Roaring Twenties

World War I changed the United States, both at home and abroad.  The American economy experienced a remarkable period of growth as a result of Europe’s Great War, resulting in an economic boom that continued even afterwards.

American industry supplied the war.  After Wilson asked Congress to help “make the world safe for democracy,” the entire American economy was mobilized to support the war effort.  The government managed war production with the War Industries Board, which told factories what to make.  Goods were rationed at home, meaning the public went without in order to send important supplies to the war.  When the men went off to fight, women and African-Americans—moving north as part of the Great Migration—took over the jobs vacated in factories, keeping production moving.

The country went from a debtor nation—one who owes money—to a creditor nation—one that is owed money.  Despite becoming a world player because of the war, afterwards the country returned to a policy of isolationism.

During the war, a major Constitutional issue was raised.  Congress passed the Espionage (1917) and Sedition (1918) Acts.  Both measure made it illegal to criticize the government during the war, just like the Alien and Sedition Acts from the War of 1812.  The laws were challenged in the 1919 Supreme Court case of Schenck v. the United States.  Schenck was a socialist who published pamphlets urging people to fight against the draft.  Schenck was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act.  His defense was that the Act was unconstitutional because it violated his First Amendment right to free speech.  In it’s ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Espionage Act did not violate the Constitution because free speech did not extend to acts of insubordination.  The ruling established the precedent of the “clear and present danger” test.  This means that government can limit one’s free speech if it can be established that it is a threat to national security.

The Roaring Twenties was an interesting time of conservative values and change.  This is most evident in the advent of Prohibition and the reaction to it.  In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution made the manufacture or sale of alcohol illegal in the entire United States.  American alcohol consumption had become a huge problem for society, for a number of reasons.  People drank more and in this era, the popular types of alcohol were had higher alcohol content.  Domestic violence was a huge problem and laws did not adequately protect women and children.

The Temperance Movement originally began to limit the consumption of alcohol, transformed into the “tee-totaling” movement, because it demanded total—with a capital T—abstinence from drinking.  State and local governments began to ban alcohol throughout the country.  And in 1919, it went nationwide.

But the effects of Prohibition proved disastrous.  The new law was unpopular and many people violated it.  In fact, it caused the growth of organized crime as mobsters—such as Al Capone—dominated the illegal distribution of alcohol through the era.  By 1933, it was clear that Prohibition was a failure.  The Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, lifting the ban on alcohol.

The role of women, transformed by their entrance into the working world—although temporary for most—during the war and by the Nineteenth Amendment, was changing.  This change is often symbolized by “flappers”—the young women of the era know for their short, bob hairstyles, short skirts and “immoral” behavior—dancing, drinking and smoking in public.  Life for African-Americans also saw change during the 1920’s.

The Great Migration brought many African-Americans to northern cities to work in factories.  African-American culture had a golden age, with the birth of Jazz music and the Harlem Renaissance—the art movement celebrating black culture and demanding equality. Poet Langston Hughes’ work typified the era.

In the era after World War I, racial tensions were at a high.  Nativist groups—people that hate foreigners—wanted to halt immigration, fueled by the Red Scare—fear that communists sought to overthrow the government.  Fear of communism was rampant after the Russian Revolution.  Communists open preached for the overthrow of capitalism.  A famous trial of two Italian immigrants accused of a crime that they did not commit illustrates these Nativist attitudes.  Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of murder and were convicted and executed with no true evidence.

With the migration of African-Americans north, hate crimes became common in northern states.  The Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence during the 1920s, particularly in the mid-west.  The Klan’s hatred was exclusive to black; they also hated Jews, Catholics and immigrants.

And another example of the cultural conflict of the time came in the Scopes “Monkey Trial.”  In 1925, a biology teacher in Tennessee was recruited to challenge a state law prohibiting the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools.  The theory was seen as a challenge to the Biblical story of Creation.  The trial received national attention.  Ultimately, John Scopes lost his case, being forced to pay a small fine.  But the case is for more significant to show the conflict within America as it tried to deal with the rapid changes as it moved into the modern era.

After the war, three Republican Presidents occupied the White House, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.  In general, the country was experience an economic boom—a period of rapid growth—while government tried to stay out of the way as much as possible, regulating business little.  Their policies were favorable to American business as part of a kind of backlash from Progressivism.  They supported high tariffs, which benefited American business as foreign goods hit the market at higher prices.  Anti-big business laws passed during the Progressive Era—such as the Sherman and Clayton Anti-trust Acts—were not enforced, allowing big business to make huge profits again.  Taxation was shifted to the middle and working classes as tax breaks were offered to the wealthy and large corporations.

