The first half of the twentieth centuries saw America emerging as a World super power, and as one of the mature democracies among the British colonies. However, the transition was not smooth and the Nation has had its ups and downs moving from agrarian to industrial society through the glut and glum of the “roaring twenties” and gloomy thirties. While the 1920s were a period of affluence and optimism, America emerging as a victor in the First World War, the 1930s was characterized by scarcity and hardships caused by the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal. By the end of 1930s the nation was again agile and spirited, playing a constructive role in the Second World War in fighting the fascist and imperialistic forces. The paper presents a comparative study of the history of America in the 1920s with that of 1930s.
The analysis and comparisons on the U.S history during these periods shall be undertaken along three historical landscapes — the economic history, the political history and the socio-cultural history. However it is important to note that the economic history of the nation during the years have being instrumental in shaping the political and socio-cultural history; hence greater emphasis is placed on the economic history; also the crucial overlaps of the three systems are manifested in the discussion.
The US. Economic History – 1920s Vs 1930s
While the decades 1920s and 1930s American history compares distinctively in many spheres, the prime divergence is perceivably in the economic scenario. The 1920s is characterized as a period of prosperity and optimism, whereas the 1930s is characterized as a period of extreme poverty and great economic hardships. Also with the Great Depression of 1929, the U.S. free market economy of the 1920s gave way to federally regulated economy in the 1930s.
As America emerged a victor in the First World War, the American society retreated into isolation and focusing on internal production and consumption, the economy transforming steadily from agrarian to industrial. It is understood that before World War I, a considerable majority, over 40% of all Americans lived on a farm, the percentage dropped to about 25% by the end of the twenties. The 1920s U.S. economic scenario is characterized by mass production, mass consumption and polarization of income. [DeLong, 1997] While America considerably remained an agrarian state, the WWI (First World War) brought with it considerable job opportunities in the mechanized sector.
However the lack of skilled mechanical labor led to the development of mass production systems, enabling labor productivity and economies of scale as automobile and electronic industries surged the economic landscape. Mass production, coupled with high wages has had its impact on the economic front- rise in the standard of living and the level of consumptions, and a high degree of income polarization. Studies reveal that in 1929 the richest one percent of U.S. households held approximately 45 percent of national wealth, and that the concentration of wealth had been rising steeply through the 1920s. [DeLong, 1997]
During the 1920s, as welfare capitalism established itself in the United States, the nation emerged as a modern middle-class economy of automobiles, consumer appliances like washing machines, refrigerators, radios. One of every five American residents had motor vehicles by 1929. It may be surmised that mass production in the early and mid 1920s made the post-WWI United States the richest society in the world, as the Americans looked forward to realizing the Great American Dream. [DeLong, 1997]
However the economic surge reached its anticlimax with the Great Depression following the stock market crash in 1929, the greatest and the longest depression the world ever witnessed. While the Depression tremendously affected the American economy, it had impact on the international economic scenario as well. The polarization of income and the poor economic policies of the government, which permitted unruly stock market investment leading to the 1929 market crash, are considered the main causes of the Depression. [Author Unknown, 2004] Though the Depression presents far-reaching economic implications, the scope of the paper shall be limited to its effect on the American economy in the years following the Depression and how the economy survived the recession in the 1930s.
As the American society and economy struggled to emerge from years long depression, the decade 1930s started off with hopelessness and scarcity. The 1930s saw the Great American Dream transform into a nightmare as the land of hope and optimism became a land of despair and depravity. Unemployment and loss of jobs commonly prevailed in the U.S in the early thirties. Research suggest that between 1929 and 1932 the income of the average American family was reduced by 40%, from $2,300 to $1,500. As compared to the 1920s focus on advancement and prosperity, survival became the keyword in the 1930s. [Bernstein, 1987]
Economy and politics are often interlinked and as may be seen, the U.S. economic scenario in the 1930s was potentially changed by political interventions. The Progressives, a minority in the 1920s, challenged the free-market welfare capitalism of the Republicans, who believed that “the business of America is business;” in 1932 Presidential election Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won over Republican Herbert Hoover. The years followed witnessed the implementation of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ to counter the recession and depressive forces. The New Deal meant a paradigm shift in the way America worked. [Author Unknown, 2004]
Roosevelt’s economy reforms bills include the Emergency Banking Relief Act that called for reopening of solvent banks, the reorganization of other banks, and giving Government the control over gold movements; the ‘economy’ bill introducing balanced budgets; the federal regulations controlling ending the Prohibition Act of 1920s, the establishment of civilian conservation corps (CCC), the Agricultural Adjustments Act (AA), the Tennessee Valley Authority, National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) etc.
These reforms presented strong inclinations to the socialist ideals; however in 1935, the Supreme Court declared the NIRA and its regulatory authority saving capitalism in the United States. Whether Roosevelt’s policies were effective in setting the economy in shape is a subject of debate, as the implementation took years and WWII hindered the process; however, they were definitely effective in tackling the perils of depression as employment opportunities were created, introduced socio-economic reforms as the Social Security Act, though, with little impact on income distribution. [Bernstein, 1987] Even as America essentially remained capitalistic in the 1930s, the reforms turned the U.S. into a modest European-style social democracy. [DeLong, 1997]
Thus, summing up, it may be surmised that as the 1920s revealed a chaotic economic prosperity which ultimately met its dead end in 1929, the 1930s saw the emergence of a new economic order, a disciplining of the economy that have sustained through the war years.
The US. Political History – 1920s Vs 1930s
From a comparative perspective, at the outset, it may be said that in the 1920s politics directed the U.S. economy, though with little interventions; in the 1930s economy directed politics.
