Jazzed, Boozed, and Busted Flat (1918-1929). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Jazzed, Boozed, and Busted Flat (1918-1929). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”.

Rejection of the League of Nations.

The “Lost Generation” and the “Roaring Twenties”.

Women’s right to vote and advancement of African-Americans.

Prohibition and the birth of organized crime.

Crash of the stock market.

 The United States had entered World War I late, but in time for the American Expeditionary Force to suffer a ghastly 10 percent casualty rate—even higher if deaths from the influenza epidemic are included. President Wilson was determined that these deaths in a “foreign war” would not be in vain. He had told the American people that the “Great War” was a “war to end all war,” and he meant it. On January 8, 1918, almost a year before the war ended, Wilson announced to Congress “Fourteen Points,” which he called “the only possible program” for peace. After a complex of treaty obligations had escalated an obscure Balkan conflict into a worldwide conflagration, Wilson’s dream was that his Fourteen Points would create a single international alliance, making armed conflict among nations impossible. The alliance would be called the League of Nations.

A League of Nations. As vigorously as Wilson had worked to mobilize his nation for war, he now struggled to bring about a peace meant to spell the end of war. Wilson personally headed the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, which was charged with creating a final treaty. Driven by his intense and intensely idealistic vision of a world league and a world of perpetual peace, Wilson did not deign to develop strong bipartisan support for his peace plans. Fearing Republican isolationists would be hostile to the League of Nations, he chose not to appoint a prominent Republican to the delegation. Worse, Wilson made peace a political issue by appealing to voters to reelect a Democratic Congress in 1918. In fact, the 1918 contest went to the Republicans, who won majorities in both houses. To many, this election seemed a no-confidence vote against Wilson and his crusade for world peace.

In Europe, Wilson was at first greeted with nothing but confidence in his leadership. However, it soon became apparent that the other major Allied leaders—Georges Clemenceau of France, David Lloyd George of Great Britain, and Vittorio Orlando of Italy—wanted to conclude a settlement that simply and severely penalized Germany. Wilson nevertheless hammered away at his Fourteen Points, ultimately seeing them embodied in the Treaty of Versailles, which, however, also imposed crippling terms on Germany. Gratified that he had won inclusion of the League of Nations as part of the treaty, Wilson presented the Versailles document to his fellow Americans as the best obtainable compromise, He felt that the League of Nations itself would eventually rectify some of the injustices presently imposed upon Germany.

Red Scare. While Wilson was trying to engineer world harmony, popular American sentiment was already retreating toward isolationism. The Russian Revolution of 1917, which toppled the long regime of the czars, was not greeted by most Americans as a victory over autocracy, but was regarded with terror as an assault on established order. A “Red Scare” swept western Europe and the United States.

At the beginning of 1919, U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer ordered a series of raids on the headquarters of radical organizations in a dozen cities, indiscriminately rounding up 6,000 U.S. citizens believed to be “sympathetic to Communism.” Palmer and others lumped Communist, radicals, and “free thinkers” together with out-and-out anarchists, who, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, were committing acts of terrorism. Anarchists mailed bombs to Palmer, Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and more than 30 other wealthy, prominent conservatives. Ironically, many of the bombs failed to reach their destinations—due to insufficient postage!

In a climate of intense fear, outrage, and confusion, Palmer created the General Intelligence Division, headed by an eager young Justice Department investigator named J. Edgar Hoover. With meticulous zeal, Hoover (in those precomputer days) created by hand a massive card index of 150,000 radical leaders, organizations, and publications. As all too often happened in American history, beginning with the Alien and Sedition Acts passed at the end of the 18th century, legislators and administrators did not hesitate to take totalitarian measures to defend American liberty.

End of the Dream. Fear of Communism was not the only thing that chipped away at Wilson’s dream. Although the president tried to convince the American people—and himself—that the Treaty of Versailles was the best compromise possible, it was actually one of the most tragic documents in history. Although Wilson succeeded in persuading France to concede its key demand—that the left bank of the Rhine be severed from Germany and put under French military control—the treaty dictated humiliating, economically devastating terms. Germany was forced to accept full guilt for the war, to cede huge sections of territory, and to disarm almost completely.

