“Americanism is Becoming the Religion of the Country”: Fanny Bixby Spencer on “Militarism in America” in “The Open Forum,” 19 June 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In 1866, having left Los Angeles, where he’d lived and prospered for nearly four decades, for San Francisco, Jonathan Temple, the second Anglo to live in the frontier Mexican pueblo, sold his 27,000-acre Rancho Los Cerritos for just fifty cents an acre to Flint, Bixby and Company, a firm of relatives from Maine who developed a sheep-ranching empire in northern California before venturing south.

Jotham Bixby and his wife Margaret Hathaway settled in Temple’s substantial two-story adobe house, constructed in 1844, and raised nine surviving children there, the youngest being Fanny (1879-1930). She grew up amid wealth and privilege and was educated locally before going to the exclusive Wellesley College in Massachusetts (a school in which Jonathan Temple’s nephew Walter hoped to enroll his daughter in the mid-1920s).

Her studies in sociology included working with women who were renowned for their work with unions and pacifism and, as her political leanings developed, she also drew on her family, specifically the work of her mother’s father, a Congregationalist minister who advocated for woman suffrage amd the abolition of slavery. Fanny, who was appalled by poverty she saw while traveling in Italy, worked in settlement houses in Boston and San Francisco.

Long Beach Telegram, 2 December 1908.

Though her politics were very different than that of her father, called the “Father of Long Beach,” he gave her a generous allowance, which, it was reported, she mostly gave to people in need. She also had a serious interest in art, operating her own studio in downtown Long Beach, and wrote poetry, with pieces occasionally published in newspapers. Social causes, however, dominated her time and, in 1908, she became a deputy constable and police matron for the city jail in Long Beach, working with women and children in troubled circumstances, serving in this position for a couple of years. She also served on a state juvenile probation commission for a single term.

By the early 1910s, socialism was gaining a serious foothold in Los Angeles, long dominated by conservative Republicans, and she began to publicly espouse her alliegiance to it along with her work with social causes and woman suffrage, the latter achieved in California in 1911. Two years later, Socialists in Long Beach even nominated her to be their candidate for mayor, though she declined to accept (her brother, George, had just been acquitted of a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor girl, and her father likely was horrified by the idea of her running for office under the leftist banner).

In early 1917, Jotham Bixby died, leaving an estate valued at well over $3 million, half of which went to his widow. Though Fanny’s brothers received $375,000 each right away, she was left half that up front and then her brothers and other family were appointed to keep the rest in trust for ten years. Why this was did not get explained in press coverage, but one wonders if Jotham was concerned about what she would do with her money. There was also stock that she inherited, so that her actual wealth was about $1 million shortly afterward.

Pomona Progress, 15 August 1917.

Her next big cause was pacifism in the face of the horrors of the First World War and especially as the United States, which was determinedly neutral during the first few years, entered the conflict by declaring war on Germany in spring 1917. Already long concerned with war, Fanny coupled her activism against the conflict with a determination to bring attention to the singing of the national anthem and the flag salute by refusing to participate in these patriotic rites during meets at the Long Beach Unitarian Church, which she’d joined after leaving the Congregational Church.

In 1918, she married Carl Spencer, who she’d met several years earlier when they were both active in Socialist circles, and, while the couple briefly lived at his Coachella Valley ranch east of Palm Springs, they soon moved to a Bixby family ranch in Orange County in what was then known as Harper. In succeeding years, as the community became Costa Mesa, the Spencers were prominient developers and benefactors, including providing land for a library and park.

In the aftermath of the world war, Fanny continued her activism, including serving on a committee of the Women’s Peace Society, an international organization, and was particularly concerned with the growing military spirit and patriotism commingled with an aggressive stance against leftist ideologies, including Socialism and Communism. Controversies also continued with her advocacy peace and her quixotic efforts to curtail the use of the flag salute and singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in schools, as well as her support for such unions as the International Workers of the World (I.W.W., or “The Wobblies.”) In 1923, she put up bond for a trio of men, accused of being “Wobblies and who were arrested in Huntington Beach on charges of “criminal syndicalism.”

Los Angeles Record, 9 July 1923.

A great admirer of Leo Tolstoy and his attitude about war, the poor and political issues, she continued to speak publicly about him, occasionally published poems, and wrote essays and articles. In 1923, she caused consternation in Long Beach when she applied for a city permit to host a Socialist meeting at Bixby Park, donated by her father, and ran into a determined bureacratic roadblock when perennial presidential candidate Eugene Debs was to speak.

