Significant National Events: 1919-1943
President Wilson negotiated for the U.S. at the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris, during which he fell ill, likely with the first in a series of strokes. The conferees agreed to reorganize Europe by establishing new states, including Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Finland. And they punished Germany. Peace wouldn’t last for even 20 years!
The Republican candidate Warren G. Harding was elected President in 1920, but died in office in 1923. Vice President Calvin Coolidge served as the 30th U.S. President for the next six years. In 1921 and 1922, Congress raised taxes on imports; and in 1921 and 1924, they placed restrictions on immigration and created the U.S. Border Patrol. In retaliation, European countries raised tariffs, too, depriving American farmers and manufacturers of a market.
The decade of the 1920’s is often called the "Roaring Twenties" or the "Jazz Age," because of the period’s social, artistic, and cultural dynamism. After the horrors of WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic, the public was ready for a different world. The novel concept of “fact checking” was practiced by the new magazines, Time (1923) and New Yorker (1924), but they supported opposing political views. The era saw the large-scale adoption of automobiles, telephones, “talking” motion pictures, radio, and household electricity, as well as unprecedented industrial growth. The company that produced Holerith’s system of punched cards and tabulating machines eventually merged with similar enterprises and became International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924.
General economic prosperity around the world led to optimism by some and radical political choices by others. The optimism was exemplified by the popularization of jazz, Art Deco, and the acceptance of “flappers,” women who wore knee-length skirts and bobbed hair. All women in the U.S. won the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920. The radical political choices were the emergence of communism and fascism in Europe and a peak in Ku Klux Klan membership in the U.S. The culture of the U.S. was altered by legal prohibition of alcohol from 1919 to 1933. Smuggling and bootlegging of liquor became the business of organized crime syndicates. By 1928 Europe was well into a depression. The decade ended with the 1929 U.S. stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression that devastated the country through the 1930’s.
By the end of the 1930s, the radio was the dominant form of mass media, intercontinental air mail service was available, and color film was being used for photos and movies. Modern advertising had begun in the 1920s and large corporations hired advertising firms to make themselves look better and to advance pro-business legislation. In the 1930s, one in four Americans got their news from Hearst, who owned twenty-eight newspapers in nineteen cities. Republican Herbert Hoover, while campaigning for president in 1928, realized that the future of radio was in “broadcasting” (a usage coined in 1921) and that radio would make it possible for political candidates to speak to voters without the bother and expense of traveling to meet them, and it would also make governing an intimate affair. NBC radio began broadcasting in 1926, CBS in 1928. By the end of the decade, nearly every household would have a radio. Under the terms of the 1927 Radio Act, the Federal Radio Commission (later the Federal Communications Commission) adopted an equal-time policy, and debates between political candidates became one of early radio’s most popular features.3
Herbert Hoover was elected President, just in time to face the Great Depression. He convinced Congress to pass a new, punitive trade bill, the 1930 Tariff Act. World trade shrank by a quarter. One in four Americans suffered from want of food. Factories closed; farms were abandoned.
Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Hoover in the 1932 election and held the office of President until his death in 1945. Immediately after taking office F. D. Roosevelt introduced a huge investment package called the New Deal which was designed to stimulate employment and end widespread poverty. He very effectively used the radio to communicate with the nation, delivering more that 300 “fireside chats” during his terms in office.
He appointed Frances Perkins as his Secretary of Labor, the first female member of a presidential cabinet. Her view was that programs long thought of as merely labor welfare, such as shorter hours, higher wages, and a voice in the terms and conditions of work, are really essential economic factors for recovery. FDR and the Democratic Congress created the National Labor Relations Act, the Works Project Administration, the Social Security Act, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities Exchange Commission, the Public Works Administration, the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Farm Security Administration, among other agencies and acts. To our nation’s shame, the New Deal loan, relief, and insurance programs often specifically excluded black people.
Important projects in Montana included the Ft. Peck Dam and infrastructure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the great plains regions of the U.S., the financial recovery efforts were stymied by 7-10 years of drought and severe dust storms that caused major ecological and agricultural damage.
The Great Depression of the 1930s was accompanied by the rise of the Axis – Germany, Italy and Japan – that promoted specific expansionist interests. The Axis began persecuting minorities and expanding their territories by military force. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. Unfortunately, some American public relations firms accepted commissions to produce pro-Nazi propaganda in the United States. Goebbels, who headed German propaganda, hoped to sow division in the United States. American newspapers in the 1930s took to calling this sort of thing “fake news.”6 Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and Shanghai in 1937. Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, invaded Ethiopia in 1935. The Axis alliance was formally created in 1938.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, World War II began in Europe. The Battle of Britain, a sustained aerial bombardment of the U.K. by Germany, began in 1940. In 1941, Hitler, having abandoned his pact with Stalin, had invaded the Soviet Union. On December 7, 1941, the Axis ally Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war against the U.S. Suddenly, Americans were engaged in fighting wars in the Pacific, Africa, and Europe. In 1943, the Pentagon building was opened.
FDR said that the U.S. must secure for the world “four essential human freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The entire country was mobilized to support the defense effort. The Great Depression abruptly ended. To the Nation's shame, the federal government imprisoned people of Japanese ancestry; 112,000 Japanese, including 79,000 U.S. citizens, were ordered from their West Coast homes and imprisoned in camps. The legality of Japanese internment was challenged immediately, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the policy.
At the end of this era, the MSC, Montana, and the Nation were focused on winning the war.
(Last revised: 2021-04-18)