For most of its thirty-six years the American Legion has been issuing strident alarms against extremist minorities who might work their will against the national interest. These years of vigilance reached a climax at the convention in Miami last year when the Legion condemned the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
That the Legion would have an initial bias against UNESCO, or any international agency, is not unnatural. The heart of the organization is in the rural and small-town Midwest, an isolationist region. Only during war and in rare instances in peacetime have its conventions encouraged international cooperation. Its most common attitude is one of supernationalism at home and acceptance of the devil theory that whenever anything international goes badly for the United States some traitor or "dupe" is responsible.
In 1950, for example, its Foreign Relations Committee condemned the State Department for the loss of China and for general Communist advances. The man who drafted the original paragraph of censure was Ray Murphy, an Iowa lawyer and national commander of the Legion in 1935.
In 1951 the Legion became concerned with the United Nations' Covenant of Human Rights. The national commander at the time, Donald R. Wilson, a man with serious doubts about the United Nations, felt confident in appointing Murphy chairman of a Special Committee to study the United Nations matter. With Murphy were two past department commanders (each state is a Legion "department"), a past department chaplain, a national executive committeeman, and a past national commander of the Legion Auxiliary (the women's branch). In 1953 when UNESCO was criticized by the Legion's national executive committee, Murphy's Special Committee was given the job of studying that agency to see if it violated American principles and interests. The majority of the committee, including its chairman, said they expected their study would prove the allegations that UNESCO promotes world government, atheism, and Communism.
UNESCO, good or bad, is not a big issue in the American Legion or, for that matter, the nation at large. One poll showed that only 15 percent of Americans knew what it was. An observer at the Miami convention said, "The eggheads thought UNESCO wrote the 'Roumanian Rhapsody' and the average guy thought it was a cookie." So when the Special Committee gave a preliminary report on UNESCO in 1954 asking for another year of study but indicating it had found nothing subversive in UNESCO so far, the rank and file paid no attention to it. But some Legionnaires with special interests did. In 1954 the inherent isolationism of the Legion was being exploited on a local level by extremists agitating against the United Nations, the State Department, and the Eisenhower Administration, and promoting a number of rather unattractive movements.
In Illinois, the Legion's biggest department, a fight for power was in progress. Irving Breakstone then department commander, a moderate was being attacked by what is known as the "Chicago Tribune Wing" of the Illinois Legion. A powerful figure in that wing is Edgar Bundy, of Wheaton, an evangelist minister who attended the 1954 state convention wearing a necktie emblazoned "I Like McCarthy and I Like His Methods." Later he boasted that he engineered the Illinois resolution condemning the Girl Scout Handbook for being too "internationalistic." He also got through a state resolution calling for United States withdrawal from the United Nations.
Bundy and the rest of the "Tribune Wing" overturned the moderates in Illinois in 1954, and went to the national convention in 1955 determined to put the entire Legion on record against UNESCO and the United Nations. Although retiring department commander Breakstone, by long-standing Legion custom, should have been chairman of the powerful Illinois delegation to Miami, the new state hierarchy broke tradition and named an anti-United Nations man.
In California, most noticeably in Los Angeles, the Legion became involved in the UNESCO mess in the Los Angeles schools. A woman possessed with a violent hatred of anything international, Florence Fowler Lyons, was a source of widely publicized errors about UNESCO and about its role in the schools. Certain Legionnaires in California acted as publicists for these allegations.
In Florida the department commander, Joe C. Jenkins, was propagandizing against UNESCO and the United Nations and using the full state Legion machinery for it. He sponsored a bill in the Florida legislature that would have denied public funds to any educational institution teaching anything about UNESCO. The bill died in committee. But Jenkins was chairman of the delegation to Miami.
