The Beginning of Modern America (1920s) for AP U.S. History (page 2)

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

A Decade of Prosperity

By the middle of the 1920s, many of the dire predictions of the effects of capitalism that had been preached by progressives 15 years earlier seemed like no more than ancient history. Business opportunities were plentiful. The prosecution of trusts, which took up much of the Justice Department's time in World War I, were few in the 1920s. New opportunists with capital could challenge corporations like U.S. Steel and make profits. Nevertheless, certain industries, such as the automobile industry, were virtually impossible to crack; by 1929, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler controlled nearly 85 percent of all auto sales. Socialist predictions that the plight of the workers was getting worse seemed to be negated by statistics published in 1924 stating that industrial workers were making nearly double what they had made 10 years earlier.

Strikes and union activities were plentiful in the two years immediately following the end of World War I, but diminished greatly after that (many factory owners realized that paying their workers a decent wage would make them less likely to listen to speeches made by union "agitators").

By the mid-1920s, products made in American factories were available to Americans and also in many European and other world markets. The assembly line of Henry Ford continued to be perfected to the point that by 1925 a Model T was being produced in a Ford plant every 24 seconds. During the decade, the ideas of "scientific management" first proposed by Frederick W. Taylor (see Chapter 16) were utilized in businesses and factories across the country. Production was now being done more efficiently; this ultimately lowered the cost of production and the cost to the consumer.

Many other consumer products, such as vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and radios, were also churned out by American factories at record rates. Many of the products also were produced by assembly line techniques, and the stream of workers who continued to enter the cities from rural America could get work doing one of the monotonous jobs involved in assembly line production. For the consumer, products that were impossible to even dream about 10 years earlier could now be purchased with the installment plan. For 36 or 48 "easy" payments, a middle-class family in the 1920s could have an automobile, a refrigerator, and a vacuum cleaner. Some economists saw danger in the fact that by 1928 nearly 65 percent of all automobiles were being purchased on credit. Most Americans saw little problem with this, since they could not foresee a time when Americans would be unable to make payments on these goods.

The decade of the 1920s can certainly be seen as the beginning of the advertising age. Consumers were warned that if they wanted to live the "good life," they had to have the latest model refrigerator or automobile. People living in urban, suburban, and rural areas all saw the same advertisements for products that had been placed in both national and local publications by advertising men. As stated previously, this helped create a universal national culture. Advertisements showed the farmer in Kansas and the suburbanite in Connecticut that they had to have exactly the same product.

Republican Leadership in the 1920s

Throughout the 1920s, the Republican party was truly dominant at the national level. Both houses of Congress were under Republican control, the three presidents of the decade (Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover) were all Republicans, and for most of the decade the Supreme Court was dominated by Chief Justice (and ex-president) William Howard Taft. Government policies throughout the decade were almost exclusively pro-business; Republican candidates at all levels during this decade had to be acceptable to the business community.

The Presidency of Warren G. Harding

Many presidential scholars claim that Warren G. Harding was one of the least qualified men ever nominated for the presidency by a major party in America. Harding, a senator from Ohio, was not even mentioned as a possible candidate before the Republican convention of 1920. Harding finally became the Republican nominee after the party bosses determined that he would be a candidate they could control. He was opposed in the national election by Governor James Cox of Ohio. Harding ran on a platform of low taxes, high tariffs, farmer's assistance, and opposition to the League of Nations.

Where Governor Cox (and his running mate, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt) ran a strong and aggressive campaign, Harding was generally content to campaign from his own back porch. He ended up winning 61 percent of the national vote. Americans found something they liked in both the message and style of Harding: his message was essentially that it was time to pull back from "schemes" to change the world (the postwar plans of Woodrow Wilson) and "social experiments" (all of the programs of the progressives). Harding's call for a period of "normalcy" struck a chord with Americans and seemed to put the final nail in the coffin of progressivism in American thought.

During the presidency of Harding, efforts were made to prevent America from having any involvement with the League of Nations or any other provision of the Versailles Treaty. One of the outstanding appointments made by Harding was the naming of former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State. Hughes' major accomplishment as Secretary of State took place at the Washington Conference of 1921. At this meeting, diplomats from the United States, Japan, China, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, France, Great Britain, and Italy met to discuss the possible elimination of further naval development and affairs in China and the rest of Asia. All nine nations agreed to respect the independence of China (and maintain the Open Door in China), a major goal of American business interests. The United States, Britain, France, Japan, and Italy all agreed to halt the construction of naval vessels (Hughes did not realize at the time that this gave naval superiority in the Pacific to the Japanese).

Another notable appointment by Harding was the naming of Andrew Mellon, the "richest man in America," as Secretary of the Treasury. Mellon firmly believed in the traditional Republican tenet that very low taxes would ultimately encourage business investment and ensure economic prosperity. To do this, Mellon sought to reduce government spending in any way possible, and to reduce taxes, especially for the wealthier business classes. To cut expenses, Harding opposed bonus payments to World War I veterans in 1921; some benefits for veterans were authorized by Congress. In the Revenue Act of 1921, the administration proposed large reductions in the amounts of taxes that the wealthiest Americans would have to pay (protests from some Republicans from farm states caused these reductions to be less than what Mellon desired). In the end, many of Mellon's policies increased the economic pain of the working class while benefiting the rich.

