The United States Of
America, Part Six
This is the story of how the American Republic
developed from colonial beginnings in the 16th century, when the first European
explorers arrived, until modern times.
History of the United States:
Progressivism in the Cities and
As a political movement, progressivism arose at the local and state levels in
the 1890s. Urban reformers attacked political machines run by corrupt bosses and
monopolies in municipal services such as electricity or gas. To address these
problems, they promoted professional city managers and advocated public
ownership of utilities.
The social settlement movement, which originated in cities in the 1890s, also
became a force for progressive reform at the local level. Settlement houses
offered social services to the urban poor, especially immigrants. Pioneering
settlement houses, such as Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates
Starr in 1889, provided nurseries, adult education classes, and recreational
opportunities for children and adults. Settlements spread rapidly. There were
100 settlement houses in 1900, 200 in 1905, and 400 in 1910. Settlement leaders
joined the battle against political machines and endorsed many other progressive
At the state level, progressives campaigned for electoral reforms to allow the
people to play a more direct role in the political process. Some Western states
adopted practices that expanded voter rights, including the initiative, the
referendum, and the recall. Under the initiative, citizens could sign petitions
to force legislatures to vote on particular bills. With the referendum, a
proposal could be placed on the ballot to be decided by a vote at election time.
Using the recall, voters could petition to oust officials from their jobs.
Progressives also supported the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, which provides
for election of U.S. senators directly by vote of the people, rather than
indirectly by state legislatures.
Progressive reformers used the states as laboratories of reform. For instance,
Wisconsin governor Robert La Follette, who held office from 1901 to 1906,
introduced progressive changes such as establishing a commission to supervise
railroad practices and raising state taxes on corporations. Following
Wisconsin’s example, one state after another passed laws to regulate railroads
Progressives also focused on
labor reform at the state level. They sought to eliminate (or at least regulate)
child labor, to cut workers' hours, and to establish a minimum wage. By 1907
progressive efforts had led 30 states to abolish child labor. In Muller
v. Oregon (1908), the Supreme Court upheld a state law that limited women
factory workers to a ten-hour day, and many states began to regulate women's
working hours. Progressives also endorsed workmen’s compensation (an insurance
plan to aid workers injured on the job) and an end to homework (piecework done
in tenements). In New York’s Triangle Fire of 1911, many women leapt to their
deaths from a burning shirtwaist factory. The tragedy reminded people of the
need for higher safety standards in factories and the need to protect workers
from unscrupulous employers.
Some progressive reformers
supported causes that had a coercive or repressive dimension, such as
Prohibition, a movement to prevent the manufacture, sale, or use of alcohol. The
Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874, had long campaigned
against alcohol. In 1895 the Anti-Saloon League of America joined the crusade.
Together they worked to gain support for the 18th Amendment, which provided for
Prohibition. The amendment was ratified in 1919 and remained law until 1933,
when the 21st Amendment repealed it. Progressive moral fervor also emerged in
campaigns to combat prostitution and to censor films. Finally, some progressives
endorsed other restrictive causes, now seen as ungenerous or inhumane, such as a
campaign against immigration or support for eugenics, a movement to control
reproduction in order to improve the human race.
Progressive causes won support
from a broad section of the middle class—editors, teachers, professionals, and
business leaders—who shared common values. Progressive supporters appreciated
order, efficiency, and expertise; they championed investigation,
experimentation, and cooperation. Many, including some progressive employers,
sought regulations to make business practices more fair and break up monopolies.
To regulate business, however, progressives had to wield influence on the
Progressivism at the National
When progressives began to work for reform at the national level, their major
goal was government regulation of business. Seeking antitrust laws to eliminate
monopolies, they also supported lower tariffs, a graduated income tax, and a
system to control currency. They found a spokesperson in President Theodore
Regulation, Roosevelt believed, was the only way to solve the problems caused by
big business. A leading publicist for progressive ideals, Roosevelt became known
as a trustbuster. He revived the Sherman Antitrust Act, vigorously enforcing it
to break up large trusts that reduced competition and controlled prices. He also
pursued a railroad monopoly, took on the meatpacking trust, and attacked oil,
tobacco, and other monopolies. In 1906 Roosevelt helped push through a meat
inspection act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Hepburn Act. This law
expanded the regulatory powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the agency
that regulated commercial activity crossing state lines.
