America in the 1920s and 1930s


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When many people study history and learn the mistakes from the past, it would be easier to able to understand the present. Nevertheless, it is not enough to simply study the events that have transpired. By changing the unfavorable events that led to despair and continuing the benefits to society, one can understand why they happen and better the future. In the United States in the early 1920s, a new stage appeared with different movements in the areas of politics, economics, society, culture, and foreign policy. By the events that led to the 1930s, new crazes had developed in many of these areas, while other areas remained in continuity. From the 1920s to the 1930, there were several factors that contributed to the changes in American society.

The 1920s began shortly after in World War I when the United States and the Allies defeated the Germans in 1918. Many Americans were fed up with Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president from 1913 to 1921. The first election of the 1920s scoured Republican Warren G. Harding against Democrat James M. Cox. Cox supported Wilson and the League of Nations in the election. However, Harding won the election in a landslide, which was a sign of America¡¦s frustration with Wilson and his optimistic and liberal policies. The start of the new conservative era restored the power to the Republicans after the presidential election of the 1920.

Harding made quite a few excellent appointments to his cabinet although he failed to demonstrate to have much intelligence. Charles Evans Hughes was appointed to be the Secretary of State, Andrew W. Mellon appointed as the Secretary of the Treasury and as leader of the Commerce Department, and Herbert Hoover bumped up the 1920s to a new level. On the other hand, Harding also appointed some of the worst positions for office. He appointed Albert B. Fall as the Secretary of the Interior. The Teapot Dome Scandal or the ¡§Oil Reserves Scandal¡¨ [Simon, 3/8/00] surrounded the secret leasing of the federal oil reserves by Fall. He secretly granted the Mammoth Oil Company exclusive rights to the Teapot Dome reserves in Wyoming after President Harding transferred supervision of the naval oil reserve lands from the navy to him. While this scandal entered American politics as a symbol of governmental corruption, it had little long-term effect on the Republican Party. For the moment, Harding started the conservative trend of politics in the 1920s.

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Harding died during before he could finish his presidency in 1923, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge took the office as President. He conveyed the virtues of morality, honesty, and economy to the presidency. Coolidge was very tacit turn. Coolidge followed the remaining of Harding¡¦s ¡§hands-off¡¨ policies and was reelected in the 1924 election. The United States had one of the greatest periods of prosperity ever during his presidency from 1923 to 1929. When Coolidge decided not to run again in the 1928 election, the Republican nomination went to Herbert Hoover who easily won the job as the new President. Because he was a self-made millionaire, Hoover was not quite as conservative as Harding or Coolidge. Conversely, many historians believe that if the Depression had not occurred he would probably have been a good president. Later, Americans detested Hoover because he failed to solve the nation¡¦s troubles out of the Depression.

     The United States embraced a laissez-faire policy in the economy during the 1920s. In Harding¡¦s ¡§hands off¡¨ policy, the government did not intervene with people¡¦s businesses and helped them profit. Anti-trust laws were avoided, and the United States was in debt from the first Great War. The Secretary of Treasury, Mellon, tremendously reduced taxes, which moved the economy because there was more money to spend. Eventually, the United States profited in more money to pay off the enormous debt. The United States also enforced a large tariff that would encourage Americans to buy domestic products instead of buying imported goods from foreign nations.

     Great technological advances were also made in the 1920s. Inventions such as cars and radios improved the standard for the common man. These inventions as well as the conservative economic policies added to a huge economic boom. The economy experienced growth of 7 to 10 percent for six years of the 1920s. Later, many of the economic procedures in the decade would lead to danger especially in the stock market. The nation's total income rose from $74.3 billion in 1923 to $89 billion in 1929. However, the rewards of the "Coolidge Prosperity" of the 1920's were not shared evenly among all Americans. ¡§In 1929, the top 0.1 percentages of Americans had a combined income equal to the bottom 42%. That same top 0.1 percentages of Americans in 1929 controlled 34% of all savings, while 80% of Americans had no savings at all. Wages increased at a rate one fourth as fast as productivity increased. As production costs fell quickly, wages rose slowly, and prices remained constant, the bulk benefit of the increased productivity went into corporate profits.¡¨ [loose translation from Simon, 3/14/00] Also, everybody was buying ¡§on margin¡¨, a certain percentage for a share that would eventually gain or lose money more than paid for. Millions had lost much money to pay off their debts and were unemployed. The Great Depression was the worst economic decline ever in U.S. history. It began in late 1929 and lasted about a decade.

