American History
The Dark Side of the Twenties

*Although the 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 flimsy charges.

*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 them.

*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 followers).

*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 Prohibition.

*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 their culture.

*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 Prohibition.




This page last updated 3 October, 2009.