The Politics of Boom and Bust
The Republican "Old Guard" Returns
Warren G. Harding was inaugurated in 1921. He, like Grant, was unable to detect immoral people working for him. He was also very soft in that he hated to say "no," hurting peoples' feelings.
Charles Evans Hughes was the secretary of state. Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh's multimillionaire aluminum king, was the secretary of the Treasury. Herbert Hoover was the secretary of commerce.
Harding's brightest and most capable officials (above) were offset by two of the worst: Senator Albert B. Fall, an anticonservationist who was the secretary of the interior, and Harry M. Daugherty, a big-time crook chosen to be the attorney general.
GOP Reaction at the Throttle
The newly-elected government officials almost directed the president's actions on the issue of government and business. They wanted not only for the government to have no control over businesses but for the government to help guide businesses along the path to profits.
In the first years of the 1920s, the Supreme Court struck down progressive legislation. The Supreme Court ruling in Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923) declared that under the 19th Amendment, women were no longer deserving of special protection in the workplace.
Corporations under President Harding could once again expand without worry of the antitrust laws.
The Interstate Commerce Commission came to be dominated by men who were sympathetic to the managers of the railroads.
The Aftermath of War
Wartime government controls of the economy were quickly dismantled. With the Esch-Cummins Transportation Act of 1920, Congress returned the railroads to private management. Congress encouraged private ownership of the railroads and pledged the Interstate Commerce Commission to guarantee their profitability.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 authorized the Shipping Board to dispose of the wartime fleet of 1500 vessels at extremely low prices.
Under the La Follette Seaman's Act of 1915, American shipping could not thrive in competition with foreigners, who all too often provided their crews with wretched food and starvation wages.
Labor, suddenly deprived of its wartime crutch of friendly government support, limped along poorly in the postwar decade.
In 1921, Congress created the Veterans Bureau to operate hospitals and provide vocational rehabilitation for the disabled. Veterans organized and formed pressure groups. The American Legion was created in 1919 by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Legionnaires met to renew old hardships and let off steam. The legion became distinguished for its militant patriotism, conservatism, and antiradicalism. It convinced Congress in 1924 to pass the Adjusted Compensation Act, giving every former soldier a paid-up insurance policy due in 20 years.
America Seeks Benefits Without Burdens
Because of the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, the United States had technically been at war with Germany, Austria, and Hungary for 3 years after the armistice. To finally achieve peace, Congress passed a joint resolution in July 1921 that declared the war officially over.
Isolationism was still the idea in Washington. President Harding hated the League of Nations and at first, refused to support the League's world health program.
Harding could not completely turn his back on the world. In the Middle East, a sharp rivalry had developed between America and Britain for oil-drilling rights. Secretary Hughes eventually secured the rights for American oil companies to share the oil-rich land with Britain.
Disarmament was one international issue that Harding eventually tackled. Public pressure brought about the Washington "Disarmament" Conference in 1921-1922. Invitations to the conference went out to all the major naval powers. Secretary Hughes laid out a plan for declaring a ten-year hiatus on construction of battleships and even for scrapping some of the huge ships already built. He proposed that the scaled-down navies of America and Britain should have the same number of battleships and aircraft carriers; the ratio being 5:5:3 (Japan's navy would be smaller than America's and Britain's).
The Five-Power Naval Treaty of 1922 stated that the British and Americans would refrain from fortifying their Far Eastern possessions, including the Philippines. The Japanese were not subjected to such restraints in their possessions.
A Four-Power Treaty between Britain, Japan, France and the United States replaced the 20-year old Anglo-Japanese Treaty and preserved the status quo in the Pacific.
The Hardingites were satisfied with the final results of disarmament of the navy although no restrictions had been placed on small warships, and the other powers churned ahead with the construction of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.
In the late 1920s, Americans called for the "outlaw of war." When petitions bearing 2 million signatures reached Washington, Calvin Coolidge's secretary of state Frank. B. Kellogg signed with the French foreign minister in 1928 the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Known as the Pact of Paris, it was ratified by 62 nations. The new parchment peace was delusory in the extreme. Defensive wars were still permitted; causing one to wonder what scheming aggressor could not make an excuse of self-defense. Although virtually useless if challenged, the pact accurately reflected the American mind in the 1920s.
Hiking the Tariff Higher
Because businessmen did not want Europe flooding American markets with cheap goods after the war, Congress passed the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Law in 1922, raising the tariff from 27% to 35%.
Presidents Harding and Coolidge were much more prone to increasing tariffs than decreasing them; this presented a problem: Europe needed to sell goods to the U.S. in order to get the money to pay back its war debts, and when it could not sell, it could not repay.