Roosevelt was also a leading nature conservationist who wanted to preserve the
nation's natural resources. He withdrew thousands of acres of forests, mineral
lands, and waterpower sites from the public domain to protect them from
exploitation by private interests. Roosevelt doubled the number of national
parks and established many national monuments and wildlife refuges. He also
supported a 1902 law to provide irrigation and hydroelectric development by
building dams on some of the nation’s rivers.
Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, was more conservative, and domestic
reforms slowed during his administration. He reluctantly signed a bill in 1909
that slightly raised tariffs, but he aggressively pursued twice as many
antitrust proceedings. Taft won major victories against Standard Oil Company and
American Tobacco Company, which were ordered by the Supreme Court to break into
smaller, competing firms. Taft also signed laws for progressive measures such as
raising corporation taxes.
Taft lost support in 1912, however, when Roosevelt, who disagreed with him on
tariff policy and railroad regulation, entered the presidential race as head of
the new Progressive Party. Roosevelt’s program of New Nationalism sought state
regulation of big business. New Jersey’s progressive governor, Democrat Woodrow
Wilson, envisioned more limited federal power. Wilson supported an effort to
destroy monopoly and aid small business through tariff reduction, banking
reform, and tightening of antitrust laws. His program was known as the New
Progressivism reached its peak
during Wilson’s first term as president. In 1913 Wilson signed the Underwood
Tariff, which reduced taxes on imported goods. The bill also included an income
tax, permitted by the new 16th Amendment to the Constitution of the United
States. Wilson supported the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, which created a
centralized banking system to act as a lender of last resort to forestall bank
crises and to permit a more elastic currency, one that could be readily expanded
or contracted to suit the national need.
To curb trusts, Wilson pushed
through Congress the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 (see Federal
Trade Commission). The law established a commission with authority to prevent
business practices that could lead to a monopoly. He also supported the Clayton
Antitrust Act of 1914, a statute intended to bolster the poorly enforced Sherman
Act. The new law banned interlocking directorates, in which a few people
controlled an industry by serving simultaneously as directors of related
corporations. It also exempted labor unions from the category of illegal
combinations and gave workers the right to strike. Finally, Wilson appointed
Louis Brandeis, a leading critic of big business, to the Supreme Court. Full of
moral fervor, Wilson carried progressive goals into World War I, which the
United States entered in 1917.
African Americans in the
Despite their zeal for reform, few progressives made race relations a priority,
and in the South, leading progressives often endorsed racist policies. In l900
more than two-thirds of ten million African Americans lived in the South; most
were sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Rural or urban, Southern blacks faced
poverty, discrimination, and limited employment opportunities. At the end of the
19th century, Southern legislatures passed Jim Crow laws that separated blacks
and whites in public places (see Segregation in the United States).
Because blacks were deprived of the right to vote by the grandfather clause,
poll taxes, or other means, their political participation was limited. Lynching
increased, and a steady stream of black migrants moved north. From 1890 to 1910,
some 200,000 African Americans left the South, and even more moved out during
World War I. For more information, see United States (People): Major
Migrations of the U.S. Population: Black Migration.
As African Americans tried to combat racism and avoid racial conflict, they
clashed over strategies of accommodation and resistance. Booker T. Washington,
head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, urged blacks to be industrious and
frugal, to learn manual skills, to become farmers and artisans, to work their
way up economically, and to win the respect of whites. When blacks proved their
economic value, Washington argued, racism would decline. An agile politician,
with appeal to both whites and blacks, Washington urged African Americans to
adjust to the status quo. In 1895, in a speech that critics labeled the Atlanta
Compromise, Washington contended that blacks and whites could coexist in harmony
with separate social lives but united in efforts toward economic progress.
Northern intellectual W.E.B. Du
Bois challenged Washington's policy. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903),
Du Bois deplored Washington's call for patience and for cultivation of manual
skills. Instead he urged equal educational opportunities and the end of
discrimination. In 1909 Du Bois joined a group of progressives, black and white,
to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The NAACP strove to end the disfranchisement of black people, to abolish
segregation, and to promote black civil and political rights.
The Women’s Movement
Middle-class women and progressive reformers shared common goals. In the
progressive era, women made great advances in higher education, the professions,
and women's organizations. By 1910, for instance, when about 5 percent of
college-age Americans attended college, about 40 percent were women. Activist
women joined organizations such as the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, a
women's volunteer service organization founded in 1890. The National Consumers’
League (1899) and the Women’s Trade Union League (1903) spearheaded efforts to
limit women’s work hours and to organize women in unions. College students read
Women and Economics (1898) by feminist intellectual Charlotte Perkins
Gilman; college graduates worked in settlement houses; and homemakers joined
women's clubs to promote civic improvement. Reformer Florence Kelley led the
charge for child labor laws and other measures to protect workers. On the left,
anarchist Emma Goldman, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and feminist
Crystal Eastman promoted aspects of women’s rights.
