World War I triggered a number of important changes in American society:  gradual and immediate.



Effects on Women and Minorities

At war’s end, with the return of male workers, women were expected to quit their jobs.


Between 1910 and 1920, only 500,000 more women were added to the workforce. 


The war had harsh consequences for immigrant families. Further immigration to the United States was halted. Many immigrant families already in the country faced fierce social and job discrimination in an antiforeign climate whipped up by the war.


Most African American civil rights leaders supported World War I and some 400,000 African American troops served in it. Black soldiers were assigned to segregated units and often worked as laborers. Discrimination was common.


Where they saw combat, African American soldiers served with distinction.



Many returning black soldiers questioned why the liberties and freedoms they had fought to preserve in Europe were denied them in their own country. Civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois expressed resentment at the continuing racism.


We return.

We return from fighting.

We return fighting.

-WEB. Du Bois




After World War I

American economy slows as war-time production ends.

Returning troops face difficult adjustment to civilian society.


Many women and minority workers faced with loss of jobs as men returned to the workforce.

Despite contribution to war effort, returning African American I troops continue to face discrimination and segregation.


Death and destruction of war leads to feelings of gloom among many Americans.





Migration to the North

World War I accelerated the migration of African Americans to northern cities. This immigration began after the Civil War.


Between 1910 and 1940s, almost 2 million African Americans left the South. Although they were usually able to improve their economic situation, they still faced discrimination, segregation, and sometimes even race riots.






The “Return to Normalcy,” 1918-1921

After World War I, disillusioned Americans wanted to return to the traditional foreign policy of isolationism.



The 1920 landslide election of Republican President Warren G. Harding and Vice President Calvin Coolidge represented the desire of many Americans to remove themselves from the pressures of world politics.







For many Americans, postwar life did return to “normalcy.” Yet beneath the surface, troubling political and economic problems began to develop.      


Greed and Scandal Under Harding


Harding was an Ohio newspaper publisher with little experience in politics. Historians credit him for pardoning socialist Eugene V. Debs (who had been jailed for opposing the war) and for supporting antilynching legislation. Harding appointed some dedicated people to office, including Charles Evans Hughes as secretary of state.

However, the President also gave political jobs to members of the so-called Ohio Gang, corrupt associates who took advantage of him. After Harding’s death in 1923, the public learned of several scandals during his administration.


Theft: The head of the Veterans Bureau was convicted of selling hospital supplies for his own profit. He was imprisoned and fined.


Fraud: The Alien Property Custodian was imprisoned for selling former German property for private profit.


The Teapot Dome Scandal: Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was convicted of accepting bribes from two oil executives in exchange for allowing them to lease government-owned petroleum reserves. One of the oil fields was at Teapot Dome, Wyoming.  


Under Coolidge, Prosperity for Some

Calvin Coolidge became President when Harding died in office in 1923. In the 1924 election, Coolidge was returned to office. Coolidge is best known for his laissez-faire approach to the economy and his strong commitment to business interests. Coolidge retained financier Andrew Mellon as secretary of the treasury. Mellon acted on the philosophy that government’s role was to serve business.


The end of World War I was followed by a recession caused by the shift from wartime to a peacetime economy. Production, farm income, and exports fell. Unemployment rose, reaching 12 percent in 1921. For farmers, in particular, hardship continued throughout the decade.


In other sectors of the economy, however, a period of economic recovery had begun by 1923, when Coolidge became President. The years between 1923 and 1929 were seen as a time of 2 booming business. The Gross National Product (GNP) rose 40 percent. Per capita income went up 30 percent. With little inflation, actual purchasing power, and therefore the standard of living, increased. At the time, few people questioned this Coolidge prosperity.


Some groups, especially big corporations and the wealthy, benefited greatly from Coolidge prosperity. 

For example:

Businesses and the most wealthy were helped by tax laws that reduced personal income tax rates, particularly for upper income groups, removed most excise taxes, and lowered corporate income taxes.

Tariff rates were raised in a return to protectionism. Republicans argued that higher tariffs would limit foreign imports, thus helping both industry and agriculture. However, the actual effect was to weaken the world economy.