To assist American business interests, Mellon also wanted large tariff increases on imported industrial goods. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 did increase the tariffs on industrial products. However, to appease Republicans from farm states, the largest tariff increases were on imported farm products.

Little was done in the Harding administration to assist organized labor. Many court decisions of the decade took the side of management, including several court decisions that overturned lower-court rulings making child labor illegal. It was clear in this decade that the interests of farmers and the interests of industrial workers were very dissimilar.

The Scandals of the Harding Administration

The Harding administration may have been the most scandal-ridden administration in American political history. No principle whatsoever was involved in these scandals; the participants were only interested in money. There is no knowledge that Harding participated in any way in these scandals; his biggest sin was probably appointing political cronies from his Ohio days to important government positions in his administration and not supervising them.

The scandals of the Harding administration were numerous. Charles Forbes, the director of the Veteran's Bureau, stole or horribly misused nearly $250 million of government money; he was indicted for fraud and bribery concerning government hospital supply contracts. Harding allowed Forbes to go abroad and to resign, although he eventually did go to jail. Attorney General Harry Daugherty had taken bribes from businessmen, bootleggers, and many others. Daugherty failed to go to jail when a hung jury was unable to convict him.

The worst of the scandals was the Teapot Dome Scandal. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall maneuvered to have two oil deposits put under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior; one of these was a reserve in Wyoming called Teapot Dome. Fall then leased these reserves to private companies and got large sums of money from them for doing it. Fall was convicted and finally sent to prison in 1929.

The revelation of these scandals greatly bothered Harding, who died of a stroke on August 2, 1923. He was replaced by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge of Vermont.

The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge

American business leaders could have had no better friend in the White House than Calvin Coolidge. His credo was that "the business of the United States is business." Coolidge did little as president, but this was largely intentional; he was convinced that the major decisions affecting American society should be made by businessmen. Like Harding, Coolidge believed in increased tax cuts for the wealthy and favored policies that would help promote American business.

Several decisions made during Coolidge's presidency demonstrate the administration's thinking. Coolidge proposed that a dam constructed at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on the Tennessee River by the government during World War I be turned over to private interests; this plan was defeated by Congress (the dam would become a crucial part of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s). In the Revenue Act of 1926, large tax cuts were given to the wealthiest members of society. Finally, on the grounds that the government couldn't afford it, Coolidge vetoed payments to World War I veterans (Congress passed the legislation over the president's veto).

The Election of 1928

Coolidge made the announcement "I do not choose to run" several months before the 1928 presidential election. The Republicans nominated Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Hoover was a seemingly perfect candidate for the mood of the era. He was a selfmade man, had worked his way through Stanford, had made his first million in business before he was 40, and had run relief efforts in Belgium and the Commerce Department with tremendous, although unsmiling, efficiency. Hoover's campaign speeches emphasized the achievements of past Republican administrations that had created prosperity and the possibilities for success achievable through rugged individualism.

The Democratic candidate was New York Governor Al Smith, an opponent of Prohibition and a Catholic. Many Southern Democrats had obvious suspicions about him; Smith's supporters received their support by promising that the Democratic platform would say nothing about the repeal of Prohibition. The election was a landslide for Hoover, with Smith only winning eight states. Nevertheless, the fact that many people living in the large cities of America voted for Smith showed the divisions that existed in American society in the 1920s.

Urban vs. Rural: The Great Divide of the 1920s

As stated previously, the 1920s was the decade that the United States, population-wise, became an urban country. Tremendous resentment existed in rural and small-town America against the growing urban mind-set that was increasingly permeating America. Many citizens who did not live in America's cities felt that the values associated with urban life needed to be opposed. From these sentiments came many of the great cultural battles that were at the center of American life in the 1920s.

Many in the North and the South shared resentment against black Americans in the years immediately after World War I. A number of blacks had come North during the war to take factory jobs in urban centers; now that the war was over, many Northerners saw them as competitors for prime industrial employment. In 1919, large race riots took place in Washington, DC, and in many other Northern cities; anti-black riots in Chicago lasted nearly two weeks. Press reports of these riots oftentimes noted the participation of white veterans.

During the postwar years, violence against blacks intensified in the South as well. Lynchings increased dramatically in the postwar years; over 70 blacks were lynched in 1919 alone. The response by some blacks was to think of leaving the United States altogether; beginning in 1920, sign-ups began for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, headed by Marcus Garvey. Garvey called on blacks to come with him to Africa to create a new empire (with him on the throne). By 1925, nearly half a million people had expressed interest in Garvey's scheme. In the end, the Garvey program was a failure, since few blacks actually went to Africa, and many of those who did go ended up returning to the United States. Garvey was later arrested and jailed for fraud, but the fact that his plan attracted so many black supporters demonstrated the plight of black Americans during the period.

