Depression and Wars, 1920–1953

For the United States and the world at large, the decades between the end of World War I and the middle of the twentieth century marked one of the most painful eras in modern history. These years witnessed the Great Depression (1929-1939), World War II (1939-1945), and the advent of a Cold War that pitted the United States and the Soviet Union, former wartime allies, against each other in a global contest for power. These epochal events produced the deaths of tens of millions of people and wreaked economic havoc on hundreds of millions of others. By the end of this period, the United States and the world lived with the anxiety caused by the constant threat of nuclear war.

These developments could not have been anticipated in the immediate aftermath of World War I. After that conflict, the United States withdrew from active involvement in international affairs and enjoyed a decade of economic prosperity. During the 1920s, conservatism dominated the political arena. The labor movement suffered setback after setback, the government turned its back on many of the reforms of the Progressive era, and organized feminism faded from the public sphere. A nineteenth-century understanding of freedom based on liberty of contract in an unregulated marketplace, much criticized in the years before World War I, gained a new lease on life during the administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

If political dissent faded during the 1920s, cultural differences seemed stronger than ever. In the name of personal freedom, many Americans embraced a new culture, centered in the nation’s cities, based on consumption and enjoyment of new mass forms of leisure and entertainment, including radio and motion pictures. Other Americans, living in rural areas of the South and West where traditional religion still held sway, saw the new urban culture not as an expansion of freedom, but as a threat to an understanding of freedom rooted in long-established moral values. During the 1920s, debates over immigration, Prohibition, the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools, and the behavior of young, sexually liberated women in the nation’s cities reflected the tension between older and newer cultures, each with its own definition of freedom.

The heady days of the 1920s came to an abrupt end with the stock market crash of 1929, which ushered in the Great Depression, the greatest economic crisis in American history. With the federal government unable to reverse the economic decline or relieve widespread distress, the election of 1932 brought to the presidency Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised a New Deal for the American people. Roosevelt presided over a profound political and social transformation in government, society, and the understandings of freedom. During his presidency, the federal government undertook unprecedented initiatives in an attempt to stimulate economic recovery and expand Americans’ economic liberties. The government determined what farmers could plant, required employers to deal with unions, insured bank deposits, regulated the stock market, loaned money to home owners, and provided payments to a majority of the elderly and unemployed. It transformed the physical environment through hydroelectric dams, reforestation projects, and rural electrification. Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the Democratic Party was transformed into a coalition of farmers, white southerners, urban working-class voters representing numerous ethnic groups, and northern African-Americans. It dominated national politics for many years. The New Deal helped to inspire, and was powerfully influenced by, a popular upsurge that redefined the idea of freedom to include a public guarantee of economic security for ordinary citizens.

Even as the United States struggled with the economic crisis, events abroad drew the country into the largest war in human history. The rise of powerful dictatorships bent on military expansion—Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia—led inexorably to World War II. Most Americans hoped to remain aloof from the crisis. This “isolationism” restrained Roosevelt’s efforts to aid those fighting Germany, even though he saw Hitler’s conquests in Europe as a threat to American security. When the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States entered the war.

World War II expanded even further the size and power of the national government. War production finally ended the Depression and drew millions of Americans from rural areas into the army or to industrial centers in the North and West. The Four Freedoms—Roosevelt’s statement of Allied war aims—became the wartime rallying cry. Unlike during World War I, the federal government promoted group equality as central to American freedom—although the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans revealed the limits of racial tolerance. The war also placed on the national agenda, for the first time since Reconstruction, the contradiction between the nation’s rhetoric of freedom and the condition of its black population. It inspired an upsurge of black militancy, expressed in the slogan “double-V”—victory over enemies overseas, and over racial inequality at home.

No retreat into isolationism followed World War II. The United States had refused to join the League of Nations, but it became the leading member of the United Nations, which was established in 1945. However, the wartime alliance among the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union soon shattered, replaced by the worldwide contest known as the Cold War. By the 1950S, through a series of global anticommunist alliances, the United States had taken on a permanent military presence throughout the world. As in previous wars, freedom both helped to mobilize public support for the Cold War and was subtly changed in the process. The defense of freedom—increasingly equated with “free enterprise”—became the rationale for the doctrine of “containment,” or global opposition to the spread of communism. The Cold War also inspired an anticommunist crusade within the United States. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, thousands of Americans accused of holding “subversive” beliefs lost their jobs, and an atmosphere of political conformity dominated public life. The battle to defend the “free world” abroad produced severe infringements on freedom at home.


• Who benefited and who suffered in the new consumer society of the 1920s?

• In what ways did the government promote business interests in the 1920s?

• Why did the protection of civil liberties gain importance in the 1920s?

• What were the major flash points between fundamentalism and pluralism in the 1920s?

• What were the causes of the Great Depression, and how effective were the government's responses by 1932?

