeable sources, the meeting came around the time that President Trump was obsessing over migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, a refugee crisis he deemed an “invasion.” This language was echoed by one of Oxford’s white deputies, who, upon seeing the Legion’s diverse D.C. staff, reacted in shock. “Look,” he said, “it’s an invasion!” Such comments were nothing new for the attending staff. “Working there is like being in the ’50s,” one former employee said.  

Late last month, Oxford himself got in hot water after releasing a divisive screed on the Legion website, titled “That Other Virus,” warning that the Black Lives Matter movement “could cause more long-term destruction than COVID-19.” He cast protesters nationwide as anarchist thugs leaving “cracked skulls and burning buildings” in their wake: “[T]his other virus threatens lives, neighborhoods and infrastructures.” He called on every law enforcement agency in America to team up in the fight for peace. To do this, he invoked the Legion’s longtime guiding principle, “Americanism”—specifically, the organization’s extended 1962 definition of Americanism, which also announced that “law and order are essential to the preservation of Americanism while lawlessness and violence are distinctly un-American.”

Oxford’s statement seemed written to appease both Trump and the Legion’s membership base of older white conservative men. (While the organization’s annual reports account for every penny of its estimated $150 million in assets, they include no demographic statistics of the Legion’s members, and Raughter declined to provide The New Republic with any. He also refused to make Oxford available for an interview.) But it also further provoked a faction of Legion members and staff who, for years, have sought to drag the veterans’ group away from its prejudiced past into a more progressive future.

One of the most vocal voices in this work has been Melissa Bryant, a Black veteran and second-generation legionnaire who, until very recently, served as the Legion’s legislative director. According to emails provided by a current Legion staffer, Bryant went toe-to-toe with Indianapolis over how to respond to the killing of George Floyd and the issue of police brutality. Bryant first raised concerns after Oxford released a June media statement blasting the protests of Floyd’s death. “America’s veterans, who witnessed horrific violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Korea,” Oxford had said, “should not have to see the same death and destruction here at home.” 

In a lengthy email to other Legion leaders, Bryant argued for the drafting of a new message that meaningfully grappled with racism. “I recommend emphasizing to our Legion family and all others that we pledge to lead with empathy, and encourage our mil/vet community to lead by example and do the same,” she wrote. “We need to have a call to action to force the ‘uncomfortable conversations,’ as well as acknowledge that we are also actively listening and learning.” 

Bryant was rebuffed in an email blast by National Adjutant Dan Wheeler. “I request that you remind any staff member calling for statements on George Floyd of how The American Legion is structured,” wrote Wheeler, who showed off a pair of pro-Trump socks when the president addressed the Legion’s Nevada convention in 2017, fellow attendees say. “Please request that they stop immediately before someone is offended beyond remedy.” (Wheeler did not respond to The New Republic’s requests for an interview.)

Wheeler argued that a statement on Floyd was impossible, writing that “no authority exists to weigh into this situation” because a formal resolution on the topic had not been passed through the Legion’s byzantine legislative system. That system, sources say, is influenced by a small group of conservative legionnaires informally known as the “God Squad” who’ve previously squashed progressive resolutions, including one supporting medical cannabis. They said Wheeler could have easily justified talking about Floyd by citing the Legion’s 97-year-old anti-racism resolution, which the group affirmed in 2017.

Four days after Oxford’s polemic was released, Bryant resigned. In a one-page letter explaining her decision, she cited the group’s “deeply and personally troubling” recent messaging. “I am a second-generation Legionnaire, raised in Legion halls, and I came into this position hoping to breathe new life into the organization and be an agent of change,” she wrote. “But I now see that my morals and priorities stand far apart from where I believed the American Legion’s to be.” 

Bryant declined to comment for this story, but a Capitol Hill staffer familiar with the situation told me her decision to leave was also influenced by the Legion’s repeated refusal to let her testify to Congress on issues that impact minority and women veterans. When, for example, Vanessa Guillen, a Latino soldier at Fort Hood, was found brutally burned and dismembered after facing serial sexual harassment on base, Bryant was forced to take vacation time to independently work with Congress on the matter. One of the Legion staffers incensed by their employer’s response to Guillen’s death asked me, incredulously, “We really can’t take the stance that service members shouldn’t rape and murder their colleagues?”

Many of the Legion’s past positions haven’t aged well, from its vociferous opposition to the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to its contention that Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem amounted to a “vicious attack on law enforcement.” Yet it’s found an ally on many of these issues in Trump, who in 2018 received the Legion’s Religious Freedom Award, a “gold-plated .22-caliber repeating rifle engraved with images of a bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell.” In 2019 remarks at the Legion’s convention, Vice President Mike Pence warmly praised the organization and accused former President Obama of “removing Bibles and even banning Christmas carols” inside veterans’ hospitals—a widely debunked claim

On Wheeler’s watch, “the overall atmosphere of the Legion is to support Donald Trump and the administration,” one former Legion staffer told me, citing a recent staff proposal to offer deported veterans assistance that was shot down. “That’s why they are fine with saying crazy things about Black Lives Matter or other racial issues.” Conversations with a dozen current and former Legion staffers and members portrayed the organization as troublingly stuck in the past. “When you are a minority in the Legion, you don’t exist, you just fade into the background,” one of them told me. “Being Black you always felt like a stranger, like a guest,” another observed. “You understood there were limitations.”