Settlement leaders, women’s clubs, and temperance groups supported progressive
measures. The woman suffrage movement, in turn, won progressive support. Women
had been fighting for the right to vote since the passage of the 15th Amendment
gave voting rights to black men. In 1869 two rival organizations formed to
support voting rights for women on state and federal levels. In 1890 the
competing suffrage groups united to form the National American Woman Suffrage
Association, which pursued the battle in the states. As late as 1909, women
could vote in only four states (Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado), but
momentum picked up. Suffragists used more aggressive tactics, such as parades,
rallies, and marches, and gained ground. They won a key victory by gaining the
right to vote in New York State in 1917, which helped empower them for their
final push during World War I.
Progressive presidents sought to impose order on the world, and especially to
find markets for American products. For example, Roosevelt believed that a world
power such as the United States was obliged to maintain global peace. He brought
Russia and Japan together to sign a treaty in 1905 that ended the Russo-Japanese
War and gave Japan rights in Korea. Roosevelt also supported expansion of U.S.
Roosevelt intervened in Latin America to build a canal connecting the Atlantic
and Pacific oceans; the canal would link U.S. East Coast ports with East Asia.
The United States negotiated a treaty with Colombia for rights to build a canal
in Panama, at that time controlled by Colombia. When the Colombian Congress
rejected the treaty, Roosevelt encouraged Panamanian desire for independence
from Colombia. This tactic succeeded, and a revolution occurred. The United
States promptly recognized the new government of Panama and negotiated a treaty
that enabled Americans to build the Panama Canal.
Latin Americans questioned
Roosevelt’s high-handed maneuver. They also objected to the Roosevelt Corollary
to the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine, announced in 1823, declared that
the United States had the right to exclude foreign powers from expanding in the
western hemisphere. It had protected weak 19th-century Latin American nations
from powerful European nations. The Roosevelt Corollary, in contrast, stated
that "chronic" wrongdoing on the part of Latin American nations entitled the
United States to intervene in the affairs of those nations. Most Latin Americans
saw Roosevelt’s policy as a form of imperialism.
Roosevelt applied his corollary
first to the Dominican Republic, which had trouble paying its debts to other
nations. Roosevelt feared that a European power might occupy the country to
force repayment of debts. The United States therefore ran the Dominican
Republic’s custom service for two years and used money collected there to pay
the nation’s debts.
Relations with Japan also became
an issue during Roosevelt’s administration. A conflict erupted in 1906 over
Japanese immigration to the United States. Prejudice against Japanese immigrants
caused a crisis when San Francisco forced Asian children into a separate school.
The Japanese government protested. In a "gentlemen’s agreement" in 1907, both
nations agreed to discourage immigration from Japan. In the Root-Takahira
agreement of 1908, Japan and the United States agreed to respect the territorial
integrity of China and the Open Door Policy.
Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, adopted a policy that critics called
"dollar diplomacy"; he encouraged U.S. bankers and industrialists to invest
abroad, especially in Latin America. He hoped they would replace European
lenders and build American influence in the area. The policy, however, led the
United States into unpopular military ventures. For instance, the nation became
involved in a civil war in Nicaragua, where the United States in 1909 supported
the overthrow of the country’s leader and sustained a reactionary regime.
Woodrow Wilson, an idealist and
humanitarian, disliked imperialism and rejected dollar diplomacy. He hoped to
establish benevolent relations with other nations and wanted the United States
to serve as a force for good in the world. However, in 1913, the United States
landed marines in Nicaragua to ensure that its choice for Nicaraguan president
would remain in power. The Wilson administration then drew up a treaty with
Nicaragua that reduced the country to virtual dependency. In addition, U.S.
troops occupied Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1916. American
business interests continued to prevail in Latin America.
Finally, Wilson came close to
involving the United States in a war with Mexico. In 1913, two years after the
Mexican Revolution, Mexico's new president was assassinated, and a reactionary
general, Victoriano Huerta, took control. Wilson refused to recognize Huerta's
unjust regime. Many Mexicans who disliked Huerta, however, also resented
Wilson's intervention in Mexican affairs. Both sides were poised to fight in
1914, when a confrontation between American sailors and Huerta's forces broke
out at Veracruz. Wilson accepted the mediation of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil,
but then supported Francisco "Pancho" Villa, a bandit, until Villa crossed the
border and massacred Americans. Wilson sent U.S. troops to pursue Villa in 1916.