In May 1920, at the height of the postwar Red Scare, police arrested two Italian immigrants accused of participating in a robbery at a South Braintree, Massachusetts, factory in which a security guard was killed. Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, an itinerant unskilled laborer, were anarchists who dreamed of a society in which government, chinches, and private property had been abolished. They saw violence as an appropriate weapon of class warfare. But very little evidence linked them to this particular crime. One man claimed to have seen Vanzetti at the wheel of the getaway car, but ah the other eyewitnesses described the driver quite differently. Disputed tests on one of the six bullets in the dead man’s body suggested that it might have been fired from a gun owned by Sacco. Neither fingerprints nor possession of stolen money linked either to the crime. In the atmosphere of anti-radical and anti-immigrant fervor, however, their conviction was a certainty. “I have suffered,” Vanzetti wrote from prison, “for things that I am guilty of. I am suffering because I am a radical and indeed I am a radical; I have suffered because I was an Italian, and indeed I am an Italian.”

Although their 1921 trial had aroused little public interest outside the Italian-American community, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti attracted international attention during the lengthy appeals that followed. There were mass protests in Europe against their impending execution. In the United States, the movement to save their lives attracted the support of an impressive array of intellectuals, including the novelist John Dos Passos, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Felix Frankfurter, a professor at Harvard Law School and a future justice of the Supreme Court. In response to the mounting clamor, the governor of Massachusetts appointed a three-member commission to review the case, headed by Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard University (and for many years an official of the Immigration Restriction League). The commission upheld the verdict and death sentences, and on August 23, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti died in the electric chair. “It is not every prisoner,” remarked the journalist Heywood Broun, “who has a president of Harvard throw the switch for him.”

The Sacco-Vanzetti case laid bare some of the fault lines beneath the surface of American society during the 1920s. The case, the writer Edmund Wilson commented, “revealed the whole anatomy of American life, with all its classes, professions and points of view and... it raised almost every fundamental question of our political and social system.” It demonstrated how long the Red Scare extended into the 1920s and how powerfully it undermined basic American freedoms. It reflected the fierce cultural battles that raged in many communities during the decade. To many native-born Americans, the two men symbolized an alien threat to their way of life. To Italian-Americans, including respectable middle-class organizations like the Sons of Italy that raised money for the defense, the outcome symbolized the nativist prejudices and stereotypes that haunted immigrant communities. To Dos Passos, the executions underscored the success of the anti-radical crusade: “They are stronger. They are rich. They hire and fire the politicians, the old judges,... the college presidents.” Dos Passos’s lament was a bitter comment on the triumph of pro-business conservatism during the 1920s.

A 1927 photograph shows Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti outside the courthouse in Dedham, Massachusetts, surrounded by security agents and onlookers. They are about to enter the courthouse, where the judge will pronounce their death sentence.

In popular memory, the decade that followed World War I is recalled as the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties. With its flappers (young, sexually liberated women), speakeasies (nightclubs that sold liquor in violation of Prohibition), and a soaring stock market fueled by easy credit and a get-rich-quick outlook, it was a time of revolt against moral rules inherited from the nineteenth century. Observers from Europe, where class divisions were starkly visible in work, politics, and social relations, marveled at the uniformity of American life. Factories poured out standardized consumer goods, their sale promoted by national advertising campaigns. Conservatism dominated a political system from which radical alternatives seemed to have been purged. Radio and the movies spread mass culture throughout the nation. Americans seemed to dress alike, think alike, go to the same movies, and admire the same larger-than-life national celebrities.

Many Americans, however, did not welcome the new secular, commercial culture. They resented and feared the ethnic and racial diversity of America’s cities and what they considered the lax moral standards of urban life. The 1920s was a decade of profound social tensions—between rural and urban Americans, traditional and “modern” Christianity, participants in the burgeoning consumer culture and those who did not fully share in the new prosperity.

Advertisements, like this one for a refrigerator, promised that consumer goods would enable Americans to fulfill their hearts’ desires.



“The chief business of the American people,” said Calvin Coolidge, who became president after Warren G. Harding’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1923, “is business.” Rarely in American history had economic growth seemed more dramatic, cooperation between business and government so close, and business values so widely shared. After a sharp postwar recession that lasted into 1922, the 1920s was a decade of prosperity. Productivity and economic output rose dramatically as new industries— chemicals, aviation, electronics—flourished and older ones like food processing and the manufacture of household appliances adopted Henry Ford’s moving assembly line.

The automobile was the backbone of economic growth. The most celebrated American factories now turned out cars, not textiles and steel as in the nineteenth century. Annual automobile production tripled during the 1920s, from 1.5 to 4.8 million. General Motors, which learned the secret of marketing numerous individual models and stylish designs, surpassed Ford with its cheap, standardized Model T (replaced in 1927 by the Model A). By 1929, half of all American families owned a car (a figure not reached in England until 1980). The automobile industry stimulated the expansion of steel, rubber, and oil production, road construction, and other sectors of the economy. It promoted tourism and the growth of suburbs (already, some commuters were driving to work) and helped to reduce rural isolation.

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