ON MAY 5, 1955, the national executive committee of the Legion met in its special room at national headquarters in Indianapolis. The committeemen had in their hands the i40.-page report of the Special Committee on UNESCO. It represented eighteen months of study and was the most exhaustive investigation ever conducted in the history of the Legion. Murphy's committee had read every word ever uttered in congressional testimony on the subject of UNESCO, and literally thousands of primary documents, all at their own expense in travel and time. They catalogued every charge against the agency and narrowed these down to twenty-three allegations. The report is probably the most comprehensive treatment of UNESCO criticism ever compiled.
The Special Committee found the anti-UNESCO charges baseless. The agency did not promote world government. Nothing promoting atheism could be found, and the participation of Catholic leaders and the Holy See in UNESCO programs belied atheistic control. No pro-Communism was found; in fact, satellites had left it because they claimed it was pro-Western.
What's more, the investigation showed that all twenty-three charges against UNESCO appeared to originate with material disseminated by the American Flag Committee, of Philadelphia, headed by W. Henry MacFarland, Jr., which, it said, "is hardly more or less than the successor to Mr. MacFarland's Nationalist Action League, a title MacFarland abandoned after the League was designated
as 'fascist' by the Attorney General of the United States." The committee also quoted house Un-American Activities Committee reports that MacFarland participated in activities of Gerald L. K. Smith, the country's noisiest race-hate agitator, and the National Renaissance Party, the organized remnant of the Nazi movement in the United States.
Murphy's oral summary to the seventy-nine members of the national executive committee of the Legion that Thursday in May took two hours. When he sat down the entire assembly rose and gave him an ovation that is unprecedented in the history of national executive meetings. If there was opposition to the UNESCO report in the Legion's top leadership, it was hardly in evidence in May.
In the days that followed, the work of the Murphy Committee was heard among newspapers, magazines, and civic groups. Men who for years had regarded the Legion as little more than a comic assembly for dumping grand pianos out of hotel windows took a fresh look at the organization. Words of respect and hope came not only from the Legion's friends but from some of its severest critics of the past. Among some Legion leaders there was open talk that this might signify a shift in Legion direction, and that the Legion might at last draw upon the civic and intellectual leadership of the country, where its attraction had always been negligible. Almost no one pretends that there was much rank-and-file reaction one way or the other.
But one group of men was intensely interested. This was the band of propagandists whose hobbyhorse had long been fighting the United Nations. They formed the anti-UNESCO lobby at Miami. In the months preceding the convention they conducted a propaganda and organizational campaign against the UNESCO report which was unknown with Legion issues of this kind.
Jenkins, of Florida, sent telegrams to department commanders reminding them that a congressional "evaluation" of UNESCO could be obtained for only one and one-half cents a copy, and sent out under congressional frank. Congress, of course, had investigated UNESCO and given it a clean bill of health. But the "evaluation" Jenkins pressed was, in effect, an attack on UNESCO by an individual Representative.
Legion officers in every state began to get literature on UNESCO from the Washington office of the Legion's national Americanism Commission. This was not an official action of the Americanism Commission, a distinction lost on most state officials getting the literature. The material just happened to come from the office of the commission. It was all anti-UNESCO literature. The chief work of this mailing was a copy of the August 15, 1954, Florida Legionnaire, whose lead article was headed: "Warns Peril for U.S. Lies in UNESCO." It was by Joe C. Jenkins. Past department commander Jenkins began his article: "Folks, I was terribly disturbed a month ago on discovering that a whitewashing report on UNESCO . . . was filed by a special committee of the American Legion . . . ." Jenkins offered below his article an eleven-column presentation by what he called "the best authority on UNESCO I know of in America." The "authority" was Florence Fowler Lyons of Los Angeles.
In the meantime, Murphy's official report remained outside the official distribution machinery of the Legion. Murphy had to pay $700 of his own money to help defray printing costs. It is doubtful whether 100 delegates and alternates of the 6400 ever saw the Special Committee report. A poll of the 454 delegates and alternates of the New York delegation which was interested - showed that two had read the Murphy report.
