Between World War I and the Great Depression,
America became a world culture, swinging an
ever heavier and wilder cultural, financial,
and industrial weight - avoiding world leadership,
it is true, aside from an occasional foray and typical defaults. The
world gulped down American oil, trucks, cars,
farm machinery, electrical and telephonic equipment, and
movie projectors. Multinationals continued to
spread abroad and now were venturing to build
more factories on foreign sites.
Domestic sectionalism began to decline,
the sub-cultures merging; President Warren Harding,
a cordial imbiber inhabiting the White House and
using it as a house of assignation from time to time,
proclaimed the end of sectionalism, in favor of one nation.
He was known as an excellent "Harmonizer."
(Not to be confused with the "Great Compromiser,"
Some of Harding's friends began to divide up
public domain, and the Teapot Dome scandal,
involving the theft of large government oil reserves,
sent a couple of them to jail.
Before worse could happen, he died of a heart attack
on his way back from a trip to Alaska, and
canny, stingy, Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge of
Massachusetts was sworn into office, who
did his best to do nothing until March
of 1929, when Herbert Hoover, a big business
promoter, took over, elected by a comfortably situated
public whose mass media soothingly misrepresented the
nation as totally prosperous.
Secretary of Commerce and later President Hoover,
was called "the Great Engineer," and in fact was such,
also a fine administrator of large-scale
enterprises, private and public. He was also, of all things
contrary to myth, an exponent of extended credit.
He believed in investing and lending money abroad and in
helping financial institutions to extend credit to
home builders and small business. One day, historians
may even find in him the source of the woes that
excessive credit has inflicted on the nation.
He defeated Al Smith, a lifelong politician
who had been Governor of New York and loved the poor,
since he had been born poor and his Catholic constituents
were poor - he was late in life to discover that the rich,
too, had their good points, and he became even
venomous against the New Deal on the subject.
There were more than enough ordinary Republicans to
defeat Al and when you added the anti-Catholic
sentiment of Southern voters, the "Solid South"
lost its reputation for indefatigable
Democraticity and Al lost by a landslide.
(Hoover, more or less a Quaker by upbringing,
thus won partly on an unjust issue, but fate is fickle,
and he would lose mostly on unjust grounds in 1932;
in any event, we have discovered by this time that
non-logical behavior dictates practically every Presidential
election - and most others - in American history.
The future was not to improve the record.)
Al Smith did, however, show how
well the Democrats were faring in the cities.
The new American was citified, even though
the world suffered from the same mistaken images of
"Anglo-Saxon" bucolia as did most Americans.
The old American was technically proficient, but
retarded in thought and deed, hardly urbane.
So, beginning about now, when
American society and culture ventured abroad,
they no longer appeared solely as the Wild West
movie or Buffalo Bill, but a little more urbane,
as garrulous deal-making businessmen, or successful
returning immigrants. The wheeler-dealer, gangster and moll,
free-spender, amiable sappy jazz-bo,
uncouth gadgeteer, insipid, open-confident, pragmatic,
Einstein-relativity blooper, searcher for fads,
seeker of a crowd to follow,
political conservative and racist - you could see these
American types milling about in crowds. .
They were modernistic, although Europeans
called them adolescents and put this down to the
youthfulness of the nation - a mistake. There prospered a
myth of the young, to go with short hair,
bobs, flat chests, short skirts, for women, and
ballooning trousers on men or knickerbockers.
Adolescent minds either created or were
caused by a diminished level of affection, or at least its denial,
and enhanced disregard for and contempt for authority.
Both traits, long displayed on the American scene, were
continually reinforced by the children of immigrants who
very often could not wait to dismiss and detach
themselves from the old folks, and in so doing, too,
scorned the elders' authority.
Americans foolishly were deadly afraid of communists,
reds, and the news from home preceded Americans abroad,
the tourists defending , the expatriates and intelligentsia
hating the informers, spies, volunteer red
detectors, perjurers, confessors, bigots, and
Europe's intellectuals and workers were particularly scandalized by
the trial, conviction and ultimate execution of
Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants,
humble but determined anarchists, who, by
the weight of evidence (accumulated in the years
when they awaited execution down to the present day),
were innocent of the charges of murder and burglary for which
they were hanged. Europeans had reacted the same way to
the Dreyfuss affair of the preceding political generation.
