The Dark Side of the 1920's

The Growth of Intolerance

THE "RED SCARE." The spirit of intolerance, a distrust of minorities and other people who were somehow "different," that had gripped Americans during World War I led to a "Red scare" after the war. Many Americans, frightened by the Communist takeover in Russia, persecuted people with Russian names or socialist ideas. When the war ended, the fear of communism did not go away.

The shift from war to peace was difficult for American industry. When the government no longer needed supplies for World War I, many plants shut down temporarily or cut back on production. Hundreds of thousands of wage earners lost their jobs. Of the more than 4 million soldiers returning to civilian life, many had a hard time finding work. Many women had entered the workforce as part of the war effort. After the war, to make room for returning veterans, employers and some unions forced many women to quit their jobs.

Those workers who did hold jobs, both men and women, found that their wages bought them less and less as the cost of living rose. Many workers faced layoffs, wage cuts, and discrimination against union members. Workers protested, and, in 1919, a wave of strikes spread throughout the country. A general strike paralyzed Seattle when thousands of local workers walked off their jobs. In Boston even the police went on strike. With the streets of Boston unprotected, looters began breaking into stores. The governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, finally called in troops to restore order in the city. Coolidge's stand that "there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time" made him a national hero.

Many people believed the strikes were a warning sign that Communists were trying to start a revolution in the United States. Communists wanted to overthrow the capitalist economic system and replace it with a society where all individuals shared wealth equally, and where all private ownership of property was abolished. There were only about 70,000 Communists, called Reds, in the United States. However, Americans were well aware that a tiny group of Communists, called Bolsheviks, had taken over much of Russia in 1917.

In the United States, Communists tried to recruit support among workers. Anarchists, who wanted all governments abolished, also tried to stir up workers. Then a series of bombings by terrorists took place. To this day, no one knows who was responsible for most of the bombings. Most people, however, blamed the Reds, by which many meant Communists and anarchists, as well as socialists. A widespread "Red Scare" swept over America.

The Palmer Raids. President Wilson's Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, feared that there was a massive communist plot to overthrow the federal government.

Palmer ordered raids on the headquarters of suspected radical groups. These Palmer raids were often conducted without search warrants. The government took many suspected Communists and anarchists into custody, holding them for weeks without filing formal charges. Others were forced to leave the country.

In 1920 Palmer warned that a communist-led revolution would take place on May 1, the communist Labor Day. When May 1 passed quietly, Americans realized that the danger of a revolution had been exaggerated.

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Sacco and Vanzetti. Two Italian male anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, found, however, that the hostility toward immigrants and radicals remained. In April 1920 two men killed a paymaster and a guard in a robbery of a shoe factory in Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, authorities charged Sacco and Vanzetti with the crime. In 1921 they were convicted of murder despite there being little physical evidence linking them to the crime.

People in the United States and in other countries protested against the unfair trial. Noted lawyer Felix Frankfurter even helped establish the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to fight for the two men. In August 1927, however, Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted.

New immigration Restrictions. In 1921 Congress responded to the intolerance of the times by taking steps to control the entry of foreigners into the United States. The passage of the Quota Act limited the number of immigrants by nationality, reducing the number of newcomers from eastern and southern Europe. Congress later passed an even stiffer quota law, the Immigration Act of 1924. Under this act, only about 150,000 people were allowed to enter the United States from Europe each year. What is more, a quota (certain number) of immigrants was set for each European country. This quota was based on the number of people in the United States in 1890 who had originated - that is, who had come or whose ancestors had come - from each country. In practice, this meant that 85 percent of the total number of immigrants had to come from Great Britain, Germany, and the other nations of northern or western Europe. Only 15 percent could be citizens of the countries of southern and eastern Europe. Immigrants from Asia were almost completely shut out. Since few northern Europeans wished to come to the United States at that time, the effect of the law was to reduce the flood of immigrants to a trickle.

The Ku Klux Klan.
The intolerant mood of the 1920s also took other forms. One was a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Between the years 1920 and 1923, Klan membership grew from about 5,000 members to several million. Like the Klan of Reconstruction days, the new Klan continued to attack African Americans. It also started attacking immigrants and religious minorities, particularly Jews and Catholics. The new Klan threatened, beat, and even murdered innocent citizens.

The Klan's influence soon spread, and it became an important political and social force in some cities. When the corruption of its top members came to the public's attention, however, membership in the Klan declined.


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The Scopes Trial. Many Americans searching for security in this decade of change found it in the Protestant religious movement called Fundamentalism. The Fundamentalist movement was strongest in rural and small-town America, where people blamed society's problems on modern urban culture.

Fundamentalists, who took every word of the Bible literally, believed that God had made the world in six days. They therefore rejected naturalist Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, the idea that all forms of life had developed gradually over millions of years. They campaigned for laws against the teaching of evolution in schools. In 1925 the state of Tennessee passed a law forbidding instructors in the state's schools and colleges to teach "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man taught in the Bible."

Many people felt that this law restricted the freedom of speech. The American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend any Tennessee teacher who would challenge the law's constitutionality. John Scopes, a biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, agreed to do so. When Scopes continued to teach natural selection, he was arrested and put on trial.

The Scopes trial attracted national attention. The prosecuting attorney was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic candidate for president. Clarence Darrow, a famous trial lawyer, defended Scopes. In the cartoon, the monkey standing between William Jennings Bryan (left) and Clarence Darrow (right) represented Darwin's theory. Many people mistakenly believed that this theory proposed that humans had evolved from monkeys, thus it became known as the Scopes "monkey trial."

During the trial the prosecution took every opportunity to state its view of the literal meaning of the Bible. The judge even allowed Bryan to testify as an expert witness. Under intense questioning by Darrow, Bryan rejected modern scientific thought. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. The Tennessee Supreme Court soon overturned the decision, but the Scopes trial stood for something larger than a controversy over Darwin's theory of natural selection. It emphasized the growing divisions within American society - rural versus urban and traditional versus modern.

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The Growth of Lawlessness

Prohibition and Its Effects. One of the most striking features of the Roaring Twenties was Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified early in 1919, prohibited (forbade) the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors. Congress defined an intoxicating liquor as one that had more than one-half of one percent of alcohol. Since this included even wine and beer, the law was unpopular and was widely disobeyed. Millions of ordinary law-abiding citizens became regular law breakers. In fact, drinking became "the thing to do" just because it was forbidden.

Secret drinking places called "speakeasies" flourished. "Bootleggers" smuggled in liquor from abroad or made it themselves. Since they were breaking the law and risking long prison terms, they charged very high prices. They used part of their large profits to bribe government officials to overlook their illegal activities.

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In a short time bands of criminals known as "gangsters" took over the liquor business. Soon they were using their power and profits to move into other fields. They set up gambling houses, made businesses pay "protection" to keep their property from being damaged, and took over labor unions. Activities carried on by gangsters were called. "rackets." "Racketeering" became a multI-millIon dollar industry In the Roaring Twenties. The gangsters even formed private armies of gunfighters and battled over territory, much like the nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Prohibition was finally ended in 1933 by the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. Within the next few years, the federal government sent many leading gangsters to prison - usually for not paying income taxes on their profits! But the organized crime and racketeering that started in the Roaring Twenties have continued to this day.

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The Task