The Ku Klux Klan grew tremendously during the early 1920s; by 1925, the Klan's membership was over 5 million. Unlike the Klan of the Reconstruction era, membership in the Klan was not entirely from the South, although it was almost entirely from rural and small-town America (Indiana was a huge hotbed of Klan activity in the 1920s). Blacks continued to be a target of the Klan, as were other groups who appeared to be "enemies" of the rural way of life, such as Catholics and immigrants. The Klan had tremendous political power in several states, although terror tactics such as lynchings and cross burnings remained a dominant part of Klan activity.

The Klan began to lose its popularity in 1925 with revelations of scandals involving Klan members, including the murder conviction of the leader of the Klan in Indiana. Many historians see the popularity of the Klan in the 1920s as a symbol of the intolerance prominent in much of American society; several see it as an American version of totalitarianism, which took control in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Italy during this period.

Many Americans in the years following World War I were also terrified of Bolshevism. America, to no avail, gave military aid and actual manpower to forces attempting to overthrow Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Much about Bolshevism (soon to be called communism) was in opposition to mainstream American thought. Communism taught that capitalism was evil, and that worker's revolutions would soon break out in highly industrialized countries like the United States. As a result, a Red Scare developed in America in 1919. Many historians maintain that Americans were not just opposed to the ideas of communism, but that many Americans began to see everything wrong in American society as a creation of the "Reds."

Beginning in November of 1919, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer carried out raids in the homes and places of employment of suspected radicals. As a result of the Palmer Raids, thousands of Americans were arrested, in many cases for no other crime than the fact that they were not born in the United States. Hundreds of former immigrants were sent back to their countries of origin, even though it was never proven (or, in most cases, even charged) that they were political radicals. The Red Scare demonstrated the nativism present in America during the period. This was also one of the worst examples in American history of the trampling of the constitutional rights of American citizens.

Nativism probably also accounts for the results of the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Both were Italian immigrants, and were charged with the murder of two employees of a shoe company in Massachusetts in 1920. Although there was little evidence against them, they were convicted and finally executed in 1927.

American nativism also was displayed in immigration legislation that was passed in the early 1920s. Many in small-town America blamed the problems of America on the continued inflow of immigrants to the country; pseudoscientific texts published in the first part of the decade claimed that white Americans were naturally superior to Southern and Eastern Europeans as well as blacks, but warned that these groups had to be carefully controlled to prevent them from attempting to dominate the country.

Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which limited immigration to 3 percent of the number of persons each country had living in the United States in 1910. This act limited the immigration of Eastern and Southern Europeans, and cut immigration in 1922 to roughly 40 percent of its 1921 totals. A real blow to immigration was the National Origins Act of 1924. This legislation took that number of immigrants from each foreign country living in the United States in 1890, and stated that immigration to the United States from these countries could now be no more than 2 percent of that; the bill also stated that no more than 150,000 new immigrants could come from outside the Western Hemisphere. In addition, all immigration from Asia was halted. The intent and the effect of this legislation was obvious. Immigration from countries such as Italy and Poland was virtually halted.

Another area where urban and rural/small-town interests clashed was over the issue of Prohibition. Statistics from 1924 indicated that 95 percent of citizens in Kansas were obeying the Prohibition law, while the figure was close to 5 percent in New York State. For many small-town observers, alcohol, immigrants, and urban life were viewed together as one giant evil. Many small-town preachers spoke of alcohol as an "instrument of the devil" and were outraged that the law was not enforced in places like New York City.

However, the enforcement of Prohibition in a city like New York would have been virtually impossible. Neither the citizenry nor elected officials favored enforcement (it was reported that Warren Harding had a huge collection of bootlegged alcohol that he served to guests). Speakeasies were frequented by police officers and city officials in many locations; "bathtub gin," some of it good and some of it absolutely atrocious, was also consumed by thousands eager for some form of alcohol during the Prohibition era. Bootlegging of alcohol allowed many famous gangsters of the 1930s to get their feet wet in the world of organized crime; Al Capone in Chicago became the king of the bootleggers, with judges, newspapers, and elected government officials all eventually under his control.

The final area where urban and rural/small-town mind-sets drastically differed was over religion and evolution. Many in small-town America felt vaguely threatened by the changes that science had brought about, and clung to the literal interpretation of the Bible as a defense. William Jennings Bryan and others led the charge against the teachings of Darwin in the postwar years. In 1925, Bryan assisted a group in Tennessee in drafting a bill that would outlaw the teaching of evolution in the state. The American Civil Liberties Union offered to assist any teacher who would challenge this law, and John Scopes of Dayton, Tennessee, volunteered. For several weeks in 1925, the Scopes Trial (or "monkey trial") riveted the nation.

One of America's finest lawyers, Clarence Darrow, assisted Scopes, while Bryan was retained to work with prosecutors who wanted to convict Scopes. Scopes was found guilty and fined (this was later overturned on a technicality), but the real drama of the trial was when Darrow questioned Bryan, who took the stand as an "expert on the Bible." Bryan seriously discredited the entire cause of creationism when he admitted on the stand that he personally did not take every fact found in the Bible literally.

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