Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Who We Were, Where We've Been

article number 323
article date 03-11-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The War is Over … Changing Politics and Social Unrest, 1919
by Frederick Lewis Allen, assembled by Agnes Rogers

From the 1947 book, I Remember Distinctly.

EDITORS NOTE: It is difficult to layup this fantastic coffee table book for a web presentation. In our presentation, pictures follow the commentary specific for that picture.

… all this, as we have been suggesting, was a considerable time ago, and people whose faces have subsequently become familiar to us didn’t look quite the same then. Below is a young officer of World War I by the name of Harry S. Truman…


and then you will see him posing—rather jauntily, (man on the left,) in a gray suit—in the men’s furnishing store that he operated in Kansas City with Ed Jacobson from 1919 to 1923.


Next we have a photograph taken at Montigny-sur-Aube, France, in 1919, showing Major General Henry T. Allen with a young officer who had made a mark for himself in our 1918 offensive: Colonel George Catlett Marshall.


It is hardly necessary to identify the young man pictured, with Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, as Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, still able to stand firmly on his two feet. It was in 1920 that he ran for the vice-presidency of the United States, and was snowed under in the election that brought Harding to the White House; it was in August of the next year, 1921, that he contracted poliomyelitis. From that time on, his legs were helpless and he could not even stand up without braces.


Below, suitably garbed for European negotiations, are Bernard M. Baruch, Norman H. Davis, Vance McCormick, and another future president, Herbert Hoover, photographed at the King of Belgium’s palace in Brussels in June, 1919, during the Peace Conference.


You’ll have little difficulty spotting the black-haired man, who is of course John L. Lewis, talking with Michael Gallagher, a coal operator, in 1923, when Lewis had been president of the United Mine Workers for about three years.


And you will readily recognize Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur (right), talking with the Prince of Wales (not yet Edward VIII or the Duke of Windsor) at West Point, when MacArthur was superintendent there, 1919-1923.


But the youth in the next picture? He is an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, class of 1923—Thomas E. Dewey.


One striking contrast between the first and second postwar periods is revealed in the national addiction to triumphant parades in 1919. This was a natural manifestation of the popular attitude toward World War I, as compared with that toward World War II.

In the first there was far more fervor, more emotional patriotism, more intolerance toward those whose loyalty was suspect, more hopeful chanting of the slogans of democracy and future peace—and much more delight in brass bands and the sound of marching feet.

When the victory was followed by disappointments, disillusionment came fast, and people in their inmost hearts felt somehow cheated. Thus it was natural that the generation which grew up after 1918 should have been conditioned to beware of military seductions.

We became generally isolationist, contemptuous of the national rivalries in Europe that had bred war once and might breed it again, and suspicious of the glamour of parades. When in due course we had to go to war again, we went without illusions. War had become to them a matter of implacable necessity—a grim business to be got through with as fast as possible, with a minimum of shouting.

True, we were virtually unanimous in our support of the national cause—more so than in 1917-18—but we were deadpan.

And so it was natural too that in 1945-46, after the victory, there were few parades. But in 1919 there were hundreds. Below we see the Marines marching up Fifth Avenue, New York, past Madison Square, under the victory arch built as a tribute to the doughboys. (Note the hard straw hats in the crowd.)


Two important reforms, generated by war fervor swept into effect just after the war. The first was woman suffrage, which was taken for granted as soon as it had become the law of the land—and made little difference in the election results thereafter.

You will see a group of San Francisco suffragettes” (more ardent than sexy celebrating California’s ratification of the suffrage amendment in November 1919.


The other reform was destined for a stormier career. The wartime argument that a sober soldier was a good soldier and a sober factory hand was a good factory hand had built up such an overwhelming public support for prohibition that a “wartime” dry act had been passed, to go into effect July 1, 1919.

Almost without opposition an Eighteenth Amendment—to provide for permanent prohibition—rushed through the last stages of ratification just after the Armistice, to go into effect on January 20, 1920.

The following advertisement from the ‘New York Times’ for May 4, 1919, assumed, as did almost everybody then, that the country would become really dry.


In the preceding pages of this book we have suggested some of the contrasts between the America of 1919-20 and that of 1946-47. So sharp are some of these contrasts that it may seem odd that many Americans old enough to remember those earlier days have had, again and again during the months and years since V-J Day, an odd feeling of “But I’ve been here before!” or “This is where I came in.”

For the parallels between the two periods have been absurdly close—so close that sometimes it has seemed almost as if an old and half-familiar show were being revived, with new actors, a new stage manager, new costumes and scene designs, and a few revisions and modernizations of the episodes, but essentially the same old plot.

To begin with, then as now, the peace-making was difficult and accompanied by disorders, insurrections, basic disagreements, and fears of a new outbreak of war. For months in the spring of 1919 the peace-makers wrangled at Paris. (At that, they were far quicker than their counterparts a generation later.)

