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The Jazz Age and the Great Depression: 1921-1939

When Republican Warren Harding took over as president in 1921, the nation was ready for happy days after all the preachiness of Woodrow Wilson. Harding's Cabinet members weren't about to preach; in fact, they included a den of thieves.

President Harding wasn't a bad man, but he was suspiciously lazy in his choice of political friends. His Secretary of the Interior leased America's emergency Teapot Dome (1923) oil reserve to private businessmen in exchange for a $400,000 bribe ($4 million in modern money). His head of Veteran's Affairs stole the modern equivalent of $2 billion by allowing shady work on veterans' hospitals. His

Attorney General — the man who was supposed to enforce the laws — was charged with the sale of pardons and liquor permits. Harding didn't have to face the ugly scene his friends had created: He died of an illness in the middle of his first term.

That's the way it went in the Roaring '20s: high times with a big bill coming later. Kicking off the 1900s, activist presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson had tackled serious problems with the belief that progressive reform would help America live up to its high ideals (see Chapter 15). After all that progress and the trauma of World War I, people were tired of idealism — they just wanted to return to normal. Trouble is, you can never get in the same river twice — the current moves on without you. Normal in the 1920s was a whole new world. Unfortunately for the people of that era, the Great Depression was right around the corner.

U.S. VERSUS COMMUNISM: THE EARLY YEARS

With the Communist revolution taking over in Russia, the United States had the terrorist jitters. The U.S. sent troops to Siberia toward the end of World War I to help maintain order, but they were soon withdrawn. President Wilson expanded the federal police with a new FBI under the leadership of a young J. Edgar Hoover. Before the Red Scare (1921) was over, more than 10,000 people had been arrested in the Palmer Raids (1920) named for the Attorney General who led them. People were beaten and held illegally, and no evidence of a real conspiracy was ever found.

Real terrorists did actually strike: A bomb in Washington D.C. just missed a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and another killed 38 people and wounded hundreds on Wall Street. The actual bombers escaped, and almost all the people arrested were guilty of nothing more than being radical union members or recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. Immigrants suspected of troublemaking were often deported.

Scared for their lives and property, most Americans supported the anti-Communist raids at first. But when the police issued a red alert for a Communist takeover on May 1 that never materialized, public support for police-state tactics started to fade. Factory owners kept the Communist issue going as long as possible by trying to link unions with Communists.

During the hysteria, five legally elected members of the New York legislature and one U.S. Congressman weren't allowed to take their seats because of their left-wing views. Two immigrant Italians, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1921) were executed for murder on evidence that had more to do with their radical views and their immigrant status than proof of their alleged crime.

Example

Question: What happened to immigrants suspected of being trouble makers during the Red Scare (1920)?

Answer: They were deported.

 
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