Post War America and Prosperity in the 1920s

America after isolationism, its attitudes towards immigration, prohibition, red scare, KKK, economic boom, problems in economy, organised crime


US attitudes after WW1

The war had a great impact on the American economy- which led to the period of violence and political upheaval in 1919-20. Attitudes changed significantly towards immigration and Prohibition and Americas place in the world. These changes were NOT caused by the war, rather they were long term trends INTENSIFIED by the war experience, and the anxiety that followed it. 

When Warren Harding, the Republican was elected, and Wilson defeated-they were strongly pro business and conservative. Politics became more inward in the USA, less dominated by big political figures and with less enthusiasm for government intervention.

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Why was Warren Harding Elected President in 1920?

Changes in American Attitudes:The feeling of Anti-Immigration grew, due to suspicions to foreigners after the war. There was a surge of support for nativism and racial exclusion. This also led to a growth in support for the KKK in the 1920s. People were in favour of less government intervention and more conservative ideas. This led to people favouring the Republican policies of isolationism. As Wilson and his idea of the League of Nations was unpopular, this was met with negative attitudes.

Weaknesses in Democratic Party: Had little success in 1920s due to Wilsons failures. Divisions within the party from the West and South, mostly strong supporters of Prohibition had little sympathy from the North who were were largely Catholic, immigrant and hostile to Prohibition. The Democratic leader in 1928, Al Smith was Catholic and strongly opposed to Prohibtion- he was unsuccessful due to anti-Catholic attitudes. Not a strong leader as opposed to the team of Harding and Coolidge.

Strength of Republican Party: Republicans controlled most of the House and Senate. Party under Harding and Coolidge was very pro-business and adopted laissez-faire attitudes. Less emphasis on big political figures and less government intervention. People wanted this at the time! Was the economic 'boom' time with these, making them popular. The Republican, unlike Democrats were able to take control of the changes in attitudes in the USA. 

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Presidency of Warren Harding 1920-1923

His presidential campaign focused on the issues of isolationism in foreign affairs and reduced role of the government. Harding was a compromise candidate - only won when the front runners did not have enough support to win. Had few policies except a return to 'normalcy'. Harding and his vice president Coolidge, created a pro business and less interventionist policies- neither understood the tensions that were developing in society. 

Strengths of Harding's Presidency: Had good appointments, such as Charles Hughes as Secretary of State, Andrew Mellon as Treasury Secretary. Promised to cut government expenditure down from $5000 million, in 1922 to £3373 million and reduced taxes. In 1922 he passed the Budgeting and Accounting Act by which governments had to present their budgets. Harding also approved the Sheppard Tower Maternity Act which gave federal aid to states to develop infant and maternity health programmes (precedent for the later 'New Deal'). Introduced the 8 hour working day. 

Weaknesses of Harding's Presidency: Appointed very dubious characters who went to jail for corruption- ie. Albert Fall- Secretary of Interior was found to be giving bribes to offer leases to oil companies to drill at Teapot Dome, Wyoming and Elk Hills, California- both were reserves held in trust for the navy. Achieved very little but this is what he was elected for- reduced role of US government. Died in 1923 to be succeeded by Coolidge.

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The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge 1923-1928

Vice president previously of Harding, replaced him after his death. Man from small town and presided over the largest boom period in US history. Intervention by him into social affairs in America was minimal- perhaps why there were so many changes/conflicts.

Reluctant to get involved in issues 'Silent Cal' but courted and loved publicity. Popular and represented MIDDLE AMERICA - the majority of Americans who wanted to get on with their lives and enjoy prosperity unfettered by government regulation but who still sought to maintain high moral standards. Condemned lynching and argued the need for minimum wage for women. Concerned with lowering tax and helping economy.

If chosen to run again as president in 1928, most likely would have been elected once again. 

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The End of Mass Immigration

Between 1910 and 1914, more than 10 million immigrants came into the USA most being from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe. Despite all the regulations put into place, immigration still stayed at high levels in 1920s. If anything, the Great Depression was the biggest factor for decreasing levels of immigration. 