The United States withdrew in 1917, which ended American involvement but left a
legacy of distrust in Mexico and Latin America.
Historians debate the impact of progressivism at home and abroad. Some criticize
the progressives' desire for order and control, their reluctance to criticize
capitalism, and progressivism's coercive or restrictive side. Big business,
critics contend, eluded progressive regulations. Other historians applaud
progressive initiatives and find in them precedents for New Deal measures of the
1930s. According to more favorable interpretations, progressivism expanded
democracy, challenged the close alliance of government and business, considered
the public interest, and protected some of the more vulnerable Americans.
Above all, progressivism changed
American attitudes toward the power of government. In 1917 Americans turned
their attention from domestic concerns to foreign affairs as the United States
became involved in World War I.
AMERICA AND WORLD WAR I
World War I broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914. The war set Germany and
Austria-Hungary (the Central Powers) against the United Kingdom, France, and
Russia (the Allied Powers), and eventually involved many more nations. The
United States declared itself a neutral nation, but neutrality proved elusive.
For three years, as Europeans faced war on an unprecedented scale, the
neutrality so popular in the United States gradually slipped away.
At the outset, Germany and
Britain each sought to terminate U.S. trade with the other. Exploiting its naval
advantage, Britain gained the upper hand and almost ended U.S. trade with
Germany. Americans protested this interference, but when German submarines,
known as U-boats, began to torpedo American merchant ships, American public
opinion turned against Germany. Then on May 7, 1915, a German submarine attacked
a British passenger liner, the Lusitania, killing more than a thousand
people, including 128 Americans. Washington condemned the attacks, which led to
a brief respite in German attacks, and in the presidential race of 1916,
President Wilson won reelection on the campaign slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War."
In January 1917, however, Germany
declared a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Ending diplomatic ties with
Germany, Wilson still tried to keep the United States out of the war. But
Germany continued its attacks, and the United States found out about a secret
message, the Zimmerman telegram, in which the German government proposed an
alliance with Mexico and discussed the possibility of Mexico regaining territory
lost to the United States. Resentful that Germany was sinking American ships and
making overtures to Mexico, the United States declared war on Germany on April
The United States entered World
War I with divided sentiments. Americans debated both whether to fight the war
and which side to support. Since the outbreak of war in Europe, pacifists and
reformers had deplored the drift toward conflict; financiers and industrialists,
however, promoted patriotism, "preparedness," and arms buildup. Some Americans
felt affinities for France and England, but millions of citizens were of German
origin. To many Americans, finally, the war in Europe seemed a distant conflict
that reflected tangled European rivalries, not U.S. concerns.
But German aggression steered
public opinion from neutrality to engagement, and the United States prepared for
combat. The Selective Service Act passed in May 1917 helped gradually increase
the size of America's armed forces from 200,000 people to almost four million at
the war's end.
By the spring of 1917, World War I had become a deadly war of attrition. Russia
left the war that year, and after the Bolsheviks assumed power in the Russian
Revolution of 1917, Russia signed a separate peace treaty with Germany in March
1918. Allied prospects looked grim. With Russia out of the picture, Germany
shifted its troops to the western front, a north-south line across France, where
a gruesome stalemate had developed. Dug into trenches and shelled by artillery,
great armies bogged down in a form of siege warfare.
In June 1917 the American
Expeditionary Force, led by General John J. Pershing, began to arrive in France.
By March 1918, when Germany began a massive offensive, much of the American
force was in place. Reluctantly, the United States allowed American troops to be
integrated into Allied units under British and French commanders. These
reinforcements bolstered a much-weakened defense, and the Allies stopped the
German assault. In September 1918 American troops participated in a
counteroffensive in the area around Verdun. The Saint-Mihiel campaign succeeded,
as did the Allied Meuse Argonne offensive, where both the Allies and the Germans
suffered heavy casualties. Facing what seemed to be a limitless influx of
American troops, Germany was forced to consider ending the war. The Central
Powers surrendered, signing an armistice on November 11, 1918. Only the
challenge of a peace treaty remained.
