Category Archives: 20th Century

Selling the Great War

President Woodrow Wilson, incumbent in 1916, narrowly won his reelection that year on the basis of a simple platform: “He kept us out of war.”

Yet only months later, in 1917, Wilson became convinced that the U.S. needed to enter the European conflict. But how on earth would he convince the American public?

All his advisers knew it would be a tough sell. But Wilson, who had taught history at Princeton before entering politics, found the answer he needed in the advice of one of his former students, prominent progressive Arthur Bullard, who urged the president to form an official publicity office in order to “electrify public opinion.”

The idea was taken up by another influential insider, Walter Lippman, co-founder of The New Republic. Lippman had become fascinated with the psychology of mass opinion and politics, particularly as described in Gustave LeBon’s 1895 work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. According to LeBon, whenever ordinary citizens gathered into a mass assembly, no matter how reasonable as individuals, they became irrational and easily subject to manipulation.

Lippman encouraged the president to appoint an agency for the purpose of convincing Americans that entering the war was a necessary and positive step. Following the advice of Bullard and Lippman, the president issued Executive Order 2594, establishing the Committee on Public Information (CPI), under the leadership of progressive journalist George Creel.

The committee’s original instructions were to provide hard facts and information to the public so that they could intelligently draw their own conclusions about the war. But this idea was quickly abandoned.

Creel was convinced that the American public lived “mostly by slogans.” Therefore, he selected a committee of artists and communications experts, including Charles Dana Gibson of “Gibson girl” fame, and George Bowles, the Hollywood promoter behind the distribution of Birth of a Nation, to help him appeal to the public’s appetite for sensation.

The resulting massive propaganda campaign included the distribution of two hundred thousand different images, the employment of several hundred thousand “Four Minute Men” who delivered speeches in movie theaters, a massive censorship campaign, and countless posters, flyers and broadsides.

As Gibson noted, “One cannot create enthusiasm for the war on the basis of practical appeal.” The CPI made no attempt to provide the public with facts about the war. Instead, CPI posters showed sentimental images of American culture and lurid, fearful representations of German soldiers, and appealed to the public’s basest sentiments and most irrational fears and prejudices.

Many reformers watched in horror as the formerly progressive president resorted to crass pro-war propagandizing.  But another group of Americans watched with interest: the new public relations professionals. By paying attention to the CPI’s war promotions, advertisers learned the techniques that enabled them to create a whole new culture of rampant consumerism in the prosperous decade that followed.

(Zeitz 197-199)

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The Democratic Party Goes Liberal

Since the Civil War, the GOP had identified itself as the Party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, while the Democratic Party had always been dominated by southern Jim Crow conservatives.This all began to change during the Great Depression.

In 1932, a wave of newly-active voters from among the white American middle class swept the polls. They managed to place liberal Democrats in office at all levels of the government, including the presidency. Franklin D. Roosevelt, during his first one hundred days in office, led the federal government in a series of unprecedented actions to help Americans survive the economic crisis. His New Deal raised the hopes of millions, and working-class Americans everywhere loved him.

They also loved his wife, Eleanor, who became the first politically active first lady in US history. She connected easily and with no apparent condescension to the poor and to African Americans, who mostly fell into that category. (While about 30 percent of Americans were unemployed during the Depression, among blacks the unemployment rate was around 50 percent.)

While the New Deal focused on economic liberalism, it did not at first include the kind of racial liberalism exemplified by Eleanor Roosevelt. Early New Deal leaders were mostly northern white intellectuals who had little firsthand experience with the southern white mindset. They believed that race prejudice was a result of economic conditions – African Americans were discriminated against because they were poor – and they naively thought that once the New Deal had lifted blacks out of poverty, race would cease to be an issue.

Eventually, as they saw their economic programs in many states segregated along racial lines, they began to realize that racism was the cause, rather than the effect, of black poverty. Of course, black leaders had been saying this all along, but finally, New Deal liberals began to see it too.

In order for blacks to get civil rights onto the agenda of the Democratic Party, first they had to join that party. This meant leaving the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln and emancipation. For many this was a painful decision; as one man said, Roosevelt might feed him, but Lincoln had freed him. Nevertheless, in the late 1930s, blacks in the North and West overwhelmingly switched to the Democratic Party. That shift was to permanently change American politics and the civil rights movement.

