Wednesday, February 18, 2009

USH13: The Roaring Twenties

The US government was not thrilled with all the socialists and anarchists that I mentioned in my last post. They used the occasion of the Great War to go after them. The Espionage Act was passed in June of 1917. Beyond spying, the Espionage Act was used to imprison anyone who spoke up against the war. Something like nine hundred people were imprisoned under the act.

Some of the arrests bordered on absurdity. A film maker was given a sentence of ten years for making a movie about the Revolutionary War and highlighting British atrocities, which the judge said questioned the "Good faith of our ally, Great Britain." When Eugene Debs visited three socialists in prison for opposing the draft and afterwards made a speech denouncing the war, he was sentenced to ten years. He served nearly three of those years before he was released in 1921 at the age of sixty-six. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were imprisoned for opposing the draft. In September of 1917, the US government raided forty-eight meeting halls of the IWW and arrested 165 Wobbly leaders. In April of 1918, the government put over a hundred of the IWW leaders on trial--a trial that lasted five months. Bill Haywood was given a sentence of twenty years but he left the country while on bail and made his way to Russia where he died. The loss of its leaders devastated the IWW which took a long time to recover.

World War I ended in November, 1918; but the government wasn't done. In 1919 a bomb went off outside the home of US Attorney General, A Michell Palmer, set off by an anarchist who died in the explosion. Palmer responded by putting known anti-communist, J Edgar Hoover, in charge of the General Intelligence Division of the US Bureau of Investigation. Palmer and Hoover initiated a series of raids which culminated in a night in January, 1920 when four thousand people were arrested. In all, as many as ten thousand folks were arrested in the Palmer raids. They also deported 249 immigrants (some of which had been US citizens for many years) of Russian birth--including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman--and shipped them off to the Soviet Union. It wasn't a great time to be a radical.

So the 1920s opened up on a deradicalized America. That year, Republican Warren Harding was elected, promising a "return to normalcy". But what the country got was the 'Roaring Twenties'. Not radical, but hardly normal either. It was mostly a time of contradictions.

The Twenties began with a recession which turned into a decade of prosperity--but while unemployment was low, real prosperity was concentrated in the top 10% of the population. Millions of people lived below the poverty line.

It was the time of prohibition (the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor) and an era that produced bootleggers, speakeasys, and bathtub gin--not to mention organized crime.

Women finally got the right to vote when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, yet the female image of the 1920's was the 'flapper', a liberated woman to be sure, but hardly what the suffragettes had in mind. It was a time of more open sexuality--when homosexuality was almost accepted--but it slid into a very conservative era. It was a time when Mae West was writing in performing in plays called Sex and The Drag--and getting herself arrested for it as well.

This was an era when blacks, asians, and native americans were treated with more respect and equality in urban areas and it was the time of the Harlem Renaissance when writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston wrote and Marcus Garvey preached black nationalism, but it was also the time of a revival of the Ku Klux Klan which preached not only hatred of blacks, but also Jews, Catholics, and immigrants. Congress as well began limiting immigration (starting in 1921), with laws that favored white Anglo-Saxons from Great Britain while practically excluding immigrants from Asia and Africa.

This was the 'Jazz Age', a time of literary and artistic creation, yet many of the writers, such as Ernest Hemenway, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, wrote from Paris, a 'Lost Generation' in self-imposed exile, and other writers such as F Scott Fitzgerald, H L Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis wrote of disillusionment with the rich and the hypocracies of the middle class. And, of course, the Jazz Age was a time of music and dance: from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington, and from the Charleston to the Lindy Hop--much of it done at the speakeasys.

Then there was Art Deco, highways and air travel, radio and telephones and motion pictures (talkies), Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. There an outpouring of creativity and technology that reminds me in many ways of the sixties--especially the way that a time of prosperity led to a flowering of individuality and freethinking. The Lost Generation could be considered early drop-outs and social critics, the way that the beatniks and hippies were thirty to forty years later. Yet amid the freethinking and hedonism, there was xenophobia and fundamentalism. The midtwenties was the time of the Scopes (Monkey) trial.

The twenties were also the time of three Republican presidents: Warren Harding (who had an administration was wracked with scandals), Calvin Coolidge ('Silent Cal'), and Herbert Hoover. Hoover was helped into office by the 'prosperity' of the times--and by the fact that his opponent, Alfred E Smith,was Catholic and there was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in the US at the time (one Hoover campaign banner read: "A vote for Smith is a vote for the pope"). Herbert Hoover preached Rugged Individualism and claimed, in 1928, that the US had a "degree of well-being unparalleled in all the world" and was "nearer the abolition of poverty... than humanity has ever reached before." Unfortunately, this time of prosperity ended rather abruptly with the stock market crash in 1929. The 1930s were a time of Depression.

Quote of the Day: "It was, in fact, only the upper ten percent of the population that enjoyed a marked increase in real income. But the protests which such facts normally would have evoked could not make themselves widely or effectively felt. This was in part the result of the grand strategy of the major political parties. In part it was the result of the fact that almost all the chief avenues to mass opinion were now controlled by large-scale publishing industries." - Merle Curti

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Wikipedia, various articles (particularly the one on the Roaring Twenties)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States


freeacre said...

Wow, Moon Raven, thank you for this very informative reprisal of the Roaring Twenties. So many reflections today with the Patriot Act sumilar to the Espionage Act; the deaths and incarcerations of the anarchists and Wobblies compared to the Chicago 8, the Black Panthers, the SDS, Timothy Leary. Even the Suffragettes being co-opted by the Flappers reminds me of MTV and Madonna springing up to represent a warped version of feminism just as we were winning some victories on higher wages and equal opportunities. Boy, some things never change, eh?
I think this time if we want something new, we are going to have to go around them, not up against them so much. Cuz they have a long history of kicking our asses and they have pretty much turned it into an art form. But if we could cut up the credit cards, stop investing in the stock market, back out of the 401Ks, cut out the Cable TV's, get rid of the cell phones, stop buying into the drug trade (which props up the stock market and enriches black ops); that would hit them where they live. If we just worked on taking care of each other and cooperating and localizing, we would be a force I think they would find difficult to reckon with.

MoonRaven said...

Thank you, Freeacre--this is a very insightful comment. And absolutely, cut the credit cards, TVs, etc, and start focusing on taking care of each other. So true, so true! Cooperative and local, as you say, "...we would be a force ... they would find difficult to reckon with." I couldn't agree more!