The following letter was written in 1964 by then National Commander Judge Foley. His letter published in the Legion magazine applies to today’s unrest and how history repeats itself if we do not learn from it.
By Dan Foley
The American Legion
At a time of rapid change and recurring crisis in national affairs, one factor remains constant. The loudest noise and the most confused counsel continue to come from extremists.
By extremists I mean those individuals who would save America by forsaking its free institutions. I mean not just communists and neo-fascists who openly assail our system but, more especially, those who, in the conviction that theirs is the only right view, have lost sight of—and faith in—the fundamental processes of self-government.
You know the type as well as I do. They claim to have the one true answer to every problem. They talk of setting aside the law when the law offends them. They are quick to cry treason, slow to admit error, and indifferent to arguments and facts that do not support their beliefs. They are not really leftists or rightists—but simply modern anarchists— though many of them would be shocked at the idea.
There are two basic flaws in this brand of extremism. It violates the spirit and traditions of real Americanism. It seeks a course of action that is bound to fail. As Legionnaires we bow to no one in our concern and zeal for the future security and greatness of America. Because we are Legionnaires we share a special responsibility to observe and uphold the institutions which alone can be the means of realizing that future.
Now, more than ever before, Americans need to keep their values in clear focus. Our resort must be to reason, not to emotion; to persuasion, not to violence; to perseverance, not to panic.
It isn’t necessary or desirable that we all think alike. It is essential that we espouse our differences reasonably with good will and due regard for other opinions.
Honest disagreement honorably expressed cannot divide Americans. But disagreement waged with weapons of fear and hate and bad faith can cost us not only our unity but our character and purpose as a free people. Abraham Lincoln in a previous era of strong feeling said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
By the same token, there is no grievance now that cannot be voiced and fairly met within the tested channels of the democratic system. I often wonder if those who advocate extremism really understand the enormity of their disservice to their country. Nikita Khrushchev is fond of stating, as he did recently in the presence of visiting American businessmen, that the capitalist system is headed for an early collapse.
He’s not basing that hope altogether on the thrust of communist military and economic power. The communists believe as an article of faith that human beings are incapable of governing themselves—that a free society such as ours inevitably will generate excesses and frictions that will destroy it. The citizen who defies the law or falsely demeans the motives and authority of governmental institutions is helping Khrushchev’s cause—not America’s.
The citizen who seeks recourse to hatred or violence as the answer to the nation’s problems is turning away from an acceptable and workable American solution. The American Legion has always asserted its right to speak out vigorously and candidly on public issues. We’ve never shied away from controversy or from criticism of policies we believe to be wrong—and I am confident we will continue on that course. At the same time, I assure you that our criticism will be constructive and responsible.
The United States Supreme Court in recent years has rendered decisions specifically in the areas of law enforcement and religious expressions in schools, with which The American Legion strongly disagrees. We formulated our position in the democratic way—through discussion at the local, state and national levels.
We’ve stated our views plainly and with force, but without impugning the motives of those who disagree or attacking the authority and prestige of the courts. We believe the national interest warrants increased American efforts to neutralize and eliminate the communist regime in Cuba. But while insisting upon a new policy, we question the wisdom of our present policy, not the character and good faith of its architects.
We champion the needs of disabled and aging war veterans whose past services are too soon forgotten by many of their countrymen. But our difference with those who oppose us is one of judgment, not of patriotism; and the best hope for our cause lies in education and persuasion, not vindictiveness. This is the American way. It’s the only way that works in a free society.
By practicing responsible Americanism this American Legion of ours has served as a stabilizing force in the nation’s life. We stand today as a buffer against extremism of both the left and the right. This is a position in which every Legionnaire may take pride and which every Legionnaire should consciously seek to strengthen. We neither need nor want rigid conformity. Nor can we permit a few over-zealous and unreasoning individuals to overbalance the common sense and judgment of the people.
Ours is a big country with big and perplexing problems. The answers do not come easily. They will not come at all if substantial numbers of Americans permit themselves to be led into extravagances of hate and fear.