The Allies hoped that, by weakening Germany, the nation could never again threaten Europe’s peace. However, the punitive terms of Versailles so destabilized Germany that the nation became ripe for the dark promises of Adolf Hitler, who came into prominence during the 1920s and 1930s. Instead of preventing another war, the Treaty of Versailles guaranteed one—a war that would prove even more devastating that the 1914—18 conflict.

At home, Wilson’s lapse of political savvy was taking its toll as Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) led Senate Republican opposition to the U.S. commitment to the League of Nations. Believing the League to be above politics, Wilson accepted little compromise and decided to bring popular pressure on the Senate by taking his case directly to the people. He embarked on a rigorous 9,500-mile transcontinental whistle-stop speaking tour. On September 25, 1919, exhausted by war, by the heartbreaking labors of making peace, and by his battle on behalf of the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson collapsed following a speech in Pueblo, Colorado. He was rushed back to Washington, but his condition deteriorated and, a week later, he suffered a devastating stroke that left him partially paralyzed. 111, desperate, frustrated, and embittered, Wilson instructed his followers to accept absolutely no compromise on the League.

American politics has always thrived on compromise; and now, without it, the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Woodrow Wilson, his health continuing to decline, could only watch as the “war to end all war” came to look more and more like just another war fought in vain. Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), the Republican who succeeded Wilson in the White House, ran on a pledge of a “return to normalcy.” Harding told Congress that “we seek no part in directing the destinies of the world … [the League] is not for us.”

A Generation Lost and Found. Woodrow Wilson was not the only embittered individual in postwar America. Four years of European carnage had shown the worst of which humanity was capable. The war broke the spirit of some people; in others, it created a combination of restlessness, desperation, boredom, and thrill-seeking that earned the decade its nickname: the Roaring Twenties. Some Americans, mostly young intellectuals, found that after the war, they could not settle back into life at home. A colony of expatriate artists and writers gathered in Paris. Many of these individuals congregated in the apartment of a remarkable medical school dropout named Gertrude Stein—writer, art collector, and cultivator of creative talent. One day, she remarked to one of these young people, Ernest Hemingway, “You are all a lost generation.” That phrase stuck as a description of those individuals cast adrift after the war, their former ideals shattered. by battle, yet unable to find new values to replace the old.

Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway & Co. The United States, land of liberty and opportunity, had much to be proud of. The nation touted its superiority to Europe, whose masses often suffered under conditions of political enslavement and spiritual and physical want. Yet, in matters of art and culture, America never quite outgrew its “colonial” status. True, the United States did produce a number of remarkable world-class writers during the 19th century—including Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and others. And America had some extraordinary visual artists—such as the unparalleled group of landscape painters dubbed the Hudson River School, who emerged under the leadership of Thomas Cole and Frederick Edwin Church. Despite this prominent talent, the United States entered the 20th century still bowing to the aesthetic culture of Europe, as if Americans could never quite measure up.

During the 1920s, however, a group of American writers made an unmistakable impact on the cultural life of the world. Two of the most important, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961.) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), were frequent guests at Gertrude Stein’s salon, where they discussed how they would write “the great American novel.” Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (named for the ancestor who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner”) burst onto the literary scene with This Side of Paradise, a 1920 novel that ushered in the “Jazz Age” with a vivid portrait of the youth of the Lost Generation. Two years later came The Beautiful and Damned and, in 1925, The Great Gatsby. This story of the enigmatic Jay Gatsby explored the American dream in poetic, satirical, and ultimately tragic detail. The theme was again plumbed a decade later in Tender Is the Night (1934).