Warren Harding’s administration was trumpeted as a “Return to Normalcy.”  This “normalcy” was not just about getting back to normal after World War I, but also because of the unrest—protest movement, strikes, etc.—of the Progressive Movement.  Harding’s term was tarnished by the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal, one of the largest examples of political corruption in American history.  Harding’s Secretary of the Interior—Albert B. Fall—was given a hefty bribe (equivalent to $6 Million today) by oil companies in exchange for a lease to drill for oil in places that the government had set aside for the U. S. Navy to have exclusive rights to.  When the deal was uncovered, the Supreme Court returned the oil fields to the Navy and the Secretary was fined and imprisoned—the first member of the President’s cabinet to go to jail.  Harding has not been shown to have any involvement in the scandal, but it cast a black eye on his administration nonetheless.  He died of a heart attack three years into his term in office.

Calvin Coolidge continued Harding’s pro-business policies, famously quoted as saying “the business of America is business.”  After finishing Harding’s term, he was elected in 1924 and did not seek re-election in 1928 despite his popularity.  With Coolidge stepping aside, Herbert Hoover won the Presidency in 1928.  Unfortunately for Hoover, the prosperity of the 1920’s gave way to disaster during his time in office.

Hoover made a name for himself as by leading successful programs to feed war-torn Belgium and to feed the troops in Europe.  Hoover believed that American success came from a spirit of “rugged individualism,” believing that if people wanted to work hard that anything was possible.

In October 1929, the Stock Market crashed, with values dropping $30 Billion within a few days.  This was caused by several factors.  In the 1920s, more people invested more money into the stock market than ever before.  Prices rose considerably, making investing even more attractive.  Many of these new investors were also buying on credit (called margin loans).  When the market crashed and the banks wanted their money paid, people couldn’t pay it.  The 20’s also were an era of overproduction; too many goods were being made.  Because of supply and demand, prices went down and companies were struggling to keep afloat.  International trade suffered in the period after World War I.  Countries set protective tariffs to protect their countries goods as they tried to rebuild their economies after the war.  American businesses couldn’t sell their extra goods overseas as they hoped.

Despite the creation of the Federal Reserve System, the banking system of the United States still had some problems.  In particular, the 1920’s prosperity was fueled by credit (buy now, pay later).  When the economy tanked, people could not pay their bills.  Also, segments of the American population were struggling even before the Crash.  Half of Americans—including African-Americans, farmers, and Native-Americans—lived below the poverty line even during this era of economic growth.  The Stock Market Crash caused a financial panic.  As banks called in loans, their bad investments caused many banks to go out of business.  When a bank went under, all of its customers lost the money they deposited in it.  People began rushing to their banks to withdraw all their money before their bank went out of business.  The system couldn’t handle everyone taking their money out at once, actually causing more banks to go under.  This panic, more so than the Stock Market Crash, brought on the Great Depression.

Hoover believed that government could not solve the Great Depression.  He thought that it would eventually fix itself, if everyone just worked harder.  So he did nothing to help.  Millions were unemployed and struggling to make ends meet and Hoover’s government was unwilling to help them.  He believed that American businesses would voluntarily help people and that the government didn’t need to, an idea he called “volunteerism.”

Hoover’s image suffered when World War I veterans tried to protest to get their military pensions early because of the Depression.  A large group of these veterans—called the Bonus Army by the press—went to Washington, setting up “Hoovervilles”—a makeshift town of cardboard shacks—and took over federal building demanding they get paid early.  Hoover ordered General Douglass MacArthur to clear out the veterans by force.  MacArthur went a step further and had the troops torch the Hoovervilles.  It was a public relations nightmare for Hoover because it seemed to be further proof that the President didn’t care about the people.

At the same time as this crisis, on the Great Plains, farmers were dealing with a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions.  Over the years, the rich farm lands of the mid-west had been over-farmed.  The land struggled to even grow grass, let alone crops.  A series of droughts dried up the land and weird natural phenomenon created huge dust storms, caring dust clouds hundreds of miles away.  The region was called the Dust Bowl.  Mid-west farmers were struggling to pay their bills even before this catastrophe.  Unable to farm, they couldn’t pay their bills and their farms started to be foreclosed on by the banks.

Hoover changed his mind and did try to help at the end of his Presidency, but it was too little too late.  He created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide emergency, government loans to banks and business to get them get the economy running again.  It wasn’t enough to make a difference.  When Hoover ran for re-election, people wanted a change.  They voted for Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt instead.

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