In some ways, Republicans brought it on themselves. For a long time, the GOP had been taking black votes for granted. They had largely ignored the subject of black civil rights, figuring that African Americans had no choice but to vote Republican; the only alternative was the Democratic Party, the party of the Confederacy and white supremacy. Now suddenly, the triumph of the liberal Democrats gave black voters new motivation to switch parties.

Also, New Deal aid did reach African American families, saving homes and livelihoods. This was a strong influence on winning black support for the Democratic Party.

A third reason black voters switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party in the 1930s had to do with the Roosevelts themselves. Largely through Eleanor’s prompting, FDR established an unofficial “Black Cabinet” committee of African American leaders, to advise him on race issues in the New Deal. He actively welcomed African Americans into the Democratic Party and made a special effort to court the black vote in the 1936 election. While his popularity among all Americans virtually assured his reelection, he won a large percentage of the black vote that year. More and more blacks would continue to become Democrats in the following years and decades.

While conservative southern Democrats continued to fight black civil rights to the end, it was the liberal Democrats who would eventually reshape racial law in America.

(Flamming 150-157)

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In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, America experienced a sudden surge of both white supremacy and black nationalism. While the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan managed to briefly dominate politics on the West Coast in the early 1920s, black nationalism swept the entire country as Pan-Africa movements emerged around the globe.

The most influential nationalist organization of the 1920s was the United Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA. It was created by Marcus Garvey, a Caribbean immigrant, and became known as Garveyism. Garvey was a flamboyant character who excelled at staging elaborate public displays of pageantry and black pride. UNIA officers wore elaborate, full-dress military uniforms, and Garvey himself wore a Napoleon-style admiral’s hat with a giant plume. Although the displays were over-the-top, they derived their power from the fact that they in no way resembled mainstream white American culture.

The UNIA promoted economic self-sufficiency as well as black cultural pride. The basis of Garvey’s economic plan was practical: UNIA dues were to be invested in a line of steamships, the Black Star Line, that would establish commercial ties between black America and black Africa. This would enable blacks around the globe to grow strong and prosper together.

Garveyism spread rapidly throughout the country. It took only seven members to start a chapter, so the tiniest black communities of the midwest could organize and be part of the movement. Small-town chapters flourished everywhere, even in the most remote locations, and in the big cities formal membership was huge. At its height in early 1921, UNIA Division 156 in Los Angeles had about 1,000 members on its rolls.

In the summer of that year, Division 156 president Noah Thompson traveled to New York to represent LA at the UNIA national convention. The reports he sent back home were disturbing. Two days of the convention were spent discussing how many buttons should be on a certain officer’s uniform. Worse, when Thompson asked to see the ships of the Black Star Line, for which $250,000 in UNIA dues had been invested, he received evasive answers. Officials refused to discuss the Line’s finances. It soon became clear that the UNIA was broke, its dues invested in a few rickety ships that were worth only scrap.

The LA chapter promptly announced its independence from the national group and formed a new group, the PCUNIA, or Pacific Coast Universal Negro Improvement Association. The New York office decertified Division 156 and barred its former officers from membership in the new, officially-sanctioned LA chapter, which could only come up with about 100 members.

Nevertheless, Garvey himself remained a popular figure; the next summer, when he visited LA for the first time, he was given a hero’s welcome. But the UNIA’s accounting problems were never resolved. Eventually, Garvey was deported on charges of mail fraud, and Garveyism faded from the scene.

Black nationalism did not expire with the demise of Garveyism. Instead, it would continue to grow and flourish in new forms and under new leadership throughout the century.

(Flamming 136-140)

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The Tulsa Race Riot

The late 1910s witnessed a wave of white-on-black racial violence throughout the American West. Major race riots included those in Houston (1917), East St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Elaine, Arkansas (1919) and Omaha, Nebraska (1919).

The last and worst of this wave of racial violence erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. Tulsa was at that time a rapidly growing city, mostly white but with a sizeable and prosperous black population; the city was tightly segregated, and the homes and businesses of black middle-class families were centered in an area called Greenwood.

The incident began when a black man named Dick Rowland was falsely accused by some white men of having made advances upon a white girl. Rowland was arrested and locked in a courthouse jail; that afternoon, a white newspaper announced in bold headlines that there would be a lynching that night.