While Fitzgerald probed the American psyche by dissecting the desperate denizens of the Jazz Age, Hemingway created character after character who turned away from the roar of the Roaring Twenties to worlds of elemental dangers and basic pleasures. His stories portrayed driven efforts to recover the meaning that, through a combination of war and postwar spiritual exhaustion, had evaporated from life. The work of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, as well as the novelist Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), the poet Hart Crane (11899-1932), and the playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), at last allowed Americans to see themselves as the cultural equals of Europeans. Through the despair and desperation that lay behind the wild music and loose morality of the 1920s, American art and literature came of age.

Women Get the Vote. The American woman also came of age in the 1920s, emerging from subjugation to straitlaced Victorian ideals of decorum and femininity. Women joined the work force in increasing numbers, and they became lively participants in the intellectual life of the nation. The most profound step toward the liberation of American women was the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

A Renaissance in Harlem. There was growing liberation, too, for another long-oppressed group: African-Americans. Slavery had ended with the Civil War, but blacks hardly enjoyed the same opportunities and privileges as most other Americans. In the North as well as the South, blacks were discriminated against in education, employment, housing, and in just about every other phase of life. Segregation was de facto in the North—unofficial, but nonetheless real—and de jure in the South—actually mandated by law. African-Americans had served with distinction during World War I but were put into segregated units. The French did not discriminate against blacks, and for some African-American soldiers, the overseas experience was an eye-opener. They returned to the States no longer willing to accept second-class citizenship.

Many white Americans did not so much discriminate against blacks, as they failed to see them, as if they were invisible. Excluded from positions of power and influence, African-Americans simply did not much matter—as far as mainstream white society was concerned.

The humble peanut helped to change this attitude. In 1921, George Washington Carver, who had been born a Missouri slave in 1864, testified before Congress on behalf of the National Association of Peanut Growers to extol and explain the wonders of what had been a minor crop. Against all odds, Carver had worked his way through college, earning a master’s degree in agriculture in 1896 and accepting a teaching position at Tuskegee Institute. Tuskegee had been founded in Alabama by African-American educator Booker T. Washington (11856-1915) as a source of higher education for blacks. At Tuskegee, Carver concentrated on developing new products from crops—including the peanut and the sweet potato—that could replace cotton as the staple of southern farmers. Cotton was a money maker, but it quickly depleted soil, and farmers solely dependent on cotton soon were ruined. Carver transformed peanuts and sweet potatoes into plastic materials, lubricants, dyes, drugs, inks, wood stains, cosmetics, tapioca, molasses, and most famously, peanut butter. His contribution to revitalizing the perpetually beleaguered agricultural economy of the South was significant; but even more, Carver showed both white and black America that an African-American could accomplish great things. For blacks, he was a source of pride; for white Americans, he was the first culturally visible black man.

Indeed, while oppression was still a fact of African-American life during the 1920s, white intellectuals became intensely interested in the intellectual and artistic creations of blacks. African-American artists and writers were drawn to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where they produced works that drew widespread attention and admiration. This literary and artistic movement was called the Harlem Renaissance and drew inspiration from the black political leader W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois edited The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an important organization founded in 1909 by a group of black as well as white social thinkers. Du Bois argued that blacks could not achieve social equality by merely emulating whites, but that they had to awaken black racial pride by discovering their own African cultural heritage. Some significant American writers associated with the movement Du Bois was instrumental in launching were poet Countee Cullen (1903-46), novelist Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934), poet-essayist Langston Hughes (1902-67), folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1901-60), poet James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), and novelist Jean Toomer (1894-1967).

Harlem became a popular spot for white nightclubbers seeking first-class jazz from great African-American musicians like Fletcher Henderson (1898-1952), Louis Armstrong (1900-1971), and the young Duke Ellington (1899-1974). The neighborhood also developed into a gathering place for avant-garde white intellectuals who did what would have been unthinkable just a decade before: they spoke and mingled with African-American writers, artists, and thinkers.

America Dries Up. The general liberalization of morals that accompanied America’s entry into World War I fueled a temperance movement that culminated in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the sale, importation, or consumption of alcoholic beverages anywhere in the United States. The Volstead Act, passed after ratification, provided for federal enforcement of Prohibition.

