the years following the Civil War (1861-1865), a series of economic developments occurred in the United States that profoundly affected the nation. The Civil War not only brought blood and carnage; it ushered in a second wave of industrialization and westward expansion. Between 1865 and 1890, the United States would settle the American West, absorb millions of European immigrants into its population, witness the growth of cities, and become an industrial giant. During that period of growth and development, the United States focused its attention primarily on domestic affairs, and for the most part, adhered to its traditional policy of isolationism.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, several factors conspired to bring the country to the world stage. Economic circumstances nudged the nation to expand its commercial markets beyond its borders. Urged on by the circulation of ideas of cultural superiority, the United States responded to political events that led it to become an imperial power. These changes and the decisions behind them redefined the nation, both globally and domestically.
We'll look first at why the United States grew to embrace expansionism.
Along with the settling of the West, economic growth and industrial development created a growing desire and need for markets outside the United States. The nation no longer manufactured products solely to fulfill its own needs. After 1870, the United States experienced a growth in the manufacturing of steel, machinery, and petroleum products, driving industrial leaders to set up new industries all over the country.
By the end of the nineteenth century, available capital, efficient production means, and the cheap labor of immigrants had helped make the United States the world's foremost industrial nation.
Agricultural output also rose with mechanized farming practices, and the United States started producing much more than it could consume. Manufacturers and farmers started hunting for new markets beyond national boundaries in which to sell their products.
Industrial leaders also encouraged policy makers to seek new sources of raw materials, such as minerals, petroleum, cotton, and rubber. They insisted that these materials were necessary to sustain the industrial boom that was in progress.
Similarly, English philosopher Herbert Spencer, along with his American counterpart, William Graham Sumner, was very influential in the United States in applying survival-of-the-fittest ideas to human society. This misapplication of Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection—the adaptation of organisms over time to their environments—served to justify the concept that the privilege of the rich was a natural outcome of their superior nature.
So-called social Darwinism took yet another step and was applied to the economic and political strength of nations. Termed "international Darwinism," it claimed that the strength of the United States showed that it deserved to dominate other nations, as the idea of manifest destiny was applied outside national borders.
Newspapers also encouraged expansion, as well as imperialist acts. Heavily influenced by big business interests, they sensationalized the news to sell more papers. This type of reporting was called yellow journalism.
Practiced by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, yellow journalism glorified foreign conquests and wars as grand adventures. Such notions of glorious bravery and manhood fueled jingoism, an extreme form of patriotism that justifies aggression toward other nations.
A fierce competition between two major New York-based newspapers, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, exaggerated Weyler's already atrocious tactics as they vied for readers with increasingly sensational news stories. This exaggeration and publication of rumors as fact came to be called "yellow journalism." The two papers even fought over the source of the term: Hearst stole the cartoonist who created a comic strip character called "the yellow kid" from Pulitzer, who in turn hired another cartoonist to create a second "yellow kid." Read more about the role of yellow journalism in shaping this period in American history.
The World and the Journal continued to undercut actions that might have prevented the war, as when Hearst published a private letter from a Spanish minister that spoke unfavorably of US President William McKinley.
In January 1898, violent riots broke out in Cuba. President McKinley, pretending friendly intentions, sent the US battleship the Maine to Havana in 1898 to evacuate citizens should the violence threaten them. When the Maine was destroyed in an explosion while in harbor at Havana, these journalists reinforced the false perception that Spain had blown up the ship. No evidence supported this claim, and Spain would not have benefited from taking such an action. In fact, findings from recent investigations uncover that the explosion was actually caused by an accidental furnace explosion, not by Spain's actions. Nevertheless, with the help of unsubstantiated reporting, the incident led to war.
On April 11, 1898, Congress declared that Cuba had the right to be independent and demanded that Spain withdraw. On April 21, the United States declared war with Spain to free Cuba and protect US stakes. The New York Journal's sensational headline "The Whole Country Thrills with War Fever" and the slogan "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!" rang throughout the infuriated nation.
Spain was easily defeated on both land and sea in a few months. Even before war was formally declared, Theodore Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the navy, ordered Commodore George Dewey to attack Spanish naval forces in the Philippines in the event of war. Dewey sailed immediately after war was declared, and with the US Navy, easily defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in the Philippines.
In Cuba, forces battled in the Santiago harbor and nearby garrisons, including San Juan Hill. Roosevelt had resigned his post in the navy to lead a unit of volunteers known as the Rough Riders. They captured San Juan Hill in what would become the most talked about event of the war.
Although the war was short, it was not a triumph on many fronts. The United States sent out more troops than anticipated, and many soldiers were unsure why they were fighting. More soldiers were lost to malaria and food poisoning (over 5,000) than to battle (less than 400).
Filipinos rebelled when they learned that the United States would not give them independence as it had to Cuba and that US troops were apparently there to stay. Emilio Aguinaldo, who had been Dewey's ally against the Spanish in the earlier attack on Manila, led an insurrection against US troops in February of 1899. The ensuing war would last for three years and take the lives of about 4,000 US soldiers.
In a few months, the Philippines changed from being the United States's project of liberation to a land of insurgents and guerrilla fighters. And the defender of freedom became as ruthless as the Spanish commander Weyler had been in Cuba. The United States set up concentration camps and engaged in torture tactics such as the "water cure." Many Filipino villages were burned down. Ultimately, as many as 600,000 Filipinos died in the war.
While the United States occupied the islands, it invested millions in improving roads, sanitation systems, and schools. Despite the potential benefits of these improvements and the creation of a high-quality school system, the Filipinos did not appreciate being assimilated into American culture. Still, trade relations and Filipino emigration to the United States ensued. The Philippines did not gain independence until 1946.
Hay's Open Door Policy and the Boxer Rebellion
The United States had always had an eye on China but had for the most part been shut out by European powers. After being defeated by Japan in 1895, China was vulnerable to the aggression of the European powers of Germany and Russia. American churches with missionary establishments in China worried about those countries' destructive acts, while other nations worried that they would sew up the markets and exclude them by imposing taxes. Before long the powers of Europe and Russia had carved out dominant spheres of influence across China.
The United States responded to the threat of the European takeover of China with the Open Door Policy. Issued by Secretary of State John Hay, the policy stated that China should be open to trade with all of the major powers, including the United States, and that all of these powers should have equal right to trade there. Hay sent notes to Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia explaining the policy in an effort to prevent them from establishing separate spheres of influence in China. No nation formally agreed to Hay's policy. Undeterred, Hay simply announced that an agreement had been reached. Only Russia and Japan voiced displeasure.
In 1900 a group of Chinese patriots, known as "boxers" because of their martial arts skills, rebelled, intent on driving out all foreign influences. The Boxer Rebellion caused the deaths of about 200 foreigners and thousands of Chinese Christians who were the product of American missionary work.
An allied force from many countries, including US troops brought there from the Philippines, smashed the rebellion.
In the aftermath, the allied nations forced China to pay large retributions. The United States, though, returned the majority of its remuneration, on condition that China use the $18 million to send students to be educated in the United States, ensuring that those students would develop strong Western ties.
Hay then reworded the Open Door Policy to include "equal and impartial trade with all parts of the Chinese Empire," helping to keep China from being parceled out to those powers.