A group of Greenwood’s leading citizens and property owners decided to intervene. At dusk, about two dozen got their guns and drove to the courthouse. Already a white mob of several hundred was assembled. Approaching the sheriff, the Greenwood men offered their services; the sheriff informed them that he had already contacted the National Guard, and that the situation was under control. The men, convinced for the moment, got in their cars and returned to Greenwood.

Meanwhile, the white mob was growing. At some point, part of the mob tried to break into the National Guard armory to seize guns and ammunition; the Guard held them off but failed to disperse them. News of the escalation reached Greenwood; this time, from 50 to 75 men assembled and returned to the courthouse.

No one knows who fired the first shot, but someone did, and a riot broke out. The Greenwood men, outnumbered 75 to 3,000, managed to fight their way out of downtown and back toward their own neighborhood. The white mob followed them; fighting continued all night, and sometime the next morning, Greenwood began to burn. In broad daylight, as their homes and businesses went up in flames, as many as 6,000 blacks were rounded up and force-marched to internment centers.

The destruction continued all day. White newspaper photographers followed the mob and took pictures of the burning buildings. The National Guard did nothing to stop the violence; the whites freely continued destroying property as they chose.

The number of deaths due to the violence was never accurately established. Estimates range from 30 to 300 persons dead; perhaps half of these were white men. More than 1,000 homes and businesses in Greenwood were destroyed; black Tulsa lay in ruins. White officials at the city and state levels openly blamed the riot on the small group of black men who had arrived downtown with guns. Many black families left the city, never to return.

The violence in Tulsa began a panic in Los Angeles, when rumors of a Klan riot began to circulate; reportedly, black Los Angeles had been scheduled for the “Tulsa treatment” on July 4.

But it didn’t happen. Los Angeles was a very different place from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was a southern-style city, and Greenwood was the kind of all-black neighborhood that didn’t exist in the cities of the West Coast. In places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, blacks lived and worked in mixed neighborhoods, interspersed with whites, Mexicans, and Asians. There would be no way to attack the “black district” without destroying the property of many non-blacks. This diversity could not, of course, prevent violence on an individual basis, but it may explain why the cities of the West Coast escaped the race riots so prevalent during this period.

(Flamming 130-133)


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Small-Town Sophisticates

Fans of the 1920s remember the Algonquin Round Table as a group of the finest literary minds of the era, who met regularly to conduct challenging discussions on art and philosophy. It was through the influence of this small circle of big-city literati that American manners and morals began to shift so dramatically during the Jazz Age.

This is an inaccurate impression.

The Jazz Age began in middle America. The hair-bobbing, cigarette-smoking, Charleston-dancing girls of the small towns and cities of the Midwest were a much greater force in the 1920s than the handful of Hollywood stars or New York personalities who occasionally made headlines. The revolution of manners and morals was a grass-roots movement that started with the citizens on Main Street.

Among these citizens was a man named Harold Ross. Born in Colorado and armed with a high-school education, he  worked for a series of small-town newspapers, served in the Army, and eventually found his way to New York, where he worked as an editor. He married a reporter named Jane Grant; the couple bought two brownstones in Hell’s Kitchen, knocked down the adjoining wall, and then began hosting big all-night parties that soon attracted some of the city’s up-and-coming young writers and artists. In 1920, some of these friends began to meet with Harold and Jane for lunch at New York’s venerable Algonquin Hotel. When the hotel management moved the group to a large circular table in the middle of the Rose Room, the Algonquin Round Table was born.

The Round Table participants included popular newspaper writers and columnists like Alexander Woollcott and Franklin Adams, editors like Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, and press agents John Peter Toohey and Murdock Pemberton. These individuals were primarily small-town folks, born and bred, who had somehow ended up in New York and gained a measure of sophistication in the process. Rather than discussing great art and lofty ideas, they primarily told and repeated wisecracks: intelligent and wordy small-town folks poking fun at the cultural conventions that all of them shared.

A group of friends being clever over lunch would never have gained national attention if not for the fact that each of the group members was uniquely associated with the popular press. These people didn’t wait for fame, they went out and created it themselves. Within weeks, Adams and Woollcott were reporting the group’s witticisms in their own columns; Toohey and Pemberton began feeding stories about the group to their friends in various editorial departments. Frank Case, manager and part owner of the Algonquin did his part: he quietly bribed columnists to report on “overheard” wisecracks.

