Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

America: From Colony to Superpower. Part II: 1876- 1929

Congress passed the Army Bill, prepared by the Army General Staff, which immediately raised the regular army to its maximum strength (223,000 men) and of the militia (425,000) by voluntary enlistment. The raising of a new force by conscription was also introduced. The command of all the American forces in Europe was given to General John J. Pershing, an office in the regular army who had an admirable record in previous campaigns. The divisions he commanded formed the American Expeditionary Force. The Americans arrived in mainland Europe just in time, as Germany was launching a major offensive. Eventually sheer manpower advantages saw the Allies defeat the Germans. More than 50,000 Americans died in France, but the war took the lives of 3 million English, French, and Russian soldiers. The role of the American army was both relatively small and absolutely vital.8

In January 1918, while the war was still raging, Wilson announced his celebrated Fourteen Points. These included calls for open diplomacy between nation and the reduction of armaments. The fourteenth and crowning point called for forming &ldquoa general assembly of nations” to afford &ldquomutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity.” In November 1918 the Germans agreed to surrender, the Fourteen Points being used as the starting basis for negotiations. Wilson said that there must be in the future not a &ldquobalance of power”, involving various alliances, but a &ldquocommunity of power9. Here, at last, was President Wilson's chance to establish a clear international law framework. Discussions began for a League of Nations, which would unite the countries of the world and set out rules and procedures for dealing with territorial disputes. And the United States would be the principal creative force of such a body.

The Treaty of Versailles and America's Withdrawal from the World Stage-

A general association of nations must be formed under specific convenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike-

Point XIV of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Point Plan, which was the impetus behind the formation of the League of Nations, January 191810

At the front of this great treaty is put the covenant of the League of Nations… Unless you get the united, concerted purpose and power of the great Governments of the world behind this settlement, it will fall down like a house of cards-

Wilson in 1919, speaking about the consequences if the United States rejects the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations11

President Wilson needed two thirds of the Senate to vote in acceptance of the treaty. Deals were required between Democratic and Republican senators to get the treaty passed, but Wilson refused to partake in such activity. He refused to compromise on the issue. He also refused to give his Democratic senators any instuctions, so that they never knew quite how to bargain with other senators to get the two thirds required. The leader of the Senate was the Republican senator Lodge, an old friend of Theodore Roosevelt (who had just died). Lodge did not think that entering a League of Nations was in America's interest, feeling it threatened national sovereignity. He preferred Roosevelt's balance of power theory, whereby the United States would use its influence to maintain peace without entering into any formal alliances.

If Wilson had backed his senators and properly instructed them, it is likely that the Senate would have accepted both the Treaty of Versailles and America's entry into the League of Nations. Instead, as time passed, the public interest died down and the opposition from Senator Lodge and his supporters grew. Americans had little interest in being dragged into European affairs on a constant basis. Two million soldiers had just returned from a war caused by European folly. Many people just wanted to forget about the 'Old World' and return to their way of life

The Senate rejected the treaty and the League of Nations. The League of Nations was stillborn. It was established and many countries joined it, but without American support it had no real muscle. The League served to keep the status quo, but when countries refused to buckle before its sanctions, it could do very little. Wilson's last year as president saw him suffer a stroke which paralysed his left side, and he struggled to maintain his heavy workload thereafter.

Political momentum was shifting back to the Republicans. Midwestern farmers, alienated by wartime controls, were now troubled by falling prices. Much of the once-progressive middle class had come to resent high taxes, inflation, and labour strife. Senator William G. Harding of Ohio was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate in 1920. He was essentially picked as he could be easily controlled by the professionals in the higher echelons of the party. Harding's platform promised lower taxes, a higher tariff, restriction of immigration, and- with opportunistic generosity- aid to farmers. It damned the League of Nations but called for some sort of vague &ldquoagreement among nations to preserve the peace”. The Democratic bosses, almost as powerful as their Republican counterparts, wanted no candidate who was identified with the Wilson administration. They preferred Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, a good vote-getter and an opponent of Prohibition (which had been passed in January 1919). Cox's platform was pro-League of Nations, and otherwise undistinguished. Harding easily won the election. He received 61 percent of the popular vote (which now included women), and carried every state outside the South, and also Tennessee. He won the electoral college by 404 to 127. The Republicans achieved control of both houses of Congress.

President Harding immediately stated that the United States would have nothing to do with the League of Nations. Separate peace treaties were negotiated with the various defeated Central Powers, in place of the rejected Treaty of Versailles. Harding negotiated a Nine Power Treaty on naval disarmament in 1921, which was the first time in history that major powers had consented to disarm. But it had many flaws and Japan was left still able to build up its fleet in the Pacific. Congress passed the Fordney-McCumber Act in 1922, which re-established prohibitive tariff rates. The Tariff of 1922 and its administration damaged foreign trade. Loans to European countries during the war had made the U.S. a creditor nation, but these tariffs presented a barrier to trade for foreigners into the American market. The Europeans were unable to sell their goods in America, and so couldn't finance purchasing American goods without borrowing more from the United States. This situation wasn't economically beneficial to any of the parties involved.