Although the Open Door Policy maintained hidden US business interests, it worked well in soothing anti-imperialist sentiments.
a Chinese man waving a flag
The Monroe Doctrine, written by John Quincy Adams in 1823 under President James Monroe, established an early division of spheres of influence. Specifically, it claimed the Americas as off limits for new European colonization and European conflicts as out of bounds for US military intervention, unless the interests of the United States were at stake. Teddy Roosevelt strengthened that doctrine with the Roosevelt Corollary in 1904.
Two events in Latin America prompted this extension. In 1902, Germany, Britain, and Italy took military action against Venezuela in South America because it owed money to European nations. Roosevelt stepped in and convinced the parties to arbitrate the dispute. Two years later a similar conflict occurred as European nations tried to collect debts owed to them in the Caribbean island nation of the Dominican Republic. That's when Roosevelt's corollary to the Monroe Doctrine claimed that only the United States would intervene in such cases. The United States did, in fact, take upon itself the management of the Dominican Republic's tax collections and payments in 1905.
Wielding his corollary as well as the "Big Stick," Roosevelt continued to exert control over Latin America with frequent US Marine landings, especially in the Caribbean. Many Latin Americans perceived these interventions as menacing acts of meddling by their giant neighbor to the north.
Theodore Roosevelt intervened significantly in Latin America when he pushed to get the Panama Canal built to enable easier access to the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic coast. Once again, this task required military intervention into Latin American lands.
A French company owned the rights to build a canal in Panama in a region then controlled by Colombia. When Colombia refused a US offer to construct the canal there, the engineer for the French company encouraged Panamanians to rebel against Colombia while US naval ships blocked Colombia from quashing the rebellion. Roosevelt quickly recognized Panama's independence and installed the French engineer as its minister.
Some Americans and many Latin Americans objected to the means by which the United States gained access to the canal, although for Americans the practical advantages of its completion somewhat mitigated those objections. In parts of Latin America, however, suspicion of the powerful northern imperial power grew, and some dubbed the whole incident the "rape of Panama."
Digging of the canal started in 1904. The canal's construction was another feat of engineering borne of great faith in science and machinery. It took nine years of nearly nonstop digging to open the 50-mile long isthmus in 1914 that would reduce the trip from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States by more than 8,000 miles. Read more about the building of the Panama Canal.
The 50-mile long Panama Canal was an incredible engineering achievement at the time it was built and remains so today. The Canal's locks are truly impressive. The locks took more than four years to build, but they have remained in great condition for about 100 years. These huge structures help to raise and lower ships 85 feet as they pass through the Canal.
In between the locks, workers built miles of artificial lakes for ships to pass through. Of these, Gatun Lake was the largest. In fact, Gatun Lake was the largest artificial body of water in the world until the 1930s. With its completion in 1914, the canal allowed ships to pass through Central America rather than around the southern tip of South America. The Panama Canal decreased the time and cost for traveling and shipping goods between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal also represented the United States' talent in engineering and innovation, as well as its growing power on the international stage.
Before we look at how the United States became involved in World War I, let's examine events in Europe in the years leading up to the war. There was no one cause of the war. Rather, a complex set of circumstances developed over many years to the point where an assassination—a single event—triggered a large-scale war, one that brought widespread destruction and took the lives of about 8.5 million soldiers and more than 6 million civilians.
In the century before World War I, conflicts between European nations were localized and often rooted in a rising sense of nationalism. Increasingly, people who shared a common language, culture, and history began to see themselves as a national group, even across borders.
In western Europe, feelings of nationalism led to brief wars that consolidated many small states into two new powers, Italy (1861) and Germany (1871). These countries and others in western Europe expanded voting rights, boosting national pride and helping to make their governments increasingly powerful. But nationalism had the opposite effect in the large empires of eastern Europe. It weakened the governments of Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, each of which ruled many national groups that fought for self-rule. Between 1821 and 1913, Romania and the Balkan states of Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania all won their independence.
The spread of nationalism was most explosive in the Balkan states of southeastern Europe, many of which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. As the Ottomans' influence there weakened, Austria-Hungary and Russia vied for the region. The ensuing tensions among these three powers would eventually help ignite World War I.
Tensions ran high among the European powers that aimed to expand their territory and build their wealth. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, European countries wanted to expand their industrial markets, much as the United States did, so they competed for land and raw materials by colonizing Asia and Africa. This rivalry strained relationships among these nations.
The wealth acquired through colonial expansion helped many European countries build up their military strength. Germany led the way. The country increased its military might during its wars of unification and became a powerful force in central Europe. In response, other nations shored up their military defenses, quickly growing their armies.
Great Britain, which had the world's strongest navy, felt especially threatened when Germany began to develop a naval force that was large and powerful enough to pose a challenge. Germany and Great Britain soon became fierce enemies. Britain turned to technology to try to best Germany. In 1906, the British navy launched the Dreadnought, the first modern battleship. As tensions rose, Germany quickly matched Britain's firepower by building its own battleships.
In the early twentieth century, several crises erupted in the Balkans. The Balkan nations became pawns for some of Europe's major powers, which sought to control the region. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, angering Serbians, who thought their country should unite with Bosnia-Herzegovina because its population included ethnic Serbs.
Tensions were running high in 1914 when Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne, made a goodwill visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina. On June 28, as a motorcade carried the archduke through the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Serbian terrorist organization the Black Hand, shot and killed him.
The assassination ultimately became the trigger that set off World War I. With Germany's support, Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia on July 23 that would effectively revoke Serbia's independence and give Austria-Hungary control of the country. Surprisingly, Serbia accepted most of the terms and asked that the others be decided by an international conference. Austria-Hungary took the minor areas of dissent as a reason to declare war on Serbia on July 28.
With Austria-Hungary and Serbia at war, other countries quickly took sides based on the terms of their alliances. Russia, allied to Serbia, mobilized its army on July 30, 1914. On August 1, Germany declared war against Russia and then against Russia's ally, France. By August 3, Germany, whose leaders had long been making battle plans in anticipation of war, had invaded Belgium and prepared to attack France.
The major powers quickly aligned. Germany joined with Austria-Hungary and Italy to make up the Central powers. On the other side were Serbia, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Japan, who made up the Allied powers. In 1915, Italy would switch loyalties to the Allies, two years before the United States entered the war, to support the Allied powers.
With the opposing sides poised for battle, let's review the circumstances that brought Europe to this point. We saw how a race to build up military might, the formation of military alliances, the desire to gain new territory and wealth, and national pride all played a role in the conflicts and tensions that led to World War I.
Initially, the United States pledged to remain neutral in World War I, following the philosophy of early leaders such as George Washington. In his Farewell Address, Washington cautioned America "to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world." President Woodrow Wilson even urged Americans in 1914 to remain "neutral in thought as well as in action."
President Wilson's words were easier said than done. Many Americans had ancestral ties to countries fighting on both sides in Europe, and their positions on the war varied greatly. Also, while President Wilson was neutral in speech, his actions indicated that he favored the British. For example, the British blocked US ships headed to Germany with supplies after it declared the North Sea a war zone, and the United States did not sternly warn them. However, the United States did warn Germany when that country started unrestricted submarine warfare in the same waters. The US government also loaned billions of dollars to the Allies, while loans only in the millions of dollars went to the Central powers.
To draw the United States to the side of the Allies, Great Britain started a propaganda campaign aimed at creating bias in the minds of US citizens. The British shrewdly touted the historic ties between the two nations, including their shared language and culture. The British also highlighted every atrocity that Germany inflicted on them while hiding their own misconduct.
