Book Review: “1920: The Year that Made the Decade Roar,” by Eric Burns
Published by Pegasus Books, 346 pp. $33.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
The Globe and Mail is fond of opining that “Perspective is everything”, and indeed, when the situation that prevailed 100 years ago at that time is considered, it puts our current difficulties into much greater perspective. The world had just emerged from the twin shocks of the greatest war up to that time in history, which had killed or wounded a total of 40 million people, as well as a global pandemic that had consumed at least 50 million more lives. In the United States, three million recently demobilized soldiers were struggling to make their way back into civilian society. As the year 1920 dawned, the economy was sliding into what would become a deep recession that would see unemployment rapidly rise to double-digit figures.
At the time, little could anyone have foreseen that the 1920’s would eventually go on to become a period of unprecedented economic buoyancy and astonishing political and social change. In an aptly-titled book, author and historian Eric Burns examines some of the seminal events of the pivotal twelve months that marked the beginning of the third decade of the 20th century, and discusses how these would forever transform the United States and profoundly alter its future destiny as a nation.
1920 was fated to be the final year of the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the former President of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey, who had first been elected to serve in the Oval Office eight years earlier. After being re-elected for a second term in 1916, Wilson had guided the United States through the Great War, and later was the principal author of the “Fourteen Points” that served as the basis for defining the terms of a postwar peace. To this day, he is considered be many historians to have been one of the most successful Presidents the United States has ever had.
Few Americans realized it at the time, but during the last year of Wilson’s Presidency, the de facto Chief Executive of their nation was his wife Edith, who he had married in 1915, partway through his first term in office. In October 1919, immediately after making a speech to a crowd in Colorado, Wilson collapsed into the arms of his aides. It soon thereafter became apparent that he had suffered a debilitating stroke which would leave him largely incapacitated until his death in early 1924. As there was no provision in the Constitution for dealing with such an unprecedented situation, Mrs. Wilson stepped up to the plate discreetly but firmly, taking charge of her husband’s affairs, and exercising tight control over who had access to him. She would continue her “stewardship” in this manner for well over a year, right up until Wilson’s successor Warren G. Harding took office in early 1921.
As Burns’ book notes, 1920 would also be a year marked by many other defining events that would have an important influence on American society, and on the subsequent evolution of their country. Among other noteworthy developments, it would stand out as being the only year in history when two amendments were made to the U.S. Constitution. One would eventually prove to be a well-intentioned but costly failure; the other would be a critically important step forward in recognizing the role of women in the life of the nation.
On January 17, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution officially came into effect. This marked the beginning of Prohibition, which made the manufacture, transportation, and sale of all forms of intoxicating liquors illegal. The advent of the “Noble Experiment” was the victory that had been sought for decades by the Temperance movement, who lobbied vigorously against the many and varied social evils they associated with drink. But the abrupt act of turning off the taps did little to quell Americans’ thirst for beer, wine and spirits. In fact, it may well have served as the catalyst for the largest civil disobedience movement in the nation’s history.
Suddenly deprived of the opportunity to purchase alcoholic beverages legally, millions of Americans resorted to all manner of ingenious tactics to procure their favorite drinks either by purchasing them on the black market, or by making them on their own. Clandestine watering holes known as “speakeasies” sprouted up all over the country, and the most elegant of these dens of iniquity were known for serving the finest liquor that money could buy. Criminal gangs were eager to cash in in the huge profits to be made from bootlegging, and they often did so with the tacit approval of corrupt officials who were eager for their piece of the action.
