1920s Politics of Frustration

Stanley K. Schultz, Professor of History
William P. Tishler, Producer
The Politics of Frustration: The 1920s
Not all Americans benefited from the "politics of prosperity" in the 1920s. Many servicemen had trouble finding jobs
when they returned home from World War I. Furthermore, the nation experienced an upswing in racism and xenophobia.
Moreover, by the 1920s, many Americans had grown weary of two decades of crusades for reform, seemingly endless
attempts to pass moral legislation, and involvement in a brutal war. Many longed for a time when life was simpler, even if
these "good old days" existed only in the popular imagination. This lecture highlights the frustrations and anxieties that
many Americans dealt with during the 1920s.
The "Good Ol' Days"
Many people longed for the lost elements of a "Bygone America:"
Free of labor and racial strife
Fewer "foreigners"
No radical ideologies
More attuned to the rhythms of small-town life
More devout in Fundamentalist Christianity
Less government interference in their lives
The Politics of Frustration
A suspicion and fear of anything foreign that threatened the quest of Cultural Fundamentalist was the driving force behind
some notorious events and trends in the United States during the 1920s. We will focus on four particular events and
The Red Scare
Sacco and Vanzetti trial
The rise of a new Ku Klux Klan
The Scopes Trial
The Red Scare
World War I saw the fall of the German Kaiser, the Russian Tsar, and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. But if Americans
no longer feared the power of unrestrained monarchs, they now feared the unrestrained mob, exemplified by the
"Bolsheviks." The Bolshevik--or October--Revolution of November 1917, brought the doctrine of Communism to Russia.
It was supposed to be the first in a chain of workers' revolutions that would spread throughout the world under the slogan
"Workers of the World Unite." In March 1919, Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, founded the Communist International to
rally far-left Socialists abroad. Bourgeois Europeans and Americans, however, withstood post-war unrest, strikes, and
rallies. Moreover, with a bloody civil war to fight at home, the Russian Communist Party had neither the time nor the
resources to really work for global Communism.
Only a handful of Americans knew who Lenin was; even fewer had heard of Karl Marx. However, growing numbers of
Americans tied the "Bolshevik menace" to domestic labor unrest and mob violence. They feared that, given the right
circumstances, America would also fall to Communism. A huge wave of strikes occurred in the United States in 1919 and
reinforced such fears. There was a general strike in Seattle, then a nationwide strike of steelworkers, followed by a
walkout by the Boston police force. In the case of the steelworkers' strike, the protesters were unskilled and semiskilled
workers, many of whom were recent immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Therefore, many opponents of labor
labeled the strike un-American and claimed that unrest was being fomented solely by radical immigrants.
In addition to workers' strikes, bomb threats also fueled the Red Scare. In April of 1919, a United States Senator from
Georgia, Thomas Hartwick, received a package which exploded when his maid opened it. Thanks to an observant New
York City mail clerk, similar packages were discovered before they reached their targets. In all, authorities found sixteen
homemade bombs wrapped up and addressed to such prominent members of commerce and government as J.P. Morgan,
John D. Rockefeller, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Although there was no evidence, many
claimed this was part of a radical, Bolshevik conspiracy to take over the nation. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was
one of the targets of an attempted bombing, which made him a convert to the Red Scare. Beginning in the fall of 1919,
Palmer organized a new group of crime fighters, whose job it was to arrest and deport potential radicals. Palmer appointed
J. Edgar Hoover--the future director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation--head of the General Intelligence Division.
Palmer made use of the wartime Sedition Act (1918) to arrest and prosecute so-called "radicals."
On January 2, 1920, the Red Scare reached its climax in the United States. On this day, simultaneously in thirty three
American cities, Justice Department agents arrested 3,000 "communists, anarchists, and aliens." In actuality, most of these
persons had broken no law and were, in fact, American citizens. The government violated their constitutional rights by
detaining them without bail and by preventing their contact with lawyers or family members. Government agents also
apprehended other Americans for "guilt by association." This series of arrests brought the total number to around 7,000.
Of these 7,000, the government deported or imprisoned only 556. Almost no liberal organization escaped Palmer's
sweeping crackdown on radical political views. Proponents of the Red Scare, for example, called Hull House founder Jane
Addams a communist sympathizer because of her pacifism during the Second World War. Some of Palmer's supporters,
moreover, denounced the League of Women Voters as a radical organization. The government also revoked the mailing
rights of respected publications like The Nation and The New Republic based on their provocative political views.
Eventually, Palmer's tactics went so far as to offend even conservative Americans, and support for the Red Scare
collapsed. Palmer had even tried to exploit the raids to promote his unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential
nomination, but revelations about his abuses of power turned the public against him. Because so much public protest was
focused on Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover emerged from the Red Scare of 1919 and 1920 relatively unscathed. After Warren G.
Harding was elected President, he appointed Hoover assistant director of the Bureau of Investigation (the future FBI). He
became director in 1924 and held that post until his death in 1972.