Despite the geographical distance from Europe and the neutral stance of the United States, these pressures and events would soon draw the nation into World War I. Let's look at the sequence of events that convinced the United States to join the war effort.
The whole point of submarine warfare was the element of surprise. In order to identify ships, as the United States had demanded, German submarines would have to come to the surface. This was a risk they refused to take. Also, the Allies had started flying neutral flags on their ships to deceive the enemy.
On May 7, 1915, a German submarine sank the British passenger liner Lusitania. There were 128 US citizens among the 1,200 passengers killed. Americans were angry, and President Wilson had Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan send Germany a strongly worded warning against indiscriminate submarine warfare. Bryan, who was against getting involved in the war, was uncomfortable with the role he had to play.
When Bryan was asked to send a second strong statement to Germany in June, he chose to resign instead. Robert Lansing stepped in as secretary of state and sent Germany another warning. The Germans apologized to the United States, but noted that the Lusitania was carrying armaments.
The presidential election of 1916 saw a fierce fight between the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, and the Republican candidate, Charles Evan Hughes.
Wilson based his campaign on the fact that he had kept his country out of Europe's war. In contrast, while campaigning in areas where anti-German sentiment was strong, Hughes condemned Wilson for not standing up to Germany. Hughes, however, changed his stance on the war while campaigning in areas that supported a noninterventionist military policy. His seesawing earned him the nickname Charles Evasive Hughes. East Coast citizens, who were itching for war, voted for Hughes, while voters from the Midwest and the West supported Wilson. Wilson was reelected by a slim margin. But his campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war," did not stay true for long.
After the United States entered the European conflict, the nation sprang to action to support its war needs. The US government had to quickly raise funds and conserve food and other essential commodities for the war. The government raised taxes and sold bonds to raise money. Liberty Bonds and Victory Bonds raised more than $20 billion to aid the war effort, some of which was loaned to the Allies to buy weapons, food, and other war necessities. These funds also supported the US troops' training and other needs when they arrived in Europe.
In addition to raising funds for the war effort, the United States also needed food and ammunition for the troops and fuel to keep industries running at full throttle. To meet these needs, the US government set up several administrative bodies. In 1917, the War Industries Board (WIB) was established. Under Bernard Baruch, a perceptive Wall Street investor, this board decided on raw material allocation, production, and prices. This regulation ensured a steady supply of materials needed for the war.
Similar bodies for fuel and food administration were also set up in 1917. The Fuel Administration promoted "heatless Mondays" in American households to save fuel that could be diverted for higher industrial production.
The Food Administration was headed by Herbert Hoover, a future US president. The slogan "Food will win the war" encouraged people to cultivate "victory" gardens to grow their own produce. Instead of forced rationing, citizens were asked to conserve certain foods on specific days, such as "meatless Mondays" and "wheatless Wednesdays."
These voluntary acts helped reduce domestic food consumption by 15 percent, which helped feed US and Allied troops in Europe.
In addition to providing munitions and food, the US government needed to draft and mobilize troops quickly. On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed. This law compelled all men ages 21 to 30 to register for the draft and was later broadened to include all men ages 18 to 45.
The US government used multiple methods to convince citizens to join the army. Army posters depicting soldiers and their mothers flashed messages such as "The sentiment of every American mother: America, here's my boy." Attempts were made to enlist African Americans with posters of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, looking down approvingly at African American soldiers fighting the Germans.
All that propaganda worked. More than three million American troops served, including more than 350,000 African Americans, who served in a segregated US Army. Of the total number of troops, two million were sent to Europe to fight alongside the Allies.
Watch this video to see US troops preparing to go to war.
The US government was faced with the daunting task of motivating US citizens to support not only the soldiers but the war itself. To this end, the US government created the Committee on Public Information and appointed George Creel, a young Denver journalist, to head it. Creel recruited more than 75,000 "four-minute men" who delivered short, peppy patriotic speeches within the country and overseas. Creel also launched a massive pro-war propaganda campaign, printing millions of booklets, encouraging people to sing patriotic songs, and distributing films that depicted the German leader as a villain and US troops as heroes. Creel also promoted the censorship of newspapers and asked publishers to print only articles that supported the war effort. In addition, communities all across the United States established Liberty Leagues that encouraged people to report suspicious behavior.
Germany and all things German were equated with disloyalty. As a result, more than eight million German Americans faced discrimination. Some were even tarred, feathered, and beaten. As anti-German propaganda increased, even common food items took on patriotic names: hamburgers came to be called "liberty steaks" and sauerkraut was referred to as "liberty cabbage" to dissociate them from Germany.
While the United States became involved in World War I to uphold democracy, ironically, civil liberties took a hit on the home front. There were several witch hunts under the guise of patriotism. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 resulted in widespread persecution of German Americans and antiwar Americans, including antiwar socialists and members of the Industrial Workers of the World.
In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which prohibited disclosing information that pertained to national defense, interfering in recruiting troops for World War I, and refusing to perform military duty. Violating this act would mean a fine of $10,000 and up to 20 years in prison.
Congress passed the Sabotage and Sedition Acts in 1918. The Sabotage Act made it illegal to obstruct US war efforts by interfering with the production or shipment of military supplies. The Sedition Act impeded freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Both laws were aimed at anticapitalist groups, such as the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, who might speak against the war or organize strikes.
Many Americans opposed these new laws because they infringed upon civil rights. The US Supreme Court case of Schenck v. United States in 1919 argued that these laws violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. However, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled against Schenck, a member of the Socialist Party, and upheld the statutes that were harsh restrictions of freedom of speech. The convictions and jail sentences didn't stop until much later when, after the war, President Warren G. Harding pardoned 24 people convicted under the Espionage Act, including Eugene V. Debs.
US labor unions were also harassed. Instead of negotiating with workers who went on strike during the war, businesses promptly replaced them with those who would work for lower wages, many times immigrants.
With so many able young men fighting overseas, the United States saw a new labor force emerge during World War I. Jobs were plentiful for women, African Americans, and other minorities. This shift in the American workforce had both positive and negative effects for each group.
In addition to running their households, some women took up nursing and other noncombat positions in the army while others went to work in war-related industries. Other women found work in factories and offices. Although these opportunities had a positive impact on the struggle for women's suffrage, the effect was temporary. After the war, women were encouraged to return to their traditional roles inside the home.
African Americans migrated in waves from the South to northern cities to find jobs in factories, but they were met with suspicion in predominantly white neighborhoods. Race riots broke out in places such as Chicago and East St. Louis in Illinois, with lives lost among both African Americans and whites. Similarly, Mexican Americans and other ethnic minorities migrated North and found jobs in factories but faced racial prejudice.
While civilians faced prejudice at home, US troops on the European front faced the Central powers in battle. Thousands of American lives were lost, but the Allies gained ground and Germany realized it was time to accept defeat. Let's take a look at how the final days of World War I played out.
The United States became actively involved in World War I in 1917, just after the Russian government fell to Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik party. Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and made peace with the Germans. Russia's exit had considerably weakened the Allies and freed up German troops to attack France.
While many factors spurred the United States to get involved in the war, the Zimmerman note, along with Germany's decision to attack all ships regardless of nationality, gave the final nudge. One of the United States' first strategic military moves was to ensure safety on the seas. As German submarines continued to attack ships indiscriminately, the US Navy convinced the Allies to post military convoys aboard their ships.