Some of the top social, political, press, and
juridical elite of Massachusetts inscribed their names
upon the backside of history books, and deserved to.
The case was a litmus test for distinguishing people with
vinegar in their veins. It was
an age for scaring the boobery with Bolshevik bugaboos
in the name of law and order, even while
in numerous states hundreds of Blacks were being
murdered by terrorists acting as individuals and
in packs and mobs,
practically none of whom had to stand trial. .
The Ku Klux Klan was revived and gadded about in
automobiles rather than horses now,
still garbed in white sheets and masks.
A half-million of such types marched along
Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington in 1925.
They worked territory farther to the North, too,
because poor Southern Whites had been moving North
into rural slums and city factories, and
Northerners had been viewing films about the
Reconstruction portraying the Klan in a beneficent light,
giving them ideas about the African-Americans who
had come North along with them to find work -
"keeping the niggers in their place" and
other sorts of twisted mouthings.
There was also a massive pressure working on the lower class and
middle class Protestant or churchless Whites from the Catholics and
Jews who were moving up and around in the scales of values,
seeking equality or better, in accord with the American creed.
Alcohol, despite prohibition, was in heavy supply.
A third of the menfolk drank, most of them too much.
They supported richly international smuggling operations
formed of tens of thousands of individuals,
rings, gangs and finally syndicates that brought in
alcoholic beverages from the rock-ribbed coasts of Maine
and the sun-kissed shores of California -
from Mexico and Canada likewise,
courtesy of later billionaires like the Bronfman's.
There was nowhere alcohol could not be bought.
Corruption spread to all the police forces of the nation, and
into the federal police agencies --
FBI, Treasury, Coast Guard, Customs -- that were supposed
to enforce the law. Elderly Italian immigrants
became suddenly popular, because Americans were
still allowed for personal consumption to make a
barrel of wine a year, or was it two or three barrels?
On a cool autumn day in Buffalo would arrive a truck
to spill California muscat grapes into a basement, and
another truck in Desplaines, Illinois, to
unload crates of red grapes neatly
onto the driveway.
Still, despite the abject failure of law and order,
half the nation remained persuaded of the values of
prohibition. It mattered not at all to them that
prohibition of alcohol was a continual insult
to the many millions of Americans who had decent
age-old wine-drinking or beer-drinking habits.
Or that it was a stunning deprivation of liberty
They kept many politicians in a frenzy of hypocrisy.
" I'm against alcohol," said Huey Long,
campaigning for office in Baptist dry Northern
Louisiana and he would make the same
remark with a leer in New Orleans.
It was Catholic city versus rural Protestant.
Huey was a brilliant, dynamic populist,
born poor, with big ideas that he intended to carry out -
but got only so far as a build-up of the University of
Louisiana with a magnificent stadium for football.
He was prone to insult people; one day
he appeared with a black eye that had been given him by a
fellow U.S. Senator when Huey, a short fellow,
began pissing into the same urinal below the tall man,
instead of waiting his turn. It was just such a
needless insult that drove a New Orleans dentist to
kill him (though, on good evidence, it was
his own over-enthusiastic bungling bodyguards who
finished Huey off - while blasting the dentist.)
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and many another were
pleased at his demise, for Huey "The Kingfish" was
already achieving what nobody had done since the Civil War,
to control several states, including his own,
politically, and threatening to run for President
on his platform of "ham and eggs." Close relatives of
Huey ran Louisiana for a political generation
thereafter and supplied public service of
average quality in the U.S. Senate.
Perhaps the distress of American farmers fortified the
extensive suburban movement, with the suburb as a kind of
mausoleum commemorating the lost mythical age.
In a few months of 1920, prices of
major farm products declined precipitously,
by as much as fifty percent, representing a loss of
between five and nine billion dollars
(a hundred billion in today's terms).
The wheat fields of the North and Northwest,
the cotton of the South and Southwest,
wool, hides, and beef producers, the corn belt
of the Midwest, vegetable, fruit and seed producers of the
West and East: all of these and more
The extraordinary war demand had abruptly ceased.
