THE ADVANCE COMMITTEE
When the St. Louisian puffed its way into the big smoke-begrimed station in Missouri's largest city I looked about me for Bill, who was going to meet me at the station. We had not met since our prep. school and college days when Bill had been a thin, wizened little fellow, so hollow-chested that he had to be sent to Colorado for almost two years for his health. He came back to school looking better but before his diploma was handed to him announcing to the world that he was a full-fledged Bachelor of Arts, he had fallen apparently permanently into the rut of ill-health. In fact I wondered, when we all sang Auld Lang Syne in the fraternity house at the close of college, if I'd ever see Bill again.
From time to time I had heard from him in the years that followed, and one day in the summer of 1917 he wrote me that he was on the way to France.
While I gazed up and down the smoke-laden platform, I got a slap on the shoulder that sent me [Pg 47]spinning, and there was the once emaciated Bill, who seemed to have grown three inches and to have put on seventy-five pounds.
As we walked toward the taxicab stand I began to realize that instead of an old friend, a stranger was beside me. True enough, he had the same name and the same colored eyes, and his hair hadn't changed. But the rather dreamy eye had cleared, the pale face of old was tanned, and Bill's chest—the one he had gone to Colorado for—was bulging out as he carried my two heavy suit cases like a pouter pigeon's at a poultry show.
What had happened to Bill? The little, quiet, timid youth of the past was now a big, burly, strong-bodied, clear-minded man. As we entered the taxi he was telling me that he "intended to raise hell if they didn't take some action against this blank Bolshevism, and furthermore that this new Legion was going to be the most tremendous organization that the U.S.A. had ever seen." If he had told me that Swinburne's Faustine was written in iambic hexameter it would have sounded more like old times. But here was a new man, strong and virile, intensely interested in the future of his nation.
What had happened to Bill? Eighteen months in the army was the answer.
The advanced delegation began to arrive in St. Louis, the afternoon of May 5th. The Statler and[Pg 48] Jefferson Hotels were packed because there were two other conventions in progress. But our delegates needed no badge to be distinguished from the others; there was a difference between them and the other conventionites. There was the same difference between the two as between the old Bill and the new Bill. They too had had eighteen months in the army, and a coat of tan on each one's face, his ruddy frame, and general atmosphere of a healthy mind and a healthy body were unmistakable emblems.
This advanced delegation, two from each State, had been requested to come beforehand to meet on the morning of Tuesday, May 6th, so as to formulate a working order of business on which the caucus might proceed as soon as it assembled. There was another reason for this meeting also. The temporary committee wanted to avoid any appearance of having "framed up the caucus." By this it is meant that the committee wanted to be able to say to the caucus that its working procedure had been determined by a thoroughly representative body, a democratic, advanced delegation composed of men from every State in the Union. There were those critics of the Legion, who, had the temporary committee formulated the caucus procedure, would have been only too glad to have attempted to make trouble by saying [Pg 49]it was a controlled and made-to-order caucus—controlled and made-to-order by the men who had taken the lead in it. In fact, during the early morning of the first day the advanced committee met one delegation arrived with blood in its eyes determined to wage a fight against universal military training. One of the stories circulated at the time was to the effect that the entire Legion was nothing but a blind whereby a mysterious "Military Clique" was to gain supreme power over the Legion's policies. It took but a very short while to convince the would-be obstreperous delegation that the caucus was not the convention and was empowered solely to organize a veterans' association and not to adopt policies.
The temporary committee in America determined at the very beginning that no policies would be adopted at the caucus, that the Legion at this time should follow in the footsteps of its comrades abroad in stating that neither the men here nor the men there could, as different units, adopt broad policies until a convention could be held truly representing all men who had fought in the Great War.
Colonel Roosevelt called the advanced committee to order a little after two o'clock in the afternoon, in a small and very noisy parlor in the Hotel Statler. The gavel which he used was made [Pg 50]from wood from the rudder of Admiral Peary's North Pole steamship The Roosevelt, which had been presented to him by Colonel E. Lester Jones of Washington, D.C.