Sacco and Vanzetti Trial
Public distrust of radicals, and especially of foreigners suspected of holding revolutionary political beliefs, reached its
peak with the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two anarchists who were arrested for a 1920 robbery and
murder. The two men were immigrants from Italy who had lived in the United States for many years by the time of the
trial. The trial, which began in July of 1921, was a travesty of justice. Many Americans felt that the prosecution had
railroaded the two into, not because they were guilty of the charges brought against them, but because they were
immigrants and self-proclaimed radicals. Public opinion was divided: some Americans felt that anyone professing a belief
in radicalism was already guilty and should be hanged. Others believed that the true test of a democracy was its ability to
protect the rights of those who express unpopular opinions.
Because of protest both at home and abroad, the appeals process continued for six years. Finally, in 1927, the governor of
Massachusetts appointed an advisory committee to review the case. The committee charged the original presiding judge
of a "grave breach of official decorum," but maintained that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty as charged. In his final
statement on April 7, 1927, Vanzetti claimed that the trial had not been about murder, but rather his ideology and ethnic
"I am suffering because I am a radical. Indeed I am a radical. I have suffered because I
was an Italian. Indeed, I am an Italian. I have suffered more for my family and my beloved
than for myself. But I am so convinced to be right that if you could execute me two times,
and if I could be reborn two other times, I would live again to do what I have done
already. I have finished. Thank you."
On August 23, 1927, the state executed Sacco and Vanzetti for their alleged crimes. The trial revealed the shameful side
of Cultural Fundamentalism and left many American intellectuals disillusioned with their government and the nation's
justice system. This disillusionment pushed many of them away from liberalism towards more radical political beliefs in
the 1930s.
The Rise of a New KKK
The Ku Klux Klan first emerged during
Reconstruction. In 1915, Colonel William
Joseph Simmons revived the organization.
The Klan received a charter of
incorporation from the Georgia legislature,
but it remained little more than a small,
regional organization until 1920. In the
spring of 1920, however, two New York
con men, hoping to capitalize on the
membership fees the Klan charged, started
the Southern Publicity Association to
promote the Klan's views. In the fall of
1921, some members of the House of
Representatives began to investigate this
new phenomenon. As often happens, the
House investigation provided the Klan with
free publicity and its membership grew
from 100,000 to 1 million in 1922; by 1925
dues-paying members numbered 2 million.
This new KKK promoted "100%
Poster for the Milwaukee KKK inviting citizens to a summer
1924 rally
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin
So what's not 100% American? While officially denying all hatreds, the Klan's qualifications for
membership embraced all hatreds. Their main targets were:
1. Roman Catholics. Members of the Klan called the Pope a "political autocrat" intent on taking over the world. They
insisted that it was impossible for anyone to be a good American citizen and a good Roman Catholic at the same time.
2. Jews. Klan members denounced Jews as internationalists who could never form the deep attachments to America that
came "naturally" to Protestant, Anglo-Saxon Americans.
3. African-Americans. Like its predecessor, this new KKK was also militantly anti-Black.
Despite popular perceptions, the Klan was not limited to the Deep South. The KKK, in fact, enjoyed its greatest public
support in Indiana, Texas, and Ohio. Klan members were elected to the city councils of such diverse places as Chicago,
Indianapolis, Denver, and Dallas. The Klan also captured six governorships, including those of Oregon, Indiana, and
Colorado. Although the Klan never won the presidency, they managed to split the 1924 Democratic National Convention.
Postcard sent by KKK to Paul A. King, 316 N.
Ingersoll, Madison, WI
Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin
From 1925 on, rates of membership fell off and the influence of the Klan declined. For one, leaders had promised far
more than they could deliver. Second, they lacked a systematic program of action for their goals of restoring the Bible to
its place in public schools and returning African-Americans to rural docility. Yet, the Klan's ultimate weakness was its
reliance on passions rather than reason. The Ku Klux Klan would regain strength in the mid-1930s and then again after
World War II. The rise of the new Klan, in the 1920s and after, demonstrated how palpable Americans' fear of outsiders
remained, and how easily savvy people could manipulate this fear for personal and political gain.
In the years following World War I, social and cultural conflicts shaped American society. Some of the most fiscally
conservative Presidents in American history governed a nation that more than a few Americans believed was being taken
over by radical anarchists and socialists. As greater numbers of African-Americans left their rural southern roots and
settled in industrial cities, the Ku Klux Klan became a major force in American politics. The advances of science made
institutionalized religion less tenable for many Americans and introduced new technologies to daily life. Growing
numbers of Americans, however, feared the loss of religious morality and the simplicity of life without machines and
rejected science and its modernist implications. There is one more important story to tell about the clashes between
conservative and liberal interpretations of American freedom during the 1920s. The story of Prohibition is so important, in
fact, that we'll take it up in Lecture 17, "The Politics of Prohibition."