The war-torn nations were hardly able to buy,
especially because they could not sell America
their goods, considering the high tariffs.
What tradition had blessed - bountiful harvests and
fecund livestock - turned into a curse.
Bravado economists announced what any fool could see: when crops
were abundant, prices went down; when crops were meager, prices
went up. The farmer - or let us say the 70% of American farmers who
were marginal - was pitchforked either way. He was a poor risk. The
Lord, whom everybody imagined to be a benevolent successful Farmer
Yonder, seemed to side with the city slickers and their rural agents.
The farmers and their politicians believed in Devils, though:
These devil-men gambled in farm commodities,
raising and lowering their prices to rake in big money;
these formed a conspiracy in Chicago and other places
determined to lower farm prices and to raise them again
only after they had bought up everything,
including the farmer's tractor and land.
Furthermore, there were devil-groups manipulating the
interest rates to make borrowing impossible, and
then, too, there were the railroad-devils
and truckers who charged exorbitant transportation rates, which
farmers had to accept. Those who handled the produce took
At the grocery store, moreover, ordinary people were charged prices
far beyond what the farmer received, and had therefore to reduce
their purchases. Then devilish labor unions in the cities,
by demanding high wages, raised the price of
everything that farmers had to buy from the cities.
No doubt there were people who would have liked to be such devils,
and perhaps for every six devils who succeeded five failed.
However, most farmers were as paranoid and
uneducated as the average American.
Deep causes never got much of a play:
they were difficult to confront or unconsciously suppressed.
Rural life was changing rapidly, it may be
finally added, so that the farmer was too specialized, and
his wife and children too occupied otherwise,
to supply the high degree of self-sufficiency that
used to be common; cash was needed to survive;
everyone wanted cash or charged high interest rates
for delayed payments: the preacher, the doctor,
the tax man, the grocer, your friendly banker, and of course
Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.
Inflation would have gotten them out of debt, but they were the
small fry of the great banking houses which they hated,
the same who ran their Republican Party, then in power,
so that their calls for inflationary monetary policies
were fitful and weak against the
bankers' big no-no.
Most ruralites could only expostulate,
"Somepin otta be done about it."
There were numerous demonstrations, sporadic rioting,
attempts to form political parties, the
actual organization of protest groups and lobbies, and
efforts at taking over the local and state branches of the
national parties. The Progressive Party and the
Farmer Labor Party were especially energetic
exponents of farmer needs, but, also, most of
the local and regional representatives of the farmer
pledged their total commitment,
for whatever it was worth.
Actually, farmers, politicians, the total productive and
business community of rural and small town America
still believed that they owned America or ought to own it.
And there could be nothing wrong with America!
So millions of people suffered shortages, humiliation,
and gnawing anxieties during the 1920's and then,
horrifically, through the 1930's.
And all that the better minds of America could offer
were a need for a program of easy-rate long-term
loans so that farmers could store their products
against the coming of higher prices (as
with the next war); too, they asked for even
higher tariffs to keep out foreign agricultural products.
Meanwhile farmers were diminishing in number, and
they were more often tenants than owners, or
share-croppers, or plain farm laborers.
Some large answers awaited the future.
The country's culture was growing more sophisticated and rich by the
day. Psychoanalysis with its substantial increments of
learning to introspect and analyze motives
entered from Vienna and the circle of Freud.
Public relations and advertising grew into chic industries.
The colleges grew larger and somewhat more scholarly, and
indeed there was a much improved level achieved in a
score of universities, now in the Midwest and at
Berkeley in California, as well as in the East, but
none yet in the South.
Practically everywhere ivy-clad halls filled with snobs,
fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, vacuous goops
in search of mates, defying efforts at educating them.
Intercollegiate sports aggrandized into a mind-boggling
crowd phenomenon that only the rare courageous
college President or faculty member would deride.
Dating, with the connivance of the automobile,
known in Middletown as the whorehouse on wheels,
enlisted all ranks of society and, because the schools were the dating switchboards,
equalized the ages of couples.
