The Post WWI Rollercoaster

A.    The End of Progressivism 

I. The Versailles treaty proved to be the last episode of Progressive Foreign Policy. In contrast to the failure of Versailles, the Progressive Era would finish with two victories in domestic politics—Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage—but these victories would not prevent the ultimate repudiation of Wilson and Progressivism in general. 

A.              Wilson at Versailles—Greeted like a savior by the French, expected that other leaders would be forced to accept his peace plan.

a.      This did not happen—the British and French wanted to punish Germany.

b.     Wilson got his League of Nations and little more—still, he declared victory believing that once the League met, it would take care of the problems the rest of the Versailles agreement had created.

B.              He went back to the US expecting the country to back him and though popular opinion was overwhelmingly for him and his plan, Republicans in the Senate were committed to the defeat of the Versailles treaty.

a.      Wilson had failed to include any prominent Republicans in his negotiating team at Versailles, and had run his presidency in a way that had earned him many Republican enemies.

b.     The Republicans in the Senate objected to many elements of the Versailles treaty, but none more than Article 10 of the League of Nations charter—the collective security provision.

c.      After initial defeat in the Senate, and with his health failing, Wilson embarked on a cross-country speaking tour to win public support for the treaty. He suffered a major stroke during the tour and had to cut it short—for the last year of his presidency he was unable to manage many of the duties of the presidency and became increasingly belligerent toward the Senate.

d.     They continued to reject the treaty and never would ratify it—killing Wilson’s dream of a new, democratic world order.

C.              The Versailles Treaty should be seen as a Progressive initiative because it represented an attempt to re-shape human political institutions—albeit international institutions--to be more democratic, fairer, and more efficient. The ultimate rejection of Versailles by the US Senate was also the end of Progressive Foreign policy.

D.              The last hoorah of Progressivism at the domestic level were victories, but as they were being enacted, Wilson and Progressivism itself was being repudiated.

a.      Prohibition—the a constitutional ban on the manufacture, sale, and distribution of liquor that became law on January 6, 1920—was a Progressive reform in that it’s aim was to advance both the spiritual and material lives of America.

                                                    i.     Alcohol was portrayed as the “mother of felony”—with numerous studies showing that the majority of American criminals, bad parents, and so on were abusers of alcohol.

                                                  ii.     Prohibition was also portrayed as a democratic reform that would help reduce corruption—in many cities, the political “machines” that dominated local politics corruptly relied on saloons as places to meet and gather, as well as to recruit election day votes—which were often paid for with drinks!

                                                iii.     Finally, Prohibition was touted as a boon to economic efficiency—alcohol not only reduced worker productivity directly, it also shortened lives and caused accidents on the job, raising insurance rates, and thereby raising prices.

b.     Women’s Suffrage was the final Progressive contribution to American society.

                                                    i.     Women in the US had long enjoyed a greater role in political life than women in Europe, but the right to vote had eluded them for nearly a hundred years since the Suffrage movement had begun.

                                                  ii.     The final push began in 1913, and several Western states granted women the right to vote between 1913 and 1918.

                                                iii.     The push to victory began when Woodrow Wilson changed his position and began to support women’s right to vote in 1918. Wilson pushed for and got a Constitutional Amendment vote in the US Congress.

                                                iv.     It took two full years for enough states to ratify the amendment, but it finally became part of the US Constitution on August 26, 1920.

E.               In addition to the fiasco that was Wilson’s campaign to see the Treaty of Versailles, ratified, other domestic events also led to a decline of Progressive feeling during this period.

a.      Although the economy continued to boom in the early post-war years, with demand from Europe very high, the intolerance of the War years actually got more onerous.

b.     Labor, which had made many sacrifices in the war effort, began to demand more—higher wages and better working conditions. Their demands fell on deaf ears in the corporate sector, leading to a series of violent strikes all around the country.

c.      The Russian Revolution, particularly after the Bolsheviks announced the creation of COMINTERN (Communist Party International) which had the goal of spreading the revolution to other countries, drove Americans into an anti-communist frenzy. The anti-German sentiment of the war years was transferred and magnified to anti-communism.

                                                    i.     Though the actual number of communists in the US was small, Americans began to see them everywhere.

                                                  ii.     The Red Scare was exacerbated by a series of high profile acts of terrorism in 1919—in one case, bombs exploded in 8 cities simultaneously, suggesting a broad, coordinated national effort at revolution.

                                                iii.     The most controversial and symbolic event of the Red Scare period was the arrest and trial of  Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti—two confessed anarchists who were arrested for murder.

1.     They were arrested mainly for their political beliefs, and on very questionable evidence in an unfair trial, were sentenced to death.

2.     Though they earned the support of many Americans, all their legal appeals were denied and they were eventually executed in 1927, still professing their innocence.

d.     Blacks were also subject to harassment during this period. Though 400,000 blacks had served in the Army, their social standing in the US did not improve—in fact, it declined.

                                                    i.     Blacks had moved North in large numbers to work in factories in various war industries.

                                                  ii.     After the War, whites were convinced that blacks were hurting them economically, as they were willing to work for lower wages.

                                                iii.     In the south, the Ku Klux Klan emerged as a powerful group—in 1919, 70 blacks—including black war veterans—were lynched by white mobs.

                                                iv.     In the north, race riots occurred in several cities, the worst of which was Chicago. For more than a week, whites and blacks in Chicago were at war, destroying one another’s homes and businesses. 38 people died, 537 were injured, 1000 were left homeless.

                                                  v.     In the end, blacks could do little but accept the conditions imposed on them by the dominant white society.

F.               By 1920, Americans just wanted to get back to “normal.” They had lost interest in reform, in international affairs, and in politics in general.

a.      In the election of 1920, which Wilson had wanted to turn into a referendum on the Treaty of Versailles, a virtually unknown Republican, William Henry Harding, promising a return to “normalcy,” won in a landslide.

b.     Wilson and his idealistic vision of a new world order, stood repudiated. It was the end of the Progressive Period.