History of the United States
A new place in the world (1917-1929)

The United States stayed out of World War I until 1917. But then, German acts of aggression convinced most Americans of the need to join the war against Germany. For the first time in its history, the United States mobilized for a full-scale war on foreign territory.

The decade following World War I brought sweeping changes. The economy entered a period of spectacular--though uneven--growth. The booming economy and fast-paced life of the decade gave it the nickname of the Roaring Twenties. But the good times ended abruptly. In 1929, a stock market crash triggered the worst and longest depression in America's history.

World War I and the peace

The United States in the war. After World War I began in 1914, the United States repeatedly declared its neutrality. But increasingly, German acts of aggression brought America closer to joining the Allies. On May 7, 1915, a German submarine sank the British passenger ship Lusitania. The attack killed 1,198 people, including 128 Americans. Woodrow Wilson won reelection to the presidency in November 1916, using the slogan, "He Kept Us Out of War." But three months later, German submarines began sinking American merchant ships. This and other acts of aggression led the United States to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

The American people rallied around their government's decision to go to war. Almost 2 million men volunteered for service, and about 3 million were conscripted. On the home front, the spirit of patriotism grew to a fever pitch. Americans willingly let the government take almost complete control of the economy for the good of the war effort.

World War I ended in an Allied victory with the signing of an armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

The peace conference and treaty. In 1919, the Allies held the Paris Peace Conference to draw up the terms of the peace with Germany. Wilson viewed the conference as an opportunity to establish lasting peace among nations. But the other leading Allies were chiefly interested in gaining territory and war payments from Germany. They adopted the Treaty of Versailles, which ignored almost all of Wilson's proposals.

The Treaty of Versailles did make provision for one of Wilson's proposals--an association of nations (later called the League of Nations) that would work to maintain peace. But the U.S. Senate failed to ratify (approve) the Treaty of Versailles. Thus, the Senate rejected U.S. participation in the League of Nations.

Life during the Roaring Twenties

In many ways, the 1920's marked the point at which the United States began developing into the modern society it is today.

The role of American women changed dramatically during the 1920's. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which became law on Aug. 26, 1920, gave women the right to vote in all elections. In addition, many new opportunities for education and careers opened up to women during the decade.

Social change and problems. Developments of the 1920's broadened the experiences of millions of Americans. The mass movement to cities meant more people could enjoy such activities as films, plays, and sporting events. Radio broadcasting began on a large scale. The car gave people a new way to get around. Cinemas became part of almost every city and town. The new role of women also changed society. Many women who found careers outside the home began thinking of themselves more as the equal of men, and less as housewives and mothers.

The modern trends of the 1920's brought about problems as well as benefits. Many Americans had trouble adjusting to the impersonal, fast-paced life of cities. This disorientation led to a rise in juvenile delinquency, crime, and other antisocial behaviour.

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, called the prohibition amendment, caused unforeseen problems. It outlawed the sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the United States as of Jan. 16, 1920. Many otherwise law-abiding citizens considered prohibition a violation of their rights. They ignored the law and bought alcohol provided by underworld gangs.

Looking backward.
Not all Americans saw the changes brought about during the Roaring Twenties as being desirable. Many people yearned for a return to old American traditions, a trend that was reflected in many areas of life. In politics, it led to the return of a conservative federal government. In his successful presidential campaign of 1920, Warren G. Harding used the slogan "A Return to Normalcy." To many people, returning to "normalcy" meant ending the strong role of the federal government that marked the early 1900's. It also meant isolation, a turning away from the affairs of the outside world.

In religion, the trend toward tradition led to an upsurge of revivalism (emotional religious preaching). Revival meetings were most common in rural areas, but also spread to cities.

The Ku Klux Klan had died out in the 1870's, but a new Klan gained a large following during the 1920's. The new Klan had easy answers for Americans who were troubled by modern problems. It blamed the problems on "outsiders," including blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics, foreigners, and political radicals.

The economy--boom and bust

During the 1920's, the American economy soared to spectacular heights. Wartime government restrictions on business ended. Conservatives gained control of the federal government and adopted policies that aided big business.

But in spite of its growth and apparent strength, the economy was on shaky ground. Only one segment of the economy--manufacturing--prospered. Business executives grew rich, but farmers and labourers became worse off. Finally, in 1929, wild speculation led to a stock market crash.

Government and business.
The American people grew tired of the federal government's involvement in society that marked the Progressive Era and the war years. They elected to Congress conservatives who promised to reduce the role of government. Also, all three presidents elected during the 1920's--Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover--were Republicans who agreed with the policy.

Technology enabled American manufacturers to develop new products, improve existing ones, and turn out goods much faster and more cheaply than ever before. Sales of such items as electric washing machines, refrigerators, and radios soared. But the manufacturing boom depended most heavily on the growth of the car industry. Before and during the 1920's, Henry Ford and others refined car manufacturing to a science. The cost of cars continued to drop and sales soared. In just 10 years between 1920 and 1930, the number of cars registered in the United States almost tripled, growing from about 8 million to 23 million.

Agriculture and labour did not share in the prosperity. A reduced market for farm goods in war-torn Europe and a slowdown in the U.S. population growth led to a decline in the demand for American farm products. Widespread poverty among farmers and labourers cut into the demand for manufactured goods, a contributing factor to the forthcoming depression.

Investments, speculation, and the crash.
The economic growth of the 1920's led more Americans than ever to invest in the shares of corporations. The investments, in turn, provided companies with a flood of new capital for business expansion. As investors poured money into the stock market, the value of shares soared. The upsweep led to widespread speculation, which pushed the value of shares far beyond the level justified by earnings and dividends.

Such unsound investment practices led to the stock market crash of 1929. In late October, a decline in share prices set in. Panic selling followed, lowering share prices drastically and dragging investors to financial ruin. The stock market crash combined with the other weaknesses in the nation's economy to bring on the Great Depression of the 1930's.