Lectures 16-19 Consolidated (Part 1 --Lecture of Thursday 10 November


I. The early post-WWI years and the 1920’s can be grouped into three broad periods:

          1. The Era of Intolerance (1917-1924);

          2. The Roaring 20’s; and,

          3. The Crash.

II. Today and next Tuesday we will focus on the first two of these periods.

III. The Era of Intolerance actually began during the war itself. Naturally, there developed a great deal of anti-German sentiment among the American population. During the war, intolerance for Germany and all things German reached a fever pitch. Towns with German-sounding names changed them; people with German surnames also changed them to make them sound more Anglo.

          A. Although much of this resentment toward German was natural, it was supported and intensified by a key US government wartime agency--the Committee on Public Information—and two pieces of war era  legislation—the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

          B. The Committee on Public Information began as a government-sponsored pro-war propaganda machine, with the purpose of publishing information about the war effort and maintaining high public acceptance of the war. However, very quickly it came to target German Americans and extolled people to constantly be on their guard with respect to them. Americans were encouraged to watch Americans of German descent closely and to contact government authorities if they sensed anything was amiss. Of course, many members of the public did this with great zeal, and many innocent German Americans were victimized in one way or another.

          C. The Espionage Act of 1917 made it illegal for any American to convey any information that could be construed to interfere with the war effort. It’s enforcement was draconian—Eugene Debs, frequent Socialist presidential candidate, was tried and convicted for giving a speech that “obstructed” the military’s recruitment effort. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for this speech. It was extended in 1918 with the passage of the Sedition Act, which made it illegal to say anything negative about the government.

          D. Even before the end of the war, this strong anti-German sentiment was expanded to include Russians—particularly the Bolshevik/Communists. Recall that after hijacking the Russian Revolution in fall of 1917, one of Lenin’s first steps as leader was to meet with the Germans and negotiate a separate peace treaty (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk). Russia pulled out of the war against Germany leaving Britain and France to face a significantly larger German force.

          E. After the war, the intolerance of the war years focused more directly on the Russian communists, but it also spread to other domestic groups. The Russians held their first meeting of the Comintern (Communist International) in March 1919. It was Lenin’s belief that communism could not survive in Russia alone and required sister revolutions around the world—especially in a modern, industrialized state. It became clear that Germany, in such a weakened state after the war, was the perfect candidate for socialist revolution. Following the Comintern, a national Red Scare swept across the US and Americans began seeing communists everywhere—especially in labor unions like the IWW (International Workers of the World—who were indeed anarchists) and other working class organizations.

          F. Intolerance spread domestically as well. Starting in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan (a violently anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Jew group founded after the Civil War) enjoyed a significant resurgence. As the group’s membership grew, so too did acts of violence that they committed. The KKK was strongest in the South, of course, and typically targeted blacks they believed had become too independent—such as those returning home from fighting in Europe who believed they had earned the right to enjoy all the benefits of American society. In 1919, 70 blacks were lynched in the state of Louisiana alone—most of them WWI veterans. Nativism in general was also prevalent during these years.

          G. A further development, not necessarily on the same level of intolerance as the above mentioned developments, was the emergence of a strong Christian fundamentalist movement in the US. While this group was not intolerant in the same way Nativists were, they saw themselves engaged in a cultural war that to some extent, rages on to this day. The fundamentalists resisted the secularization and “scientization” of American society. They wanted a return to traditional ways and values and believed the society had become corrupted by such close contact with European decadence. During and after the war, science had proven its usefulness—to the point that many Americans came to see science as the solution to every problem. Many Americans moved away from God and the church, and came to accept a society based not on values, but on scientific enquiry. Recall that indeed, this was part of the Progressive movement, which had called for the scientific management of natural resources, scientific management of the economy, and even scientific management of labor.

          H. There are two important events that have come to symbolize this period in American history—two great trials. The first was the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the second is known as the Scopes Monkey Trial.

                   1. Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants living in Massachusetts. They were self-confessed anarchists and members of an Italian anarchist group that advocated violent revolution. The two were arrested for a murder and robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts; and following a brief trial in which key witnesses were not allowed to give testimony, were found guilty and sentenced to death. The trial was a huge controversy and a regular feature of further investigation throughout the 1920’s—even prompting the Novelist/Muckraker Upton Sinclair to write a novel about the case. Sacco and Vanzetti clubs sprang up everywhere among people who believed that the two had not received a fair trial, but had been convicted because of their anarchist beliefs. The two men maintained their innocence to the end, until they were executed in 1927. Controversy still surrounds the case. While many, perhaps most, analysts now believe that Sacco and Vanzetti were indeed guilty, the conduct of the trial itself remains questionable.

                   2. A second trial that captured the spirit of the early 1920’s was the Scopes Monkey Trial. As a part of the rise of religious fundamentalism in the late teen’s, several states had passed laws making it illegal for biology teachers to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution. Rather, teachers had to teach the Biblical creation story as scientific fact. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization devoted to protecting the rights of Americans granted in the US constitution, believed that these laws were unconstitutional. The found a teacher in a small town in Tennessee, John Scopes, who  agreed to defy the law in his state and teach Darwin to his biology students. He did, and was arrested for it. Because everyone realized the explosive nature of the issue, both sides sent their best lawyers to try the case. The ACLU sent Clarrence Darrow, perhaps the most famous defense attorney of the century, to defend Scopes. The fundamentalists sent William Jennings Bryan, Democratic/Populist presidential candidate in 1896 and a long-term fundamentalist and proponent of traditional values. The entire American press corps descended on the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. The trial was sensational, as expected, but the highlight came when Bryan agreed to take the witness stand to be cross examined by Darrow as an expert on the Bible. Bryan was asked about a whale swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, Noah and the great flood, the temptation of Adam in the garden of Eden, and the creation according to Genesis. After initially contending that "everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there," Bryan finally conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. In response to Darrow's relentless questions as to whether the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were twenty-four hour days, Bryan said "My impression is that they were periods."

                   In the end, Scopes was found guilty and the Tennessee law remained in effect for another 20 years. However, it showed clearly the fault lines in American culture—the line that still remains between the secularists with faith in science and the traditionalists with faith in religion.

          I. A final symbol of the age of intolerance that was the period 1917 to 1924 was the election of 1920. Recall that poor Woodrow Wilson was still trying to make the election of 1920 a referendum on the Treaty of Versailles, which still had not been ratified by the US Senate. Opposing him was a little-known Republican named Herbert Hoover, who campaigned on the slogan, “A return to normalcy.” With all the controversy, violence, the red scare and all the rest, the American people voted for normalcy. It was the end of the Progressive Movement in the US, but Progressivism died a predictably confusing death. Along with the Presidential election, two constitutional amendments were up for ratification in 1920—Prohibition, which would outlaw the production, sale, and distribution of all forms of alcoholic beverages in the US, and Women’s Suffrage, which would grant women the right to vote. Both of these constitutional amendments passed. While few can argue with the value of granting women the right to vote, Prohibition did not have the desired effect. The criminalization of alcohol created a new breed of gangster and made criminals out of a huge percentage of Americans.

          J. Between 1921 and 1924, the much anticipated post-WWI recession finally hit the US. Europe simply could not afford the products Americans had to sell. After 1924, however, things began to look up. The recovery was nothing short of spectacular and the country’s mood changed quickly. The “Roaring 20’s” had begun.