American manpower tipped the scales in the Allies' favor. At war for only 19
months, the United States suffered relatively light casualties. The United
States lost about 112,000 people, many to disease, including a treacherous
influenza epidemic in 1918 that claimed 20 million lives worldwide. European
losses were far higher. According to some estimates, World War I killed close to
10 million military personnel.
World War I wrought significant changes on the American home front. First, the
war created labor shortages. Thousands of African Americans left the South for
jobs in Northern steel mills, munitions plants, and stockyards. The great
migration of the World War I era established large black communities in Northern
cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The influx, however,
provoked racial tensions and race riots in some cities, including East Saint
Louis, Illinois, in July 1917 and Chicago in July 1919.
Labor shortages provided a variety of jobs for women, who became streetcar
conductors, railroad workers, and shipbuilders. Women also volunteered for the
war effort and sold war bonds. Women mustered support for woman suffrage, a
cause that finally achieved its long-sought goal. The 19th Amendment, granting
women the right to vote, triumphed in Congress in 1919 and was ratified by the
states in 1920.
The war greatly increased the responsibilities of the federal government. New
government agencies relied mainly on persuasion and voluntary compliance. The
War Industries Board urged manufacturers to use mass production techniques and
increase efficiency. The Railroad Administration regulated rail traffic; the
Fuel Administration monitored coal supplies and regulated gasoline. The National
War Labor Board sought to resolve thousands of disputes between management and
labor that resulted from stagnant wages coupled with inflation. The Food
Administration urged families to observe "meatless Mondays," "wheatless
Wednesdays," and other measures to help the war effort. The Committee on Public
Information organized thousands of public speakers ("four-minute men") to
deliver patriotic addresses; the organization also produced 75 million pamphlets
promoting the war effort.
Finally, to finance the war, the United States developed new ways to generate
revenue. The federal government increased income and excise taxes, instituted a
war-profit tax, and sold war bonds.
War pressures evoked hostility
and suspicion in the United States. Antagonism toward immigrants, especially
those of German descent, grew. Schools stopped teaching German. Hamburgers and
sauerkraut became "Salisbury steak" and "liberty cabbage." Fear of sabotage
spurred Congress to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918.
The laws imposed fines, jail sentences, or both for interfering with the draft,
obstructing the sale of war bonds, or saying anything disloyal, profane, or
abusive about the government or the war effort. These repressive laws, upheld by
the Supreme Court, resulted in 6,000 arrests and 1,500 convictions for antiwar
activities. The laws targeted people on the left, such as Socialist leader
Eugene V. Debs, who was imprisoned, and Emma Goldman, who was jailed and
deported. The arrests of 1917 reflected wartime concerns about dissent as well
as hostility toward the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Treaty of Versailles
Even before the war ended, President Wilson offered a plan for world peace, the
Fourteen Points. The plan, announced to Congress on January 8, 1918, would
abolish secret diplomacy, guarantee freedom of the seas, remove international
trade barriers wherever possible, reduce arms, and consider the interests of
colonized peoples. Eight more points addressed changes to specific boundaries
based on the principle of self-determination, or the right of nations to shape
their own destinies. Finally, Wilson's points called for a League of Nations to
arbitrate disputes between nations and usher in an epoch of peace. High hopes
for the Fourteen Points prevailed at the time of the armistice but faded by June
1919, when emissaries of the Big Four (the United States, France, Britain, and
Italy) gathered at Versailles to determine the conditions of peace.
At Versailles, the Allies ignored most of Wilson's goals. During postwar
negotiations, including the Treaty of Versailles, they redrew the map of Europe
and established nine new nations, including Poland, Yugoslavia, and
Czechoslovakia. Boundaries of other nations were shifted, and out of the Ottoman
Empire, which fought on the side of the Central Powers during the war, four
areas were carved: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. These areas were given
to France and Britain as mandates, or temporary colonies. The Treaty of
Versailles demilitarized Germany, which lost its air force and much of its army
and navy. Germany also lost its colonies and had to return to France the
Alsace-Lorraine area, which Germany had annexed in 1871. Finally, forced to
admit blame for the war, Germany was burdened with high reparations for war
A spirit of vindictiveness among the Allies invalidated Wilson's goals and led
to a number of defects in the Treaty of Versailles. First, Germany’s humiliation
led to resentment, which festered over the next decades. Second, the Big Four
paid no attention to the interests of the new Bolshevik government in Russia,
which the treaty antagonized. Third, in some instances, the treaty ignored the
demands of colonized peoples to govern themselves.