For some people, the consequences of these activities could be tragic. Contraband liquor could contain all manner of toxic substances, many of which could be harmful or even fatal to its connoisseurs. In just one four-day period in 1928, New York City recorded 34 deaths due to alcohol poisoning. Finally, after 13 years of erratic and ineffective attempts at enforcement, the authorities came to the realization that they were fighting a battle they could not win. In December 1933, Prohibition was officially repealed by the Twenty First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
1920 would also be the year when, at long last, American women were granted the right to join their male fellow citizens at the ballot box. On August 18th, Tennessee became the last of the 36 states that were required to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was officially adopted eight days later. As a result, some 26 million women immediately became eligible to vote. It was a major victory for the suffrage movement, which for decades had been struggling to give women the opportunity to have their say in how the nation was governed. At first, participation was relatively light, and in the 1920 Presidential election, just 36 percent of eligible women voters cast their ballots. By 1960, however, women were voting in proportionately greater numbers than men, and had clearly become an important political constituency.
As Burns’ book shows, the 1920’s would in fact be a time when the overall status of women in American society began to change dramatically. The demure and retiring notions of femininity that had been espoused by previous generations began to be rapidly set aside, and a bold new cohort of women were engaging in all manner of behaviours – driving automobiles, smoking cigarettes, dressing provocatively, dancing with abandon well into the early hours of the morning – that positively scandalized the conservative establishment. The “Flappers”, as these daring young women would eventually be known, would come to be recognized as being an iconic symbol of the decade.
Adding to this newfound sense of empowerment was the growing access to effective methods of birth control which, for the first time in history, gave women the ability to exercise control over the reproductive process. Leading the charge on this front was Margaret Sanger, a nurse who had learned about contraceptives in Europe, and who had opened the United States’ first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916. Sanger had to endure harassment from the police and a brief spell of imprisonment, but she nonetheless doggedly persevered in her mission, likely saving countless women from unwanted pregnancies in the process. In 1921, she would go on to found the American Birth Control League, which today is perpetuated as Planned Parenthood, a global organization that provides services to over two million patients every year.
It was also a time when profound shifts were taking place in the U.S. economy, notably as a result of the rapid growth of industries like railroads, steel, and automobiles, as well as phenomena like the “Great Migration” which saw millions of impoverished blacks abandon the farms and plantations of the South in search of freedom from discrimination and better opportunities in the factories of the North. These African Americans were joined by large numbers of whites from smaller communities who were lured by similar promises of advancement in the big cities. As a result, 1920 was the first year in history when the size of the urban population in the United States exceeded the numbers of people living in rural areas.
Sadly, many disadvantaged Americans who were seeking a leg up on the economic ladder would quickly discover that working class life in the big city could be every bit as tough as it was back on the farm. Not surprisingly, this translated into growing support for labour unions, and tense relations between the wealthy elite and the legions of ordinary working people whose toil was the source of their fortunes. In 1920 alone, there were more than 3,000 strikes across the United States. In most cases, these did little to improve the lot of the average Joe, but at times, the collision between the oppressive tactics habitually employed by management and the pent-up frustrations of the exploited workers could erupt into violence.
The coal fields of West Virginia would provide the backdrop for what was probably the most memorable, and tragic, confrontation between management and labour to take place in 1920. In May of that year, in the obscure town of Matewan, a gang of private detectives employed by the Stone Mountain Coal Company were accosted on the town’s Main Street by a posse of armed miners led by Sid Hatfield, the local Sherriff, and C.C. Testerman, the town’s Mayor. Things quickly turned ugly, and the two sides exchanged a fusillade of gunfire. By the time the showdown had ended, seven of the company thugs and three of the locals lay dead. Decades later, the story of the “Matewan Massacre” would be told in an iconic 1980’s film.
Initially, although the shootout in Matewan did almost nothing to improve the lot of the coal miners, its psychological impact was nonetheless significant in that it further solidified their determination to organize the coal fields of the southern U.S. The Matewan incident set the stage for the much larger Battle of Blair Mountain in the summer of 1921, in which a force of 10,000 armed miners faced off against 3,000 police officers and National Guardsmen. It was the largest armed uprising in American history since the Civil War, and one that forever altered the tone of labour-management relations in the nation. After years of struggle and setbacks, support for the United Mine Workers of America began to grow steadily. Under the leadership of the charismatic and pugnacious John L. Lewis, who would become the UMW President in 1920, by the eve of World War II it would grow to become one of the most powerful unions in the country, and a model for organized labour.