In October 1917, the first 14,500 US troops under the command of General John J. Pershing arrived in France, where forces were engaged in trench warfare on the western front. During the course of the war, more than two million US troops crossed the Atlantic, and the sheer size of their presence changed the momentum of the war. The Allies, now bolstered by American troops, were able to prevent the Germans from advancing to Paris. In fact, the Allies pushed the Germans back toward Belgium, which led to a German defeat in the Battle of St. Mihiel.
Several additional battles were fought in France through the remainder of the war. While Germany tried to hold its battle line, the addition of the US expeditionary forces made that impossible. This pushback was the beginning of the end for the German war machine. The Allies and US troops didn't stop at pushing the Germans out of France. They launched an offensive on the Carignan-Sedan-Mezieres railroad, near the Belgium border, which was the Germans' main supply route. The battles of this offensive raged for three months, but finally the Allies prevailed. On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered and World War I finally ended.
Whether land, sea, or air, combat in World War I was brutal. For the first time in war, airplanes served as a military weapon that influenced combat. On the high seas, submarines played an important role in attacking convoys. However, the most significant combat in World War I came on land.
Advancements in military technology, such as machine guns and chemical weapons, made ground warfare particularly horrific, and casualties mounted at unimaginable rates. Some historians believe that military commanders using antiquated tactics, such as charging and trying to overwhelm your enemy with large numbers, combined with modern, powerful weaponry caused these high casualty numbers. As opposing armies were unable to break through enemy lines, trench warfare soon dominated World War I.
The aftereffects of this war were devastating. About 14 million soldiers and civilians died, and millions more were wounded. During the 18 months that the United States was actively involved in the war, 116,708 US soldiers lost their lives; of these, 53,402 were battle deaths and 63,114 were noncombat deaths. Nevertheless, US fatalities were considerably lower than those of the Allies and the Central powers.
Also dubbed the Great War, World War I was a war unlike any the world had seen before. Not only did it involve a large number of nations, but it was the first time a war was fought on land, on (and under) water, and in the air. Historians call it a "total war," meaning that countries mobilized all of their resources, including civilians, to support the war effort. Besides the millions who lost their lives in the war, previously fertile lands in Europe were changed to wasteland and strong buildings were reduced to rubble.
World War I also shifted the global balance of power. The United States emerged as a world superpower, and Great Britain and France emerged stronger in Europe. Germany, once a European superpower, was left devastated. Without the resources to continue to fight, the Germans were forced to accept humbling terms, including war reparations, that the Allies imposed through the Treaty of Versailles.
World War I ended on November 11, 1918, and the Allies emerged victorious. Now it was time to thrash out the peace terms in Europe. President Wilson took the lead in representing the United States in the peace proceedings.
On January 8, 1918, before the war had even ended, Wilson presented his Fourteen Points to Congress. The first four points of his proposal were aimed at abolishing the peace treaties that certain European countries had secretly signed, ensuring freedom of the seas, eliminating economic barriers across nations, and lowering armament taxes. The other points covered Wilson's ideas about the independence of colonies and the rights of minority groups. After Germany surrendered and signed an armistice with the Allies, the Germans had been assured that the peace treaty terms would be based on Wilson's Fourteen Points. These points were fair to the Germans, and proposing them allowed the United States to maintain trade relations with Germany.
While Germany backed Wilson's Fourteen Points, many members of Congress thought the president's ideas were too impractical. Wilson disregarded the criticisms and chose to move forward with his points. Learn more about President Wilson's Fourteen Points. As you read, pay particular attention to his ideas for establishing long-term peace.
President Wilson sailed with his delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference in France in December 1918. During this conference, the US president dominated the peace proceedings along with the other leaders who made up the Big Four: Britain's David Lloyd George, France's Georges Clemenceau, and Italy's Vittorio Orlando. Other nations' delegates also attended, but their influence was minimal.
Wilson presented his Fourteen Points and ideas about a League of Nations. But his detractors in Congress were proven right. His ideas were too altruistic for the Allies, who wanted revenge for the heavy loss of life they had suffered. They wanted to punish the Central powers and also expand their own territories.
Matters at the peace conference became heated over territorial demands, which went against Wilson's Fourteen Points. He threatened to walk out and arrive at a peace agreement with Germany separately. The Allied leaders knew that only Germany's fear of the United States would keep it under control. They placated Wilson, but were determined to severely punish the Central powers. Over time, the Allied leaders convinced Wilson to come around to their demands for territorial expansion and their refusal to relinquish their colonies. Despite his efforts, Wilson's Fourteen Points were not incorporated in the peace treaty.
After intense negotiations at Versailles, the German delegation signed the harsh peace treaty. Germany had to pay reparations to the Allies and accept full blame for the war. The country was disarmed and stripped of all its colonies, which became either independent or colonies of the Allied nations. Germany resented the ruthless terms of the treaty. This festering resentment is considered a root cause of World War II.
Take a look at this map to see how the Treaty of Versailles changed the national borders within Europe.
In the midst of the tense peace negotiations in Versailles, President Wilson aimed for long-term world peace and justice by setting up an international organization called the League of Nations.
Wilson presented his draft for the League of Nations to the Allies on February 14, 1918. Back home, his idea met with stiff, largely partisan opposition. He had angered the Republicans by including only one Republican in his peace conference delegation, even though the Democrats had lost their majority in Congress to the Republicans in 1918. He suffered a backlash for this move during discussions about his foreign policies.
The Foreign Relations Committee amended the pact for setting up the League of Nations and sent it to the Senate on September 10, 1919. The Senate, however, couldn't come to an agreement. The Democrats were willing to accept the pact without any amendments. Some Republicans, who came to be thought of as the irreconcilables, completely opposed the league because they thought it would hamper the United States' powers.
Others in opposition to the League of Nations were the isolationists, such as Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. These Republicans objected only to Article 10, which ensured territorial integrity and independence for all League members. The reservationists felt this article would infringe on the power of the United States to declare war, if necessary, and to expand its territory.
After the Republicans refused to ratify the League of Nations, Wilson went on a national tour, hoping to garner public support. He traveled thousands of miles by train and spoke about his vision for a better world. All the traveling and speaking exhausted Wilson, however, and on October 2, 1919, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. Wilson's ill health, instead of weakening his stance, made him more stubborn. He refused to accept the League of Nations without Article 10. According to Wilson's wishes, the Democrats voted against the amended League of Nations in November 1919.
Forty-four nations came together to form the League of Nations in January 1920, but the United States was still at a stalemate. The Democrats voted against the league amendments again in March 1920. The ailing President Wilson stood defeated, but he remained obstinate about his all-or-nothing stand. The United States never did join the League of Nations, nor did it ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, the United States signed a separate treaty with Germany in 1921.
Why do we call the period from 1920 to 1930 the Roaring Twenties? Actually, no one heard the decade "roar" at its onset. In fact, after World War I, the majority of Americans wanted what President Harding was offering: a "return to normalcy."
But what the 1920s brought might not have been what Americans considered normalcy. The government backed off from regulating business, allowing the economy to prosper, which in turn, corrected the post-war recession. During the 1920s, Americans purchased automobiles, home appliances, and other goods at record rates, but many small-town and rural Americans viewed the consumer-oriented values of urban America as threatening to their way of life. They also tended to hold opposing views on issues such as prohibition, immigration, and evolution.
