By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
V. Chapter Outline
"I am honestly sorry," Jane Addams would write in the introduction of her 1930 book The Second Twenty Years at Hull House, "to write so much in this book of the effects of the world war." This was a common refrain throughout the period of study -- F. Scott Fitzgerald attributed the entire character of the decade to "all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the war." "I have no doubt," said Clarence Darrow, "but what the war is largely responsible for the reactionary tendency of the day." The war and its aftermath "all but destroyed my picture of America," said Frederic Howe. "It does not come to life again." To John Haynes Holmes, it proved the "America we loved was gone, and in its place was just one more cruel imperialism. The discovery ended a movement which had for its purpose the protection and vindication of an ideal America."1
In sum, the period from 1918 to 1920 would set the stage for most of the decade to come. Chapter One and Two of this section cover progressive reaction to the demoralizing failures of Woodrow Wilson at Versailles and the battle over the League of Nations respectively. Chapter Three surveys the long, dark night of the soul that was 1919, when a steady diet of strikes, race riots, and repression conspired to bury the progressive post-war dream. Chapter Four takes up the tale with the election of 1920, when, as a result of all the calamities covered in the first three chapters, amiable mediocrity Warren Harding won the most decisive presidential victory in a century.
With the stage thus set, Part Two -- "Confronting Normalcy" -- covers much of the experience of 1920-1924, a time that -- contrary to the Gatsbyesque view of the Twenties in the popular imagination -- was in many ways as hard-fought and full of conflict as the immediate post-war period. The time usually thought of as the Roaring Twenties -- a boom era when progress stagnated and business values reigned triumphant -- did not really come to pass until Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency. In the years of Harding Normalcy, the country remained in the grip of a post-war recession, and, even as progressives passed the Sheppard-Towner Act, rolled back the legal excesses of the Red Scare, moved the country toward a disarmament footing, and exposed systemic corruption in the administration, the nation as a whole saw labor violence erupt in West Virginia and Herrin, Illinois, race wars flare up in Tulsa and Rosewood, and a strike wave redound across the nation in 1922.
Chapter Five, "The Politics of Normalcy," begins the examination of this period by chronicling the tenor, conduct, and achievements of the Harding administration, attempts by congressional progressives to organize in opposition over the course of the decade, and efforts to establish and maintain the virtue of good government in American life, by decrying lobbies, promoting campaign finance reform, and railing against the corruption within Warren Harding's White House.2
Chapter Six, "Legacies of the Scare," focuses on the newfound attention paid by many progressives in the Twenties to issues of civil liberties, including the right to organize, during the Twenties, and covers such as issues as the struggles of the ACLU, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial, the NAACP's fight for anti-lynching legislation, and the labor conflicts of the period.3 Chapter Seven, "America and the World," examines the nationalistic and anti-imperialistic foreign policy of "peace progressives," honed during the battle over the League of Nations, and covers such issues as the continued question of American involvement in the League and World Court, the disarmament and outlawry movements, and immigration restriction. Closing out Part Two, Chapter Eight covers the story of the election of 1924, when disaffected groups propelled Robert La Follette and the Progressive Party to one of the more impressive third-party candidacies of the century.
Part Three, "A New Era," takes up the story after Coolidge's impressive victory in 1924. It begins with Chapter Nine, "The Business of America," highlighting the ascendancy of the business culture in government and American life, and covering Harding's budget reforms, the Coolidge administration, the work of Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon, the rise of welfare capitalism, and the enthronement -- particularly among a younger generation -- of professionalism and expertise as progressive virtues. Chapter Ten, "Culture and Consumption," examines the rocky shoals progressives faced in trying to navigate between consumerism and cultural conflict during the New Era. On one side, even as emerging technologies like radio and the cinema suggested intriguing new possibilities for enlightening public opinion, conspicuous consumption and advertising threatened to overwhelm the basic philosophical underpinnings of progressive ideology. On the other hand, traditionalist reactions to the pace of change, like the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Scopes fundamentalism, and the apparent failure of prohibition seemed a mocking shadow of earlier progressive aspirations.4
Chapters Eleven, "New Deal Coming," surveys the policy foundations of the New Deal laid down in the immediate postwar era and Twenties, including former suffragists' defense of a more robust federal welfare state, the innovations of the Al Smith administration in Albany, attempts to rein in the power of the Supreme Court, and George Norris' lonely fight for public power. Finally, Chapter Twelve concludes the tale with an examination of the election of 1928 and its aftermath, including the personal attempts by progressives, over the course of the decade, to stave off defeatism and despair.
Writing in The Survey on New Year's Day 1921 in answer to the question "What Else Must Be Done To Make This a More Livable World," Felix Adler, founder of the Society for Ethical Culture, argued that "the best satisfaction we can hope for is the consciousness of creative activity in the effort to make it better." In a decade that often saw reaction in the driver's seat and the ideals that had sustained the progressive experiment for decades under assault, that consciousness of a fight hard-waged -- and the companionship of those also engaged in the struggle -- would often be the only consolation for progressives. In the ten years between the Armistice and the election of 1928, their fight for change would be uphill all the way.5
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2. It was "persistent investigative work by Montana senators Burton K. Wheeler and Thomas Walsh," writes David Goldberg in his recent survey of the Twenties, which "began to uncover the full scope of the Teapot Dome scandal, and progressives remained convinced that the 'radical swing' would be carried into the election year." Similarly, Burl Noggle's 1962 work on Teapot Dome argued that it was progressive conservationists, namely friends of Gifford Pinchot, who set the Teapot Dome scandal in motion. Goldberg, Discontented America, 60. Burl Noggle, Teapot Dome: Oil and Politics in the 1920's (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1962), vii-ix.
3. Leroy Ashby argues that Senator William Borah, at least, "emerged as a leading spokesman for civil liberties." "Borah was convinced," Ashby writes, "that a prerequisite for reform was free discussion and, to that end, progressives must 'fight for the right to say anything at all.' Ashby also quotes The New Republic "angrily" observing of the Red Scare that "a 'phantom army of shibboleths' continued to rush forward 'to attack any and every program, squeaking and parroting sounds about "socialism" and "bolshevism" and "business enterprise."'" Whatsmore, sociologist Paul Starr recently concluded in his history of the media that "the disillusionment with the war and repression of dissent started Progressives thinking more seriously about the value of protections against the abuse of state power." Ashby, The Spearless Leader; Senator Borah and the Progressive Movement in the 1920's, 27-28. Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media : Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 285.
4. Speaking of the progressive notion of a "public good," Leroy Ashby writes, "[t]hat idea, and the moralistic rhetoric that had surrounded it, had struck common chords in the generally confident years of the early 1900's. But in the Twenties, deeply rooted cultural antagonisms had surfaced, dividing wets and drys, town and country, old-stock and new-stock Americans," and thus the concept of the "public good" could not withstand these impassioned cultural schisms. Ashby, 12.
5. "What Else Must Be Done to Make This a Livable World?" The Survey, January 1st, 1921, 498.
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