The birth rate declined, too, and eugenicists began to warn
of the imminent lowering of the IQ of the
population, given the higher birth rates of the poor.
(This canard against the poor was disproved
time and time again, but surfaced just as often,
because the feeble intellect cannot grasp
that all classes have the same rather low
intelligence and that there is little - or perhaps
less than nothing - in the competitive processes
of society that raises up the brainy and breeds brains,
much less sanity, into their upper class children.
Later on, a phenomenon of statistics called the "bell curve"
came to stand for the blacks holding a lower portion
than whites of the IQ scores of the nation,
but then over time the whole IQ curve
moved up, until the blacks by the end of the century were
higher than the whites had been a generation earlier!)
Urban centers sharply improved their educational
systems: the multitude of new offices and front offices
of factories and new professions required armies of clerks,
signaling high school graduates;
rural America had not needed them.
Cities were far ahead of farms and small towns in the
birth and raising of notables.
Still, farm and rural power was relatively great and
would remain so to the end of the twentieth century,
owing to the myth of bucolia and the extensive
wiring of the representative structures of
American government in favor of rurality.
Up to now, there has never been a single state of the
Union nor ever a single Congress when representatives from
urban centers held a majority or plurality of the seats
against rural and suburban elements of the population.
The result was consistent through all time:
the worst-governed cities of the Western World.
American cities trailed by two political generations
those of Western Europe in the quality of government and
perhaps even the quality of life afforded
most of their inhabitants. The state legislatures
mismanaged and corrupted the cities in detail, and the cities
corrupted the legislatures in order to obtain the powers and
laws required for effective governance.
The arts flourished: symphony orchestras, jazz bands,
dance troupes with the new American ballet of
Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and others,
the fine arts and literature. Painting went slowly,
sculpture too: not a great one in the lot,
but the foreign influence on tastes increased
and the all-important factor of taste for the new and
better forms spread among the new
middle classes and intelligentsia.
Literary criticism advanced rapidly and was getting
more American writers to bite into with every season,
some of them in Europe to be sure, but
some at home and others returning.
John Dos Passos experimented liberally with profuse fiction.
Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair,
Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway, and others appeared.
Americans then and now heard more and more of
"social science," which, since they heard of it by way of
juvenile uneducated newspaper reporters and cynical
do-no-good-to-anybody editors, was deemed to
be not a science at all, but a waste of time.
In the twenties, however, the sample survey or
public opinion poll made its debut.
When properly conducted, its results were punched
onto Hollarith cards, a most useful invention by a
government official in the Census Bureau of a half century
before, and the punched cards could be sorted and counted
by machines. Calculators improved greatly.
Fast, ready, simple technologies of
sampling, filming, questioning, counting, and profuse analysis
were abundantly available. Polling agencies,
in and out of government, numbered in the hundreds.
Yet in the 65 years of scientific sampling
(165 years after populists elected Andrew Jackson),
no single rich photographic, attitudinal, and
sociological sample survey of the American people
had been conducted. Nobody knew
what the average American looked like or sounded like
or walked like, or how one smiled and frowned, or how many
types of Americans were discoverable in these regards.
No one could say what deep attitudes prevailed and
among whom, nor the full range of basic behaviors
of all segments of the population. What were often
confused with such basic data were single or several
primitive statistical distributions that
appeared in newspapers, tabulating opinions of vast portions
of the people on simplistic questions of the moment,
such as, "Is Congress doing a good job?",
answer "Yes," "No," or "Don't Know."
Most scientific research institutes and journals were plagued by
small resources and indoctrinated in trivia.
Possibly, widespread fear existed that most people's
myths about themselves and their country
would be exploded by such data.
Certainly, most politicians had a phobia of reality.
During the same years, time and motion studies,
not to mention consumer opinion polls,
invaded business and commerce. Hundreds of new business
and industrial procedures were devised and - what was significant -
tested for their validity and consequences.
Definitely, under the leadership of pragmatists and behaviorists, but
with its major theories imported from Germany, Italy, and
France, a totally new view of humans
transacting in society developed to which were appended dozens,
then hundreds, then thousands of empirical studies.