The fear of the spread of communism and anti-immigration legislation led to nativism. Disillusioned by World War I, the United States returned to a doctrine of isolationism. Many Americans feared economic competition from immigrants, who willingly worked for lower wages.
As the 1920s drew to a close, prosperity soared, but that affluence was not based upon a firm foundation. The nation found itself slipping into a deep depression as it entered the 1930s.
The demand for raw materials shot up as businesses set up more factories and the assembly line increased productivity. To keep their factories running at full capacity, US firms turned their attention abroad for new markets and fresh sources of raw materials. Many firms bought out their foreign rivals to stifle competition. Meanwhile, corporate mergers and acquisitions within the US were rising. Eventually, bigger companies, like General Motors and Ford, built factories abroad to meet the increasing foreign demand for their products.
US businesses set up trade associations to reduce competition and increase profits, while the government offered them protection from foreign rivals by raising import tariffs. For example, the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 set high tax barriers on imports of chemicals, metals, farm products, and other goods.
Technology played a key role in the rise of consumerism in the 1920s. As mass-production techniques reduced manufacturing costs, middle-class consumers could afford to purchase products that were previously affordable only to the rich. Car sales, for example, increased dramatically as the assembly line brought down prices. By 1929, more than 23 million cars were registered in the country compared to just about 8 million cars in 1920.
The federal government built a nationwide network of electrical power that made electricity available in most homes. As a result, the sale of refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and other electrical appliances sharply rose, thus increasing the standard of living for Americans.
Coupled with mass consumerism, the introduction of the radio in the 1920s created a new mass culture. Radios were affordable, and their mode of entertainment proved revolutionary. Radio broadcasts soon became the medium for mass marketing. The first radio commercial aired in 1922.
Harding's Cabinet included a league of distinguished men, including Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace, Secretary of State Charles Hughes, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. However, a series of mishaps in 1924 left the Harding administration red-faced. The corruption of some cabinet ministers became public knowledge after investigations by the Senate Committee.
The scandals began with the head of the Veterans Bureau, Charles Forbes, being convicted for looting $200 million from Bureau funds. He resigned and escaped his sentence by fleeing to Europe. Then, a prominent Bureau lawyer killed himself. Around the same time, Attorney General Harry Daugherty's close friend committed suicide after being accused of influence peddling, the illegal practice of using one's influence with persons in authority to obtain preferential treatment for another. The suicide led to further investigations that implicated Daugherty in various influence-peddling cases. Despite the accusations, he managed to dodge conviction twice.
Three major parties dominated the 1924 presidential election: the Republicans, the Progressives, and the Democrats.
The Democratic party split into two wings. Democrats from the urban North favored New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, and those from the rural South, known as the Protestant wing, supported William G. McAdoo from California. When neither of the two candidates could gain widespread support, John W. Davis, a lawyer, joined the mix. This internal struggle worked in favor of the Republicans. Davis won merely 136 electoral votes and about 8.4 million popular votes.
La Follette, who led the new Progressive Party, won 13 electoral votes with the support of the American Federation of Labor and the Socialist Party. His farm-labor coalition and liberal views got him five million popular votes.
The Republican Party's Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge campaign grabbed 382 electoral votes, more than 15.7 million popular votes, and a victory for Coolidge.
After Coolidge's reelection, the US economy continued to prosper under his laissez-faire policies. "The chief business of the American people is business," Coolidge declared in 1925. However, overshadowed by industrial prosperity, the farm sector continued to languish, and frustration among farmers mounted. New technology enabled farmers to cultivate more land and reap higher yields and better quality crops, but the abundance only served to lower crop prices.
The federal government promised to raise local crop prices by exporting the surplus, but this action delayed the McNary-Haugen Bill. This bill required the government to buy surplus crops at high prices and sell them abroad. If the exports resulted in losses, the government was to bridge the gap by imposing taxes on local sales. However, Coolidge was not in favor of this bill, and he vetoed it twice after it was passed by Congress. The farmers were furious with the president.
Coolidge enthusiastically passed the Revenue Act of 1926, which reduced inheritance and personal income taxes. A rate of 13.5 percent was also assessed on the net income of corporations. Coolidge did not feel it was the role of the national government to assist people affected by natural disasters. For example, when floods along the Mississippi wiped out towns and farmlands in 1927, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless, the Coolidge administration provided no aid to the victims.
Coolidge maintained popular support because the economy continued to do well under his business-friendly policies. Find out more about the Coolidge administration and its contribution to the economic boom of the 1920s.
"I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope," Hoover announced in March of 1929 as he rode down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., to become the new president. Indeed, along with the economy, the stock market had risen to exceptional heights during the 1920s.
But this robust bull market suddenly turned "bearish." On October 24, 1929, now remembered as Black Thursday, frantic investors sold a huge volume of stocks in a rapidly falling market, hoping to cut their losses. Then came October 29, called Black Tuesday, which was worse: mobs of petrified investors huddled on Wall Street and watched the ticker tape numbers displaying stock prices falling lower and lower. Stock prices plunged 13 percent on that day, and people lost more than a third of their investments since the start of October. The market continued its meltdown in the days that followed.
As hysteria mounted, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer set up an antiradicalism division in the US Justice Department. Palmer appointed J. Edgar Hoover, a young government attorney, as director. In November 1919, the attorney general staged the first Palmer Raid. These raids, which occurred in 33 cities, involved government agents storming the headquarters of radical organizations, meeting halls, and homes all without arrest warrants and with complete disregard for civil liberties.
Palmer and Hoover ultimately jailed thousands of foreign residents who were suspected of anarchist or revolutionary beliefs. Authorities released most of those arrested; however, between 1920 and 1921, the government deported 600 people swept up in these raids.
When Palmer claimed that an unarmed conspiracy would attempt to overthrow the US government on May Day, 1920, he had clearly overstepped himself. State militia units and police were put on 24-hour alert to guard the nation against revolutionary violence. When no single incident occurred, the hysteria of the Red Scare began to fall away
The Changing Social Role of Women
The role and image of women in American society was redefined in the 1920s. Earlier, most women stayed at home to care for family, with the exception of some who worked to support the war effort in World War I, and recent immigrants doing factory work. Women's behavior in public was restricted, and it was unseemly for them to drink, smoke, or wear "indecent" clothing.
In the1920s, more women held full-time jobs, once the exclusive preserve of men. Young women who dared to smoke, drink, bob their hair, wear red lipstick or other makeup, dress in short skirts or "masculine" garb that concealed their breasts, drive, and publicly socialize with men were called "flappers," allegedly named after one woman whose rain boots flapped because they were left open.
However, the flapper was more of a cultural image than how actual women lived. True, after World War I, Americans underwent some loosening of moral standards. But the flapper was less a product of such moral shifts than it was the creation of media and trend makers. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald's hugely successful 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise, popularized the image, and Fitzgerald's wife Zelda became a flapper icon, the envy of and model for many young American women.
Movies surged in popularity during the 1920s and created as obsessive a fandom as did the radio. During the decade, silent movies gave way to the sound and fury of modern cinema. The first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927 and became a huge success, boosting the already immense popularity of movies. Hollywood was now the movie capital of the world. Many of the big studios, including MGM, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Twentieth Century Fox, were founded in the 1920s. These studios controlled the dynamics of movie-making, requiring artists to work under exclusive contracts that ensured assembly-line efficiency. Many studios churned out a movie a week, on average. By 1930, nearly 100 million Americans were flocking each week to the more than 20,000 movie theaters across the nation.
