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Chapter 32

American Life in the "Roaring Twenties"

1919-1929

 

Seeing Red

Fear of Russia ran high even after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which spawned a communist party in America.

The "red scare" of 1919-1920 resulted in a nationwide crusade against those whose Americanism was suspect.  Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was chosen to round up immigrants who were in question.

In 1919-1920, a number of states passed criminal syndicalism laws that made the advocacy of violence to secure social change unlawful.  Traditional American ideals of free speech were restricted.

Antiredism and antiforeignism were reflected in the criminal case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.  The two men were convicted in 1921 of the murder of a Massachusetts paymaster and his guard.  Although given a trial, the jury and judge were prejudiced against the men because they were Italians, atheists, anarchists, and draft dodgers.  Despite criticism from liberals and radicals all over the world, the men were electrocuted in 1927.

 

Hooded Hoodlums of the KKK

The Ku Klux Klan (Knights of the Invisible Empire) grew quickly in the early 1920s.  The Klan was antiforeign, anti-Catholic, anti-black, anti-Jewish, antipacifist, anti-Communist, anti-internationalist, antievolutionist, antibootlegger, antigambling, antiadultery, and anti-birth control.  It was pro-Anglo-Saxon, pro-"native" American, and pro-Protestant.

The Klan spread rapidly, especially in the Midwest and the South, claiming 5 million members.

It collapsed in the late 1920s after a congressional investigation exposed the internal embezzling by Klan officials. 

The KKK was an alarming manifestation of the intolerance and prejudice plaguing people anxious about the dizzying pace of social change in the 1920s.

 

Stemming the Foreign Blood

Isolationist Americans of the 1920s felt they had no use for immigrants.  The "New Immigration" of the 1920s caused Congress to pass the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, restricting newcomers from Europe in any given year to a definite quota, which was at 3% of the people of their nationality who had been living in the United States in 1910.

The Immigration Act of 1924 replaced the Quota Act of 1921, cutting quotas for foreigners from 3% to 2%.  Different countries were only allowed to send an allotted number of its citizens to America every year.  Japanese were outright banned from coming to America.  Canadians and Latin Americans, whose proximity made them easy to attract for jobs when times were good and just as easy to send back home when times were not, were exempt from the act.

The quota system caused immigration to dwindle.

The Immigration Act of 1924 marked the end of an era of unrestricted immigration to the United States.  Many of the most recent arrivals lived in isolated enclaves with their own houses of worship, newspapers, and theaters.

 

The Prohibition "Experiment"

The 18th Amendment, passed in 1919, banned alcohol.  Prohibition, supported by churches and women, was one the last peculiar spasms of the progressive reform movement.  It was popular in the South, where white southerners were eager to keep stimulants out of the hands of blacks, and in the West, where alcohol was associated with crime and corruption.

Prohibitionists were na´ve in that Federal authorities had never been able to enforce a law where the majority of the people were hostile to it.  Prohibition might have started off better if there had been a larger number of enforcement officials. 

"Speakeasies" replaced saloons.  Prohibition caused bank savings to increase and absenteeism in industry to decrease.

 

The Golden Age of Gangsterism

The large profits of illegal alcohol led to bribery of police.  Violent wars broke out in the big cities between rival gangs, who sought control of the booze market.

Chicago was the most spectacular example of lawlessness.  "Scarface" Al Capone, a murderous booze distributor, began 6 years of gang warfare that generated millions of dollars.  Capone was eventually tried and convicted of income-tax evasion and sent to prison for 11 years.

Gangsters began to move into other profitable and illicit activities:  prostitution, gambling, narcotics, and kidnapping for ransom.

After the son of Charles A. Lindbergh was kidnapped for ransom and murdered, Congress passed the Lindbergh Law in 1932, making interstate abduction in certain circumstances a death-penalty offense.

 

Monkey Business in Tennessee

Education made great strides in the 1920s.  Professor John Dewey set forth the principles of "learning by doing" that formed the foundation of so-called progressive education.  He believed that "education for life" should be a primary goal of the teacher.

Science and better health care also resulted out of the 1920s.

Fundamentalists, old-time religionists, claimed that the teaching of Darwinism evolution was destroying faith in God and the Bible, while contributing to the moral breakdown of youth.

In 1925, John T. Scopes was indicted in Tennessee for teaching evolution.  At the "Monkey Trial," Scopes was defended by Clarence Darrow, while former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan prosecuted him.  Scopes was found guilty and fined $100.

 

The Mass-Consumption Economy

WWI and Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's tax policies brought much prosperity to the mid-1920s.

Bruce Barton founded advertising which sought to make Americans want more and more.

