The following deals with events, conflicts, and people during the years 1919-1929.
DISCLAIMER: This does NOT serve as a replacement for reading Chapter 31.
As the First World War ended, more and more Americans moved away from radical, new ideas and embraced new technology as the twenties roared.
The Red Scare from 1919-1920 came after the 1917 communist revolution in Russia. Anti-communist tensions drove up prices and all but killed unions. Attorney General A. Mitchel Palmer led new crusades against left wingers. The Scare reached its boiling point in September 1920 when a bomb when off on Wall Street, killing 38 people. States began to pass legislation against free speech, making even the suggestion of violence for social change illegal.
Unions and organized labor suffered when the ‘open shop’ now became the norm. The Red Scare hysteria convicted Sacco and Vanzetti, two atheist Italian immigrants, who were eventually put to death in 1927. They became the face in the move towards moderation.
The KKK rose to huge numbers in early 1920s. They pretty much hated anyone who wasn’t of ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon blood. They were extremely popular in the Mid-West and the Bible Belt and rose to 5 million members in the mid-1920s. They fully embodied the ultraconservative grip that had swept the nation after WWI.
The US was slowly moving towards isolationism. The 800,000 immigrants that arrived from 1920-1921 were met sourly with nativism. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 restricted European immigration to just 3% of what their nationality in the US was in 1910. Say there were 100 German-Americans in the US in 1910; only 3 Germans could now immigrate.
This was cut to 2% with the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924. These laws only expanded the US nativism– Canadians and Latin Americans were exempt. The Act also cut off immigration to Japs. Intellectuals Kallen and Bourne set forth the idea that foreigners harmonized the American experience and made the US great. Their ideas were championed by Progressives.
The Eighteenth Amendment made prohibition law. Yet another nativism ideal, most immigrants were opposed to it and saw drinking as a style of sociability.
The Amendment never made the consumption of alcohol illegal and soon rum-runners flourished. Soldiers were against it– it was passed while they were overseas. The poor were against it– the rich could buy all the illegal booze they wanted. The enforcement officials were understaffed and rarely had success. However, bank savings increased and workers became more productive.
Now for the enormous amount of bad things caused by prohibition: illegal alcohol made top dollar, mobilizing gangs, who in turn bribed police, which caused rampant violence. Al Capone led the Chicago Gang Wars of the 1920s. He was a big-shot booze distributor who gained notoriety for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. No evidence could convict him of any crime until he was nabbed for tax evasion.
Besides illicit alcohol trade, the gangsters also got profitable from prostitution, gambling, and drug dealing. Gangs earned anywhere from $12-18 billion annually. Their growth was decreased severely by the Lindbergh Law in 1932, which made abduction, a common practice, a death-penalty offence.
Like illegal booze, education took off in 1920’s as well. The high school graduation rate doubled when Prof. John Dewey led the charge. He believed in progressive education and that skills for life were equally as important as arithmetic. Science was also progressing, wiping out the hookworm infection and increasing life expectancy. But soon fundamentalists swept onto the scene.
Much like Henry Ford, these fundamentalists wanted to do away with jazz and the teaching of evolution. Dayton, Tennessee was the center of the big fight against evolution. In the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, John Scopes was indicted for teaching evolution. William Jennings Bryan, that guy who once ran for President a billion times and served as Secretary of State, was the prosecutor.
Defending Scopes was Clarence Darrow, a quick-thinking defense lawyer who made Bryan look stupid. Their discussions were ruled pointless as they were arguing the law and not the case at hand.
Let’s evolve past this debate and look at the economy. Things were in full swing. New tax policies made capital investment pay off big time. One such investment in the automobile forever changed the face of America. But more on that later. Sports were also huge. Babe Ruth was better known, and was paid more, than the President.
Now back to cars. Honestly, a caveman organized this textbook. In the 1920s, machines reigned as the messiah. The automobile was Super Jesus. As Henry Ford began producing his Model Ts, Detroit grew enormously in population. Fred W. Taylor invented the stopwatch, but who knows why that’s important.
There was about one car for every fifth American in 1929 and gasoline was becoming a big issue. Thousands of jobs were made in the oil industry as well as for highway construction and service stations. Less and less people rode the trains and those who lived in the cities could now afford fresh produce at lower prices. Times were good.
But the ever-changing face of the US was a shock for some…
The motorcars made women more independent from their husbands. They also somehow determined that there were more automobiles than bathtubs during the mid-1920s. Cars also made schools and churches reach larger areas. But what the car giveth, the car taketh away.
More people would ultimately be killed in motor-vehicle accidents than in wars. And with the invention of the airplane, wars could now be fought in the skies. The Wright Brothers had their first flight in 1903 in North Carolina. Aviator Charles Lindbergh became famous after he traveled the Atlantic in 1927 for $25,000. Soon people would from place to place at lightning speed in these flying contraptions.
There simply couldn’t be any more innovation, you say, but oh! There is! Radios, the TVs of the 1920s, sprung into prominence after Marconi invented the first radio in 1890 right after he made the famous pasta dish we all known and love. Though the cars lured people away from their homes, radios lured them back. Radios could now broadcast sports, news, comedy, and politicians. And there’s more!
Hollywood became the center for movies. One such film, Birth of a Nation, glorified the KKK. Heavy nudity in early films shocked the public and soon a code of censorship was enforced. Damnit! The Jazz Singer was the first movie to feature sound and wowed audiences. The movies and radio engaged recent immigrants into the English language and Americanized them faster.
As stated before, women had loads more freedom and most became flappers. Flappers symbolized that women didn’t really care what their normal, domestic role was. They were free to do whatever the hell they wanted. Harnessing flappers was jazz with its humble starts in New Orleans. The majority of jazz musicians were black and soon black pride was a thing. Langston Hughes was a famed black poet and Marcus Garvey was a political leader.
Sex also began to sell more and more products. Additionally, people fled from old-time religion and developed modern ideas. There was a huge division between old-timers and new-timers. The literature of the time commonly featured illusions between the past and the present, such as the case with The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. T.S. Eliot published his amazing poem, The Waste Land, and Eugene O’Neill got his start writing unimportant plays that none of us remember.
For first time, and definitely not the last time, Republicans decreased taxes for the rich with help from President Coolidge and his Secretary of Defense Andy Mellon. From 1921-1926, taxes for the rich all but vanished and big business flourished. In fact, the Nat’l debt dropped from $26 billion to $16 billion. Maybe the Republicans were on to something!
But before we get a hard-on for the Grand Ol’ Party, let’s remember what happened in 1929…