People looked up to movie stars and wanted to speak, dress, and behave like their onscreen heroes. Actors Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks became the male ideal, while Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, and Louise Brooks embodied the defiant flapper image to which many young women aspired.
Artistic and literary circles were far from immune to the cultural changes of the 1920s. Along with the birth of new artistic and literary forms such as surrealist painting, the art deco movement, and atonal music, modernist writers developed innovations such as free verse in poetry, stream of consciousness narratives, and interior monologues in stories and novels.
Reacting to the disillusionment of the war years and the excesses of the "boom" decade, a group of writers, called the Lost Generation, redefined American literature. They experimented with new forms to express their sense of alienation and anger at what they perceived to be the materialistic values of American society.
Continue in the lesson to learn more about the Lost Generation writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who coined the term Jazz Age.
Jazz could easily be considered the greatest cultural innovation of 1920s America. A uniquely American genre of music, jazz arose from African American communities in the South where musical traditions from West Africa and Europe merged. African influences on jazz music are evident in its tone and structure. It created new sounds, beats, and dances and helped open a generational and culture divide between the new, urban youth culture and older, more conservative Americans. Some of the older generation were threatened by this wild new music, which they thought would unravel the nation's social fabric. Jazz took root in New Orleans and soon spread to other urban areas populated by African Americans.
Jazz musicians Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Duke Ellington became cult figures during the 1920s. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Jazz Age referred to both the music and the freewheeling lifestyle associated with it. The music served as a soundtrack for an emerging youth culture that flouted traditional mores. Music professionals of the era refused to accept jazz as a legitimate form of music. It laid the foundations for rock and roll, which would have a similarly divisive generational effect.
Born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard and the University of Berlin, DuBois demanded complete equality—political, social, and economic—for African Americans. He helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Among many other pursuits, the NAACP investigated cases of lynching, all too common at the time, especially in the South.
DuBois played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance. As the editor of the NAACP's official publication The Crisis, DuBois wrote a series of articles that emphasized the power of the "talented tenth," or the top 10 percent of African Americans, to shape a brighter future for the entire community. His "trickle down" strategy of featuring "cultured" black artists and intellectuals in his magazine was intended to inspire others to take pride in their African American heritage.
DuBois, as editor of the NAACP's Crisis, was a major influence on Alain Locke. Locke was prominent in the "new Negro movement" and key in inspiring black artists and exposing their work to wide audiences.
The political movements to right racial injustice in the 1920s coincided with the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem had been an elite all-white suburb, but during the 1920s it became the home of hundreds of thousands of blacks. This concentrated population, coupled with an abundance of artistic institutions—such as recording companies, theater companies, and book publishers—plus the NAACP headquarters, fueled the freedom of expression of African American intellectuals, artists, writers, and musicians. Harlem became a cultural home for many who wanted to transform the stereotypical image of black Americans. This political movement came to be called the New Negro Movement.
In literary circles, this Renaissance produced the African American poets Claude Mckay and Langston Hughes, novelist Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer, whose book Cane (1923) mixed poetry and fictional vignettes to convey the horrors of black life in the rural South. These writers, and others, celebrated the distinctiveness of African American culture. Their works promoted racial pride and also influenced mainstream white culture.
Famous musicians of the period included Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday.Actors and dancers from the time of the Harlem Renaissance remain in our memories today—for example, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Paul Robeson. The Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that the literature, music, and art of African Americans was noticed and accepted by non-African Americans. The times and the work set the foundations for today's African American culture.
As the United States underwent dramatic cultural changes in this era, several social groups opposed those changes, which they felt threatened their way of life. Some of these traditionalist Americans were suspicious of waves of immigrants arriving from new parts of Europe and from Asia, while others feared scientific claims that seemed to defy their faith.
In the colonial days and earlier years of the nation, immigration to the United States had been mostly by whites from northern and western European countries such as England, the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands. By the 1920s, however, many immigrants arrived from southern Europe (Italy, for example) and eastern Europe (Poland, for example). Further, the nation was experiencing a surge of turmoil in the form of race riots, bombings, and labor strikes. Socialist and anarchist beliefs were more common in those parts of Europe that the new immigrants came from, so traditionalist Americans—white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) established in the United States for many generations—were overly quick to attribute growing political radicalism in the United States to those immigrants.
These fears of immigrants, of rising social volatility, and of labor unrest fueled a new wave of nativism, a form of xenophobia, or fear of foreigners, that led to significant changes in America's immigration policies.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a secret racist movement, was a major player in propagating antiforeign nativism. The original KKK of the post-Civil War era was primarily against African Americans, but when the KKK staged a revival in the 1920s, it targeted many others, including foreigners, communists, Catholics, and Jews.
The Klan claimed its goal was to restore the traditional American values and way of life, and its pro-Protestant, pro-native ideology started to gain popularity in the Midwest and the Bible Belt of America. It attracted many Americans who identified with the Klan's opposition to the changing role of women and the growing urban culture of the 1920s that they believed was being shaped by immigrant foreigners. It is estimated that in the 1920s, KKK membership reached an astounding five million. The Klan brought in a lot of additional money from its $10 membership fee and sale of merchandise.
The court case of Sacco and Vanzetti clearly illustrates how ferocious anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments were in the 1920s. In 1920, two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler, were arrested for stealing $16,000 and killing a paymaster and his guard. These men, who espoused atheist and anarchist beliefs, represented everything that traditional, WASP Americans feared. Their trial functioned as a stage on which the culture wars of the time played out, where liberals and socialists were pitted against conservatives and traditionalists. With appeals, the case dragged on for seven years; the two men were finally executed in 1927.
At the time of the trial, Italian immigration to the United States was at its peak, and numerous attacks by anarchists had occurred throughout the country. Although recent evidence suggests that the two Italians were indeed guilty, the prevailing prejudice and hatred clearly denied these two men a fair legal process. The judge, for example, is reported to have referred to the defendants as "those anarchist bastards." In a less-prejudiced environment, one in which the evidence had been analyzed more dispassionately, even if they had been convicted, their sentence might well have been less harsh than execution.
Fundamentalist Protestants, who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible and its precedence over all human knowledge, opposed some of the key scientific ideas of the age because they seemed to challenge biblical beliefs. Particularly, the fundamentalists focused their efforts on banning the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in schools because they perceived it as a challenge to the biblical theory of creation. In 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act to ban the teaching of evolution, and about 20 other states were considering antievolution legislation.
In May 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put out an advertisement that offered to pay the legal expenses of any teacher who was willing to challenge the Butler law in Tennessee. In July of that year, John T. Scopes, a biology teacher from Tennessee, declared that he had violated the Butler law.
William Jennings Bryan led the prosecution's case in the Scopes trial. Over the trial's 12 days, Bryan attacked the theory of evolution, but the defense relentlessly entrapped Bryan and exposed his ignorance of biblical history and scholarship. Clarence Darrow, a renowned lawyer, atheist, and former supporter of Bryan, defended Scopes. Darrow put up an excellent fight in court against Bryan and even against the presiding judge, John T. Raulston, an evangelist who often quoted the Bible. Darrow exposed Bryan's ignorance of biblical studies and requested that the judge keep his religious beliefs out of the courtroom. Darrow lost the case, but he is remembered for his intelligent arguments in Scopes's defense.
