by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Veterans Day holiday officially dates back to 1954, when Congress approved an amendment to a sixteen year-old law that established 11 November as a national holiday under the existing name of Armistice Day. That moniker was bestowed in 1919, the first anniversary of the end of the First World War, when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that “to us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.”
Though many state and local governments made Armistice Day a holiday in their jurisdictions, the federal government acted differently. In 1926, a concurrent resolution of both houses of Congress stated “it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” and added “that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.”
It was not, however, until May 1938 that Congress approved the act to make Armistice Day a recognized federal holiday, with not only recognition of those who fought for the United States in World War I, but also to promote world peace. At the time this legislation was approved, Adolf Hitler was continuing to annex territory to Nazi Germany, while European powers enabled him to do so and America was in a deeply isolationist mood. In September 1939, Hitler’s blitzkrieg invasion of Poland ushered in the Second World War and after that horrific conflict ended and was soon followed by the Korean War, the decision was made by Congress in June 1954 to officially change the holiday’s name to Veterans Day and having it honor those who served during all of the wars in America’s history.
In 1968, Congress passed a “Uniform Holiday Bill” to provide three-day weekends for four national holidays (Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day) to be commemorated on Mondays. The thinking was that this would be of benefit both to the economy and to the activities of Americans during these extended weekends, but many states elected not to observe the law’s mandate. It was three years before Veterans Day was placed under the three-day weekend standard, but, in 1975, a new law was passed that, in three years, returned the holiday to 11 November, a move widely supported and which has remained in place for over forty years so that the country can, as expressed by the Veterans Administration, remain “a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
With respect to the first Armistice Day in 1919, Mayor Meredith P. Snyder issued a decree a week prior asking, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, “all loyal citizens . . . to close their places of business and take part in the celebration at Exposition Park” that afternoon. It was added that Snyder’s proclamation referred to the celebration being “a tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives in the world war” and “a greeting to the returned service men” as well as an “expression of thankfulness to the women who were of such great assistance to the American army.”
Directly quoted, the mayor’s statement was that the holiday reflected “gratitude that a year ago the titanic struggle of the nations was at an end, and that the sacrifice of blood and wealth was no longer necessary.” Those soldiers who came back home “add their voice to the paean of praise” while Los Angeles “which has so much for which to be grateful” affirmed the holiday as “sacred to the memory of those who died that the cause of world liberty might live.” There were “loving greetings” extended to returning soldiers and “abiding gratitude towards the great unheralded and unsung army of patriotic women, who heroically and unselfishly gave of their time, their money, their strength, their love and their tears that the morale of our soldier army might be maintained.”
Besides the event at Exposition Park, where the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was opened four years later specifically to honor the veterans of the world war, there were many others throughout greater Los Angeles. For instance, the newly opened Mercury Aviation Field, created by film producer and director Cecil B. de Mille at Wilshire and Crescent (later renamed Fairfax Avenue) boulevards, was the site of a celebration where “the programme includes flying and many different air stunts,” including by some pilots who served in the war. Earl Burgess, a veteran of the conflict, was also scheduled to perform a parachute drop involving a “backward, head-first dive” in which he wore an army chute that was not deployed until he fell some 250 feet.
The American Legion, which was established after the war, also held a “grand peace pageant and victory ball” at the Shrine Auditorium as “the climax of the city’s celebration of Armistice Day.” The Advertising Club of Los Angeles sponsored a lunch in conjunction with the planning of the Legion’s evening confab and Governor William D. Stephens was among the speakers along with the Legion’s local post commander, Capt. Walter Brinkhop. Proceeds of the event were to go towards the work of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau, organized in January with collaboration from the city, the Chamber of Commerce, and federal authorities, though the Legion took over management of it after a year.
The local “aerie” or chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, established in Seattle in 1898 and promoting “the spirit of liberty, truth, justice, and equality, to make human life more desirable by lessening its ills and promoting peace, prosperity, gladness and hope,” held its event at Selig Zoo, a venue at Lincoln Park in the recently renamed Lincoln Heights (the community was founded in 1873 as East Los Angeles and the park was known as Eastlake). The zoo was established to house and care for animals used at the studios of film impresario William Selig and activities for the Eagles’ celebration included vaudeville performances, music and dancing, sports and a patriotic oration.
As the Armistice Day pageant at Exposition Park proceeded in its planning, one major highlighted element was the use of 1,500 high school girls, directed by Helen Craig of the Council of Community Service, to stand at a massive altar featuring likenesses of America, Patriotism, Service and Loyalty played by four students from Manual Arts High. As the large assemblage of girls, dressed in white, passed by these figures, they were to sing “America, the Beautiful” and laid wreaths at the base of a pedestal. A chorus of 7,000 women, with L.S. Pilcher conducting and a large band accompanying, was to sing five patriotic songs, including the national anthem, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “America.”
Each of the figures presented a flag, representative of those who served, those who died, and women who worked in war-related services, and a large American flag, donated by Anita Baldwin, daughter of the late Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, was presented to the city. Members of the Legion and the National Guard were present, as well. It was also reported that the William Fox film studio was having its “Sunshine Girls” coterie sell tickets to the ball at the Shrine, while western film star Tom Mix went up Broadway to City Hall and roped Mayor Snyder as he came out the doors to “see what the excitement was about” and asked for tickets.