Although its eminence in many fields of science and the
humanities was acknowledged, its preeminence in the social sciences
was the special mark of the University of Chicago, and from there the
empirical social sciences fanned out to Wisconsin,
Minnesota, Iowa,Texas and California,
ultimately enveloping Ivy League schools of the
East, and, anticipating a huge development of the near future,
worked its way into collaboration with swelling
government agencies in Washington, D. C.
Thus, new professions, para-professions, skilled and semi-skilled
occupations were being created, and
what was happening in the applied social sciences
was happening in education, public health and
health delivery systems, business, government, and in
older fields such as agriculture.
Thousands of new occupational titles
might be added to the dictionary of jobs. Here was a
development that decried the vast publicity given to
Prohibition, alcohol, and crime.
Few Americans grasped much of the other side of
the new society generating in their days and years.
The suburb as an independent satellite, an incorporated or
unincorporated settlement around a city,
where some people working in the city dwelled,
arrived with paved streets, rectangular building lots, an
upper middle class, and the horse-drawn tram,
was known to exist a century earlier. By the early
1920's signs of exponential suburbanizing were plain;
cities had absorbed many adjoining settlements,
were unable to incorporate many more that
resisted merger, and in and around all settlement on the
fringes ofcities were signs advertising lots for sale.
The exponential suburbanizing exploded in the
fifties and sixties, and would continue to the end of the
twentieth century. In the quantavolution, Democratic
New York City lost its majority of the voters of the
State, while the suburbs, trending Republican, became
a third force, with nearly a third of the
vote of the State.
The idea of a home of one's own, a natural fact of
farm life, affected urban Americans early, and with the
incomprehension and incapacity for city life that
most Americans evidenced, the thought of moving to the
edge of the city, the real country, and building
one's home there affected the minds of millions of
ordinary Americans. The suburbs became a mania, bucolia.
The typical bucolite tried to live as if he were a farmer.
The nostalgic rural Christmas cards she and he
mailed by the millions pictured mostly a
completely unreal rural scene -
nor was Baby Jesus much in evidence.
Though first came the dream, the suburbs were built upon
cold-blooded statistical indicators:
people looked at their incomes, looked at the price
of lots and construction, figured their commuting time,
learned willy-nilly whether there would be any problem in being
Jewish, Slovak, Catholic, Protestant, a worker, a
Kentuckian, an Episcopalian, or a tall grass lover
there, but otherwise betting that friendly neighbors were a
constant everywhere in America;
then if all signals were "go," they went.
If even a little Afro, stop right there!
But all types pushed on, to somewhere.
About 12% of New York City's
native-born blacks left the city, along with
18% of its Puerto Ricans
and the same percentage of Whites.
Realty lots by the tens of thousands were drawn on the
spaces on the edges of or outside the city limits and
sold on installment terms, usually with a hard sell
to allow the salesman to build a home for the purchaser,
his dream home, of course.
Faster and easier transportation by electric trolley-car,
railroad train, bus and auto conveyed the well-to-do
into and out of town to their retreats with
not too great a waste of time, so they thought.
Research of the nineties disclosed that blood pressures
of commuters peaked during their morning and evening rides.
Suburbanites lost a sense of community and enhancement of
culture that they were beginning to acquire in the city, and
for the first time in any great numbers in America, while
they, their children, and their wives passed into a pathology of
socio-spatial disorientation. A number of dysfunctional attitudes,
from the standpoint of the locality and the country as a whole,
toward the city, its inhabitants, politics, the arts,
the nation, their work, warped their souls.
Surprising: that a society could take such heavy blows to
human ways of living and achieving: but America
did so, more and more, for another eighty years.
As the suburban types left the city, the city
worsened and the suburban types increased in numbers,
until the disposable city, said one wag, was an
American invention. The essential problems of
suburban structure, life and circumstances added to the
other corrosive and faulty conditions of society.
Taxes for schools and small-scale municipal services
grew ever higher. In the 1980's the suburbs would
find a traditional role reversed. Instead of
money pouring out of the city and bucolia
relaxing, the state government, partly forced
to do so by the national government, was
pouring suburban money into the hated city where
the suburbanite made his/her living.
