Lecture 17_18: The 1920’s: Return to “Normalcy” and Cultural Change in the 1920s


I. As mentioned at the end of the last lecture, the early years following WWI were tumultuous and chaotic.           

A. Labor, which had sacrificed a great deal for the war effort, began demanding a bigger piece of the economic pie, which had expanded greatly as the US supplied first its allies, then all of Europe with goods and services.                                               

1. There were numerous strikes and a great deal of labor violence, especially in cases where labor unions were influenced by radical ideologies. 

2. The International Workers of the World (IWW), also known as “the Wobblies” was an anarchist labor union which had succeeded in organizing many farm workers and lumber industry workers. Their ideas frightened ordinary Americans and the US government used violent means to stop them. 

B. The “Red Scare” began even before the war ended, but gained momentum quickly when Lenin and his Bolshevik Party in Moscow announced the creation of the Communist International (COMINTERN) which had the express goal of exporting the Communist revolution to other countries around the world. 

1. Americans began seeing communists everywhere, and the hatred of all things German that had been nurtured by the government during the war became a hatred (and fear) of all things communist.) 

a. The most famous victims of the Red Scare were two Italian immigrants with radical political beliefs, Sacco and Vanzetti, who were accused of murder during a robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. 

b. During their trial the judge refused to allow the testimony of several witnesses who might have provided the two with an alibi, and they were convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. 

c. Appeals continued for several years, during which time Sacco and Vanzetti became popular as victims of an unfair trial. They were nevertheless executed in 1927. 

C. With the return on large numbers of soldiers from Europe, it was expected that jobs would be difficult to get. People demanded and got new, severe restrictions on immigration. Nativism, the mistrust of  foreigners, grew during this period, and more people left the US between 1920 and 1935 than entered. 

D. There was also a sharp resurgence in anti-black sentiments in the US, in both the north and the south.  

1. In the south, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) enjoyed a tremendous surge in popularity, claiming some 4,500,000 members by 1924. They terrorized and killed blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. (Luckily, after the economic boom of 1924, membership in the KKK declined sharply—to only 30,000 in 1930.) 

2. In the north, race riots erupted in virtually every major city as whites and blacks fought over jobs.  

II. By 1920, most Americans just wanted things to get back to normal. While Woodrow Wilson tried in vain to turn the election of 1920 into a mandate for the treaty of Versailles, the Republican candidate, William Henry Harding, a virtual unknown, successfully read the mood of the people and promised a “return to normalcy.” He was elected in a landslide. 

A.  The new Republican version of “normalcy” seemed at first to resemble the “laissez faire” policies of earlier years. 

1. Harding was a president with little initiative and few ideas. Like the current US president George Bush, Harding was a “delegator.” In sharp contrast to Wilson, he preferred to let his subordinates make most of the decisions. 

2. In fact, Harding was a stooge—a tool used and manipulated by the Republican Party bosses. 

3. Rather than laissez faire, what emerged was a government that actively used the powers of the presidency to support business. Control of virtually all of the regulatory agencies set up by the Progressives was handed over to the industries they were intended to regulate. 

4. The situation was ripe for scandal, and rumors of scandal soon began to sweep through Washington. 

5. Though it appears that Harding was unaware of what was happening around him, his subordinates were engaged in a widespread pattern of fraud and corruption—Congressmen and Senators were being bribed for vote on legislation favorable to particular industries, agency heads were skimming money from their departmental budgets for personal use. Charles Forbes of the Veteran’s Bureau stole $250 million from his agency, and when threatened with exposure, fled the country.  

6. The most famous scandal is known as Teapot Dome. At the urging of his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, Harding transferred control of two pieces of land (one in Teapot Dome, Wyoming) rich in oil reserves to the Navy Department. The Navy then leased the land to two wealthy businessmen, who gave Hall a “loan” of $500,000. Hall was eventually convicted of bribery and spent a year in prison. 

7. In summer of 1923, as Harding was starting to become aware of what was happening, he told a reporter, “I have no trouble with my enemies…But my friends, my damned friends…they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.” 

8. Harding, before the scandals became public knowledge, went on a speaking tour in the West in summer 1923. He fell ill in Seattle with what was diagnosed as food poisoning. After a partial recovery, he traveled to San Francisco where he died of a heart attack on August 2. He was replaced by his Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge.  

B. The ‘return to normalcy’ is often viewed as a return to isolationism in terms of US foreign policy. However, while the US had rejected the Treaty of Versailles and was not broadly engaged in the world on the political front, it did undertake some token political initiatives and was very active during this period on the commercial front. 

1. The US, after rejecting the Versailles Treaty, negotiated a separate peace with all of the Central Powers. It also tried to set up several institutions designed to prevent future wars. The initiatives, while laudable, proved pointless. 

a. Best known among these was the Washington Naval Conference of 1921. In it, the leading powers negotiated limits on the construction of ships by the main naval powers. The problem was that this was largely a “gentlemen’s” agreement—there was no way to enforce the limits, especially as long as the US remained outside the League of Nations. 