An event was allowed to take place provided that, not only was Debs not allowed to be on site, but his name was not to be mentioned. Fanny and the Rev. Clinton J. Taft, of the regional chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), addressed a crowd, said to be some 3,000 persons, and mentioned Debs’ name in defiance of the authorities. Her talk was titled “American Civil Liberties Under Our Constitution.”

She also espoused racial equality and hosted Chandler Owen, who with A. Philip Randolph, was the publisher of the influential black publication, The Messenger. When Owen came to Los Angeles in March 1922 to speak at a mass meeting in Los Angeles calling for African-American equality, Fanny attended. The next year, when he returned to the area, she hosted him for lunch at her Costa Mesa ranch. In 1924, she published “A Repudiation of War” in The Messenger.

Pittsburgh Courier, 1 March 1924.

In early 1926, Fanny spoke in the ethnically diverse Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which also had a significant presence of leftists, especially among its Jewish residents, and where Fanny had worked nearly two decades before with Molokans who fled Czarist Russia for places like the United States. Her topic was “Compulsory Military Training and the Boy Scout Movement,” though she also was concerned about the indoctrination of children regarding militarism, something that was reflected in the popularity of military schools, such as those in Los Angeles and Pasadena where Walter and Laura Temple sent their sons for several years after the war, but, in her mind, in public school, as well.

A few months later, she published an essay, “Militarism in America,” in the 19 June edition of The Open Forum, the publication of the Southern California branch of the ACLU and which is tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings. In the article, Fanny decried the “program of military training which the government and the capitalistic interests behind the government are putting over on the people so effectually at the present time.” She was also concerned with “the psychological influences rampanty in the land which are fast making America the greatest military nation on earth.”

Los Angeles Record, 25 February 1926.

Homing in on her subject, she added that “the great menace of the time is the militarization of the American public school system.” She claimed that the late was already receding in the memories of the nation’s people and the young people of the country either didn’t remember it or thought of it in terms of “thrills and flags and marching glory.” Yet, she went on

Just as the war lords in 1917 deceived the youth of the country into entering a war for democracy, the militarists and plutocrats of today are permeating the minds of school children, college students and young citizens in general with a virulent patriotism which means eventually war, if it is not checked by public opinion before it goes much further.

Americanism is becoming the religion of the country. Every school house, and every school room within every school house, in the public school system, displays a flag which must be saluted daily or on occasion by every child in the school under penalty of being sent to the juvenile court as an incorrigible if he demurs, or even if his parents object for religious or other reasons.

War songs, war verse, war stories, war heroics in the school are the daily mental food of children, especially in the impressionable years of the grammar grades. Thus the pupils are well prepared psychologically for the actual military training of the high school and colleges.

She cited the recitation of poems, the reading of short stories, and oratorical contests on the Constitution as examples of where “imperialism and militarism are having their inning through an attractive appeak to students of intellectual ability to serve as their pawns.”

Fanny then turned to the idea that “one of the most subtle and insidious ruses of the militarists is the Boy Scout movement and compared a military training manual of wide use with principles found in the scouting handbook about the paramount elements of discipline and obeying orders, as well as drills, uniforms and other military-like elements. To her, substituting wood-working and games for guns was obvious and that scouts were being prepared for war through participation in activities of all kinds, including appearing in parades with veterans organizations.

By taking boys of a young age, forming them into regiment-like groups, dressing them in uniforms, stressing discipline, inculcating “a warrior’s code of honor,” and requiring total obedience to superiors, she asked “what else can this movement be but a kindergarten for war?” She cited an army officer who wrote “the time is coming when the military will take more interest in the Boy Scouts” because “it is on this organization that the future defense of the nation has its foundation.”

Beyond this, there was the growing popularity of the R.O.T.C. (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps” in high schools, which even extended to the fact that “in Long Beach we have a flourishing Girls’ Rifle Corps, presided over by the same United States Army officer who instructs the boys.” The Long Beach Press was cited from an article two years prior about how plans for a military unit for girls at Polytechnic High School was such that “the interest taken by the girls is almost universal” and 206 joined the rifle club when the article appeared. She added that the Los Angeles Times in early 1925 noted that Manual Arts High had competitive military drills and a girls rifle contest.

