What comes to mind when you think of the American Legion?
My thoughts go to my family and World War II. Many of my uncles served in the Army and Navy during the war, in places far distant from their homes in central New York. While they were in Europe and on the high seas, the rest of the family was thousands of miles away, doing their part for the war effort on the home front. Newspaper articles tell how my Grandma Tucker and other wartime moms and wives baked and held events for local military associations. By that time the American Legion was already more than 20-years-old—chartered in 1919, in the fresh wake of the world’s last huge war, before my uncles were even born. For the United States, World War I had lasted about a year and a half, April 1917 to November 1918, and it involved four million service members and their families and communities. In World War II we fought two years longer than that, December 1941 to August 1945, and rallied the efforts of more than 16 million U.S. troops. It was after this second global conflict that membership in the American Legion boomed, nearly doubling. In the 1940s the Legion had more than three million members.
My mind also goes to a very tangible symbol of the American Legion: its circled-star emblem. I imagine everyone who has ever looked through Grandpa’s cigar box of military medals, old coins, and war souvenirs has seen the American Legion emblem, on a hat or lapel pin, challenge coin, or other mementos. I have one of my Uncle Marshall’s membership badges.
Even without that direct family connection, people across the United States are familiar with the circled-star emblem. There are nearly 14,000 American Legion posts active in communities in every state of the nation plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, France, and Mexico. They are a robust presence and a strong force for civic good, offering scholarships, education, advocacy, health services, mentoring, emotional support, and other valuable programs.
The American Legion was founded on four pillars: veterans’ affairs and rehabilitation; national security; Americanism; and children and youth. These pillars are embodied in Legion programs that benefit our nation’s veterans, its active service members, their families, the youth of America, and everyday citizens.
The American Legion’s Commemorative Coins and the CCAC
Monday, March 12, 2018, I flew to Washington, D.C., for a next-day meeting of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. The American Legion was very much on my mind.The CCAC was formed by Congress in 2003 as a public organization that advises the secretary of the Treasury on designs and themes for all U.S. coins and medals. The committee’s members hail from Washington State and California in the West, New York, and New Jersey in the East, and points in between. There are eleven of us, each one representing the interests of the general public as well as coin collectors, and several drawn from specific disciplines and areas of expertise. Many of us are longtime active numismatists.
On this particular day in March at United States Mint headquarters on Ninth Street in Washington, our agenda included planning for a three-coin suite of commemoratives celebrating the 100th anniversary of the American Legion.
By the time we convened, the Mint’s program managers had already met with leaders of the American Legion. Artists from the team of medallic sculptors at the Philadelphia Mint, and from the Mint’s Artistic Infusion Program, had contributed their creativity to a portfolio of design proposals for the three 1919–2019 coins: a copper-nickel half dollar, a silver dollar, and a gold $5 piece. We members of the CCAC had received a dossier of these designs, 64 in total, in advance of our meeting. We came prepared to discuss their merits in a public forum and in conference with the American Legion, and to make our formal recommendations to the secretary of the Treasury.
Approaching the Coin Designs: “Getting it Right”
We were honored to have the Legion’s executive director, Verna Jones, present at the meeting, along with Chanin Nuntavong, deputy director for media relations. Jones is the first female executive director of the American Legion. She spoke passionately about how the Legion wants its commemorative coins to represent all two million–plus of its members, and therefore its leadership leaned away from designs that show faces—because, for example, featuring just one ethnicity would leave out many others. Jones emphasized the weight and significance of the Mint’s design process, and the importance of getting it right. A 100-year anniversary only comes around once. “We have one opportunity to show inclusion,” she said, noting that women were allowed to vote for the American Legion’s national commander before they could vote for the president of the United States. The older, white, male veteran is “only one part of the American Legion,” she said. It’s interesting to observe that Jones and Nuntavong, our two organization liaisons at the CCAC’s public meeting, are an African-American woman and an Asian man—reflections of the diversity Jones spoke of. “I want the coins to represent everyone whose blood, sweat, and tears made the American Legion what it is,” she told us.