2. Aside from this and a couple of other related political initiatives, US foreign policy became largely a vehicle for the promotion of US business internationally. 

a. The Dawes Plan was designed to stabilize the European economy by loaning huge amounts of money to Germany. It might have helped, but the Republican Congress implemented a huge hike in tariffs in 1922, making it impossible for the Europeans to sell their products in the US. 

b. The combination did little to help Europe and in the end, paved the way for a major increase in the presence of US corporations and banks in Europe. 

C. On the domestic front, the “return to normalcy” proved equally impossible. American society in the 1920’s went through some of the most rapid and profound changes in its history. 

1. First, as mentioned above, the anticipated post-war recession did not occur at first… but it hit finally in 1921. 

2. When recovery began to take place in 1924, it was remarkable. US manufacturing output rose by 60%, inflation was almost non-existent as was unemployment. American’s purchasing power rose rapidly and consumer spending skyrocketed. It was the beginning of the consumer-based economy of today. In this period of great prosperity there were only a few losers—labor, farmers, and blacks.  

D. But the 20’s is best known for its social developments, which took the country in many contradictory directions simultaneously—which is why it is known as the Roaring 20s

1. “Consumerism” was the most obvious sign of the times. 

a. The enthusiasm with which Americans embraced the automobile was astounding— up to 1920, the automobile was a relative rarity, but by 1930 there were 30 million cars on the roads—one for each family. 

b. With new wealth, Americans bought for pleasure, rather than necessity--washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners were popular. 

2. Consumerism was made possible not only by a booming economy, but by also by the development of the advertising industry and a national communication network—radio. At the same time, the number of daily newspapers was shrinking rapidly—600 newspapers died between 1914 and 1926. It was not that fewer people were reading the papers—in fact, more people were reading fewer papers. 

3. These developments contributed to the development of a national culture based on materialism. Sporting events were elevated from local affairs to national obsessions, fashions and fads could be spread instantly. 

4. That culture was not only materialistic, but also, increasingly rebellious against traditional American values. Much of this was the result of Americans’ response to the conservative/progressive reform of Prohibition.

a. Prohibition was a moral issue and to a lesser extent a political one. The problem with it was that the attempt to ban liquor was doomed from the start. There were simply too many places people could make liquor and too many borders to guard. The government was unwilling to pay for the huge numbers of extra police that would have been required. 

b. After the passage of prohibition, more people drank than before—drinking had become fashionable protest against the restrictive morality of the fundamentalists.  

c. “Speakeasies” developed in every city. Speakeasies were places that people gathered to drink illegal booze. They became very popular as places to reject the conservative values and led to the emergence of a significant counter-culture. There were some 50,000 Speakeasies in New York City alone. 

d. “Flappers,” women who publicly rejected social restrictions on their dress and behavior emerged from the Speakeasy scene. Jazz became a popular music form because of them also. 

e. Of course, gangs organized to transport and sell liquor proliferated and wars between them created one of the worst outbreaks of crime in history. Gangsters killed 5000—mostly in daylight hours in public places. 

f. Prohibition was abandoned in 1933 with the passage of the 21st amendment to the US constitution. 

5 In this environment, American values were changing rapidly. The place of religion in people’s life began a long, slow decline. Despite this, there was a strong religious fundamentalist movement that tried its best to prevent the decline of religious sentiment in American society. 

a. Religious fundamentalism had been on the rise since the early teens and one of its main targets was the increasing (progressive) faith in science and scientific management of both business and natural resources. 

b. Fundamentalists had passed laws in several states that outlawed the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in the schools—teachers were forced to teach the story of creation as told in the Bible as fact. 

c. The rise of the scientific mentality caused more and more people to want to challenge these restrictions. This resulted in one of the most famous trials of the 1920s: the Scopes Monkey Trial. 

i. In Tennessee, the legislature passed a law forbidding the teaching of any theory that denied the story of creation as told in the bible. 

ii.     A teacher named John Scopes violated the law and was arrested. 

iv.     The ACLU sent the famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow to defend him while the conservatives were represented by William Jennings Bryan. 

v. The trial, the “Monkey Trial” was a media circus that forced conservatives to defend their literal interpretation of the bible. 

                                                                                vi.     Scopes was found guilty, but conservatives were embarrassed. 

6. There were also significant numbers of other spiritual, but non-religious, people who were disenchanted by the crass materialism of the new America. WWI had been fought for noble goals—but with the defeat of the Treaty of  Versailles a just peace had not been won. Instead, what had been won was purely material wealth while the democratic spirit that had inspired the war effort was buried beneath an avalanche of materialism. Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, HL Mencken, Sinclair Lewis,  F. Scott Fitzgerald—known as “The Lost Generation--” abandoned the US and moved to Paris, which became a center of American art during some of its most productive years in history.

E. It is possible to understand the 20s as, fundamentally, the triumph of escapism over concern. People felt that since Progressivism had failed to cure the social ills of America, and since victory in World War I and Wilson had failed to create a just international peace, they should just forget about these problems and focus on enjoying themselves—“Don’t worry, be happy,” would be an appropriate slogan for this period. This escapism, and this “don’t worry, be happy” attitude, would lull many Americans into a false sense of infallibility. The investment craze of the mid-1920s and resultant stock-market crash would be harshly sobering to an American public intoxicated by the good-times the escapism of the 1920’s had brought.