Notwithstanding the many challenges that United States faced in 1920, the decade that followed would later prove to be a period of dramatic growth and seemingly unprecedented prosperity. The nation rebounded rapidly from the recession of 1920-21, and by 1923, unemployment had shrunk to just 2.3%. Emboldened by this newfound economic buoyancy, Americans embraced new technologies that dramatically changed the way they lived and worked. In 1920, when the population stood at approximately 106 million, there were slightly more than seven million automobiles on the nation’s roads. By 1930, the population had grown to 123 million, but the number of registered motor vehicles had climbed nearly fourfold, to 26 million.
Another new technology that was embraced with a passion was radio. 1920 was the year when the first commercially-licensed radio station, KDKA of East Pittsburgh, was authorized to begin operations. Less than one week after it was authorized to go on the air, the fledgling station made history when, on the night of November 2, it carried the first live broadcast of the U.S. Presidential election results.
The establishment of KDKA marked the birth of the electronic media industry in the United States, and it was the beginning of what would soon become an explosive period of growth in radio broadcasting. Barely two years after KDKA first went on the air, there were nearly 600 commercial radio stations covering every region of the continental United States. In tandem with this astonishing growth, radio sets, which could be had for as little as $10 (equivalent to approximately $130 today) , seemed to be literally flying off retailers’ shelves. In 1922, Americans purchased 100,000 radio sets; by the following year, sales had leaped to over 500,000 units. It was a veritable revolution in mass-media communication that would have profound implications that continue to be felt to this day.
On the political front, 1920 was also destined to be the year when one of the best Presidents America had ever had would leave office, only to be replaced by a new Chief Executive who is today widely considered to be among the very worst. When in November of that year voters (including, for the first time, women as well as men) went to the polls to choose a successor for the ailing Woodrow Wilson, the winner was the Republican Warren G. Harding, a former newspaper publisher and U.S. Senator from Ohio. Elected to the nation’s highest office on the same day that he reached his 55th birthday, Harding won the 1920 Presidential contest by a landslide, garnering over 60% of the popular vote and receiving 404 out of a possible 531 electoral votes.
Harding’s term in office would prove to be short; he was inaugurated at the beginning of March 1921, and would die of a heart attack not quite thirty months later. But brief as his tenure was, it would nonetheless eventually be remembered as one of the most scandal-plagued of any President in modern times. Harding had an almost uncanny knack for surrounding himself with self-serving associates who were totally unscrupulous, and he seemed to prefer playing poker with his cronies over attending to the nation’s affairs.
As a result, his administration was marked by fiascoes like the Teapot Dome Affair, in which oil reserves originally set aside to provide fuel to the U.S. Navy were sold on the sly to private investors who promptly went on to reap huge – and hugely illegitimate – profits from the deal. After Harding died suddenly in office in August 1923, he was succeeded by his Vice President Calvin Coolidge, the former Governor of Massachusetts. In the wake of Harding’s numerous missteps, “Silent Cal” worked to regain the trust of American public, and he was successful in earning re-election in 1924. In the summer of 1927, he took the nation by surprise when he issued a terse statement to reporters indicating that he would not seek re-election in 1928. In retrospect, this decision may have just as well, as Coolidge would die very suddenly just a few years later.
As we now know, the year 1920 was fated to usher in a decade of dramatic and unprecedented change in the United States, and indeed, all over the world. The flamboyant excesses of the ten years that followed would, of course, come to a screeching halt with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the global depression that would follow. But nevertheless, in analyzing the events of “the year that made the decade roar”, Eric Burns does a commendable job of discussing the implications of a variety of pivotal developments that would leave a lasting mark on American society. In the aftermath of coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the world in the recent past, as we look ahead towards the third decade of the 21st century, this book is a useful reminder of the fact that it is often in times of widespread turmoil that the greatest opportunities can be created.