A current staffer said the racism they experienced in the military pales in comparison to what they deal with now. “The things I’ve witnessed have been inexcusable in this day and time,” they said. “We are in 2020, not the days of slavery.”

Legion spokesman John Raughter declined to answer specific questions posed by The New Republic. “We do not discuss issues regarding personnel or legal matters,” Raughter stated in an email. “Nor will The American Legion National Headquarters respond to rumor, gossip or innuendo.” When TNR followed up by email to ask Raughter about a long-abandoned Indianapolis-based Twitter account in his name, identifying him as a “conservative political junkie” and displaying a photograph of him shaking hands with former President George W. Bush, he did not respond. Several minutes after the email was sent, however, the Twitter account was deleted. (It is preserved in the Internet Archive.) 

Founded in Paris in 1919 by a cadre of World War I veterans, the American Legion grew quickly: By the end of World War II, 3.3 million veterans called themselves legionnaires. The influence of that swelling membership, and its paid dues, was quickly felt in Washington: The Legion expanded its network across the country with the establishment of local posts and agitated in the capital for social welfare plans to serve veterans. Its most trumpeted accomplishment was the G.I. Bill, which offered vets free college, low-interest home loans, and unemployment insurance. (Many Black veterans have been frozen out of these benefits, but that’s a whole other story.) 

The Legion’s backbone is its doctrine of “Americanism.” In simple terms, this ideology views capitalism, whiteness, and, to some degree, democracy as pillars of American society. In 2019 remarks to the Legion, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Americanism “means taking care of our own.” It’s under this banner that the group works to preserve the Leave It to Beaver lifestyle through civic programs, sponsorship of local baseball teams, and preservation of the U.S. flag code. 

When the Legion sees these traditions threatened, however, its leaders have historically expressed a preference for authoritarian solutions. From the start, Americanism was wielded as a cudgel against “alien slackers,” immigrants who didn’t assimilate and fight in America’s wars. Such sentiments remain alive and well in the group’s severe immigration policy, which prominently cites the right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Legion has also been hostile toward unionism and other “collectivist” influences in America, particularly the Industrial Workers of the World and its membership of “Wobblies.” The very first Legion convention in November 1919 issued an order to local posts that they “organize immediately for the purpose of meeting the insidious propaganda of Bolshevism, I.W.W.ism, radicalism, and all other anti-Americanism.” The day after that convention opened in Minneapolis, legionnaires in Washington state marched on a packed IWW hall. The ensuing bloody brawl, now known as the “Centralia Massacre,” claimed the lives of a Wobbly and four legionnaires, accelerating the national “red scare.”

As pernicious as anti-Americanism was to the Legion, however, the group didn’t shy from adopting very particular foreign tactics to meet it. “[T]he American Legion stands ready to protect our country’s institutions and ideals as the Fascisti dealt with the destructionists who menaced Italy!” National Commander Alvin Owsley told an interviewer in 1923, adding: 

The American Legion is fighting every element that threatens our democratic government—Soviets, anarchists, I.W.W., revolutionary socialists and every other red.… Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.

That same year, the American Legion’s magazine wrote a puff piece on Benito Mussolini. In 1930, the Legion invited Il Duce to speak at its annual convention. The group then spent the rest of the century sniffing out and suppressing leftists. Perhaps the wackiest of these missions came to light toward the end of the Great Depression, when it was described by retired General Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated Marines in history, who twice received the Medal of Honor and, after leaving the service, decried war as a “racket … conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.” 

Butler, who was widely revered by American veterans for his advocacy on their behalf, informed the FBI in 1934 that a representative of the American Legion had attempted to recruit him to lead a military putsch of 500,000 veterans against President Franklin Roosevelt. Butler’s contact “suggested that ‘we might even go along with Roosevelt and do with him what Mussolini did with the King of Italy.’” Should Butler decline the honor of being “the man on the white horse,” he was told, “an offer would be made to General Douglas MacArthur [or] Hanford MacNider, former commander of the American Legion.” Lukewarm congressional hearings failed to produce any indictments, but the abortive coup talk was immortalized as “the Business Plot,” since it allegedly had the backing of major Wall Street financial firms, including J.P. Morgan and Dupont. (Upon hearing of this alleged conspiracy, Roosevelt was reported to have laughed and exclaimed: “Fantastic!”)

In 1935, the Legion founded Boys State, a weeklong politics camp for schoolkids. Boys State is, as The New Republic’s Josephine Livingston recently put it, “a red-blooded, capitalist alternative to the Young Pioneer Camps” found in the Soviet Union, and it “functions like a gigantic yet parochial version of the Model United Nations.” This long-standing program counts many notable politicos among its alumni, including Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Fox News host Lou Dobbs. Despite its many positive elements, Boys State still shows strains of old-school Legion thinking. In 2018, for instance, the Iowa Legion initially prohibited a transgender boy from participating in Boys State. In a trailer for Boys State, a recently released documentary film on the program, one child of color looks to the camera and exclaims: “I’ve never seen so many white people, ever!”