From an international perspective, the post war America in the early 1920s retreated into isolation – the Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and did not join the League of Nations, as the Republican America realized that there were much to be done within than outside. The major internal politico-legal event of the 1920s is the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which enacted the Prohibition Act – an act that marked the beginning of a “Noble Experiment” that endeavored to build up America’s moral character through the banning of alcohol. The Eighteenth Amendment, which came into force on January 16th 1920, put an end to all exporting, importing, manufacturing, transporting, and selling of intoxicating liquor.
While the Act damaged the American economy considerably, being unenforceable, it increased crime and alcohol consumption. Ultimately the act failed to achieve its goals, and in a way added to the problems it addressed, as 1920s America slipped into lawlessness and moral decay. [Behr, 1996] Another significant legislation in 1920s was of 19th Amendment extending women the right to vote, initiating a change in women’s role in American society that persists to this day. Yet another political issue of significance was the introduction of restriction on immigration.
In the political scenario, the Republicans who believed that business was the business of America received widespread criticism from the Progressives, for the critical income polarization and the social issues involved with it. But the latter being a minority force had little impact until 1932, when democrat Roosevelt rose to power with clear majority in the two houses. [Author Unknown, 2004] Since his assuming of power, as suggested earlier, the political scenario was increasingly directed by the changes in the economic scenario brought about by the New Deal.
The enactments discussed in the earlier sections, as a part of the New Deal were instrumental in establishing a political order as well as an economic order, as the two major political forces – the Republicans and the Democrats — emerged in U.S. political landscape. [Hawley, 1992] The 1930s essentially remained a democratic era, the U.S. emerging as a modest social democracy, as politico-legal interventions saved the U.S. capitalism. The end of 1930s saw America increasingly turning towards external and international affairs, entering the war (WWII) scenario, as jobs and employment began to be created and the political decisions restored a waning economy to normalcy as America and its allies emerged successful.
The US. Socio-Cultural History – 1920s Vs 1930s
Despite the prosperity and optimism, many consider the decade of 1920s as a decade of considerable cultural conflict. While the nation became increasingly urban and commercial, the socio-cultural landscape became more and more intolerant, characterized by isolation and marginalization of the non-whites. The end of WWI saw America retreating to provincialism. The Ku Klux Klan, a provincial racist group, aimed at alienating non-whites and other religious groups from the rest of American society, became the highly influential in socio-political landscape during the 1920’s, as membership rose to over three million members. The restriction on immigration was a ramification of the rising polarization among whites and non-whites in the American society.
The Prohibition also had its negative impact on the socio-cultural landscape as it increased crime in the society, and led to the rise of gangsters, threatening the moral fabric of the society. However, it is worthwhile to note that the general prosperity of the “roaring 20s” have had significant impact on education and other facets of social development. Research suggests that before the WWI, only 7% of all Americans completed High School; the percentage rose to a big 41% by the end of 1920s. The impact of education is apparent in the general rise in the standard of living of the Americans during the 1920s. Also, the enforcement of the nineteenth amendment saw women emerging as a potential social force.
As America slid into Depression, in the 1930s, the society witnessed a crucial leveling down between the divulging forces – both social and economic – as tolerance between groups improved. The economic severity played a vital role in social deconstruction as American society became more inclusive. [Watkins, 1993] The repealing of the Prohibition Act and the various social security and insurance schemes by Roosevelt facilitated reduction in poverty, and hence crime and hatred in the society. However the economic hardships of the 1930s caused a decline in the social development indices, particularly education. The 1930s American society, which had no means of entertainment increasingly turned towards movies and radios, the developments of the 1920s. The cultural landscape remained radiant, though people had little money to spent.
[Elder, 1974] Thus, with regard to the socio-cultural history, it may be surmised that when the 1920s were characterized by chaos and intolerance, the 1930s saw the emergence of more tolerant society, mellowed and leveled by economic hardships. [Hawley, 1992]
The economic uproar of the 1920s eventually led to a catastrophic depression that extended through the 1930s, impacting and changing the American economic, political and socio-cultural landscapes. While 1920s marked the beginning of welfare capitalism, the 1930s saw it emerging as a more modest social democracy, while saving capitalism. The 1920s revealed a chaotic economic prosperity, which ultimately met its dead end in 1929, the 1930s saw the emergence of a new economic order, a disciplining of the American economy, that have sustained through the war years.
In the political scenario the democrats emerged as a strong political force in the 1930s as Republicans failed to address the politico-economic problems during 1920s. In the socio-cultural front, when the 1920s were characterized by chaos and intolerance, the 1930s saw the emergence of more tolerant society, leveled by economic hardships. In conclusion, it may be said that the first decades of twentieth century American history were characterized by contradictions and conflicts, as America emerged a super power by the mid 1900s.
1. Author Unknown, (2004) An Outline of American History (1990), From Revolution to Reconstruction Project Department of Humanities Computing (26, November) Available at: http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/H/1990/chap7.htm Accessed 2/19/05
2. Behr, E. (1996) Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Publishing.
3. Bernstein, M. A. (1987) The Great Depression: Delayed Recovery and Economic Change in America, 1929-1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
4. DeLong, J. B (1997) Slouching Towards Utopia?: The Economic History of the Twentieth Century, University of California at Berkeley and NBER (February) Available at: http://econ161.berkeley.edu/TCEH/Slouch_roaring13.html Accessed 2/19/05
5. Elder, G H. (1974) Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
6. Hawley, E. W. (1992) The Great War and the Search for a Modern Order: A History of the American People and Their Institutions, 1917-1933. 2nd edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
7. Watkins, T.H. (1993) The Great Depression: America in the 1930s New York: Little, Brown and Co.
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