The Treaty of Versailles did include a charter or covenant for the League of
Nations, a point that embodied Woodrow Wilson's highest goal for world peace.
However, the U.S. Senate rejected the League of Nations and the entire treaty.
Republicans who favored isolation (the "irreconcilables") spurned the treaty.
Conservative Republicans, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, disliked the
treaty's provisions for joint military actions against aggressors, even though
such action was voluntary. They demanded modifications, but Wilson refused to
compromise. Overestimating his prestige and refusing to consider Republican
reservations, Wilson remained adamant. Uncompromising and exhausted, the
president campaigned for the treaty until he collapsed with a stroke. The United
States never joined the League of Nations, started in 1919, and signed a
separate peace treaty with Germany in 1921.
Ironically, after leading America
to victory in the war, President Wilson endured two significant disappointments.
First he compromised at Versailles; for instance, he agreed to the Allied
diplomats’ desire for high reparations against Germany. Second, Wilson refused
to compromise with the Senate, and thus he was unable to accomplish his
idealistic goals. His vision of spreading democracy around the world and of
ensuring world peace became a casualty of the peace process.
World War I left many legacies.
The American experience of the Great War, albeit brief and distant from the
nation’s shores, showed the United States how effectively it could mobilize its
industrial might and hold its own in world affairs. However, the war left
Germany shackled by the armistice and angered by the peace treaty. Postwar
Germany faced depression, unemployment, and desperate economic conditions, which
gave rise to fascist leadership in the 1930s. In addition, each of the areas
carved out by the Treaty of Versailles proved, in one way or another, to be
trouble spots in the decades ahead. In the United States, fears of radicalism,
horror at Soviet bolshevism, and the impact of wartime hysteria led to a second
blast of attacks on radicals. In the Palmer Raids in January 1920, agents of
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer arrested 4,000 people in 33 cities. The
postwar "Red Scare" abated, but suspicion of foreigners, dissenters, and
nonconformists continued in the 1920s.
AMERICA IN A NEW AGE
World War I made the United States a world power. While European nations tried
to recover from the war, the United States had overseas territories, access to
markets, and plentiful raw materials. Formerly in debt to European investors,
the United States began to lend money abroad. At home, the economy expanded.
Assembly-line production, mass consumption, easy credit, and advertising
characterized the 1920s. As profits soared, American zeal for reform waned, and
business and government resumed their long-term affinity. But not all Americans
enjoyed the rewards of prosperity. A mix of economic change, political
conservatism, and cultural conflict made the 1920s a decade of contradictions.
Productivity and Prosperity
As war production ended, the economy dipped, but only briefly; by 1922 the
nation began a spectacular spurt of growth. Auto production symbolized the new
potential of industry (see Automobile Industry). Annual car sales tripled
from 1916 to 1929; 9 million motorized vehicles on the road became 27 million by
the end of the 1920s. At his Michigan plant, Henry Ford oversaw the making of
the popular black Model T. New modes of production changed car manufacture. A
moving assembly line brought interchangeable parts to workers who performed
specific tasks again and again. Assembly-line techniques cut production costs,
which made cars less expensive and more available to average citizens.
The effect of auto production
spread beyond car factories. Auto-building spurred industries that made steel,
glass, rubber, and petroleum. Exploration for oil led to new corporations, such
as Gulf Oil and Texaco. During the 1920s domestic oil production grew by 250
percent, and oil imports rose as well.
State-funded programs to build
roads and highways changed the nation's landscape. Previously isolated rural
areas filled with tourist cabins and gas stations. New suburbs with
single-family homes on small plots of land arose at the outskirts of cities; the
construction industry soared. For more information, see United States
(Culture): Way of Life; Living Patterns.
Finally, the car industry
pioneered new ways to distribute and sell products. Auto companies sold cars
through networks of dealers to customers who often used a new type of credit,
the installment plan. With this plan, the purchaser made an initial payment, or
down payment, and then agreed to pay the balance of the purchase price in a
series of payments.
Cars were just one growth sector of the 1920s. Energy use tripled, and
electricity reached 60 percent of American homes. Industry produced new home
appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners. As
incomes rose, families spent larger portions of their incomes to buy these
durable goods; items previously considered luxuries now became necessities.
Chain stores, such as A&P, put local retailers out of business; canned goods and
commercial breads replaced homemade products. The young advertising industry,
which had appeared in the late 19th century, fed a desire for consumer goods.