Regulatory agencies such as the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Interstate Commerce Commission saw their role as assisting business rather than regulating it.


A relaxed attitude toward corporate mergers was supported by the executive branch and by the Supreme Court. By 1929, about 1,300 corporations produced three fourths of all American manufactured goods, and 200 companies owned half the nation’s wealth.

Economic Boom Bypasses Others


Coolidge prosperity was not for everyone. Key segments of the population failed to share in the general rise in living standards.



Strikes had dropped sharply during World War I, mainly because the Wilson government supported collective bargaining in return for a no-strike pledge. Inflation wiped out any real gains in buying power.


The 1920s saw a reversal of any union gains. Strikes in the steel, mining, and railroad industries failed, in part because the government used not only troops to end the strikes but also injunctions, which are court orders that prohibit specified actions.


Membership in labor unions fell from a high of about 5 million in 1921 to under 3.5 million in 1929.    




Unemployment remained between 1 and 11 percent throughout the 1920s. In general, however, real wages for workers increased only slightly during this period, boosted primarily by wages of workers in the new industries, such as communications and automobile manufacturing.


Therefore, even though workers’ wages increased 26 percent and their productivity increased 40 percent, they could not afford to buy many of the new consumer goods.



The only farmers to benefit from Coolidge prosperity were those involved in large commercial operations. Small farmers were hurt by a combination of factors.



Farmers expanded production during World War I in response to rising prices and the demand for food. They added to their acreage and bought more farm machinery.


New machinery and new farm techniques increased farmers’ crop yield per acre.


After the war, when European farms began producing again, American farmers were growing too much. The prices of both farm  products and farmland decreased dramatically.


Net farm income fell 50 percent during the 1920s. As a result, the number of farmers declined, too. By 1930, only about 20 percent of the labor force made a living by farming.





Stock Market Speculation
Optimistic business and government encouraged everyone to play the bull market-that is, the rising stock market. Some families invested their life savings.


Yet the new wealth flowed from a stock market with a deeply flawed structure. Many stocks were traded on margin. This meant that buyers could purchase stocks by making only small down payments in cash sometimes as low as 5 percent of the value of the stocks. They borrowed the rest from brokers and counted on their profits to repay the loans. The system worked as long as the profits continued.


The 1920s were a time of mass consumption-huge quantities of manufactured goods were available, and many people had more money to spend on them.

Role of Technology

The transformation of American society in the 1920s. Led by Henry Ford and the automobile industry, mass production and the moving assembly line resulted in uniform products produced at lower costs. It made possible a consumer-oriented economy, one in which more goods were available to more Americans. Often these goods were purchased over time through installment buying.




During the 1920s, American society experienced a struggle with social change as it became an urban, industrial nation. Changes in lifestyle, values, morals, and manners increased tension and conflict. Wealth, possessions, having fun, and sexual freedom -ideas influenced by the psychology of Sigmund Freud - were the new values.



With a shorter work week and with more paid vacation, Americans had more leisure time. Movies such as The Ten Commandments and the first movie with sound, The Jazz Singer, drew millions of people a week to theaters during the 1920s. Americans idolized Charlie Chaplin and other movie stars. They also admired sports figures, such as Babe Ruth.



The popular image of young women of the 1920s was the flapper, a young, pretty woman with bobbed hair and raised hemlines. She drank alcohol, she smoked, she thought for herself, and she took advantage of women’s new freedoms. However, the flapper lived more in the media than in reality. The flapper figured in movies, magazines, advertising, and novels, such as those of F. Scott Fitzgerald.


The conflict and concern created by changing American values also saw expression in literature. American writers of the 1920s protested the effects of technology and mass consumption. They criticized the business mentality, the conformity of the times, and the preoccupation with material things. Some writers, such as Ernest Hemmingway, became expatriates, leaving the United States to settle in Europe.


HARLEM RENAISSANCE One of the most important cultural movements of the 19205 was the Harlem Renaissance, led by a group of African American writers in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. These creative intellectual figures-mainly well-educated members of the middle class-felt alienated from the society of the 1920s. In their works they called for action against bigotry and expressed pride in African American culture and identity. Outstanding literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance include W.E.B. Du Bois, Lanston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke.

