The New Era: 1920s. Society and economy in the post war years.
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As discussed, during WWI there was a remarkable cohesion and coordination of American support for the war effort. In the aftermath of WWI, however, the mood of the American public quickly turned into one of general exasperation , along with palpable regret by many for having bothered to sacrifice American lives and treasure in the first place. Wilson’s argument to “make the world safe for democracy” carried far less heft after the threat had abated at war’s end. For many, this “buyer’s remorse” translated into a strongly renewed isolationism, most evident in the Senate rejection of the League of Nations treaty and the resounding defeat of the Democrats in the election of 1920.
The final year of the Wilson administration was also beset by some of the most severe labor unrest in many years. Angered by the recalcitrance of state and federal governments to recognize the right of labor to organize, 1919 witnessed the greatest labor strikes in US history, paralyzing entire industries and even entire cities, as in the case of the “General Strike” in Seattle.
The turmoil in the labor sector was attributed in part to the influence of radical socialists and anarchists. The resulting “Red Scare” produced new state and federal entities to combat the specter of Communism and radicalism, most famously the agency that later became the FBI. Headed by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, the “Palmer Raids” targeted radical groups with charges of criminal syndicalism, jailing thousands and deporting over 500.
The industrial sector of the economy received a significant jolt from war time industries, stumbled into a mild recession in the immediate post war years, but recovered quickly and embarked on the unprecedented expansion that drove the “roaring” 1920s.
American agriculture also boomed during the war years, but as European agricultural production resumed following the war, American farmers were faced with downward pressure on prices. These warning signs in the agricultural sector were eventually obscured by the incredibly robust growth through most of the rest of the American economy.
The incredible industrial growth through the 1920s was fueled in part by technological innovations that greatly increased efficiency, drove down production costs and put many consumer goods within reach of the upwardly mobile working and middle classes.
The automobile is a prime example of industrial efficiency and dramatically increased consumer access. Initially a play-thing for the wealthy, by the early 1920s Henry Ford had perfected the assembly-line production of automobiles, reducing costs to the point that most American families could afford. This “Consumer Revolution” extended to goods and services of all kinds- consumption of durable goods, labor saving devices, and electric gadgets of every variety rose conspicuously.
The Consumer Revolution of the 1920s was driven by near full employment, rising relative wages, easy credit, and a new style of marketing and advertising that focused on emotional appeals to buyers. Using the allure of sexual suggestion and status symbol, Madison Avenue ad firms helped turn traditionally pragmatic and thrifty American consumer appetites into the more voracious consumption we recognize today.
Consumer credit was also an important development of the 1920s. For the first time, many Americans had access to easy credit to finance the affluent dreams peddled by advertisers. In a vibrant economy with seemingly infinite growth on the horizon, there were relatively few voices of reason to caution against living beyond one’s means. Consumer debts later proved to be one of the factors that influenced the onset of the big crash at decade’s end.
In the presidential election of 1920, Republican Warren G. Harding won handily with his “front porch campaign” and a message that he and the Republicans would represent a “return to normalcy,” a slogan that resounded with a public grown weary from the moralistic Progressivism of the Wilson years.
For pro-business Republicans of the era, “normalcy” also meant a return to laissez faire economic policy, a hands-off approach that seemed to be validated by the steady economic growth and widespread prosperity generally enjoyed during the 1920s.
Harding’s administration came to be tainted by scandal, most notably the posthumously revealed Teapot Dome scandal, which involved kickbacks and secret leases to the US naval oil reserves in Wyoming. Harding was ultimately proven not to be directly involved, but the episode is indicative of the major criticisms historians tend to levy at Harding: that he was a mostly inept tool of the Republican machine and its corporate masters, and he appointed unqualified and easily corruptible cronies to important government posts.
Harding did not have to face such criticism because he died of a heart attack while on a speaking tour through the West. VP Calvin Coolidge finished Harding’s term and was reelected by a wide margin in 1924- owing to boom-time economic expansion and a split in the Democratic support.
Detached and taciturn to the extreme, “Silent” Cal Coolidge seemed to extend laissez faire philosophies beyond mere economics, to the Presidency and politics in general. In the heady days and rapid growth of the mid-1920s, Coolidge’s approach appeared to work, and he left office with high approval ratings.
Taking the credit for the economic boom, in 1928 the Republicans nominated long-time Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, and won in a landslide. Although he continued the deregulatory trends of his predecessors, Hoover appeared to be a far more able, energetic, and engaged president than Harding or Coolidge. Hoover’s leadership would soon face a most daunting challenge, however, as the boom times of the 1920s ended with a crash.
Modernism, in the context of the 1920s, refers to the emergence of a “modern” set of social and cultural values- especially among the young and rapidly swelling urban middle classes. Modernism celebrated the “new” and the “now”- reflecting the disillusionment of the post WWI-era, and tending toward secularism, a corresponding faith in science and human progress, and a rejection of traditional social values and sexual mores.
