The twenties stand apart from other periods in American history, as they belonged to neither the past nor the future of the country. Many Americans lived high, and those at the lower end of the economic spectrum were able to see possibilities for the future. Marvelous new inventions and means of communication opened new vistas even for people in remote corners of the United States. For a time everything seemed to be pointing skyward.
The Roaring Twenties moved America out of the Victorian Age and well into the Twentieth Century. Old values and outmoded ideas were replaced by a new cultural awareness, triggered by new inventions—radio, movies, automobiles, telephones and household appliances. Advances in transportation were dramatically illustrated by Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. In that same year the first talking moving picture, The Jazz Singer, was produced.
Although change was steady and dramatic, some things seemed to remain the same. Only two Democratic presidents had been elected since the Civil War, and the trend of Republican holders of the White House seemed destined to continue. Immigration, which had reached a flood by 1900, slowed. But no one could claim that things were standing still. The world was moving forward.
In 1929, however, the crash of the stock market brought things to a screeching halt: the decade ended with a thud and was followed by a time of painful awakenings and hard labor—when labor of any kind was often very hard to find. The economic boom was over and the Great Depression crept over the landscape. The government faced unprecedented challenges and responded with unheard of solutions, as the relationships between the American people and their elected leaders were transformed. Wealthy people suddenly found themselves penniless, and the poor had to discover new means of survival.
It was the age of great sports figures: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Red Grange, Knute Rockne, Helen Wills, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Jack Dempsey, among others. Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic from New York to Paris, and in the process became a hero--almost overnight he went from obscurity to being practically the most famous man in the world.Then, at the end of that raucous decade, the crash of the stock market helped trigger the worst depression in America's history.
This chapter deals with the period that continues America's transition to a leading position in the world power structure. In the international arena, the great powers had sought in the 1920s to find ways of avoiding another devastating war. But the 1920s and 1930s kinds of government leaders arose, charismatic fanatics whose intention was nothing less than to change the world in their favor. Lenin and Trotsky were followed by Mussolini and Hitler, and a militarist faction took over the government of Japan. Although the United States could observe those developments, for most of the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt and his administration were preoccupied with dealing with America's economic woes. But change was affecting even the way the next war would be fought; weapons were becoming more powerful, bigger faster aircraft were being added to the military arsenals of the nations, and naval warfare was being transformed with a shift from the battleship to the aircraft carrier as the most powerful naval weapon.
By 1940 the world had become a very different place from the world of 1920. Nevertheless, one could repeat the French phrase, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"--the more things change, the more they stay the same. The old international rivalries and power struggles were to continue. Age-old social problems of poverty and hardship continued. The fundamental structure of many societies moved ahead without much change, but the world around the people was evolving rapidly. People look to the skies and saw airplanes; they turned on their radios and heard voices from thousands of miles away; they could get in an automobile and drive dozens of miles in a matter of hours and cross the country in a matter of days.
This era begins with the Roaring Twenties, a decade that stands apart as a dividing line between the 19th and 20th centuries. Likewise, the First World War was in ways a combination of the imperialist drive that was part of the 19th century and a bridge to a new. Dominated by spectacular advances in the machinery of war. Thus it is not too far amiss to say that in a sense the 19th century ended at Versailles, and the 20th century began in 1920.
Just as the 1890s were a reckless decade and a precursor of things to come, the 1920s were also a wild and woolly period, when old values seem to be cast aside and new ideas bubbled up in many areas of American life. The decade of the 1930s is also in a sense a separate time, in that the Depression of that decade was the worst in American history and certainly stands alone in that regard. On the other hand, the isolationism of the 1930s harkens back to some extent to American isolationism of much of the 19th century.
The industrial force the power America's rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries lay behind America's growing dominance in international affairs. America's acquisition of an Empire at the end of the Spanish-American war placed the nation in a new relationship with other nations, especially Japan. Our participation in the Great War was another step in the transition. America, however, had always been a reluctant participant in world affairs; separated from the other major nations of the world by two oceans, the feeling of being separate, even if unequal, prevailed.
The point here is not to draw lines or declare beginning and end times. The point is that our history has twists and turns, beginnings and endings, and often history does repeat itself in fascinating and sometimes troublesome ways. In any case this last section of the book covers an era that changed the world in ways that would hardly have been imaginable at the dawn of the 20th century, or even as the decade of the 20s began.