  • Dillingham Commission found that immigrants were not integrating into society, causing social problems. Fuelled by the two Red Scares and fear of communism spreading. Ill feeling towards foreigners, saying they were an danger to society. Also fuelled further by the end of the war- people felt these foreigners were spies and subversivesPressure from trade unions such as the AFL to restrict inflow of cheap immigrant labour. Industrial problems caused inflation and wage freezes.  Unemployment and the record number of strikes in 1919 occured. People were fed up and wanted jobs. Boston Police Strike of September 1919- when 75% of Boston police officers went on strike, it was almost entirely made up of IRISH AMERICANS- made them even more unpopular as Boston left with no police force and led to crime, high media coverage. Coolidge merely fired them and brought new recruits in. 
  • Espionage Act 1917 and Sedition Act 1918- fuelled by Red Scare- cannot go against the US government or will be imprisoned. Alien Act 1918 gave USA the power to deport anyone who was suspected to be a member of any anarchist organisation- what consistuted this was the interpretation of the American authorities- clamp down on left wing political thinkers.Emergency Quotas Act 1912- only 3% of total consensus in 1910 of one group. National Origins Act 1924- further restrictions to 2% of total consensus in 1890.
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Why was Prohibition Introduced in 1919?

Only amendment that takes away rights and freedoms rather than protecting them. 

SOCIAL: Men would waste their wages on alcohol and led to an increase in poor families. Domestic violence occured when men were drunk. Immigrants liked to drnk- leading to an anti-immigrant feeling. Drinked caused an increase in crime. During the First World War, drinking was frowned upon because every effort was needed for the war.

POLITICAL: ASL strongly lobbied for Prohibition- especially Wayne Wheeler who became governor- which strengthened his power. Public opinion favoured Prohibition which politicians had to support too in order to gain votes. In 1918, 36 states were already dry, making it easier to form legislation for Prohibition to happen in all states.

ECONOMIC: Wasted grain which was needed in the war and drained government resources. Most beer came from German brewers- anti-German feeling seen as traitorous towards war as it was helping German economy. Productivity was down due to absenteeism and poor industrial performances due to hangovers/men getting drunk.

RELGIOUS: WCTU- argued Christians should not drink. Protestant attitudes to drink was seen as it was a sin. Anti- Immigrant- Catholics bought drink in as part of their culture (Irish/Italian) which offended the WASPs.

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Organised Crime

Criminal gangs were already powerful even before WW1. Cities such as New York and Chicago, large criminal networks were established, often linked by ethnic loyalties to particular immigrant groups such as Italians and Irish Americans. These organised gangs profited hugely from Prohibition and illegally bootlegging alcohol in monopolies. The production, distributing and selling of alcohol handed criminals the opportunity to control huge multi-million dollar industries. The first to seize these opportunities was the Torrio-Capone gang (Chicago Outfit). Johnny Torrio had control of the mob previously controlled by his partner 'Big Jim' Colosimo and set about building huge bootlegging op. Needed own enforcers to fight off rival gangs and intimidate the business owners- he brought in extra gunmen mostly from NY and Brooklyn. The most efficient of the gunmen was Alphonse Capone. After Torrio badly injured in 1925- Capone took over. It took until 1929 for them to take control of their monopoly in Chicago. Gang killings became a weekly occurence and led to high newspaper coverage. In Nov 1924, the most powerful rival gang leader, O'Banion, shot dead. Sparked power struggle between Capone Italians and O'Banion Irish.In 1929, this led to gang war between Italian South and Irish/German North, resulting in St Valentines Day Massacre- exaggeration as only 7 died, including an innocent. Other 6 were members of North Side gang led by Bugs Moran-main rival. Victims of ambush by Capone although he was in Florida, his gang pretended to be policemen and therefore met with no opposition. Two of Capones men tried with murder. Capone's operations covered alcohol, prostitution, slot machines, loan sharking, betting and even rubbish collection around the Pacific. Celebrity status and even though of as a hero amongst working class. Other gangs included The Purple Gang who were Jewish and controlled Detriot, the Sicilians in New Jersy, Boston had rivallry between Irish/Italians, in Harlem a seperate Black Mafia controlling gambling. First pioneered by Arnold Rothstein who was responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series so Chicago White Sox would lose, influenced The Great Gatsby and had a lasting effect on organised crime. 

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Organised Crime Effect of Society

Organised crime operated nationwide and provided countless job opportunities. Bootlegging was the core operations but diversified into other activities- many legitimate. Organised crime blurred the boundaries between crime and decent society as huge numbers of law-abiding people continued to drink illegal- the poorer classes making do with home produced moonshine, the wealthy going to speakeasies. Either way, the respect for the law was lessened. Sensational reporting of crime in newspapers often made gangsters seem like celebrities and not criminal mass murderers. The trend was boosted by the popularity of feature films about gangsters with the 'talking pictures' in 1927. 

Moralists saw the explosion of gangland violence as proof that alcohol was a source for all wickedness and Prohibition was more necessary than ever. Others took the view that Prohibition failed to reform American society so should be repealed. 

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Why was Prohibition Impossible to Enforce?