Gangster Culture. Greeted by some as a “noble experiment,” Prohibition was for a majority of Americans an invitation to violate the law. The 1920s, therefore, became by definition a lawless decade. Otherwise law-abiding citizens made bathtub gin, brewed homemade beer, fermented wine in their cellars, and frequented “blind pigs” and “speakeasies”—covert saloons that served booze in coffee mugs and teacups. Police raids on such establishments were common enough, but mostly, officials looked the other way—especially if they were paid to do so.

Corruption hardly stopped with the cop on the street. City and state governments were receptive to payoffs, and indeed, the presidential administration of Warren G. Harding rivaled that of Ulysses S. Grant for scandals. In this national atmosphere, mobsterism came to birth and flourished. Underlying the violence was the idea of crime as a business, and by the end of the decade, a quasi-corporate entity called the Syndicate would be formed to “organize” crime.

Countdown to Black Tuesday. If morals, mores, and ideas were freewheeling in the 1920s, so was spending. For most—except farmers and unskilled laborers—the decade was prosperous, sometimes wildly so. Americans speculated on stocks in unprecedented numbers, often overextending themselves by purchasing securities “on margin,” putting down as little as 10 cents on the dollar in the hope that the stock would rise fast and far enough to cover what amounted to very substantial loans.

Joy Ride. The fact was that so much stock had been bought on margin—backed by dimes rather than dollars—that much of it amounted to little more than paper. Even worse, although production in well-financed factories soared, the buying power of consumers failed to keel) pace. Soon, industry was making more than people were buying. As goods piled up and prices fell, industry began laying off workers. People without jobs do not buy goods. As more workers were laid off, the marketplace shrunk smaller and smaller. Companies do not make new hires in a shrinking marketplace. And so the cycle went.

Crash. Despite this cycle, stock prices continued to spiral upward. But the market showed warning signs of instability. During the autumn of 1929, stock prices fluctuated wildly, then, on October 24, the stock market was seized by a selling spree. Five days later, on October 29, “Black Tuesday,” the bottom fell out and stock prices plummeted. With prices falling, brokers “called” their margin loans, demanding immediate payment in full on stocks that were now worthless. Many investors were wiped out in an instant. A rash of suicides swept the business community; some investors actually leapt from Wall Street high-rise windows.

President Calvin Coolidge had declared during the booming mid-decade years that “The business of America is business.” Herbert Hoover, elected president in 1928, found himself nervously assuring his stunned and fearful fellow Americans that “prosperity was just around the corner.” As it so happened, that corner would not be turned for an entire decade.

The Least You Need to Know

The failure of the United States to join the League of Nations doomed that precursor of the United Nations to ultimate failure.


The climate of the 1920s, at once wildly creative, liberating, desperate, and reckless, was in large part the result of the aftereffects of World War 1.

 The stock market crash of 1929 was the culmination of a cycle of careless, creditbased investment and increased industrial output versus a shrinking market for industrial goods.

Voice from the Past. Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress on January 8, 1918, and promulgated his “Fourteen Points”:

                                                    “I. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at…

“II. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas…

“III. The removal … of [international] economic barriers…

“IV. Adequate guarantees … that … armaments will be reduced…

“V. …impartial adjustment of all colonial claims…

“VI. The evacuation of all Russian territory…

“VII. Belgium … must be evacuated and restored…

“VIII. All French territory should be freed and the invaded portions restored…

“IX. A readjustment of the frontiers of Italy should be effected along clearly recognizable lines of nationality:

“X. The peoples of Austria-Hungary … should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.

“XI. Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro should be evacuated…

“XII. The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty…

“XIII. An independent Polish state should be erected…

“XIV. A general association [league] of nations must be formed…


Stats. Stocks lost an average of 40 points on Black Tuesday. In 1930, 1,300 banks failed. By 1933, another 3,700 would fail, and 1 of 4 workers would be jobless.

Please, login to leave comments