The Legion has long been the domain of white men, in particular. “Inside many posts, women are not respected, and veterans of color don’t feel particularly welcome,” a former staffer told me. “These folks are prevented from participating fully in the organization.” 

Such was the case for innumerable female veterans denied full legionnaire status and shuffled to auxiliary posts. One of them was World War II veteran Gladys “Bunny” Strong, who, after decades of waiting, was granted a bona fide Legion membership in a 2015 ceremony. (Weeks later, Strong died, at the age of 92.)

That same year, 35-year-old legionnaire Lindsay Church was elected commander of her Seattle post. She worked earnestly to update the place’s culture but found it impossible. One day, a male member told Church: “It’s OK that you’re gay, but you don’t need to talk about your wife.” Some of the young women she’d brought into the post were asked out on dates or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable. “I kept telling my friends, ‘It’s going to get better,’” Church told me. “But I was harming my people, and it weighed on me. One day I realized that my work was perpetuating an old school mentality, so I left.” (She later co-founded Minority Veterans of America, a 501(c)3 “for underrepresented veterans, including womxn, people of color, LGBTQ, and religious minorities.”)

For many American Legion members, a local post’s bar is the focal point of social life; for some Legion bartenders, it’s also a site of vicious job harassment. Tonya Roberts claimed in court documents that soon after she started serving drinks at an Orlando, Florida, post in 2008, she was subjected to “unwelcome and unwanted requests for sex, sexual comments, sexual innuendo … and other types of sexual harassment.” Another bartender, a National Guard member named Lisa Garcia, alleged that beginning around 2011, male legionnaires at her Indiana post said she “had no business being in the military” and was “too old and fat” to serve. (Roberts and the Legion jointly agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice, which often means a settlement was entered into out of court. Garcia failed to respond to a legal motion and therefore forfeited her case.)

Black veterans have alleged similar mistreatment over the years, having memberships denied expressly due to their skin color. According to a 2003 federal complaint, a black Vietnam veteran named Al Davis, who received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, walked into his local Virginia post the previous July, eager to join, with dues in hand. Yet he was immediately accosted by a local adjutant who screamed, “There’s never been a nigger in here, there’s not going to be one.” (The Legion successfully got the case dismissed after arguing that two of Davis’s claims were past the statute of limitations.) 

In 2016, the Legion paid out $15,000 to a family of color who had reserved a post in Boston for their daughter’s birthday party, only to be barraged with racist behavior, including from the bartender, who initially refused to host the party because, he said, attendees could be “gang members” who would “get drunk and shoot the place.” (“All American Legion posts are autonomous and elect their own officers, as stipulated in The American Legion Constitution and Bylaws,” Raughter, the national spokesman, said in his statement declining to discuss any of the cases.)

This behavior certainly isn’t present at every Legion post: Many are diverse spaces that offer veterans a healthy line of support. Some posts even have progressive politics. In Portland, Oregon, legionnaires opened their hall to homeless citizens, installed gender-neutral bathrooms, and operated LGBTQ trivia nights. (That looked like it might change last January when Gregory Isaacson, a Trump supporter with ties to the alt-right and an arrest from a 2018 street protest, was elected post commander; he was forced to step down the following month after a “unanimous no-confidence vote.”)

Ed Beck, a veteran who researches military-connected Americans’ far-right associations, has flagged the activities of several legionnaires, like Joseph Kane, who has Identity Evropa connections, and Dennis Riggs, a neo-Nazi arrested in January for illegal possession of seven firearms. In 2009, the Legion joined the Republican Party in publicly slamming a Department of Homeland Security report that warned of growing links between military veterans and domestic terrorism. According to Politico, this backlash halted federal work to stem veteran hate. 

Blatantly bad behavior is not openly tolerated in the Legion today. But shades of it can still be found, especially during annual conventions, where staff and members converge for a series of speeches, meetings, and boozy parties. Five Legion sources said conventions continue to feature inappropriate behavior by older members, including catcalling and inappropriate touching of women, as well as racist remarks—including the n-word—lobbed toward staffers and members of color. 

After conventions end, legionnaires can harass from afar. One source provided an email in which a white adjutant from Rhode Island responded to a technical inquiry from a black employee with a message that questioned her leadership and intelligence. It ended with the acronym “YCFS,” for “You Can’t Fix Stupid.” 

I asked the Legion to connect me with staffers and volunteer leaders from diverse backgrounds who could offer a counterpoint to what I’ve been hearing. They didn’t. The only fundamentally positive voice I found was Matthew Shuman, a former legislative director out of D.C. who is 31 and gay. He told me that “at no time during my employment was I encouraged to hide myself or my boyfriend,” and noted that the Legion lovingly spotlighted his marriage recently in an online story. “In response,” he told me, “I’ve received many messages and signals of support from ultraconservative Legionnaires telling me that they love me.”