Reviewing and Analyzing the Designs
Before the Mint’s artists started sketching for this program, the Mint had encouraged them to submit design proposals as obverse/reverse pairings. This strategy, developed in recent years, avoids some risks and challenges inherent in two separate artists creating one side each of a given coin. For example, two individually excellent designs might have jarringly different styles. Or they might both have higher-relief areas that would be coined opposite each other on the planchet, resulting in poor metal flow and a shallow strike. In theory, a skillful artist, envisioning the entire coin, obverse and reverse, can plan a more coherent and coinable result.
Our advisory committee, however, was not forced to stick to those proposed pairings. Committee member Jeanne Stevens-Sollman, a highly respected American sculptor, and one of only a few living recipients of the J. Sanford Saltus Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Art of the Medal remarked on the complexity of the portfolio. She approached our task by choosing six designs she felt worked to tell the American Legion’s story.
As I reviewed the design proposals, my mind kept returning to the importance of the American Legion’s emblem—that symbol that every Legion member, every military family, and every person who has benefited from its programs, is familiar with. To me, it was crucial that at least one of the three coins feature the emblem prominently as its main design device.
I also felt it was important to show the emblem in its entirety. Each part holds a specific meaning, and to use some as design elements while leaving others out does a disservice to the emblem’s intent. The sun’s rays, seen along the outermost edge, “form the background of our proud emblem and suggest the Legion’s principles will dispel the darkness of violence and evil.” The wreath, forming the center, is “in loving memory of those brave comrades who gave their lives in the service of the United States that liberty might endure.” The star, “victory symbol of World War I, also symbolizes honor, glory, and constancy.” The larger of two outer rings stands for “the rehabilitation of our sick and disabled comrades,” while the smaller inside ring denotes the welfare of America’s children. “The smaller of two inner rings set upon the star represents service to our communities, states, and nation. The larger outer ring pledges loyalty to Americanism.”
In particular, I liked obverse 5 of the silver dollar designs. It shows the Legion’s emblem but in an artfully stylized manner, with oak leaves symbolizing strength and the lily for devotion and memory.
I studied how the American Legion talks about itself today. How does it tell its story? Leading up to our meeting I spent a lot of time on the Legion’s website. There the organization tells its story through people, sharing the personal experiences of its members—a human-interest approach. Several of the proposed coin designs show portraits and scenes of veterans, young and old. Many of those are emotionally compelling, and several committee members were drawn to them. But we understood the Legion’s desire to use more symbolism, rather than human figures.
Committee member Robert Hoge, our member specially qualified as a numismatic curator given his museum leadership with the American Numismatic Society and the American Numismatic Association, advised the Mint’s artists to use bold designs. “Coins are small,” he cautioned. He also observed that grayscale, which can make a beautiful drawing, “isn’t appropriate to indicate depth on a coin.” For this particular program, he encouraged the use of the American flag and approved of the Eiffel Tower as an instantly recognizable symbol of Paris, where the first American Legion post was started. Other designs used the Arc de Triomphe, and several committee members commented on the weaker symbolism of that landmark for this particular program: the famous arch stands for its own specific wars and military victories.
Committee member Erik Jansen—an engineer, scientist, and co-founder of a medical-device firm—described his disappointed reaction to the packet of designs: “Nothing came together.” He laid out his general thinking when it comes to three-coin commemorative programs: the $5 gold piece is “the over-arching big picture” of the subject matter; the silver dollar is the “trophy,” the big seller, the coin that deserves the boldest and best design; and the copper-nickel half dollar he sees as the “fun, light,” kid-friendly option, the least expensive and therefore most accessible of the coins. For the American Legion commemoratives, he recommended an energetic and “youthful” style, avoiding messages of loss and sacrifice. “I want an active verb,” he said, “not a sad memoriam.”
Committee member Mike Moran, well known for his deeply researched articles and books on American numismatic history, echoed Bob Hoge’s warning about the size of the actual coins—”the five-dollar gold is the size of a nickel.” It’s one thing to design a coin or to critique a design, blown up to a six-inch diameter. It must always be envisioned reduced to a much smaller planchet. Moran made an example of obverses 4 and 10 for the gold coin: “Use one head, not two.”