The Stench of Scandal
In 1923, Colonel Charles R. Forbes, head of the Veterans Bureau, was caught stealing $200 million from the government, chiefly in connection with the building of veterans' hospitals.
Most shocking of all was the Teapot Dome scandal that involved priceless naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome and Elk Hills. In 1921, the secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall, convinced the secretary of the navy to transfer these valuable properties to the Interior Department. Harding indiscreetly signed the secret order. Fall then leased the lands to oilmen Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, but not until he had received a bribe of $100,000. The Teapot Dome scandal eventually leaked to the public and polluted the Washington government.
More scandals still erupted; there were reports as to the underhanded doings of Attorney General Daugherty, in which he was accused of the illegal sale of pardons and liquor permits. President Harding died in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, of pneumonia and thrombosis, not having to live through much of the uproar of the scandal.
"Silent Cal" Coolidge
Vice President Calvin Coolidge took over the presidency following Harding's death. He was extremely shy and delivered very boring speeches.
Coolidge sympathized with Secretary of the Treasury Mellon's efforts to reduce both taxes and debts. He gave the Harding regime a badly needed moral fumigation.
Peace had brought an end to government-guaranteed high prices and to massive purchases of farm products by other nations. Machines also threatened to plow the farmers under an avalanche of their own overabundant crops. Because farmers were able to create more crops with more efficiency, the size of surpluses decreased prices.
The Capper-Volstead Act exempted farmers' marketing cooperatives from anti-trust prosecution.
The McNary-Haugen Bill sought to keep agricultural prices high by authorizing the government to buy up surpluses and sell them abroad. President Coolidge vetoed the bill twice, keeping farm prices down, and farmers' political temperatures high coming into the election of 1924.
A Three-Way Race for the White House in 1924
After being split between, urbanites and farmers, Fundamentalists and Modernists, northern liberals and southern stand-patters, and immigrants and old-stock Americans, the Democrats finally chose John W. Davis to compete with Calvin Coolidge and La Follette for the presidency.
Senator La Follette from Wisconsin leapt forward to lead a new liberal Progressive party. He was endorsed by the American Federation of Labor and by farmers. The Progressive party platform called for government ownership of railroads and relief for farmers, lashed out at monopoly and antilabor injunctions, and urged a constitutional amendment to limit the Supreme Court's power to invalidate laws passed by Congress.
Calvin Coolidge won the election of 1924.
In the Coolidge era, isolationism continued to reign.
The armed interventionism in the Caribbean and Central America was the exception to the United States' isolation policies. American troops remained in Haiti from 1914-1934, and were stationed in Nicaragua from 1926-1933.
In 1926, the Mexican government declared its control over oil resources. Despite American oil companies clamoring for war, Coolidge resolved the situation diplomatically.
World War I had reversed the international financial position of the United States; it was now a creditor nation in the sum of about $16 billion. American investors had loaned about $10 billion to the Allies in WWI, and following the war, they wanted to be paid. The Allies, especially the French and British, protested the demand for repayment pointing out that they had lost many troops and that America should just write off the loans as war costs.
America's postwar tariff walls made it almost impossible for the European Allied nations to sell their goods to earn the dollars to pay their debts.
Unraveling the Debt Knot
America's demand for repayment from France and Britain caused the two countries to press Germany for enormous reparations payments, totaling some $32 billion, as compensation for war-inflicted damages. The Allies hoped to settle their debts with the United States with the money received from Germany.
Disputes in government on whether or not war debts and reparations should have even been paid broke out. Negotiated by Charles Dawes, the Dawes Plan of 1924 resolved this issue. It rescheduled German reparations payments and opened the way for further American private loans to Germany. United States bankers loaned money to Germany, Germany paid reparations to France and Britain, and the Allies paid war debts to the United States. After the well of investors dried up in 1931, the jungle of international finance was turned into a desert. President Herbert Hoover declared a one-year debt suspension in 1931.
The United States never did get its money from Europe.
The Triumph of Herbert Hoover, 1928
When Calvin Coolidge chose not to run for president in the election of 1928, the Republicans chose Herbert Hoover. Hoover was a small-town boy who worked his way through Stanford. His experiences abroad strengthened his faith in American individualism, free enterprise, and small government. His real power lay in his integrity, his humanitarianism, his passion for assembling the facts, his efficiency, his talents for administration, and his ability to inspire loyalty in close associates.
The Democrats nominated Alfred E. Smith. He was a Roman Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant country, and was "wet" at a time when the country was still devoted to prohibition.
