Roaring Twenties



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AP Chapters 32-33

American Life in the “Roaring Twenties,” 1919-1929

The Politics of Boom and Bust, 1920-1932
In 1920 Woodrow Wilson was defeated in the U.S. Senate over the issue of the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson had refused to accept the reservations proposed by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and ordered loyal Democrats to vote against the treaty with the Lodge reservation. Wilson proposed to settle the issue before the entire American people in the election of 1920, what he called a “solemn referendum.”
Republican Nomination: As the election of 1920 approached, the Republicans were certain of victory. At their convention in June 1920 they devised a party platform which took no position on any substancial issue of the day. It was intended to appeal to the liberals of the party as well as the conservatives by making no one angry. Theodore Roosevelt was the natural candidate, but he was dead (1919) and his Progressive friends, General Leonard Wood and Governor Hiram W. Johnson (California) neutralized each other in the candidacy battle. A group of Senate bosses met in the famous “smoke-filled” hotel room at the Hotel Blackstone, and informally picked Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio as their candidate for President. Harding had a undistinguished career as a small-town newspaper editor, county judge, and Ohio senator. As a presidential candidate, Harding promised to return America to a more normal lifestyle, a strong lure to most Americans. For vice-president the Republicans selected Calvin Coolidge, governor of Massasschetts - Coolidge had hit the national newspapers in a positive way during the Boston policy strike when he fired the entire striking police department and replaced them. Coolidge announced that public servants had no right to strike against the public safety at anytime for any reason.
Democratic Nomination: Wilson hoped to secure a third term nomination, but his ill health and political opposition ended that dream quickly. Next Wilson hoped to install his son-in-law, Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, but McAdoo suffered from the “crown prince” image and Wilson’s growing unpopularity. Wilson’s radically conservative Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer hoped for the presidential nomination, but Palmer had made too many enemies among the labor unions and immigrants during the Red Scare of 1919 to seriously hope to take the presidential nomination of the Democratic party. The Democrats then turned to James M. Cox, governor of Ohio and wealthy newspaper editor. The Democratic platform came out in favor of the League of Nations. The vice-presidential nomination went to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the young Assistant Secretary of the Navy from New York State, cousin to Theodore Roosevelt.

Harding swept the election by a tidal wave of votes. Eugene V. Debs, socialist candidate, became the first presidential candidate to run for office from a federal prison, a result of his pacifist protests during World War I. Debs won almost a million votes. Harding’s election spelled a death sentence for U.S. membership in the League of Nations.


Red Scare of 1919: Hysterical fears steming from the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 led to the Big Red Scare of 1919-1920. A series of labor strikes at the end of World War I convinced many Americans that bolsheviks were plotting a red revolution in the U.S. Wilson’s chief law enforcement official, Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer, led a sweep of the nation with illegal arrests of 6,000 suspected communists, mostly labor leaders and immigrant radicals. A bombing of Palmer’s home in (Dec.)1919 and a terrorists bomb at the House of Morgan (bank) on Wall Street in (Sept.) 1920 (killed 38, wounded hundreds) added fuel to the hysteria. Conservative businessmen used the Red Scare to destroy unions (labeling them communist and unAmerican). The end of the Red Scare came with the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1921 for the murder of a Massachusetts paymaster and guard. Not convicted based upon evidence (poor and circumstantial)
Ku Klux Klan of 1920s: D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation, was a favorable portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction era. Exhibiting klansmen as heros in white robes, Griffith’s movie led to a resurrection of the Klan. This Klan grew during the 1920s. It nolonger hated just freed slaves, not to the hate list were added anti-foreign, anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic attitudes. The 1920s Klan hated pacifists, communists, gamblers, drinkers, pacifists, femininists - anyone it identified as anything outside the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant power structure of the nation. It was especially strong in the Mid-West as well as the South and reached a peak of 5 million members in the mid-1920s. Almost comic opera except for its violent side (lynching were common) the Klan collapsed and withered in the late 1920s when embezzlement and murder/cover-ups discredited the national leadership of the Klan
Immigration Restrictions: Just as soon as World War I was finished, the heavy flow of immigrants resumed. 1920-21 matched any previous year with 800,000 immigrants, but America had changed. In 1921 Congress stopped the flow temporarily with the Emergency Quota Act. This law limited the flow. In 1924 the Immigration Act reduced the number of immigrants even further and shifted favorite status to those from western and northern Europe. Japanese immigrants were completely prohibited, but no restrictions were placed upon Canadians or Latin Americans wishing to enter the country. These laws were so restrictive that in 1931, for the first time in American history, more people left the U.S. than entered.
Prohibition: One of the last reforms of the progressive movement was national prohibition, achieved by constitutional amendment (18th) in 1919 and implimented by the Volstead Act of 1920. Progressives believed that the disappearance of the saloon would solve most social problems among the working class. Riding the patriotic zeal of World War I, prohibitionists insisted that grains should go to feed our soldiers and allies, not be converted into whiskey. Ratified overwhelmingly, still the prohibition amendment faced strong opposition in the East, in urban areas (especially with large immigrant populations), and among Catholics and Jews. Prohibition was heavily supported in the South and West, in small towns, in rural areas, and among Protestant church groups. Progressives and prohibitionists forgot the American tradition of opposition to government controls over private life decisions - they also forgot the strong drinking traditions of the western frontier now ingrained in all levels of American culture. Prohibition failed almost as soon as it began. The all-male corner saloon was quickly replaced by the speakeasy - only now women were as frequently the customers as men. Beer was replaced as the drink of choice by high-alcohol beverages like whiskey - easier to transport and conceal. Providing supplies of illegal liquor provided funding for organized crime, which quickly spread into other areas such as prostitution, gambling, drugs, and labor unions. By 1930 the annunal income of organized crime was estimated at $12-18 billion - several times the national budget. Even with all this distress, prohibition did result in a drop in the amount of alcohol consumed by the American public, absenteeism in industry decreased, bank savings increased. Prohibition would continue as law until the beginning of the Roosevelt presidency at the peak of the Great Depression.

Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925: Part of the conservative counter-revolution of the 1920s was a series of laws in rural states which forbid the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in public school classes because rural Protestants considered it a contradition of the teachings of the Christian Bible. Tennessee passed its anti-evolution law (Butler Act) in 1925 and it was immediately tested in court. The American Civil Liberties Union advertised in newspapers for a Tennessee school teacher willing to be prosecuted for violating the Butler Act. In Dayton Tennessee a group of town chamber of commerce boosters heard of the ACLU offer and though it was a great way to get free publicity for their little town. They recruited a local teacher, John T. Scopes, to permit himself to be arrested for teaching evolution in his biology classes. Immediately the trial attracted national attention. Clarence Darrow agreed to defend Scopes and William Jennings Bryan volunteered to serve with the prosecution. Scopes lost his case, was fined $100, but the Tennessee Supreme Court threw out his conviction on a technicality to avoid an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tennessee’s Butler Act would remain on the books until 1967.


Mass Consumption Economy: A major change occurs in the American economy during the 1920s. At the foundation of this change was a new industry, advertising - a business specifically seeking to advance consumption and create mass markets. The assembly-line production techniques of Henry Ford had finally solved the problem of mass production, now the business world needed to promote mass consumption. Matched with national heroes like baseball’s Babe Ruth, advertisers sought to convince Americans that they did not possess enough of anything. Sports figures, movie stars, war heroes, historical figures like Washington or King Arthur were all used to hawk products in national magazines, on movie screens, on radio, and on billboards. National brand names were developed so that a consumer could purchase the same brand of breakfast cereal flakes from New York to California, the same brand of shoes or automobile - whatever the desired product, there was a recognizable national brand name. Buying on credit was introduced make large purchases like cars, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and radios easy for the customer.
Automobiles Change America: Of all the consumer products, it was the automobile that most profoundly changed America during the 1920s. Using the efficiency techniques of Frederick W. Taylor and the assembly line developments and standardization ideas of Henry Ford (who simply copied the techiques of pig slaughter houses in Chicago and applied them to his Detroit auto industry), the auto industry evolved into a business which provided direct or indirect jobs for 6 million people (by 1930) and sold 26 million motor vehicles (registered in U.S. in 1929). Tens of thousands of additional jobs were created in support industries such as rubber, class, fabrics, service stations, roadside cafes. The railroads lost their transportation monopoly. Fresh vegetables and fruits could be moved more speedily to market. Suburbs became practical living places for city workers.
Aircraft: Following the exciting air battles of World War I, ex-pilots began looking for jobs as filled with adventur as their wartime activities. Airmail contracts issued by the U.S. Postal Service provided the money to establish private airlines with passenger service during the 1920s. In 1927 Charles A. Lindbergh, attempted to achieve the first solo west to east conquest of the Atlantic Ocean for the $25,000 prize. Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in 33 hours and 39 minutes and was returned to the United States as a national hero. His flight also gave a boost to the flegling aircraft - air passenger service.