He rejected the Art Nouveau approach of the obverse and reverse 6 of the silver dollar, saying the style hasn’t aged well.
Committee member Heidi Wastweet, a talented and recognized artist and current president of the American Medallic Sculpture Association, offered observations on several designs, noting that some sketches proposed as obverses worked better as reverses, and vice versa. She also queried the Mint’s management on technical points of frosting and polishing of dies. She pointed out places where the artists relied too much on shading, which can give depth to a drawing, but which can’t be translated to the metal of a coin (outside of very limited effects given by frosting and polish).
Committee member Donald Scarinci, our longest-serving member and one of the greatest private collectors of art medals in the United States, gave dramatic condemnation to the portfolio of designs. His advice to the Mint was to reject them all and start over, calling them “the worst group of coin designs” he’d seen in years. To our American Legion liaisons, he recommended aggressive marketing in order to see the surcharges that come from a profitable program, implying that none of the proposed designs had the merit to easily sell themselves.
Committee member Tom Uram, a well-known life member (and recently elected governor) of the American Numismatic Association, singled out some favored designs from the portfolio. He also drew attention to the “V” in gold obverse 3, which ties back to the World War II commemorative coins of the early 1990s, and he observed that the legend “God and Country” was considered as a motto for our national coinage during the American Civil War.
Committee chair Mary Lannin, an active scholar of ancient coinage and a member of the Industry Council for Tangible Assets’ anti-counterfeiting task force, remarked on gold obverse 5’s resemblance to the iconic American Legion pin and gave her endorsement to the preferred choices of our liaisons.
Our Votes for the American Legion Commemorative Coins, and Our Recommendations to the Secretary of the Treasury
Every member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee agreed that this portfolio of designs, as a whole, was lacking. While it offered some examples of very good artwork, it also included sketches that wouldn’t translate well into coinage, some retreads of styles we’ve rejected in the past, and designs that just didn’t work on a number of levels.
April Stafford, the Mint’s chief of design management, has explained to us that their goal is to “minimize the Mint’s fingerprint” in the artists’ creative process—to give the committee as many designs to review as possible. This, of course, is after the Mint’s own vigorous series of legal and technical reviews, which can shape and guide the designs before we see them, making sure they’re coinable while also meeting the mandates of their legislation.
After much discussion and analysis, including dialogue with our American Legion liaisons, we leaned heavily toward the Legion’s preferred design pairings. Executive Director Jones identified the following preferences from the organization’s leadership.
- For the gold coin: Obverse 3 (“with its important symbolism”) and reverse 4 (honoring “the ultimate sacrifice”). (Although obverse 5 for the gold coin is iconic and instantly recognized, she observed, “Every member already has the emblem on pins, challenge coins, and other collectibles.”)
- For the silver dollar: Obverse 5 (“a beautiful coin”) and reverse 11 (she noted the importance of the theme of 100 years of service).
- For the half dollar: Obverse 5 and reverse 6, a pairing that has the pledge of allegiance starting on the obverse and continuing to the reverse.
Part of our process in coming to a recommendation for any given coin is to take a weighted vote after we discuss and analyze each design proposal. In this case, our votes strongly affirmed the preferred designs of the American Legion. We did recommend one modification, for the top center of the silver dollar reverse: change the large keystone (part of the Arc de Triomphe’s architecture) to a fleur-de-lis (a more obvious symbol of Paris, where the American Legion started).
What’s Next for the American Legion Coins
The CCAC itself doesn’t decide what goes on coins. Rather, we provide our studied, reasoned advice in a formal recommendation to the secretary of the Treasury. Another committee, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, also provides feedback and recommendations. The secretary uses that input, as well as the insight of relevant liaisons and stakeholders, and then makes the final decisions on designs.
Once the designs are officially chosen, the Mint’s artists will sculpt them, hubs and dies will be made, and the coins will continue through the master production schedule of manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. There will be a launch ceremony sometime next year in conjunction with the American Legion.
If these designs speak to even a fraction of the American Legion’s membership, and a fraction of the other Americans who know and love the Legion, the United States Mint will have a very successful and popular commemorative coin program for 2019.