The emphasis on ROTC training only ramped up at colleges and universities, of which a few (88, she reported, adding that there were 75,000 college and 40,000 high school students in such programs) made it compulsory and “being a part of the government program, it is considered treasonable for students to offer opposition to it.” Moreover, pay and uniforms offered incentives for students to join, while the sense of honor and prestige, she claimed, “is an appeal to the peacock proclivities of young men who wish to impress their fellow students, especially those of the opposite sex, whose intellects have not developed beyond being impressed by the sight of a military uniform.”

After quoting extensively from the military training manual referred to earlier, Fanny wrote “after reading all this one wonders what the human race is coming to” and averred that

it is really time for our spirited young people to rise in revolt against the war department which foists this incubus of militarism upon them and hampers their opportunity of education. I appeal directly to the young. Refuse longer to be duped into furthering the ends of American imperialism . . . You cannot make a worse mes of things than we have made . . . Be bold. Defy your elders who force these chains upon you . . . We who lived through the World War, seeing it in its hideous reality and refusing to take part in its debauchery, because our consciences forbade us to lend our aid to the killing of men, offer you our support in any young people’s movement which you may institute against militarism.

Fanny conitnued on, suggesting that “the only antidote for militarism is a profound and fearless pacficism which makes no compromise with military glory and prestige.” She cited the Women’s Peace Union and other efforts to combat nationalism and militarism, while pushing for diplomacy to settle conflicts between nations (though nothing was said specifically about the League of Nations, which the United States refused to join and which was perpetually weak and ineffective.)

She also added that “if you or I salute the flag or stand up to the tune of that barbaric war whoop called The Star-Spangled Banner, we are complying with the demands of militarism, sinister mental militarism which is driving us headline into another World War for the magnificent destruction of civilization.” She also turned to Tolstoy and his pronouncements such as that “Patriotism is slavery . . . [that] promises nothing but a terrible future.”

Fanny allowed that she once believed “that there is a good aspect to patriotism,” but the war brought a version that was “stark and bold, relentless and cruel, murderous and mad” and, therefore, equivalent to war. She feared, though, that “civilizations have burned themselves out in the fire of patriotism, and will continue to do so, unless the forces of creative evolution can regenerate man by calm, slow process ot the virility of independent thought.”

Los Angeles Record, 12 November 1928.

She ended with a pair of poems, “Draft Day” and “The Spartan Mother,” and needless to say they are visceral and unrelenting in their critique of war and passion for pacifism. Not surprisingly, she soon turned to the stage for her crusade, as her play “The Jazz of Patriotism” was performed at the Egan Theater in Los Angeles in fall 1928.

Reviews generally focused on the polemics and the unstinting emphasis on chracters unleasing invectives against war and shrill propaganda for peace. Not unlike reviews for “The Captive,” discussed in last night’s post, critics did not believe audiences were entertained so much as bludgeoned by Fanny’s piece. Yet, the two-week run was extended by three more as audiences were drawn to see the work.

Long Beach Sun, 1 April 1930. Note the photo of the Rancho Los Cerritos house in which Spencer was born and raised and which was built in 1844 by Jonathan Temple.

Not long after the play closed, Fanny experienced a dramatic decline in health due to cancer and her public presence was abruptly curtailed. She died of the disease on 31 March 1930 and was lionized in the Santa Ana Register the next day for her “stamina and individuality and character” and for being “so daring in behalf of what she believed to be right.” She was also lauded for “the sacrifice that she underwent in meeting hostility and criticism and desertion by friends.”

Moreover, the paper opined that “the causes in which she labored were noble” with one becoming more popular recently, though she was the subject of “considerable antagonism,” this being her anti-war activism. Even her socialism was thought to “antagonize no one” as it came from her feeling of “the injustice of economic inequality” and this came as the nation was in the early stages of the Great Depression. The Register concluded that “it is impossible to estimate the good work which should be credited to her life.”

Santa Ana Register, 1 April 1930.

Characteristically, Fanny left her $2.3 million estate equally to her widow, an adopted Japanese daughter, a ward of hers, her housekeeper and three other employees, two Japanese and one Latino. Monthly allowances were left to children deserted by their parents, while provisions were made for the Costa Mesa library and other causes, but, of course, specified that the library and park could not be used for anything related to the military or the Boy Scouts.

Leave a Reply