Among the activities held throughout the region was one sponsored in Puente by the La Puente Valley Community League. The program was slated to include a free barbecue, “street dancing,” and movies, while other elements were “an exhibit of Southland soil products, animals and poultry, and an automobile, truck, tractor and implement show,” these all befitting the rural farming and ranching character that the Puente area maintained during this year when the Temple family took possession of the nearby Workman Homestead, which they acquired late in 1917 but which was subject to a lease to a Japanese farmer named Yatsuda. Airplane demonstrations were also to be held and local veterans of the war were to be feted. Finally, Governor Stephens was slated to speak as the first of his many appearances during the busy schedule for the day.
The afternoon ceremonies at Exposition Park were said to have been attended by in excess of 50,000 souls and reporter Otis Miles began his coverage with “upon the scroll that tells the story of America’s conquest over the enemies of democracy—the scroll that is written with the blood of dying men and the tears of American mothers—a year of peace was recorded” with the event. A chorus of 1,000, the 1,500 girls in the pageant described above, a representation of twelve nations consisting of soldiers wearing the uniforms of each country, and addresses by the governor and mayor, were highlighted. While there were scenes of pride and happiness described by Miles, he also observed those who lost loved ones in the war.
Prominent among these was Mayor Snyder, whose son Ross died during the conflict and for whom the Ross Snyder Recreation Center south of downtown Los Angeles was named. Miles recorded that “Mayor Snyder wept as the death of his own son was mentioned, and as he wept one of the committeemen pushed through the crowd to the speakers’ rostrum, leading an overseas veteran with two wound stripes shining on an empty sleeve.”
In his remarks, the governor noted that “California contributed loyally and generously to the success of American arms on the battlefields of France” and “when the appeal for men was sounded, the response from California was prompt, spontaneous and in full measure.” He added “not for the love of fight, but for the love of right, they marched and fought.” As he continued that “true to the high principles of American manhood—splendid indeed was the spirit they showed,” a loud cheer erupted from the crowd. Stephens lionized those who died in the conflict and observed “there will be vacant places in thousands of homes, homes where the golden star denotes is silent eloquence the measure of patriotic sacrifice.” He noted that “the heroism and patriotism of our departed sons is a glorious memory.” The governor ended with some particularly pointed remarks about left-wing political entities, but more on that below.
When the Times covered the evening pageant and ball at the Shrine, which was said to have contained some 7,000 celebrants, the “ringing address on national patriotism” given by the governor was given some extensive coverage. With the postwar period including the beginnings of what would become known as the “Red Scare,” with fears of socialism and communism infiltrating the United States leading to a major crackdown on left-leaning individuals and organizations, Stephens’ remarks were given special attention by the very conservative paper.
It quoted the governor as asserting, “from now on this will be no place for lukewarm citizens” and he noted that “America [is] for Americans in the future” because fighting for democracy in France meant doing so at home, as well. Stephens went further, proclaiming “the man or men who are not satisfied with the way the people of this great country govern themselves will be officially conducted to the steamship docks will be sent back home.” He added that “in our national life there is no room for I.W.W.-ism and Bolshevism.” The International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, was founded in 1905 as an labor union with global reach and it quickly became notorious among the business and industrial world for its militancy and links to socialism and other far left-wing movements. As for Bolshevism, this referred to the recent Russian Revolution of 1917 and the widespread concern that communism was spreading in the United States, leading to the Red Scare.
It was reported that, as Stephens noted the sacrifices of returning soldiers, a cadre of about seventy seated behind him were cheered lustily by the audience. Comically, film star Mary Miles Minter was supposed to have the first dance of the ball with the governor, but it was learned quickly that Stephens was not one to trip the light fantastic “so the set program was subjected to slight revision.” Moreover, the band played a piece after Stephens finished his remarks and the “pageant of peace” was to have followed, “but when the band began to play several thousand people thought the dance was on and took to the floor,” which was not yielded, even as an announcer begged that they return to their seats. It took a while, but the floor was finally cleared and the pageant, consisting of children in costume performing dances “symbolic of the struggle, and of the final triumph of right over might” ensued.
In the Homestead collection and featured here is an invitation and table reservation order card for a “Supper Dance De Luxe” held that night in the “Franco-Italian Dining Room” of the Hotel Alexandria, the city’s most luxurious hostelry when it opened fifteen years prior. The invite asserted that “this will be one of the most elaborate Supper Dances of the year” and included a $250,000 fashion review, sponsored by Colburn’s, a fur shop on Broadway and Eighth, and de Mille, with this component “combining the magnificent costumes of the de Mille productions with the famous fur creations of ‘Colburn’s.'” Additionally, “twenty Famous Players-Lasky beauties” participated, this being the studio where de Mille worked prior to its morphing into the giant Paramount Pictures. The armistice celebration was to begin at a quarter to 11, while at midnight, “a motion picture of guests dancing will be made.”
While much was made of the solemn remembrance of the lives lost in the war, pride engendered in local and state contributions to the American effort, and celebration of the victory that ended the conflict, the element of the Red Scare was very noticeable when putting together the sources for this post. An outgrowth was the discovery of what remains a little known, but fascinating, legal matter of the time: the arrest, indictments and multiple trials in Los Angeles of Sydney Flowers, who formed the Allied World War Veterans and published The Dugout, in which he was alleged to have published seditious criminal syndicalism advocating a leftist revolution in America.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the remarkable story of Flowers, so be sure to check in and read more about this amazing tale.