Extensive credit abetted this desire, known as consumerism.
During the decade, American
corporations became larger. Some grew by securing markets abroad, as did the
United Fruit Company in Latin America. Others grew through consolidation. Large
companies came to dominate many industries. By the end of the 1920s, 100
corporations controlled nearly half the nation's business.
The vast growth of business in
the 1920s transformed many areas of life, but failed to distribute benefits
equally. Industrial workers did not reap the profit of increased productivity.
Wages rose but not as fast as prices. Unions competed with company unions
(employer-established organizations) and battled the National Association of
Manufacturers, which sought to break union power. Union membership dropped from
about 5 million in 1920 to 3.4 million in 1930.
Agriculture suffered as well.
Markets for farm products declined after army purchases ended and European
farming revived. Farmers produced more, and prices continued to fall. The annual
income of farmers declined, and they fell further into debt. Like many other
Americans, rural families became mired in a web of credit and consumption.
Leisure industries, too, turned to mass production. Amusements of bygone
days—amateur theatricals, sleigh rides—gave way to new industries in
entertainment and culture. Rural or urban, Americans nationwide read
mass-circulation magazines, full of advertising, such as The Saturday Evening
Post, Reader's Digest, or The Ladies' Home Journal. They
listened on the radio to the same popular music, comedy shows, and commercials,
broadcast by new radio networks such as National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and
Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Motion pictures gained vast urban audiences,
and in 1927, Al Jolson's film The Jazz Singer introduced sound to movie
audiences. Fans followed the careers of movie stars in film magazines. The press
also tracked other celebrities, such as Charles Lindbergh, who flew the first
transatlantic flight in 1927, or novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife,
Zelda, who epitomized an icon of the 1920s, the flapper.
Young and uninhibited, the flapper represented much of what typified the Jazz
Age of the 1920s—youthful rebellion, female independence, exhibitionism,
competitiveness, and consumerism. Although a symbol of liberation, the flapper
was in fact the ultimate consumer, dependent on a variety of products. With her
bobbed hairdos, short skirts, makeup, and cigarettes, she supported growth
industries of the 1920s—the beauty parlor, the ready-made clothing industry,
cosmetic manufacture, and tobacco production. Consumerism linked the carefree,
adventurous mood of the Jazz Age with the dominance of large corporations and
their conservative values.
Among African Americans, the great migration of Southern blacks to Northern jobs
during the war created strong African American communities. During the 1920s
these communities were home to cultural revivals, such as the Harlem
Renaissance, where art, music, and literature flourished. The "New Negro," a
term used by critic and historian Alain Locke, celebrated African American
heritage and racial identity. As black creativity flourished, African Americans
began to raise their voices for equality. Interest also arose in black
nationalism. Some African Americans became followers of Jamaican black
nationalist Marcus Garvey, who urged racial pride, formed the Universal Negro
Improvement Association (UNIA), and led a Back to Africa movement. At its height
the UNIA claimed more than two million members. It declined after Garvey was
convicted of fraud and deported to Jamaica in 1927.
Many Americans of the 1920s endorsed conservative values in politics and
economics. Republican presidents stood for these values, or what President
Warren G. Harding called "normalcy…a regular steady order of things." Under
presidents Harding and Calvin Coolidge, tariffs reached new highs, income taxes
fell for people who were most well off, and the Supreme Court upset progressive
measures, such as the minimum wage and federal child labor laws. Both Harding
and Coolidge tended to favor business. "The business of America is business,"
Coolidge declared. "This is a business country, and it wants a business
Republican presidents shared isolationist inclinations in foreign policy; the
United States never joined the League of Nations. Harding and Coolidge also
endorsed pacifist policies. In 1921 Harding organized the International
Conference on Naval Limitation, known as the Washington Conference, a pioneering
effort to reduce arms and avoid an expensive naval arms race. Attended by the
United Kingdom, Japan, France, Italy, and other countries, the conference
proposed destruction of ships and a moratorium on new construction. In 1928,
under Coolidge, the United States and France cosponsored the Kellogg-Briand
Pact, which renounced aggression and called for the end of war. As a practical
instrument for preventing war, the treaty was useless. However, it helped to
establish the 20th-century concept of war as an outlaw act by an aggressor state
on a victim state.
While remaining aloof from international concerns, the United States began to
close its doors to immigrants. Antiforeign sentiment fueled demands for
immigration limits. Protests against unrestricted immigration came from
organized labor, which feared the loss of jobs to newcomers, and from patriotic
organizations, which feared foreign radicalism.