The Great Depression of the 1930s ended the Harlem Renaissance.


African American artists, musicians, and dancers also participated in the Harlem Renaissance. Black musicians in the South blended elements of African, European, and American music to create the distinctive sounds of jazz and the blues. This music was carried all over the country and abroad.

Edward K. “Duke” Ellington is one of the towering figures in jazz. Ellington recorded and composed music, performed on the piano, and conducted his own orchestra until his death in 1974. Bessie Smith, known as the “Empress of the Blues,” was one of the most popular Singers of the 1920s. This new music, to which people danced such daring new steps as the Charleston, became so popular that the period of the 1 920s is often called the Jazz Age.


Women’s Changing Roles    

The conflict between modern and traditional values in the 1920s also found expression in the contradictory roles of women.      



Throughout the 1920s, the number of women in the workforce increased. However, most Americans still believed that married women belonged at home, where 90 percent of them were to be found. When working women married, they usually quit or were fired from their jobs.

In 1920, women voted in a national election for the first time. However, their vote did not have a distinctive effect on the outcome. Women did not vote in large numbers, nor did they vote as a bloc. To encourage women to play a greater part in politics, the National American Woman Suffrage Association reorganized itself as the nonpartisan League of Women Voters.





DAILY LIFE Contrary to the image of the flapper, women were still restricted by economic, political, and social limits. The image of the flapper meant little to most women.






Threats to Civil Liberties


THE RED SCARE 1918-1919

The imposition of stern measures to suppress dissent after World War I in a crusade against internal enemies was known as the Red Scare. It was fueled by the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, an uprising of Communists in Russia. In the United States, Communists made up only one half of I percent of the population, but many of them were targeted by the crackdown, as were various other groups viewed as un-American. Among them were socialists, anarchists, labor leaders, and foreigners.

The Red Scare was led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. It was sparked by several events that took place after the war ended. Frustration over discrimination led to race riots in more than 25 cities. In Boston, a series of labor strikes climaxed with a walkout by the police. Several unexplained bombings added to the hysteria. All these events were seen as part of a Communist conspiracy.


The attorney general ordered the first so-called Palmer raids late in 1919. In 33 cities, police without warrants raided the headquarters of Communists and other organizations. Eventually they arrested 4,000 people, holding them without charges and denying them legal counsel. Some 560 aliens were deported. Palmer’s extreme actions and statements soon turned the public against him.


Closely linked to the Red Scare was the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. These two Italian immigrants-admitted anarchists-were convicted of murder in 1921 in connection with a
Massachusetts robbery. Many people questioned the evidence against Sacco and Vanzetti, concluding that the two men were convicted more for their beliefs and their Italian origin than for a crime. In spite of mass demonstrations and appeals, the two men were executed in 1927. The governor of Massachusetts eventually cleared the two men in 1977, some 50 years later.

Antiforeign attitudes encouraged a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The first organization, active during Reconstruction, had died out in the late 1800s. A reorganized Klan, formed in 1915 and grew slowly until 1920. In that year, it added 100,000 members. The Klan of the 1920s targeted not only African American but also Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. To the Klan, the only true Americans were white, Protestant, and American-born.






Restrictions on Immigration

The expressed in the Red Scare, the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and the new Klan was also evident in 1920’s immigration legislation. Immigrants were seen by many as somehow threatening to American values. The nativist climate led to the Immigration Act of 1924. This act established a system of national quotas, which limited the number of immigrants from each country. These quotas deliberately kept the totals for eastern and southern Europe low and excluded all immigration from Asia.


The Scopes Trial

The 1925 Scopes Trial, held in Dayton, Tennessee, received Sic nationwide attention because it pitted the scientific ideas of Darwinian  evolution against the Protestant fundamentalist view of biblical creationism. John Scopes, a biology teacher, had deliberately violated creationism. John Scopes, a biology teacher, had deliberately violated was represented by a famous trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow. The prosecution relied on the assistance of William Jennings Bryan, three time presidential candidate and a firm believer in fundamentalist Christianity. Although Scopes was convicted and fined $100, Bryan’s confused testimony weakened fundamentalist arguments.