     In the society during the 1920s, people were distinguished by conflicts such as the liberals versus conservatives. For instance, prohibition was passed at the beginning of the 1920s, but it was not enforced. Prohibition was a period when the sale, manufacture, or transport of alcoholic beverages became illegal. It started January 16, 1919 and continued to December 5, 1933. Although it was designed to stop drinking completely, it did not even come close. It simply created a large number of bootleggers who were able to supply the public with illegal alcohol. Many of these bootleggers became very rich and influential through selling alcohol and also through other methods. They pioneered the practices of organized crime that are still used today. Thus, Prohibition led to the rapid growth of organized crime. A conflict between religion and science was centered in the Scopes Monkey trial, which debated the right to teach evolution in the schools of Tennessee, a fundamentalist state. Clarance Darrow, the defense lawyer, won the case against William Jennings Bryan and the Fundamentalists. In women¡¦s fashion, there was conflict between the old Victorian fashion and more free modern fashion. The flapper movement for young women became popular. Also, the Ku Klux Klan became very large in the 1920s. The KKK was founded in 1865 by William Nathan Bedford, a former confederate general, which began a campaign of terror against free blacks and their white supporters. The KKK had a wide array of uneducated people because their main incentive was to recruit young, homeless, and mindless children to follow in their footsteps and become a member of the KKK. It also inspired a strong anti-foreigner movement. The KKK lost most of its strife by the late 1920s.

     There was a great separation between high culture and pop culture in the 1920s. Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, leaders of the ex-patriot movement, dominated individualistic writing. Poetry became more experimental led by writers such as T. S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings. Classical music was also dominated by modernism. This featured a 12-note scale and a lack of melody and harmony.¡¨ [Simon, 3/24/00] Abstract art was dominated by surrealism and expressionism. As a whole, the high culture of the 1920s is characterized by the expression of the artists.

     In the 1920s, pop culture thrived. Movies were extremely popular. Several studios in Hollywood dominated them. In 1927, the first ¡§talkie¡¨ came out. Radio also became a large form of entertainment. Jazz developed as a new form of music. Louis Armstrong, a trumpeter from New Orleans among others, led Jazz. . The Harlem Renaissance gained recognition. Led by Langston Hughes, it produced great accomplishments in poetry and jazz. Overall, culture of the 1920s reflected the good economic time and showed a noticeable separation between the classes.

Foreign policy of the 1920s was manifested by isolationism in reaction to the idealistic foreign policy of Wilson. After Wilson had helped the Allies in World War I, the United States suffered great losses with no payments in return. Thus, America isolated itself from the rest of the world and promised that the U.S. would not get involved in any European conflicts by signing treaties designed to keep them out of war. The U.S. raised tariffs to keep foreign competition at a low so consumers would only buy American goods. Because Europe owed America money from the war debts, the Dawes Plan of 1924 was created to cancel them out. The U.S. would loan money overseas to Germany. Germany would use the money to pay the Allies. The Allies would in turn use that money to pay their war debts owed to America.

The 1920s were one of the most prosperous periods in American history because it reflected in every aspect of life but mainly about just to enjoy life. The prosperity of the people influenced society, culture, politics, and foreign policy. People had increasing leisure time which accounts for the growth in culture. Isolationism conserved the wealth in the United States. When the stock market crashed in October of 1929, the United States fell into a depression. People were laid off, banks collapsed, and people lost their homes. Hoover assured the people that the economy would fix itself and return prosperity if was left alone, but it didn¡¦t. He went against his beliefs and offered a little relief, but the people cried for more. This killed the main idea of the Dawes Act. The U.S. pulled funds out of Germany, Germany couldn¡¦t pay the allies, and the allies couldn¡¦t pay the United States. Farmers in America were hurt by the dust bowl, and were forced out of their farms. The Depression would continue through the 1930s until World War II had finally ended it. By increasing the debt in World War II, the U. S. ended the Great Depression.

Hoover was blamed and was criticized on both sides by the people for causing the depression. He was criticized for interfering and for not interfering enough. He failed to compromise with the people. In the 1932 election, he went up against Franklin D. Roosevelt and lost in a landslide. Roosevelt did not have any great ideas on how to end the depression, but he could relate to the people. He would experiment until he found something that worked. ¡§Hoover was a bridge between the very conservative Coolidge and the liberal Roosevelt.¡¨[Simon, 3/17/00] Hoover caused as the link between conservatism and liberalism that would get America out of the Depression.