  • Size of USA 18,700 miles of border to cover and had to stop alcohol coming in from Canada and Mexico.
  • Government only gave the Treasury Department $2 million to deal with the problem, not enought money to cover expanse of America.
  • Not enough agents employed- only 3,000 to enforce the law.
  • Alcohol still widely available as Chemists could sell it on doctor prescriptions which were easy to get, and others made own alcohol at home- moonshine.
  • Even the presidents were drinkin
  • Mood of the people changed, people wanted to drink as they were happier due to the economic boom- there were over 200,000 speakeasies alone. 
  • With a Great Depression approaching, bringing alcohol back into America and exporting it would provide vital trade.
  • Rise of organised crime- people could get rich by bootlegging alcohol, the aim of Prohibition was to decrease crime, instead it increased it. Agents were easy to bribe and corruption occured of government officials.
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The Red Scare - Communism

The first Red Scare occured after the first world war and linked to anti-foreigner attitudes. Anti-communist hysteria of the Red Scare grew out of genuine American fears about the communist revolution spreading from Russia and post-war Europe. Many Americans saw immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as spies. Therefore the Sedition Act and Espionage acts were passed. Followed by the Alien Act in 1918 which tried to eradicate anarchists and clamp down on left wing political thinkers. Fuelled by intense social and industrial problems, high inflation with steep rising prices. High unemployment and strikes due to unrest- general strike by the IWW had 60,000 people - most contreversial of all being the Boston Police Strike as public opinion wanted the Irish police officers to recieve harsh punishment by Coolidge and they were fired. Elements of racism. 

The Palmer Raids: General Palmer became key figure in campaign to root out communists and radicals. Democrat who saw advantages of taking the hard line against radicals. Series of bombings in April and May 1919 in which bombs sent in packages to key figures including Palmer himself- by Italian radical immigrants. Public outcry against suspicious foreigners and when coal strikes occured- harsh action against them. Nov 7, agents raided offices of radical organisations and rounded up 250+ people and deported. Palmer tried to whip up new scare in 1920 but failed and opinion was turned against him as the hysteria was dying down and a boom was on its way. 

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The Rise and Fall of the KKK

The KKK was established in 1865 but died out. Membership rose with the anti-immigrant feelings and was reborn in 1915. They were against African-Americans, anti-Catholic, Anti-Sematic and anti-immigrant. Another reason for the rise was the infamous silent film directed by D.W Griffith, The Birth of a Nation which glorified the memory of the first KKK and was popular with white audiences. By 1920 had 4 MILLION MEMBERS. Membership increased with aggressive marketing campaigns devised by young public relations agents Elizabeth Tyler and Edgar Clark. In the 1920s the Klan was no longer seen as a terrorist organisation, it gained respectibility and considerable political influence- it influenced the outcome of many elections due to many judges, sherriffs being members of the KKL

In 1925, the Klan went into dramatic decline due to a number of reasons:

  • David Stephenson, grand dragon of Indiana, was sentenced to 25 years due to **** and manslaughter- spoiled Klan image of defenders of women. Several other bribery and fraud cases further spoiled the image of the KKK, did not have support from politic
  • Elizabeth Tyler, died, leading to fall in marketing of the KKK.
  • The grievances that had fuelled an increase in membership were solved as anti-immigrant feeling was reduced due to new laws in place to limit immigration.
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Reasons for Economic Boom in the 1920s








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Problems with the Economy and Agriculture


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Monkey Scopes Trial

National sensation, in Tennessee- high media coverage. Clash between Darwinism and the Creation story. Clarence Darrow- brilliant athiest lawyer vs. William Jennings Bryan. Tennessee had passed the Butler Act- outlawing the teaching of evolution or anything that contradicted the Creation story. John Scopes- a teacher challenged this by teaching evolution. Jennings Bryan was seen as old fashioned and ridiculous- Darrow made fun of his beliefs in fanciful bible stories- this was seen as a sad end to Bryans long career as he died soon after. Scopes found guilty although not sentenced to jail. Butler Act was repealed eventually in 1967 but few teachers were brave enough to teach evoluton- Anti-Darwinism remained deeply entrenched. Showed the gulf between big city modernism and small town traditionalists. 

Religious Fundamentalism: 

Concerns about the effect of the new ideas on morality brought about by the changes in American society- and liberisation. Popular preachers such as Billy Sunday spoke of hellfire and damnation.  Church figures showed that whilst fewer people were going to worship, many went as a reaction by God-fearing urbanites who were against the sinfulness of their neighbourhoods. Whilst society lost these uptight values, some were indeed unwilling to change and REACTIONARY. 

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