Advancements in science and technology were unveiled at a staggering pace during the 1920s- groundbreaking discoveries about the fundamental nature of science through physics, chemistry, and biology greatly contributed to a modernist/secularist worldview. Other more tangible advancements- like mastery of aviation- (Lindbergh) and innumerable consumer technologies reinforced the idea that the 1920s signaled a bold new age.
Literature of the 1920s also reflected the disillusionment, secularism and changing social values that characterized the era. F. Scott Fitzgerald challenged the attainability of the American dream of wealth and affluence. Ernest Hemingway embodied the disillusionment of the “Lost Generation” of American expatriates lingering in Europe after the war. Closer to home, William Faulkner wrote of the moral decline and decay of the South in his series of novels based in a fictional Mississippi county. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston explored African American culture and disenfranchisement as a part of the larger Black artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.
African Americans were also the source of one of the most popular music of the 1920s. The syncopated rhythms and improvised melodic and harmonic freedoms of jazz, seemed to sum up the fast and loose times. A number of new dances gave the exultant mood of jazz a physical form- in the wild gyrations of the Charleston, Jitterbug, and others
Perhaps the single greatest innovation and factor in shaping a standardized, “modern” American culture was the advent of radio. The first national broadcasts were aired in 1919/20, and by the mid-1920s radios could be found in most American homes, bringing news and entertainment to millions of Americans in cities and small towns across the country. No other factor did more to break down provincial attitudes and shape national tastes, and signal “modernity” than did radio.
Film and cinema also remained immensely popular, and by the end of the 1920s, technologies allowed for the first “talkies,” further revolutionizing that industry.
While many younger Americans and urbanites reveled in the new philosophies and lifestyles of modernism, the rapid socio-cultural transformation of the 1920s was alarming to many. Conservatives of the “old guard” were shocked at what they saw as complete moral decay and envisioned the imminent destruction of civilization itself.
Religious fundamentalists were especially dismissive of secular modernism, for obvious reasons. The most notable confrontation between the two worldviews came in 1925, over the issue of Darwinian evolution. The so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” centered around the teaching of evolution at a Tennessee high school, but quickly became a theological referendum pitting modernism vs. fundamentalism, science vs. religion. In the end, the case highlighted the cultural gulf between science and religion, and many historians see the event as a catalyst for the retreat of fundamentalism in American politics that would remain for nearly 50 years. Although not as active politically as in previous eras, fundamentalism still exerted a profound impact in many aspects of American society and culture.
A more decidedly conservative reaction prevailed with regard to immigration. Ending decades of virtually unlimited immigration, Congress restricted immigration in 1921, followed by even more restrictive laws in 1924 that established quotas by nationality. The quotas were based on the 1890 census, by design to severely restrict the southern and eastern European immigrants who were blamed for promoting radicalism, anarchism, Marxism, and some other bad isms. See the Sacco-Vanzetti case for a sensational example of this variant of anti-immigration nativism.
Another good example of the resurgence of nativist movements is the revival of the KKK, which was reorganized at St one Mountain, GA in 1915. Its anti-Black, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti-anything-but-WASP rhetoric found fertile ground across the nation, boasting membership of over 2 million at its height in the mid 1920s. KKK political machines hijacked several state legislatures, wielding enormous influence until a scandal brought the whole rotten affair to its timely demise.
Tangentially related to both religious fundamentalism and nativism, prohibition of alcohol was achieved in 1919, with the ratification of the 18th amendment and its enforcement via the Volstead Act. As discussed, anti-alcohol movements were nothing new- but groups like the Anti-Saloon League grew more organized and determined through the early 1900s, successfully lobbying many state legislatures to adopt prohibition, before mounting a national campaign. Rising nativism and strong anti-German sentiment during WWI probably gave the movement the final push it needed to pass. Ill-conceived from the beginning, the prohibition experiment is almost universally regarded as a complete failure.
The “Great Migration” of African-Americans to northern and western cities that began during the war continued through the 1920s. The promise of a steady wage and urban lifestyle drew large numbers of southern blacks to industrial jobs.
Although economic opportunities for African-Americans increased with the economic boom of the 1920s, Jim Crow reigned supreme. Southern blacks faced complete disenfranchisement, and even where political organization was tolerated, indifference stifled even basic reforms, such as federal anti-lynching legislation. The resurgence of the KKK brought terror to the doorstep of many African-Americans, and even in northern cities, blacks were segregated into ghettos and faced discrimination at every turn. Racial violence erupted in many cities- examples in Chicago (1919) and Tulsa (1921) are the most notorious of numerous examples through the era.
Meanwhile, the long battle for women’s suffrage finally ended with the passage of the 19th amendment, in 1920. Educational and economic opportunities continued to expand for women in the 1920s, but full economic and socio-political efficacy and parity remained a distant vision- some would argue as yet unfulfilled.