When the Legionnaires gathered in Miami, the streets were full of the usual high jinks with electric canes and squirting rosettes. But in the smoke-filled hotel rooms some of the political high jinks were unconventional even for the Legion.
For the first time in Legion history two major convention committees, Foreign Relations and Americanism, were joined, and it was noted that many persons appeared on the joint committee for the first time. Offered as chairman of the joint committee was Joe C. Jenkins, but he stepped down in favor of Rogers Kelley of the Texas delegation. In the important job of secretary of the joint committee there appeared Edgar Bundy, of Wheaton, Illinois. A ten-man subcommittee was named to issue a UNESCO resolution, and on it were familiar faces in the anti-UNESCO circuit. One member of the Murphy Committee was on the subcommittee.
The subcommittee heard testimony. Speaking in favor of UNESCO were three members of the Special Committee and a state senator from Wisconsin. It was generally agreed that their presentations were restrained and unemotional.
A succession of delegates spoke against UNESCO. A major witness was Colonel Owsley, the Legion's ranking orator. "I know the foreigner and I know what the foreigner thinks of us," he told the subcommittee. He said he would "throw the United Nations into the sea." In a burst of indignation he cried that a UNESCO scientist had reported that there is no difference between the blood of the white man and the blood of the black man.
Supporters of UNESCO say that defeat of any temperance in the matter was a foregone conclusion from the moment the convention gathered. The anti-UNESCO lobby was in complete control at all times and so dominated the committee that it was seriously suggested that the Murphy Committee should be officially censured.
Some measure of the level of thinking in the lobby that dominated the joint committee can be gained from the proposal made by its secretary, Edgar Bundy, that when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles rose to deliver the keynote address, the entire convention of Legionnaires should walk out. He also attempted to have the committee pass a resolution calling for United States withdrawal from the United Nations. These were more than the committee was prepared to do. But the lobby had its way on UNESCO. Bundy wrote the final resolution that flatly asserted charges which eighteen months of investigation had shown to be invalid.
Getting quick convention action was not hard. Rogers Kelley read the formal resolution condemning UNESCO to the convention and moved for its adoption. By prearrangement, another member of the subcommittee, Roane Waring, of Tennessee, was at a microphone on the stage and immediately seconded the motion. National Commander Seaborn Collins then intoned rapidly, "All-those-in-favor-say-'aye'-the-vote-has-carried." Observers estimate the call to vote and closing of the matter took no more than thirty seconds. All agree that there was no call for discussion or for a negative vote.
Immediately after this sleight of hand, Churchill T. Williams of Oelwein, Iowa, commander of the Iowa department, rose to say that the 109 Iowa votes wanted to be cast against the resolution. He was ruled out of order. There seems little doubt other delegations would have fought the resolution if a democratic vote had been taken. John D. Sullivan, of the New York delegation, reports: "Upon the record it will appear that the New York delegation cast an affirmative vote for the report. Actually, the few members of the New York delegation who were present sat in stunned silence and did not vote at all."
Neither the gaveling through of the vote nor the committee-room machinations are unknown to other national conventions. Certainly the Legion is no different in this respect from many labor unions, political parties, and fraternal orders where a hot issue has to be disposed of. But although the UNESCO vote itself is of little importance as such, what it represents in the future of the Legion is important.
Many thoughtful men in the Legion are convinced that in the coming years the Legion is in danger of becoming in reality what it is thought to be by its critics: a fraternity of aging hell-raisers who pause each year to make wild statements on national affairs.
To thousands outside the Legion, the Murphy report on UNESCO was an eye-opener to the latent talent arid wisdom that actually reside within the American Legion. The report was a tough-minded, judicious consideration of a complicated issue that brought to the Legion a respect among national leaders it had never before enjoyed.
By permitting a zealous band of extremists to frustrate this work, the Legion did more than make itself look ridiculous. It lost a rare opportunity to gain new stature in American democracy.