Sports became a big business in the consumer economy of the 1920s.

Buying in credit was another new feature of the postwar economy.  Prosperity thus accumulated an overhanging cloud of debt, and the economy became increasingly vulnerable to disruptions of the credit structure.

 

Putting America on Rubber Tires

The automobile industrial started an industrial revolution in the 1920s.  It yielded a new industrial system based on assembly-line methods and mass-production techniques.  Detroit became the motorcar capital of the world.

Henry Ford, father of the assembly line, created the Model T and erected an immense personal empire on the cornerstone of his mechanical genius.  By 1930, the number of Model Ts in the nation had reached 20 million.

 

The Advent of the Gasoline Age

The automobile industry exploded, creating millions of jobs and supporting industries.  America's standard of living rose sharply, and new industries flourished while old ones dwindled.  The petroleum business experienced an explosive development and the railroad industry was hard hit by the competition of automobiles. 

The automobile freed up women from their dependence on men, and isolation among the sections was broken down.  It was responsible for thousands of deaths, while at the same time bringing more convenience, pleasure, and excitement into more people's lives.

 

Humans Develop Wings

Gasoline engines provided the power that enabled humans to fly.  On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flight, lasting 12 seconds and 120 feet.

After the success of airplanes in WWI, private companies began to operate passenger airlines with airmail contracts.

Charles A. Lindberg became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.  His flight energized and gave a strong boost to the new aviation industry.

 

The Radio Revolution

Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless telegraphy (the telegraph) in the 1890s. 

In the 1920s, the first voice-carrying radio broadcasts reached audiences.  While automobiles were luring Americans away from the home, the radio was luring them back.  Educationally and culturally, the radio also made a significant contribution.

 

Hollywood's Filmland Fantasies

As early as the 1890s, the motion picture, invented by Thomas A. Edison, had gained some popularity.  The true birth of motion picture came in 1903 with the release of the first story sequence:  The Great Train Robbery.  Hollywood became the movie capital of the world.

Motion picture was used extensively in WWI as anti-German propaganda. 

Much of the diversity of the immigrants' cultures was lost, but the standardization of tastes and of language hastened entry into the American mainstream-and set the stage for the emergence of a working-class political coalition that would overcome the divisive ethnic differences of the past.

 

The Dynamic Decade

In the 1920s, the majority of Americans had shifted from rural areas to urban (city) areas. 

Women continued to find jobs in the cities.  Margaret Sanger led a birth-control movement.  Alice Paul formed the National Women's Party in 1923 to campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

The Fundamentalists lost ground to the Modernists who believed that God was a "good guy" and the universe was a friendly place.

The 1920s witnessed an explosion in sex appeal in America.  Young women, "flappers," rolled their stockings, taped their breasts flat, and roughed their cheeks.  Women began to wear one-piece bathing suits.

Dr. Sigmund Freud writings justified this new sexual frankness by arguing that sexual repression was responsible for a variety of nervous and emotional ills. 

Jazz thrived in the era of the 1920s.

Racial pride blossomed in the northern black communities.  Marcus Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to promote the resettlement of blacks in Africa.  In the United States, the UNIA also sponsored stores and other businesses to keep blacks' dollars in black pockets.

 

Cultural Liberation

In the decade after WWI, a new generation of writers emerged.  They gave American literature new life, imaginativeness, and artistic quality.

H.L. Mencken attacked marriage, patriotism, democracy, and prohibition in his monthly American Mercury.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise in 1920 and The Great Gatsby in 1925.

Earnest Hemingway was among the writers most affected by the war.  He responded to propaganda and the overblown appeal to patriotism.  He wrote of disillusioned, spiritually numb American expatriates in Europe in The Sun Also Rises (1926). 

Sinclair Lewis wrote Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922).

Sherwood Anderson wrote Winesburg, Ohio (1919).

Architecture also became popular as materialism and functionalism increased.

 

Wall Street's Big Bull Market

In the 1920s, the stock market became increasingly popular.

In Washington, little was done to curtail money management. 

In 1921, the Republican Congress created the Bureau of the Budget in order to assist the president in preparing estimates of receipts and expenditures for submission to Congress as the annual budget.  It was designed to prevent haphazardly extravagant appropriations.

Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's belief was that taxes forced the rich to invest in tax-exempt securities rather than in the factories that provided prosperous payrolls.  Mellon helped create a series of tax reductions from 1921-1926 in order to help rich people.  Congress followed by abolishing the gift tax, reducing excise taxes, the surtax, the income tax, and estate taxes.  Mellon's policies shifted much of the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle-income groups.  Mellon reduced the national debt by $10 billion.

 


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