Lecture 17:The 1920’s 1:Return to “Normalcy”


I.  The new Republican version of “normalcy” initially resembled the “laissez faire” policies of earlier years.

a. 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.

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

c. 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.

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

e. 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.

i. 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.

f. 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.”

g. 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. 

II. 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 engaged in the world on the political front, it was very active during this period on the commercial front.

a. 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.

i. 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.

b. 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.

i. The Dawes Plan was designed to stabilize the European economy by loaning huge amounts of money to Germany. It may 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.

ii. 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. In Latin America, US investments more than doubled between 1924 and 1929. Though the investments were huge, Latin America received few benefits locally. By the end of the 1920’s complaints of Yankee Imperialism reached new, alarming proportions. 

III. On the domestic front, the return to normalcy was anything but. American society in the 1920’s went through some of the most rapid and profound changes in its history.

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

b. 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. 

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

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

i. The enthusiasm with which Americans embraced the automobile was astounding—by 1930 there were 30 million cars on the roads—one for each family.

b. 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 newpapers 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.

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

d. In this environment, American values were changing rapidly. The place of religion in people’s life began a long, slow decline. The role of women had changed as a result of their work during the war years (and of course,, the passage of Women’s Suffrage in 1920). The importance of education was elevated.

e. There were also significant numbers of people who were disenchanted by the crass materialism of the new America. WWI had been fought for noble goals—but what had been won was purely material wealth while the spirit was buried beneath an avalanche of materialism. Hemingway, Chaplin, HL Mencken, Sinclair Lewis,  F. Scott Fitzgerald—known as “The Lost Generation.”.

f. Mainstream culture was challenged spiritually by its artists and writers, but in very different ways by other groups—particularly—the Gangsters, the KKK, and Religious Fundamentalists. 

V.              The post-WWI economic boom in the US led to significant cultural changes.

VI.            The most obvious change was the rise of materialism.

a.      With new wealth, Americans bought for pleasure, rather than necessity.

                                                    i.     Washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners were popular.

b.     The best example of the new consumerism was the automobile.

                                                    i.     Up to 1920, the automobile was a relative rarity.

                                                  ii.     By 1930, there were 30 million cars in the US— 1 car per family.

                                                iii.     With the development of the radio and mass marketing, fads and fashions could be transmitted across the country very fast.

VII.          Some groups believed that consumerism represented a decline in the traditional morality or spirituality of America.

a.      Religious conservatives were shocked by the “flappers--” women who dressed in short skirts and emphasized their sexuality,

                                                    i.     They also opposed “scientific secularism”—which valued science rather than religion as the basis of society.

                                                  ii.     Generally speaking, these views were held in rural areas.

b.     The best-known effort to preserve traditional culture was the “monkey wars.”

                                                    i.     Religious conservatives opposed the teaching of evolution in the schools.

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

                                                iii.     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.

c.      A second group that rejected the new culture was “The Lost Generation.”

                                                    i.     Many writers and artists believed that the new America was too materialistic and shallow, and that life had become meaningless.

                                                  ii.     Many were disenchanted because they thought WWI had been fought for nothing.

                                                iii.     Also, with Europe in tatters, the new American infatuation with materialism seemed wrong.

                                                iv.     Many of “The Lost Generation” left the US and lived in Paris, which in the 1920’s became a center of American literature and art.

                                                  v.     Famous writers in this group included Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

                                                vi.     The deep alienation of the art and literature community produced some of the greatest works in American history.

VIII.        The culture clash that began in the 1920’s did not stop there.

a.      Though postponed by the Depression and WWI, the struggle against materialism by these two groups continues today.