Efforts to limit immigration led to the National Origins Act, passed by Congress
in 1924. The law set an annual quota on immigration and limited the number of
newcomers from each country to the proportion of people of that national origin
in the 1890 population. (In 1929 the basis for the quotas was revised to the
1920 population.) The law discriminated against the most recent newcomers,
southern and eastern Europeans, and excluded Asian immigrants almost entirely.
Latin American immigration, however, was unlimited. Immigration from Mexico
surged in the 1920s, abetted by the Mexican Revolution and by the need of
southwestern businesses for agricultural labor. More than one million Mexicans
(10 percent of the Mexican population) arrived in the United States from 1910 to
What happened to more critical
voices in the conservative era? Radical political activism waned, dimmed by the
Red Scare of 1919. Social criticism appeared in literary magazines such as
The Masses; in newspapers such as the Baltimore Sun, where journalist
H. L. Mencken published biting commentary; and in popular fiction such as
Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922), an assault on provincial values.
Some intellectuals fled the United States and settled in Paris. Progressivism
faded. Its most enduring vestige, the post-suffrage women's movement, faced its
Enthused by winning the right to
vote, women of the 1920s pursued political roles as voters, candidates, national
committeewomen, and activists in voluntary groups. But the women’s movement
still encountered obstacles. Women’s organizations did not agree on supporting
the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), first proposed in 1923. The amendment would
have made illegal all forms of discrimination based on sex. The National Woman's
Party, led by Alice Paul, pressed for passage of the amendment, but most women's
organizations, including the newly formed League of Women Voters, did not
support it, and the ERA made no progress.
Women reformers also suffered
setbacks in national politics. The Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, a pioneering
health care measure aimed at women voters, provided matching funds for prenatal
and baby-care centers in rural areas, but Congress repealed the law in 1929.
Other important goals of women reformers, such as a federal child labor law and
the minimum wage, failed as well.
Political and cultural debates divided Americans of the 1920s. Major issues of
the decade reflected a split between urban and rural, modern and traditional,
radical and reactionary. Nativist, anti-radical sentiments emerged in a 1921
trial, the Sacco-Vanzetti Case. Two anarchists, Italian immigrants, were tried
and convicted of murder. Many believed that the men’s immigrant origins and
political beliefs played a part in their convictions. The case evoked protests
from socialists, radicals, and prominent intellectuals, and remained a source of
conflict for decades. Nativism also inspired the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in
the 1920s. The new Klan targeted Catholics, Jews, and immigrants, as well as
African Americans. It thrived in the Midwest and Far West, as well as in the
South. With its women's auxiliary, the Women of the Klan, it raised millions of
dollars and wielded political power in several states, including Oklahoma,
Oregon, and Indiana.
Conflict also arose over religious fundamentalism. In 1925 John T. Scopes, a
Tennessee schoolteacher, was tried for breaking a state law that prohibited the
teaching of the theory of evolution in schools. This theory, its foes said,
contradicted the account of creation in the Bible. Scopes and the American Civil
Liberties Union believed that the law violated freedom of speech, an argument
made by Scopes's lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Reporters converged on Dayton,
Tennessee, to witness the courtroom battle between traditionalism and modernism.
Scopes was convicted, though the verdict was later reversed on technical grounds
(see Scopes Trial).
The battle over Prohibition,
finally, symbolized the divisive spirit of the 1920s. "Drys" favored Prohibition
and "wets" opposed it. The Volstead Act of 1919, which enforced the 18th
Amendment, prohibited the manufacture, sale, or distribution of alcoholic
beverages, but was riddled with loopholes. Organized crime entered the liquor
business; rival gangs and networks of speakeasies induced a crime wave. By the
end of the 1920s, Prohibition was discredited, and it was repealed in 1933.
Meanwhile, the conflict between
"wets" and "drys" played a role in the presidential election of 1928. The
Democratic candidate, Al Smith, governor of New York, was a machine politician
and a "wet," who represented urban, immigrant constituencies. Republican Herbert
Hoover, an engineer from Iowa, was a "dry" who represented rural, traditional
constituencies. A foe of government intervention in the economy, Hoover
envisioned a rational economic order in which corporate leaders acted for the
public good. Promising voters "a chicken for every pot and a car in every
garage," Hoover won a substantial majority of votes, except in the nation's
largest cities. But he had the misfortune to assume office just before the
nation encountered economic collapse.