This was natural: the cities had become containers of
all the human problems that the bucolites had dumped.
And, once committed to the welfare state,
Americans could not abandon the poor masses of the city;
in fact, they had better not try too hard,
because the poor could make the city untenable for the
commuting mass by mugging and riot
and plague and passive resistance.
The decentralization process would then run amok,
with people traversing the city to get to jobs in other
industrial suburbs on the other side. A giant sac of
urban sprawl contained the whole mess.
The suburbs were not the only independent jurisdiction
causing incredible confusion of information, organization, and
management. There came to be in due course one hundred thousand
local governments of various kinds in the United States,
at least 80,000 of which performed functions
better handled by the metropolitan government directly,
or, bucking the trend left over from Progressivism,
by private enterprise; I speak of independent
school districts, sewer districts, port authorities,
toll road authorities, as well as thousands of suburbs,
all that should have been merged with central cities.
Suburbanites believed in the suburb like in God and the
Automobile, so that there was never any prospect of
altering the inclination of American society: the
suburbs grew until they became in the late
twentieth century to contain a full third of the
population of the country. This was ridiculous:
the suburbs were little but a silly dream,
whereas something better could be said of the city and the
real countryside. A most costly dream:
for instance, those medical charges contained in the horrendous
vehicle accident bill of the country that afflicted
people who might just as well have been living in a comfortable
urbs, but who have now paid heavily for their privilege of
driving to and from the central city.
Again, as with the car, so with violence,
with racism, with easy credit, with etc.,
one only hears plaintively:
"What can you do? That's the way people are."
No one contends that the reckless and roaring twenties
(industrial production doubled though already the world's largest)
were happy times for even half the people.
(By now the reader will have come to subtract
regularly in her mind the percentages of the population
which were deprived severely in more than
two or three of the several basic goods of life.)
Still, most people were in a continuous elation
regarding their future. Real wages of the factory
and office worker went up substantially; credit buying, a
bet on the future, soared.
Immigration was severely restricted, which helped
hold up the price of workers. The new laws did
not cut back on incomers from the Americas,
Hispanics and Canadians, or the Blacks and Whites from the
Southern boondocks, but it cut back heavily the Northern
European immigration and most severely (and deliberately)
the Southern and Eastern European immigration and China.
The insulting differentiation was taken badly and
never forgotten by a great many people, for the
discrimination was not annulled until well after
World War II. Once more Southern delegations in
Congress distinguished themselves by their
xenophobia and racism.
The miserly quotas were pressed into use for bringing in
elderly and other dependents and relatives, adding
little to the national income and holding the doors
shut against most of the anti-fascists who were
interested in leaving Italy and
later Germany and Eastern Europe.
State Department and Immigration and
Naturalization Service personnel generally liked the
new immigration regime; they could be nastier
than ever to pathetic foreigners; they were a prejudiced
lot, small minds high-flown with self and social
class background in State and low-brow with a
police-state mentality in INS. They would
be a poor instrument of American democracy when the real
crises of the thirties and forties came.
Progress was perceived by the crowd mind of the great society
as swift and unstoppable. But look at it from the standpoint
of the housewife, and of course their clientele to whom
she dictated attitudes: children and many husbands.
Take electricity, the inside flushing toilet, the sewing machine,
the paved street, the radio set, the telephone, and the
cheap movie - and you have all that is needed to
define progress for the woman, so abused and deprived
and overworked since memory began.
So let the man complain of his factory or labor,
let all the bad news of the world pass by,
life, the consumer's life and welfare, are miraculously changed.
Indeed, real wages did go up markedly during the
1920's probably because of the farm depression, the
introduction of ever more efficient machines and assembly
techniques, and the markets for goods abroad, both new and seized
by competitive methods from disabled European economies.
"What won't they think of next!" exclaimed the housewife.
One bonus was brought, so silly it is never mentioned,
but profound if you had to live with it, as everyone did:
the hundreds of tons of horse manure that
stank up the streets daily disappeared,
in their place the internal combustion engine, which cruised more
quietly than the horse and wagon, left no litter, and so was
believed to be clean and non-polluting, even giving off
the perfume of half-burned gasoline.
Here was real progress!