For the first time, the radio was used prominently in election campaigns. It mostly helped Hoover's campaign.
The combination of Catholicism, wettism, foreignism, and liberalism of Smith was too much for the southerners. Herbert Hoover won the election of 1928 in a landslide, becoming the first Republican candidate in 52 years, except for Harding's Tennessee victory, to win a state that had seceded.
President Hoover's First Moves
Two groups of citizens were not getting rich in the growing economy: the unorganized wage earners and the disorganized farmers.
The Agricultural Marketing Act, passed in 1929, was designed to help the farmers. It set up the Federal Farm Board, which could lend money to farm organizations seeking to buy, sell, and store agricultural surpluses.
In 1930, the Farm Board created the Grain Stabilization Corporation and the Cotton Stabilization Corporation. Their goal was to boost falling prices by buying up surpluses. The two agencies eventually failed.
The Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930 started out as a mild tariff before 1,000 amendments were added to it. It raised the tariff to 60%, becoming the nation's highest protective tariff during peacetime. The tariff deepened the depression that had already begun in America and other nations, and it increased international financial chaos.
The Great Crash Ends the Golden Twenties
The catastrophic stock-market crash came in October 1929. It was partially triggered by the British, who raised their interest rates in an effort to bring back capital lured abroad by American investments. The British needed money; they were unable to trade with the United States due the high tariffs.
On "Black Tuesday" of October 29, 1929, millions of stocks were sold in a panic. By the end of 1929, two months after the initial crash, stockholders had lost $40 billion.
As a result of the crash, millions lost their jobs and thousands of banks closed. No other industrialized nation suffered so severe a setback as the United States.
Hooked on the Horn of Plenty
One of the main causes of the Great Depression was overproduction by both farm and factory. The nation's ability to produce goods had outrun its capacity to consume or pay for them. All the money was being invested in factories and other agencies of production; not enough money was going into salaries and wages. Overexpansion of credit also contributed to the depression.
The Great Depression continued the economic destruction of Europe, which had not yet fully recovered from WWI.
In the 1930s, a terrible drought scorched the Mississippi Valley, causing thousands of farms to be sold.
Rugged Times for Rugged Individuals
In the beginning of the Great Depression, President Hoover believed that industry and self-reliance had made America great and that the government should play no role in the welfare of the people. He soon realized, however, that the welfare of the people in a nationwide catastrophe was a direct concern of the government.
Hoover developed a plan in which the government would assist the railroads, banks, and rural credit corporations in the hope that if financial health was restored at the top of the economic pyramid, then unemployment would be relieved as the prosperity trickled down. Hoover's efforts were criticized because he gave government money to the big bankers who had allegedly started the depression.
Herbert Hoover Battles the Great Depression
President Hoover secured from Congress $2.25 billion for useful public works. (ex. the Hoover Dam)
Hoover was strongly opposed to all schemes that he saw as "socialistic." He vetoed the Muscle Shoals Bill, which was designed to dam the Tennessee River and sell government-produced electricity in competition with citizens in private companies.
In 1932, Congress established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was designed to provide indirect economic relief by assisting insurance companies, banks, agricultural organizations, railroads, and state and local governments.
Congress passed the Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act in 1932, outlawing antiunion contracts and fording federal courts to issue injunctions to restrain strikes, boycotts, and peaceful picketing.
Routing the Bonus Army in Washington
Veterans of WWI were among the hardest hit by the Great Depression. A drive developed for the premature payment of the suspended bonus vetoed by Congress in 1924.
The "Bonus Expeditionary Force" (BEF), which claimed about 20,000 people, converged on the capital in the summer of 1932, demanding the immediate payment of their entire bonus.
After the BEF refused to leave the capital, President Hoover sent in the army to evacuate the group. The ensuing riots and incidents brought additional public abuse of Hoover.
Japanese Militarists Attack China
In September 1931, Japanese imperialists, seeing that the Western world was bogged down in the Great Depression, invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria. Although a direct violation of the League of Nations, the League was unable to do anything because it could not count on America's support.
In 1932, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson decided to only diplomatically attack the Japanese aggressors by issuing the Stimson doctrine. It declared that the United States would not recognize any territorial acquisitions achieved by force. Japan ignored the doctrine and moved onto Shanghai in 1932. The violence continued without the League of Nation's intervention as WWII was born.
Hoover Pioneers the Good Neighbor Policy
President Hoover brought better relations with America's Latin American neighbors. An advocate of international goodwill, he withdrew American troops from Latin America.
He had engineered the foundation of a "Good Neighbor" policy.