President Roosevelt started the New Deal Program that was sparked by three R¡¦s: relief, recovery, and reform. Within his first hundred days, he had passed a great number of bills like the abandonment of the gold standard, the federal Emergency Relief Act, and the creation of Public Works Administration, the National Recovery Administration, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. During his first term, the New Deal had little direction and was not very liberal until later. He supported the unions and workers, while alienating the rich. He passed laws such as Social Security and a bill to give farmers subsidies. He also passed the Wagner Act, which protected workers rights to form unions and to collective bargaining.

At this moment in time, the New Deal resolved many problems in America, but it was not all a success. It did not lift the United States out of Depression. It is often criticized for having ¡§no direction¡¨ [Simon, 4/1/00], but it might have saved the United States from communism. Roosevelt has been called ¡§a genius of co-optation¡¨[Simon, 4/1/00] because he borrowed other¡¦s radical ideas and made them into his own conventional ideas. He created so many government agencies, which took over much of the private sector.

Socially, America returned to tradition in the 1930s in continuity. Many Americans felt that the depression of the 1930s served as God¡¦s punishment for the ¡§sinning¡¨ of the 1920s. Women were placed to stay at home and were forced out of jobs so men could take them have those opportunities. Unemployment reached an all-time high. Society became more conservative because there was less leisure time available. There were also fewer pretensions in the 1930s. For example, prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment in 1933, much to the joy of many Americans. It was repealed for two reasons. One, people had decided that the negative aspects out weighed the positive, and two, the country was entering the Great Depression. It was thought that producing and selling alcohol would create more jobs and help boost the economy.

In the 1930¡¦s there was less of a divide between high culture and pop culture. Writers now focused on the concern for the common man and the need for men to unite together for the common good. Some of the most famous writers in the 1930s were John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, and James T. Farrell while F. Scott Fitzgerald faded away. Ernest Hemmingway changed his style and remained popular. Art, commissioned by the New Deal, tended to be more realistic. Large and overwhelming murals were dominant, and photography also became popular. Artists focused on the common man. Classical music became more down to earth. Aaron Copland¡¦s ¡§Fanfare¡¨ best exemplifies this for the common man.

In the 1930s, high culture influenced pop culture. It offered an escape into the high and exotic life. Movie stars like Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, and Fred Astaire offered an escape from the harshness of life. Jazz was still the popular form of music, but it advanced into Big Bands, jazz orchestras that played in a ballroom while people would dance to them. The bleak economic situation closed the gap between high and pop culture.

From the 1920s to the 1930s, foreign policy was the one feature that remained the same in America. In fact, America¡¦s isolation deepened. During the depression, America wanted to encourage its economy. The Hawley-Smoot tariff, the largest tariff ever used by the United States, was passed to encourage people to buy American. In retaliation to the tariff, other countries imposed their own tariffs. The high tariff of American exports actually harmed the economy. In the 1930¡¦s America was determined to stay out of any conflicts due to its isolationist policy. This extreme isolation was caused by the depression. The United States looked on as Japan invaded China, Italy invaded Ethiopia, the Fascists took over Spain, and Germany¡¦s Nazi Party invaded parts of Eastern Europe. It wasn¡¦t until the late 1930s that Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that it was necessary to get out of this policy and get involved.

At last, from the 1920s to the 1930s, the economy caused the change and continuity in America. Conservative politics produced the economic boom in the 1920s and lasted the entire decade. Society became very liberal because of the wealth and the large amounts of leisure time. The great divide between low and high culture shows the divide between classes. The desire to keep the boom within America created isolationism from foreign countries. However, the 1930s was a complete 180 degrees or reversal from the 1920s. The political climate became liberal because experimentation was needed to raise the spirits of the people. Society became more conservative because there was no leisure time. Because the poor had no money to experience expensive entertainment, there was less of a difference between high culture and pop culture. The poor and overwhelming majority needed an escape. Isolationism stilled the same because the U.S. thought that they could only fix the depression domestically although they were wrong. Mainly, from the 1920s to the 1930s, the economic situation caused change and continuity throughout the decade.


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