The temperance movement in the United States dates back at least to 1826, the year the American Temperance Society, one of many reform movements of the time, was established in Boston. Its aim was to instill greater moderation in drinking to lessen the corrupting effects of alcohol consumption, which was deemed harmful to work quality and safety as well as to the safety of women and children in families. The movement's goal was not an outright ban on drinking.
However, the Civil War and a large influx of immigrants led to an increase in alcohol use and spurred the formation of the National Prohibition party in 1869. Some states and counties passed laws banning or limiting alcohol use, production, or distribution. In 1914, at the advent of World War I in Europe, about half of US territory was dry, and saloons had been outlawed in three-fourths of the land. Large cities, in which a large percentage of the population was often immigrant workers, more successfully resisted the passage of such bans.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League were the two leading temperance organizations of the early 1900s. Both organizations initially tried to reform individuals, but in 1906, the Anti-Saloon League began a movement in support of a national Prohibition law.
Under intense lobbying by various temperance groups, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919. It imposed a national ban on the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. But by then, 19 states, encompassing more than 50 percent of the population, already had legislation restricting alcohol consumption. The same year, Congress passed the Volstead Act to enforce Prohibition.
Among lawmakers' stated reasons for imposing Prohibition were that it would strengthen the spirit of nationalism and the need for sacrifice and thwart the prosperity of German American brewers (a reflection of the nation's hostility toward Germany). Patriotism was strongly linked with Prohibition during World War I, when the government passed legislation to prevent the use of food grains for producing alcohol to ensure that enough food was available to feed US troops and their European allies.
Virtually none of the goals of the Prohibition supporters were achieved by the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. Prohibition served only to strengthen organized criminal gangs, allowing them to thrive as bootleggers. The law banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor but did not directly ban consumption, so most Americans who drank never really stopped drinking.
Prohibition soon created a culture of bootlegging, hip flasks, speakeasies, and cocktail parties. Criminal gangs smuggled alcohol into the United States from Canada and the West Indies. Americans, including women, began to visit speakeasies instead of taverns and clubs. Shady entrepreneurs and local gangs bribed authorities to ensure that bootlegged liquor was available to anyone who could pay for it.
It's ironic how some of the issues the temperance movement and the dry politicians were fighting against flourished under Prohibition.
Prohibition, dubbed the noble experiment, ended in 1933 when a national commission reported that the Volstead Act, which was supposed to enforce Prohibition, was underfunded and attempts to enforce it had broken down. But this was only a technical reason. In reality, with flourishing speakeasies and easy availability of bootlegged alcohol, the law was flouted by many Americans who did not consider drinking to be a crime. New York repealed its Prohibition enforcement law as early as 1923, and many other states followed suit. The death of Prohibition proved the futility of enforcing legislation that is not acceptable to the majority in a democratic society.
The average American was not getting rich in the bull market. While a small number of wealthy individuals made huge gains from buying and selling stock, most Americans had little money in savings. Even though unemployment was low in 1929, wages for workers remained flat. Working-class Americans kept their purchases limited to basic goods, and wealthy Americans invested extra capital in the stock market rather than spending money on consumer goods. Consumer spending, a driving force of the economy, fell sharply.
Other signs indicated that the economy was slowing down. Construction of new homes declined. Farmers, burdened by surpluses that lowered prices for their crops, struggled to make ends meet. Due to less consumer spending, businesses carried large inventories.
Specific economic data on income, purchasing, savings, and housing was not widely collected or evaluated at the time. A lack of information further skewed the true understanding of the state of the economy.
How could the United States slip so quickly into an economic depression? Which forces were behind the sudden decline in prosperity? No single event or policy caused the Great Depression. Rather, historians and economists recognize a confluence of structural weaknesses and economic policies that led to the Depression.
A surplus of goods is one factor that contributed to the weakening of the economy. During the 1920s farmers produced more agricultural products than they could sell in the marketplace. Similarly, businesses constructed new factories, and new efficiencies in manufacturing resulted in higher production.
At the same time, consumers did not have the disposable income to purchase extra goods. Consider a typical family living in 1929. A worker in a Ford factory made $6 a day. With an annual income of less than $1,500 (approximately $18,600 in today's money), families had little money to spend on things other than food, shelter, and clothing. Many families borrowed money from the banks to pay for homes and automobiles.
Farmers were in trouble long before Black Tuesday. Surpluses and competition from abroad kept farm prices low. Hoover first responded to the problem in 1929 by creating the Federal Farm Board, an organization that was funded with $500 million. Congress directed the Farm Board to loan the money to farmers so they could create cooperatives that would help organize trade and production.
During his election campaign, Hoover promised to protect farmers from foreign competition by raising tariffs on imported agricultural goods. Republican legislators wanted to extend the tariff to protect not only agriculture but manufactured products as well. In 1930 Congress approved the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, a law that significantly increased the taxes paid on agricultural and industrial imports.
The tariff had a ripple effect on foreign affairs. Major trading partners with the United States, such as Canada and Great Britain, strongly objected to the bill. The bill signaled that America was retreating from free trade in favor of protectionist measures. In response, countries passed their own tariffs on goods exported from the United States.
The economic downturn stretched beyond America's borders to countries around the world. European countries, still heavily in debt from World War I, experienced the same problems plaguing the US economy—unemployment, falling prices, and a decline in spending. Inflation became a significant issue in many countries, most notably Germany.
Germany was hit particularly hard. After World War I, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles required Germany to pay reparations (payments to other countries involved in the war). Germany struggled to repay these debts and often defaulted.
With the country reeling from economic decline, the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, seized the opportunity to gain power. Hitler built his campaign platform on the promise of jobs, the expansion of business, and a new military power that would not adhere to the Treaty of Versailles. After the elections of 1932, the Nazi party, once a small and obscure entity, held 230 seats in the German Reichstag. A year later, in 1933, Hitler rose to the position of chancellor of Germany.
By the end of 1932, burdened by three years of the Great Depression, many Americans had lost faith in the leadership of President Hoover. A 1928 Republican campaign advertisement touted the Hoover administration's plans for increased prosperity and a pledge to put "a chicken in every pot" in America. This was a bitter memory as the election of 1932 approached. The Great Depression was taking a devastating toll on the country's banks, businesses, farms, and especially the spirit of its people. Americans felt desperate, and most held President Hoover and his Republican White House to blame. They put their trust in the charismatic and eloquent Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).
Born to wealthy parents in 1882 at Hyde Park, New York, FDR was educated at Harvard University and Columbia Law School. Although a distant cousin and admirer of former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, FDR was more mild-mannered and accommodating—and he represented the Democratic Party. He married Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore's niece, in 1905, and Eleanor became FDR's constant companion in his political life. She was so involved in his presidency that she would earn the title of the most active first lady over her husband's four successive terms as president.
FDR was elected governor of New York in 1928, and again in 1930. In the 1932 presidential election, FDR trounced the incumbent Republican president, Hoover, winning 22,809,638 popular votes to Hoover's 15,758,901 votes, and 472 electoral votes to Hoover's 59. The Democrats also won commanding majorities in both houses of Congress.
