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1920s, The

Warren G. Harding

Harding was a visceral president. He lived between the bottom of his rib cage down to his thighs. He was one of the worst presidents the nation ever had. The nation was wracked by scandals. His personal sexual behavior was an embarrassment to those who knew about it.

Period thought of in three ways:

1. the Jazz Age or the roaring twenties
2. Republican prosperity, conservatism, isolationism
3. literary experimentation and creation--Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T. S. Eliot

People at the time saw the period differently depending upon who they were and in what circumstances they lived.

The end of idealism and internationalism, 1918-1920

The defeat of Versailles Treaty ended any hope that the United States would lead or even play a prominent role in international politics. In fact, US citizens demanded and got the rapid demobilization of the troops and also the emergency government agencies after the war. Reformers, who had hoped that the Progressive Movement, could continue were frustrated. Two Progressive reforms were passed, however. The 18th Amendment and its implementation legislation, the Volstead Act, were passed in 1919. These measures were supported by the Methodist Church and the Anti-Saloon League. With the 19th Amendment in 1919 women got the right to vote. Many believed that women were naturally more moral than men and that they would only vote for moral candidates. People did not realize at the time that this view was bigotry.

The railroads were returned to private hands but put under tighter regulation by the Esch-Cummins Act of 1920. The government-built merchant marine was sold to private enterprise.

The end of the war brought major strikes in the coal and steel industries as workers tried to overcome the deleterious effects of wartime and immediate post-war inflation. With the support of government, the unions were beaten. Workers' wages lagged throughout the 1920s. Partly because of these strikes but mostly because of the unreasonable fears generated by the Bolsheviks (Communists as they would eventually be called), the US underwent a Red Scare. A panic fear of leftists, particularly Communists. Various government officials purported to have discovered radical plots to subvert the US. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer staged "midnight raids" to arrest both people suspected of being leftists and of immigrants. Most were loyal citizens and the judicial system freed them. A broader movement was the Ku Klux Klan which had been re-established in 1915 various parts of the nation to insure that fundamentalist Protestants with a nineteenth century viewpoint against Catholics, Jews, uppity women, cosmopolitans, urbanites, immigrants, liberals, and other such "undesirables." The Klan said it was defending traditional family values.

The election of Warren G. Harding highlighted these trends. Harding was a small town man from Ohio. As one of his prominent handlers said, "he looked like a president." More importantly, he was willing to allow the Republican Party bosses do what they wanted while he seemed to spend his time drinking and playing cards with cronies or philandering. His father commented that "it was a good thing Warren wasn't born a girl, he'd always be in the family way; he can't say no."

The US adopted a policy of isolation from European political affairs; it refused to join the League of Nations and the World Court. Because the US had so much power, neither could be very effective. In the Far East, the US was an active. In 1921, the Washington Conference of United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan agreed that the Japanese expansion would be rolled back , the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 was ended; the status quo in the Far East and Chinese territorial integrity was guaranteed; and the powers agreed to curtail the construction of capital ships. The US feared Japanese expansionism but surrendered the possibility of naval superiority and agreed not to fortify its possessions in the western Pacific.

Encouraged by the national government, US financiers made loans to and loan agreements with Europeans but the ability of the Europeans to earn the income to repay the loans was curtailed some by the Fordney-McCumber Tariff (1922) which cut European exports to the US by raising tariffs. Especially hard hit was defeated Germany, which could not pay all the reparations demanded by the Treaty to Versailles. In 1923, the US proposed the Dawes Plan to restructure German reparations payments. Nevertheless, it was clear to economists and other observers that Germany could not make the reparations payments for long. US. private investment abroad increased.

The xenophobia of the postwar years prompted the first general anti-immigration laws in US history. Previous presidents, regardless of party affiliation, had vetoed general immigration restrictive measures as being un-American, against the tradition of free enterprise and competition. Both the dramatic increase in immigrants from eastern and southern Europe before WWI and the disillusionment with foreign affairs as a result of the war, the US passed restrictive immigration laws in 1921 and 1924. The 1924 law established a quota system whereby only 2% of the ethnic group/nationality in the country according to the 1890 population could be admitted. This intentionally favored western and northern Europeans. Asians were totally excluded. Latin Americans were allowed free immigration, however, for the US was trying to improve its relations with those nations.

When a depression began in 1920, the national government followed a pro-business policy to the detriment of farmers, workers, and the middle class. The farmer depression continued after 1922-23 when the general depression had ended because farmers had overexpanded during WWI when prices were unusually high. Now, they were overproducing while facing reduced markets and having to repay long term loans contracted during the boom period. Because of the US belief that farmers are the backbone of the nation and especially virtuous as well as effective lobbying by farm interests, the US government passed considerable farm legislation.

Even though the conservatives had taken control, Progressives were still active. They made some gains in the 1922 elections and Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin was gaining favorable national attention.

For many, the 1920s were a "New Era," a period of unparalleled prosperity. Businessmen and their supporters argued that US business had created the American utopia. The businessman became the new national hero. Production increased because new technology increased production Consumption patterns changed as businesses expanded their sales through advertising and installment payments. In other words, business used advertising agencies to convince people that what they desired or wanted was something they needed, an important shift in tactics but one which increased their markets. Equally or more important was their success in convincing people to mortgage their future to attain a current desire, quite different from the old adage of never a borrower or a lender be. Thus, the consumer culture was born and drove the US economy as long as people could handle their debt.

In fact, however, the prosperity was uneven. Real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) lagged behind prices. Because of borrowing, the squeeze was not immediately apparent. In 1929, the average factory worker earned less than $1,500. About 45% of all families made less than $2,00 a year (see United States Income, 1914, 1924, Retail Food Prices, 1913,1914, 1924, 1925, 1976, 2002, and 1929 income statistics for data on this issue.)

Not everyone liked the 1920s. Fundamentalists who wanted to return to what they considered to be the old, true, moral values and to the "Old time Religion" opposed it. To them, the United States was ceasing to be a "Christian nation," as they defined it. Many intellectuals were also disgusted with the materialism, intolerance, and anti-intellectualism of the decade.

Most people, however, though the decade as wonderful, that politics was dying, and all the country needed was an expert administrator ton run it. In 1928, the Republicans nominated such a man when they chose Herbert Hoover. He was a successful engineer who also had a reputation as a humanitarianism because he had headed the European relief efforts after WWI. He was a spokesman for the business outlook./ Actually, he and Alfred Smith, the Democratic candidate from New York, differed very little on the issue. Smith was known as a friend of civil liberties and the underprivileged. He opposed alcohol prohibition whereas Hoover favored it. And his Catholicism cost him many votes from Protestants. Bigotry towards Roman Catholics was very prevalent.

by Donald J. Mabry