Dark Side of the Twenties
1920s were a time of economic prosperity, for many people, they were
also a time of cynicism and paranoia. Some of this was due to the
1917 Revolution in Russia.
*Many people in Europe and America were afraid that communism would
grow in their countries and even overthrow their governments. As
this paranoia grew in the US in the late 1910a and early 1920s, it led
to a Red Scare—paranoid persecution of communists.
*In fairness, this was not entirely made up. Communists did mail
bombs to a number of industrial and political leaders (most of which
were discovered before killing or injuring anyone). Soon,
Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer ordered arrests of thousands of
suspected communists and anarchists—these were known as the Palmer
Raids. Some were legitimate, while others were made on fairly
*To protect the rights of people accused of crimes that most people
would not defend, the American Civil Liberties Union was formed in New
York in 1920. The first famous case they were involved in was the
trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1920.
*These two men were Italian atheist anarchists (playing on racial,
religions, and political fears). They were accused of involvement
in a murder and robbery at a shoe factory near Boston. Although
there was some evidence against them, it was considered fairly weak,
and when they were eventually executed (in 1927), it was generally felt
that they were killed for their ethnicity and politics rather than the
alleged murder. This helped turn people against the most obvious
anti-communist actions, but even though the Red Scare was most intense
between 1917 and 1920, fear and distrust remained long afterwards.
*The most extreme group to oppose Communism and many of the other
social changes in the 1920s was the Ku Klux Klan. Originally
created in the 1860s to oppose reconstruction, it had died away until
it was reborn in 1915. However, it did not just hate blacks any
more—it also hated Jews, foreigners, communists, Catholics, atheists,
and other unpopular groups.
*By the mid-1920s, the Klan grew into an Invisible Empire of over 3
million (perhaps up to 4 or 5 million) members, not only in the South,
but also in many parts of the North, particularly in cities where
immigrants (both from foreign countries and from the Great Migration)
competed against local whites for jobs and brought new cultures with
*The Klan opposed its enemies through boycotts, political action, and
outright violence. The NAACP and the Jewish Anti-Defamation
League worked against it, but in many ways the Klan destroyed itself,
as its leaders grew corrupt and began skimming of Klan funds for
themselves while promoting their friends to positions of power within
the Klan. Although the Klan declined in the late 1920s and
especially in the 1930s, it never completely went away.
*Many people joined (or at least sort of sympathised with) the Klan
because their traditional way of life seemed under threat by
modernism—new ways of life. The War and new technologies changed
the way people lived, how ideas spread, and what ideas were most
powerful. Many people particularly felt threatened by a decline
in religious belief, which was often blamed on scientific theories such
as Evolution. In response, religious fundamentalists wanted a
return to traditional values—they even said attacks on religion were
Communist (partly because communists in Russia had tried to destroy the
Church there, killing many of its leaders and persecuting its
*Most rural people wanted their children to get an education (and
education spread a lot in rural areas in the early 20th century) but
they wanted a fairly basic education: reading, writing, and
arithmetic. More and more Americans were graduating high school
and even going to college, though, and were being exposed to new ideas.
*Fundamentalists and other traditionalists responded by trying to
control what was taught in schools. The most famous attempt at
this was the Butler Act in Tennessee, which outlawed teaching evolution
of humans (although other animals and plants were allowed to
evolve). This act was tested by John Scopes of Dayton at the
urging of the ACLU. Even some local leaders wanted him to
challenge the law to draw attention to their town.
*Scopes taught evolution in his high school classroom and was
arrested. The Monkey Trial that followed drew national attention,
particularly as William Jennings Bryan came to prosecute the case and
famous defence lawyer Clarence Darrow came to defend Scopes.
*There was no doubt that Scopes had broken the law (he was found guilty
and fined the minimum of $100 (over $1,000 today), which Bryan
immediately offered to pay, although the conviction was later
overturned on a technicality). Instead, the case was a contest
between fundamentalism and modernism. Many of the national media
ridiculed Bryan and Tennessee, and Darrow managed to prove that Bryan
was not as great a biblical expert as he claimed, all of which reduced
national respect for fundamentalism, while making traditionalists even
more suspicious of modernism.
*Modernism and traditionalism (or, perhaps, two different forms of
traditionalism) also clashed over prohibition. The Manufacture
and Sale of alcohol was outlawed in 1920 by the XVIII Amendment, and
the amendment was enforced by the Volstead Act. This began
*Many Americans still wanted to drink, though, both young people of the
Lost Generation seeking more freedom from tradition and many Americans
(particularly immigrants) who were accustomed to drinking as part of
*Alcohol was made illegally in stills and sold by bootleggers.
People could drink it in bars known as speakeasies. A lot of the
illegal transport and sale of alcohol was managed by organised crime,
and although gangs (and even the mafia, of which Al Capone was the most
famous leader) were not new in the 1920s, their involvement in
circumventing Prohibition made them more widespread and more
powerful. While the temperance movement had insisted that
outlawing liquor would lead to a decrease in crime, in some places
(particularly big cities) it made crime more profitable and better
organised than ever.
*In 1933, the XXI Amendment repealed the XVIII Amendment, ending