FDR's personal battle with paralysis and his determination to maintain mobility and independence added to his belief in himself, in the motivational power of hope, and to his compassion for the forgotten man that he had taken to heart in his formative years. His charismatic personality and comfort with public speaking would prove immensely valuable throughout his presidency.
In his message to Congress in June 1934, FDR announced his ambitious Social Security program, and promised that his administration would place "the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation first" and that the "security of the home, the security of livelihood, and the security of social insurance constitute a right that belongs to every individual." The Social Security Act was passed by Congress in August 1935.
After leading the United States through the Great Depression and most of World War II (1939-1945), FDR died of cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, at the Little White House at Warm Springs, Georgia, which he had founded as a rehabilitation center for polio victims.
In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt told Americans, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." At the time, one in four Americans was jobless, salaries had fallen by 40 percent, and industrial wages had fallen by 60 percent since 1929. Approximately 1.2 million people were homeless, a quarter of a million families had defaulted on their mortgages, eight out of ten banks had closed, and factory output had slumped to 56 percent of its 1929 level.
In his first 100 days in office, Roosevelt pushed through Congress a series of bills intended to produce results that historians have classified under three Rs:
recovery of business and agriculture
relief to the jobless and those in danger of losing their farms and homes
reform of government and corporate America.
These laws, which collectively came to be known as Roosevelt's New Deal for Americans, significantly increased the US government's role in the economy.
The First and Second Rs: Recovery and Relief
Roosevelt's first legislative action under his New Deal was to address the nation's banking system. Eight of every ten banks that were operational before the market crash of 1929 had closed by 1933. Jittery depositors withdrew their money, borrowers failed to pay back loans, and home and farm owners defaulted on mortgage payments.
In a bold move, Roosevelt closed down all the banks for four days, and then pushed the Emergency Banking Relief Act through Congress in a single day. The act allowed the federal government to strengthen, reorganize, and reopen banks. Roosevelt's tactic initially prompted many depositors to consider withdrawing all their money when the banks reopened. The president, however, succeeded in allaying depositors' fears through the first of his famous fireside chats over national radio, and when the banks reopened after four days, deposits exceeded withdrawals in most of the banks.
After the recovery of the banking system, Roosevelt turned his attention to providing relief for the jobless through the Unemployment Relief Act. This act created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which provided nearly three million needy young men with jobs in national parks and forests. These men planted trees, fought forest fires, and maintained park roads.
Read more about the policies and programs FDR introduced in his first 100 days in office and learn about his team of New Dealers.
After effecting the recovery of the banking sector and providing more jobs through the CCC, Roosevelt focused on providing relief to farmers who were some of the worst hit by the Depression. They were suffering because they had produced too much too fast, while the demand for farm products hadn't kept pace, causing a sharp fall in prices. In 1932, farm income had shrunk to a third of its 1929 level. A typical example of this trend was the price of wheat, which dropped from $2.94 a bushel in 1920 to $1.00 in 1929 and to just 30 cents in 1932. One-fifth of all American families lived on farms at the time. Many of them defaulted on their mortgages and lost their land, and many racked up further debt by turning to tenant farming.
The key strategy of Roosevelt's New Deal for farmers was to provide financial incentives to reduce surplus production in order to raise farm product prices. Read more about Roosevelt's New Deal policies to address the farmers' plight in the 1930s.
As a result of this ecological disaster, crops were ruined, lands became barren and dry, homes were foreclosed upon, and families were forced to relocate. Some unemployed Americans, desperate for work and money began panning for gold in streams.
Reform, or changing how government and corporations worked in order to prevent anything like the Great Depression from happening again, was the third leg of Roosevelt's New Deal for Americans. His most significant reform legislation was the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933, which created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
The TVA provided cheap power to impoverished areas in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and thus encouraged industrial development in these primarily rural economies. The lakes created by the dams the TVA built helped develop the recreation and tourist industries in these states, while at the same time the TVA implemented forest and land conservation programs.
Like most other New Deal programs, the TVA served multiple goals—it created thousands of jobs and it brought cheap power to poor farmers in seven states. Its long-term objective was to end the monopoly of private power companies in the Tennessee Valley region that were overcharging customers. Learn more about the TVA.
One of the biggest initiatives undertaken in Roosevelt's first term was the Civilian Conservation Corps, popularly known as the CCC. The CCC took effect March 31, 1933. Under this program, young men, typically ranging in age from 17 to 23, worked in government camps supervised by military personnel for projects that included flood control, reforestation, park maintenance, erosion control, structure building, and fire-fighting. Workers in the Corps were required to send home most of their pay, typically to their parents. As many as half a million young men were earning their living through this program by the year 1935.
The benefits of the CCC were not just economic. By employing youth, the program ensured that most of them would not turn to crime, so tempting in harsh economic times. The nature of the projects themselves—mostly building and conservation projects—contained a certain inherent reward. And, by requiring that these young men send most of their pay home, the policy makers ensured that the money helped families in need. Finally, since most of the work was vocational in nature, it taught the Corps members vital life, work, and social skills—skills that would stand them in good stead in the future. For the population at large, the hope was that the work of the Corps would increase their appreciation of nature's resources. Certainly, the CCC would prove to be among Roosevelt's most popular programs in that decade.
Roosevelt's programs met significant opposition on May 27, 1935 when a unanimous vote of the Supreme Court ruled that the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was unconstitutional in the Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States case. This outcome reflected a growing opposition since 1933 within the judiciary to many of the New Deal programs. Roosevelt responded with a stunning announcement. In February 1937 he requested that Congress approve the appointment of six new Supreme Court judges, an additional one for every judge over the age of 70. Increasing the number of judges from 9 to 15, he said, would help the courts clear their backlog of work. Roosevelt's reasoning was later shown to be false by Justice Hughes's presentation of evidence to the contrary. Roosevelt's plan was clearly to diminish the power of the existing judges and reduce the Supreme Court's opposition to his programs.
The request provoked immediate uproar. Many, even those in his own Democratic Party, saw it as "court-packing." The Supreme Court had consisted of nine judges since 1869, and to change it seemed sacrilege to the press, to the general public, and to leaders. The Senate voted against the plan in 1937, and Roosevelt did not bring it up again. Although this seemed like a defeat, in the same year (1937), the Court upheld several key New Deal programs, including the Wagner Act and a state minimum wage law. In Roosevelt's words, he had "lost the battle, but won the war."
Roosevelt's own view of the court-packing controversy is clearly expressed in one of his radio addresses, which came to be known as fireside chats. In this address, he seems to equate the welfare of the people with the actions of the President, who, as someone chosen by the people, holds a higher position than that of the judiciary. He also says that the motion, if passed, would in no way infringe on the liberties of Americans. And he claims that the number of justices had, in fact, been changed previously—in the administrations of Lincoln, Jackson, and Grant.
For more perspective on this issue, watch and listen to former Chief Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 2007 as she presents a point of view contrary to Roosevelt's. Also analyze some political cartoons from the time of the controversy. Clearly, Roosevelt's actions provoked fear that a president could control all three branches of government and would face little or no resistance to adopting a dictatorial role. Some of the cartoons also express what many saw as Roosevelt's increasingly socialistic leanings.
What do you think of FDR's actions at this time? Are his arguments convincing? Do you think Roosevelt was correct to try to pack the judiciary, or was he over-stepping his bounds? Could this change have been misused by later presidents, or by Roosevelt himself?