Differences had to be battled out in conferences between the Big Four of that day. They are shown below, gathered for one of their sessions. At the left, Orlando of Italy (who walked out at one point in a dissention over Fiume, right next door to Trieste); then Lloyd George of Great Britain; then the aged Clemenceau of France; and at the right, Woodrow Wilson of the United States, whose hopes, so high a few months earlier, were already being shaken as the Treaty of Versailles took shape.


Next, President Wilson takes time off from the peace negotiations to review—along with General Pershing—some of the American troops still stationed in France.


The following fragment of an advertisement of the May 1919 issue of ‘Current History’ reminds us that after 1918, as after 1945, disorders still troubled the world.

“The authentic facts of that momentous period, compiled from official
records, are set forth in consecutive order in the May issue of Current
History Magazine, the monthly periodical published by The New
York Times Co.

“The agony of the Rebirth of the Nations of the World, which forms
a chapter of such thrilling yet tragic interest, is surveyed with close
fidelity to facts. This one magazine covers numerous events of
supreme significance, any one of which in normal times would
rivet the attention of all mankind.

“The Civil War in Germany. The Reforms in Rumania.
The Peril of Bolshevism. The Warfare in Russia.
The Revolution in Hungary. The Problems of Jugoslavia.
The Conflicts in Poland. The Banishment of Emperor Charles
The Struggle of the Czech Republic. The Unrest in Egypt.

“The history of each of these movements, which developed critical phases
in April, is given from official records, without bias or editorial comment.”

A war enforces an uneasy national unity, but when it is over, a lot of people are disposed to work off grudges built up in wartime: to say to themselves, “Now that we’ve licked the enemy outside, let’s finish off those so-and-so’s next door.”

In 1919 this sort of feeling led to an ugly series of race riots, of which the worst took place at Chicago. A seventeen-year-old colored boy was drowned in Lake Michigan off a Chicago bathing-beach.

Whether or not he had been stoned (in the water) by whites, a lot of people thought he had—and a fight began which spread into days of rioting, at the end of which 38 people had been killed and 37 injured.

In the next picture we see Negroes and whites leaving the beach as the trouble began…


… then the photographer catches two whites stoning a Negro to death.


Rising prices, war fatigue, a desire to reap the much-advertised fruits of democracy, and the release of wartime tensions combined after World War I—as after World War lI—to bring a terrific wave of strikes.

These pictures—show telephone girls on strike in Boston …


… and actresses going on picket duty in a strike which closed nearly a dozen theaters in New York—may give a faint idea of the wide variety of workers involved in 1919.


Yes, there was a housing shortage too; and rents, uncontrolled, went sky-high. Here, the head of the Anti-Rent League enrolls new members in a rent strike in New York at the beginning of the year 1919.


By November 1919 some people estimated that two million Americans were out on strike!

But perhaps the climax of the strike wave came a little earlier, in September, when the Boston police walked out. Result: disorder, a field day for hooligans, widespread damage, and public dismay. Here you will see a “loyal” policeman instructing a mounted State Guardsman in the preservation of public order.


A further result of the Boston Police Strike: it lifted into sudden national prominence the cautious, sandy-haired, sour-faced Governor of Massachusetts, Calvin Coolidge, who after dodging the strike issue as long as he could, issued a statement—welcomed by millions of Americans throughout the country—that there was “no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”


Listen to President Wilson, addressing Congress on August 8, 1919, and see whether the things he describes don’t sound natural to you. He is discussing the present cost of living”:

“I need not recite the particulars of this critical matter: the prices demanded and paid at the sources of supply, at the factory, in the food markets, at the shops, in the restaurants and hotels, alike in the city and in the village. They are familiar to you. They are the talk of every domestic circle and of every group of casual acquaintances even.

“It is a matter of familiar knowledge, also, that a process has set in which is likely, unless something is done, to push prices and rents and the whole cost of living higher and yet higher, in a vicious cycle to which there is no logical or natural end.

“With the increase in the prices of the necessaries of life come demands for increases in wages. . . . Upon the increase in wages there follows close an increase in the prices of the products whose producers have been accorded the increase.

“The laborers who do not get an increase in pay when they demand it are likely to strike, and the strike only makes matters worse. It checks production, if it affects the railways it prevents distribution and strips the markets, so that there is presently nothing to buy, and there is another excessive addition to prices resulting from the scarcity.”

This chart (Copyright, 1934, National Industrial Conference Board, Inc.) shows graphically what happened.


With no adequate controls in force, prices soared throughout the war, and with the remaining controls promptly removed at the war’s end, leaped still higher in 1919 and 1920—until buyers “went on strike,” supply caught up with demand, merchants and manufacturers who had been doing panicky buying found themselves overloaded with goods—and in the latter part of 1920, less than two years after the Armistice, there was a violent drop in prices.