This shameless self-promotion paid off; by the mid-1920s tourists were dropping by the Algonquin at lunchtime to get a glimpse of these supposedly cutting-edge intellectuals, and in 1924 Ross and Grant were able to raise $45,000 to start a new magazine called The New Yorker. With the self-conscious sophistication of small-town kids newly arrived in the big city, the magazine’s editors promised their new venture would not be edited for “the old lady in Dubuque.”

With thoughtmakers like these leading the way, small-town Americans were soon taught to think of the Jazz Age as a phenomenon that had begun in New York City.

(Zeitz 79-86)

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From Courting to Dating

Dating was invented in the 1920s.

Up through the beginning of the twentieth century, American courtship was carefully monitored. A girl would receive her gentleman caller on the front porch or in the family parlor, in the company of at least one adult chaperone. The couple would talk, read together, or play board games; on rare occasions they might be allowed to attend a church social or musical performance together, but always in view of nosy neighbors and family friends.

Under this system of courtship, women were in control. They selected the times and days for visits, did the inviting, and set the limits. All men could do was play along.

During the same period, even in the big cities, there was virtually no urban nightlife in America. After the sun went down, the night was lit only by the dim glow of gas lamps, and few respectable persons would dare to venture out after dark.

But by the first decade of the twentieth century, all that started to change.

The first challenge to the courtship system was America’s infatuation with the bicycle. These new contraptions made it easier for couples to slip away beyond the monitoring eyes of parents. Then came the telephone, which made it possible for young people to talk more freely, more often, and with more privacy.

Then came the automobile.

In the first years of the twentieth century, cars were considered unsafe and impractical. They didn’t work very well, and only millionaire hobbyists owned them. Drivers were limited to speeds of eight miles per hour, and some local ordinances required that each car be preceded by someone on foot, who was to warn pedestrians by waving a red flag.

But by the 1920s, cars were becoming commonplace; one-fifth of all Americans owned one of the new mass-produced automobiles. Suddenly, young people were never home anymore. Increasingly, they spent their evenings not in the family parlor, but in a car parked at Lover’s Lane.

In the same decade, for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in the countryside. More and more young people were leaving the family farm every year, and flocking to the newly-electrified cities.

Many of those new urbanites were women. By 1929, more than half of all single American women were gainfully employed, and many of them lived in large cities, alone and unsupervised, in boardinghouses or private apartments.

Thanks to mechanization, working people found that their hours dropped, while wages rose. Young people suddenly had more time on their hands and more money to spend. And they had all kinds of new public amusements on which to spend it: dance halls, movie palaces, amusement parks and baseball stadiums sprang up everywhere.

These amusements were meant for men and women to enjoy together. Popular amusement park concessions included romantic rides like the Tunnel of Love, and scary rides meant to induce mock terror and encourage clinging and hugging. In the dance halls, women stayed out late, smoking, drinking and carrying on with men, engaging in the new dances with their wild movements and close embraces.

Instead of paying calls, young men and women were now going on “dates,” a term that social commentators still  placed between quotation marks in the immediate pre-War years.

In contrast to the more circumscribed rituals of courting, the new dating culture led to increased sexual frankness and experimentation.

Although women were earning more money then ever before, wage and employment discrimination were rampant. Most working girls could barely earn enough to survive, and could not afford to go to movies or amusement parks on their own, nor afford the fancy clothes such activities required. So dating soon evolved into a system whereby men paid for dinners, movies and admissions, and women were unofficially expected to provide some physical and romantic attention in return.

The unwritten expectation that women would reciprocate sexually in return for indulging in social opportunities was completely new. Since dating was centered on public leisure activities that cost money, it took away much of the power women had held under the courtship system, and instead gave the advantage to men, who had the money to spend.

(Zeitz 29-38)


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Teddy Roosevelt, Baseball Fan

In his memoir, Duke Ellington recalled his childhood in Washington, D.C.

“There were many open lots around Washington then,” he claimed, “and we used to play baseball at an old tennis court on Sixteenth Street. President Roosevelt would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play. When he got ready to go, he would wave and we would wave at him. That was Teddy Roosevelt – just him and his horse, nobody guarding him.”

(Ellington 10)

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