Radio: First introduced for commercial radio service in November 1920 (KDKA - Pittsburgh PA), radio became the home entertainment-communcation center of America. By the election of 1932 and the Great Depression, radio becomes the most important communication tool in America and was used extensively by Franklin D. Roosevelt to get his political message across to the American people. Adolph Hitler will use it the same way in Nazi Germany.


Movies: Motion pictures had been a fixture on the American scene since the turn of the century. The Great Train Robbery (1903), a western melodrama, was the first full length film. Nickelodeons, 5 cent theaters, were found even in small towns. In 1915 D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had so impressed the nation that President Wilson called it “writing history across the sky with lightening bolts.” During the First World War the movie became a weapon of propaganda. In 1927 the first talking or sound motion picture, The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson appeared. By 1930 weekly attendance at movie houses was 100 million out of a population of 123 million (obviously some were repeaters - like children).
National Economy: Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon (under Harding, Coolidge and Hoover) believed in the trickle-down theory of economics. The more wealth in the hands of the rich, the more they spend, the more money trickle downs the economic levels to the working class. Mellon, consequently, got Congress to shift the burden of taxation from the wealthy to the middle class with new tax codes which taxed the middle class more heavily than the upper class. Mellon was successful in reducing the war debt. In 1914 the U.S. owed a national debt of just below $1.2 billion. During the war that debt had soared to $23.9 billion. By the 1920s it was $26 billion. Mellon reduced it to $16 billion during his term in office.
Harding and His Government: Warren G. Harding possessed few of the skills necessary to be a successful president. He was not a bad man, but he failed to recognize that he was surrounded by evil men. He was a small-town judge outside of his own league and overwhelmed by the job of the presidency. He did have some of the best minds in the nation in his cabinet. Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of State, has been ranked equal to Thomas Jefferson as one of the best diplomatic chiefs in U.S. History. Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce, who was particularly useful in promoting American business opportunities in overseas markets. Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, brought an arch-conservative point-of-view to the Treasury Department. Mellon intended to return the federal government to the doctrine of laissez-faire. With other Republican conservatives in the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover era, Mellon achieved his goal by placing the courts and the federal bureacracy in the hands of ultra-conservatives like Chief Justice William Howard Taft, appointed by Harding in 1921 (served 1921-1930), and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, appointed by Hoover in 1930 (served 1930-1941). The Supreme Court of the 1920s voided federal child labor laws, stripped away the rights which had been won by labor, and limited federal power to regulate the monopolies. Harding and Coolidge appointments to the Interstate Commerce Commission welcomed the railroad monopolies as friends. Other federal regulator agencies treated other monopolies with equal friendship.
There were two very bad appointments, too. Albert B. Fall, Secretary of the Interior, an old poker-playing partner of Hardings who would bring disgrace to his president with the Teapot Dome bribery scandal, and Attorney-General Harry M. Daugherty - Harding’s campaign manager and old friend, member of the Ohio Gang, who would accept bribes to void prosecutions for violations of the prohibition laws.

Foreign Affairs Under Harding: The U.S. had rejected the Treaty of Versailles and was technically still at war with Germany, so in July 1921 Congress simply passed a joint resolution declaring the war to be over. Harding re-instituted isolationism. After refusing to have anything to do with the League of Nations, Harding eventually did send unofficial observers.