To give just a couple of extreme examples of what happened then: spot cotton fell from 43¾ cents early in 1920 to 14¾ cents at the end of 1920; and rubber, from 49 cents early in the year to 19¼ cents at the year’s end!

Along with the strikes, in those early postwar days, went a wave of radicalism, stimulated by the uncomfortable cost of living, the general tension of an uneasy time, and the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia.

Some of it represented little more than an angry insistence by labor upon the right to organize (then denied it in many industries); some was socialist in aim; a little was communist.

It was not long-lived, and perhaps its most striking result was an epidemic of red-baiting and intolerance on the part of frightened conservatives, reaching its peak in the “Red Raids” by the Department of Justice on New Year’s Day, 1920.

But there were a few extremists among the radicals. Packages addressed to high government officials were discovered by a post-office clerk in New York to contain lethal bombs. A bomb crashed against the front of Attorney General Palmer’s house in Washington. And the climax came just before noon on September 16, 1920, while business was going on as usual in Wall Street: a terrific explosion took place just opposite the very citadel of American capitalism, the massive building of J. P. Morgan & Co.

The picture below was snapped just after the bomb went off, killing thirty people; injuring hundreds, and blowing slugs as much as thirty-four stories high. Apparently a horse-drawn wagon had carried the bomb there, and the driver had set the fuse and escaped. There was some evidence to suggest that the perpetrators were anarchists, but the crime was never solved. (Walk past the House of Morgan today and you will still see the scars on its walls.)


Perhaps the nastiest nucleus of postwar intolerance ii the United States was the Ku Klux Klan—a secret society, started in Georgia in 1915, which spread widely and was variously anti-Negro, anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic. By 1924 it had actually got political control of seven states.

Below, you will see member being initiated near Brunswick, Maryland, under the flaming cross.


Then we show the branded back of the Reverend Orrin Van Loon, pastor of a community church near Detroit, who had displeased local Klansmen and was found in a stupor with the letters KKK burned into his skin.


We also had a new breed of writers. Three successful authors of those days: Booth Tarkington (left), whose Alice Adams was popular in 1921; James Branch Cabell (center), whose Jurgen, published in 1919, delighted the broad- minded and was suppressed by the narrow-minded; and Sinclair Lewis (right), whose Main Street topped the 1921 best sellers, and who followed it soon with another outstanding novel, Babbitt.


Next is Edith Wharton, whose fine The Age of Innocence was an important book of 1920.


Below are the jackets of some leading books, and the announcement of Main Street in Harcourt, Brace and Howe’s catalogue of the time. Other best sellers of those days included The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Ibanez (1919), The Man of the Forest, by Zane Grey (1920), Now It Can Be Told, by Philip Gibbs (1920), and the top non-fiction best seller for 1921 and 1922, The Outline of History, by H. G. Wells. Does anybody remember, too, The Sheik, by E. M. Hull, a hot number in 1921? But it was Main Sreet, with its shrewd depiction of American small-town life, which came closest to setting the keynote of American writing for the decade to come.


President Wilson came back from the Paris Conference to find the American people in no mood to accept in toto the Treaty of Versailles or the international obligations of the League of Nations. During the summer of 1919 he wearily toured the country, trying to win their support—and came back to Washington a broken man.

During the rest of his term he was a half-paralyzed invalid in the White House, and the executive only half functioned. Obstinately refusing to compromise on the Treaty, Wilson saw it killed by the Senate; later the United States made a separate peace with Germany.

The American people were tired—tired of war, responsibility, idealism, regulations, and duties. They wanted to relax, have a good time, make money. And in the election of 1920 they chose, in a landslide, the handsome Republican candidate who promised a return to what he called “normalcy.”

Below, President Wilson, with drawn face, rides to the Capitol on Inauguration Day of 1921 beside the smiling victor, the new President, Warren G. Harding.


The election of 1920 involved, as vice-presidential candidates, two future Presidents. We show Calvin Coolidge, hero of the Boston Police Strike and Republican winner, with his father, wife, and sons.


Below—the Democratic loser, with his wife beside him, at the notification ceremony at Hyde Park. Beyond her, in order: Secretary Daniels, Mrs. McAdoo, Secretary McAdoo, Homer S. Cummings, Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, and Mrs. Smith.


After the Inauguration on March 4, 1921, the defeated Wilson drove bitterly to his recently purchased house on S Street, Washington; the new President drove in triumph to the White House. All smiles, he waved his silk hat, and his wife waved a white-gloved hand, as the shiny Packard with the rococo running-boards and stylish side-lamps swung them toward what seemed then a happy future prospect. The reign of normalcy was about to begin.

< Back to Top of Page