"The idea underlying the formation of the American Legion is the feeling among the great mass of the men who served in the forces of this country during the war, that the impulse of patriotism which prompted their efforts and sacrifices should be so preserved that it might become a strong force in the future for true Americanism and better citizenship," Colonel Roosevelt said. He spoke very slowly and measured his words carefully but emphasized them in a tone of deepest conviction. "We will be facing troublous times in the coming years," he continued "and to my mind no greater safeguard could be devised than those soldiers, sailors, and marines formed in their own association, in such manner that they could make themselves felt for law and order, decent living and thinking, and truer 'nationalism.'"
In this opening sentence, Colonel Roosevelt foreshadowed the spirit of the entire caucus. These service men wanted an organization not for their own special benefit, not that they might obtain pensions or offices, but that they might become a power for truer Americanism and better citizenship![Pg 51]
Colonel Wood, the secretary, explained in greater detail the purpose of the proposed Legion. He broached the subject of the reemployment for soldiers, a legal department for the handling of insurance claims, allotments, etc., and sketched the fundamental principles of the organization as follows:
First, its non-partisanship.
Second, that this society should be equally for those whose duty called them overseas and for those who were held by circumstances on this side.
Third, that it is fundamentally a civilian organization, one in which all ranks, be they private or general, admiral or seaman, should have an equal share and participation.
Then the advance committeemen began themselves to talk. Each one, no matter on what subject and regardless of the side he took upon it, was permitted to air his feelings to the full satisfaction of himself at least. Like the Paris Caucus, the discussion grew heated at times and every now and then the chair was forced to remind overly fervid orators that this was an advanced meeting of the caucus and not the convention. There were those present who wanted to obligate the caucus to go on record for or against universal military training, woman suffrage, prohibition, [Pg 52]permanent headquarters, and to elect permanent officers, and each of these had to be shown that it would be unfair to the men still in the A.E.F. to take such preëminently vital steps without consulting them. Then there were those present who wanted to exclude members of the regular army and navy from the Legion; that is, to limit eligibility in the organization to those who could show discharge papers from either the army, navy, or marine corps. This measure was voted down and it was given as the sense of the advanced committee meeting that those who served in the Great War would have perfect liberty to join regardless of whether their service continued in the military establishment after the armistice or after peace was formally declared.
The advanced committee outlined the order of business upon which the caucus could proceed, named the various committees to be organized, and discussed the resolutions which were deemed wise and expedient topics for discussion.
On Wednesday afternoon, delegates from every district in the country began to arrive, almost one thousand new Bills, husky of frame, some still in uniform with the red discharge chevron on their left sleeves; others who had manifestly tried to get the new Bill into the old Bill's 1916 suit of clothes, and still others in new bib and tucker,[Pg 53]looking exceedingly comfortable after almost two years in putties, heavy shoes, and tight blouses.
Every man came with one deep-rooted determination and that was to see that no one "put anything over" which might make an organization so embryonically useful take a fatal or selfish step. Each came, perhaps imbued to a certain extent with his own particular ideas on how everything should be conducted; but the radicalism, sectionalism, and partisanship which would have marked a gathering of these same men three years before was not present. The men who had thought that nothing good could come except from south of the Mason and Dixon line had fought side by side with woodsmen from Maine. The man who had thought the East effete had done duty on a destroyer with a boy from Harlem. Everybody realized full well that sectionalism must be abandoned whenever it clashed with nationalism; and abandoned it was, with right good will.
The meeting of the advance committeemen justified itself as a very wise and judicious action on the part of the temporary committee. Any suspicion of a particular delegation that anything was "framed" was quickly allayed after a conference with its advance committeemen. If a man from Pennsylvania suspected that anything was on foot not to the liking of the Keystone[Pg 54] State he had only to ask his advance committeeman, Colonel D'Olier, about it. Incidentally the personnel of the advance committee was not so numerous that everybody couldn't know what everybody else was doing. As a matter of fact, everybody did know what everybody else was doing. One of the most peculiar facts of this most interesting caucus was that when it came to "pussy footing" pussy seemed to foot it on piano keys so far as secrecy was concerned and in such a fashion that usually the Star Spangled Banner was played. I know that the night and the morning before the caucus met that there were many and various powwows and conferences, a great many of which I attended, but there wasn't a one that I knew of or ever heard about, the full details of which could not have been printed in bold-faced type on the front page of every St. Louis newspaper and have reflected credit on the powwowers as well as on the American Legion.