Disarmament was the single foreign policy issue which the Harding administration did pursue. Under the leadership of Secretary of State Hughes, the U.S. government issued an invitation to every major naval power to the Washington Naval Disarmament Conference of 1921-1922. Seeking to avoid an expensive naval arms race, this conference declared a 10 year naval holiday with no more construction of battleships. Britain, the U.S. and Japan were to be allowd to maintain a battleship/ aircraft carrier ratio of 5-5-3. Following the Washington Naval Disarament Agreement was the Five-Power Naval Treaty of 1922 in which Britain and the U.S. agreed to not fortify their possessions in the Pacific to make the Japanese feel more secure. The Nine-Power Treaty of 1922 promised a complete open door for China with every nation given free access to Chinese trade. The last major Harding-Coolidge diplomatic effort was the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 (Pact of Paris of 1928) outlawing war.
At the same time Harding-Coolidge were seeking disarmament talks to cut back upon the costs of weapons, they were hiking U.S. tariff rates to exclude overseas goods from American markets. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 increased tariffs from the 27 percent rate under Wilson to a new high of 38 percent.
Harding Scandals: In early 1923 Charles R. Forbes, director of the Veterans’ Bureau, was found to have been involved with others in the theft of federal funds intended for the construction of veterans hospitals ($200 million) and was sentenced to 2 years in federal prison. In 1921 the Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, became involved with Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, in a plot to illegally lease federal oil reserves. Fall received a bribe of $400,000. In 1924 Fall, Doheny, and Sinclair were indicted, but the trial lasted until 1929. Finally Fall was sentenced to two years, but Doheny and Sinclair were able to slip out with acquittals. In 1924 Attorney General Daugherty was indicted on charges that he had accepted bribes to issue pardons and cover prohibition violators. He was tried in 1927 with two hung juries - he went free. Before all these scandals broke into the press, Harding had died. On a speech trip cross-country in 1923, he took a side trip to Alaska for fishing. Becoming ill, he was rushed to hospital in San Francisco and died of pneumonia and a stoke.
Coolidge Becomes President: Harding’s death brought the dour, serious faced Calvin Coolidge to the presidency. A report described Coolidge as having been weaned on a pickle. He was shy, spoke little, and possessed a nasal New England twang. He was devoted to laissez faire economics - he once said that the man who builds a factory builds a temple and the man who works there, worships there. Like Harding, Coolidge kept Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury, and allowed business complete freedom from regulation.
Farm Problems: Farmers were facing serious problems during the 1920s. During the First World War farmers had gone deeply into debt to buy the land and equipment to supply the nation’s war needs. Now in the 1920s European agriculture had recovered and American overseas food shipments had dropped. The wide-spread adoption of gasoline-powered tractors made farmers much more productive. Farm prices dropped drastically and a depression swept through farming districts that would last the entire decade.
Election of 1924: The Republicans were almost unanimous in their decision to “Keep Cool with Coolidge,” in their convention in 1924, but the Democrats were torn. The party was split between “wets vs. drys,” “city vs. farmers,” “fundamentalists vs. moderists,” “northern liberals vs. southern conservatives.” After 102 ballots, finally the party settled on John W. Davis, a wealth corporation lawyer who worked from J.P. Morgan. The Democratic candidate was now as conservative as Coolidge. Both Democratic and Republican platforms called for conservative policies.
Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin (progressive Republican) now bolted his party and formed a third party movement, the Progressive party. He gained the support of the American Federation of Labor, the declining Socialist party, but especially of the depressed American farmer. The progressive platform called for government ownership of railroads, federal aid for the farmer, new anti-monopoly laws, pro-labor government policies, and a constitutional amendment restricting the power of the Supreme Court to invalidate laws passed by Congress.
LaFollette receive an impressive 5 million votes, but Coolidge over whelmed Davis by almost 16 million votes to 8 million. Coolidge was in again for four more years.
Election of 1928: Coolidge bowed out of the 1928 presidential race by quietly handing slips of paper to White House reporters in the press room one afternoon containing the single sentence, “I do not choose to run.”

The Democrats were still split with internal bickering, but managed to nominate the governor of New York, Alfred E. Smith. Smith had some significant handicaps: he was a “wet” during prohibition, he was a Roman Catholic - the first ever nominated for president, he was a city politician in a nation still dominated by rural Protestant fundamentalists. The Democratic platform supported prohibition and conservative values.

The Republicans turned to the popular Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of State. Their platform only reminded people of the prosperity America had enjoyed under Harding-Coolidge. Radio was very important in this election.

Hoover sounded all-American and dignified on the radio as he called for his program of “Rugged Individualism.” Smith had a Lower East-Side (of New York) twang that made him sound like sa New York gangster. Although Hoover attempted to quash religious bigotry from the Republican side, such anti-Roman Catholic smears still were whispered to damage Smith. The election went overwhelmingly for Hoover with 21 million against 15 million votes (Davis). Electoral count - 444 to 87.


Like Coolidge and Harding before him, Hoover believed in laissez faire capitalism. As Hoover took office in March 1929 the great economic boom of the 1920s was about to bust. The crash came in October 1920 with a loss of $40 billion in paper values on the stock market. American Can drom from a September high of $181 a share to a November low of $86 a share. General Electric ($396 to $168) Montgomery Ward ($137 to $49). 5000 banks collapsed. 7 million workers were jobless by 1930, by 1932 that was 14 million unemployed. Those who had jobs found hours and wages slashed. Bread and soup kitchens were established to feel the hungry, including whole families.



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