Harding sought to overturn the accomplishments of the progressive movement. The administration stood aside while management continued its attack on labour unions and labour legislation. The Supreme Court in 1922, in the case of Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Company, declared unconstitutional a federal statute levying a prohibitive tax on products manufactured by children. The Court had ruled earlier, in Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), that federal laws to control child labour were an unconstitutional invasion of the police powers of the states. In the 1923 case of Adkins v. Children's Hospital, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional a District of Columbia statute establishing minimum wages for women.

Although not a corrupt person himself, President Harding was weak and completely controlled by others, many of whom were not so clean. Special interests and big business had dominated the federal government as they had not since the 1890s.

When public scandals involving his administration broke, Harding felt the pressure. On August 2nd 1923 Harding died of a coronary or cerebral thrombosis.

The Epoch of American Business-

The fundamental business of the country… is on a sound and prosperous basis-

President Herbert Hoover, speaking just days before the 1929 Wall Street Crash12

Harding was succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge. He was to prove an extreme conservative, interested almost wholly in the economical running of the government. The extraordinary prosperity of the 1920s cast a mantle of credibility over the doctrines of business and its representative president. Industrial engineering and scientific management emerged in the business field. Scales of production increased dramatically. Labour efficiency did likewise. In the Coolidge era the impulse for reform flagged. The spirit of that time saw no conflict between profits and productivity.

Whether it was a reaction to world war or reaction to new technology, American society was in a heightened state of unrest throughout the 1920s. Minorities were all victims of the prejudice based on the ethnic self-consciousness of white, Protestant Americans of older stock. This was reflected in the new Ku Klux Klan, an organisation founded in Georgia in 1915 on the model of its Reconstruction predecessor. It recruited only &ldquonative born, white, gentile Americans,” and it gave them a sense of importance by admitting them to membership in a group dedicated to persecuting an alleged enemy within the country. A nationwide fear of communists- the Red Scare– saw Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer prosecute scores of individuals, frequently with scant evidence of their wrong-doing. The infamous Massacushetts murder case of Sacco and Vanzetti, when the accused seemed to be tried for their open anarchist beliefs than on whether or not they were actually guilty of murder, undermined the American justice system.

The Prohibition Amendment in 1919 (which Congress has passed over President Wilson's veto) banned the sale of alcohol in the United States. This led to bootlegging, which provided a new and rich source of income and influence for organised crime. In the big cities, gangsters such as Al Capone organised a smuggling network and built up huge personal fortunes. They put high public officers on their payroll and transformed machine politics into agencies for crime.

The Democratic party found it difficult to nominate a candidate for the 1924 election. Fundamentalism had divided the agricultural and industrial working classes. Religion and colour, not class, were now the dividing lines. The party was unsure of who to nominate to maximise support. The DNC eventually nominated John W. Davis for president and the aged Bryan's younger brother Charles Bryan as his running mate. Davis was a cultivated gentleman and an eminent corporation lawyer, so not exactly an engine for reform.

A new Progressive party was formed, which named Robert La Follette, nearly 70 now, as its presidential candidate. La Follette's candidacy attracted a host of tireless battlers for reform. It was endorsed by the American Federation of Labour and, curiously, by the Socialists. The Republicans ignored Davis and harped on La Follette's supposed radicalism. They need not have worked so hard as they did nor have spent the millions they poured into the campaign, for the nation voted overwhelmingly to &ldquokeep cool with Coolidge”. His platform called for rigid economy, further reduction of taxes, payment of war debts, and a high protective tariff. The president carried 35 states to Davis's 12 and La Follette's 1, Wisconsin. Coolidge won 382 electoral votes to his opponents' 149. And his popular vote, over 15m, exceeded the combined total of Davis, who polled fewer than 8.5m, and La Follette, who had slightly more than 4.8m. Prosperity and &ldquoSilent Cal” had enjoyed a major triumph. For the next four years, while the rest of the world struggled, America would continue to enjoy unbridled economic success.

President Coolidge announced that he had decided not to run in 1928. The Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover. Not very popular among politicians, business leaders trusted Hoover. Hoover stood solidly on a platform that attributed good times to Republican rule, praised the protective tariff, endorsed Prohibition, offered only platitudes to labour, and warned farmers of the evil of &ldquoputting the government into business”. In his campaign speeches Hoover emphasised the virtues of individualism and &ldquothe American system” of free enterprise. There lay the source of prosperity.

The Democrats nominated Al Smith, whose record as governor of New York had made a record of efficiency as compelling as Hoover's. He chose as his campaign manager John J. Raskob, a Republican industrialist, identified with Du Pont and General Motors. The Democratic campaign may have reassured the conservatives, but it converted almost none of them, and it disappointed the liberals. Smith, a Catholic, also had to deal with the deep distrust of Rural America of his religion, which they feared would interfere with his governing of the country. Smith received only 87 electoral votes to Hoover's 444; some 41 percent of the popular vote to Hoover's 58. Five Southern states and all the border states went Republican. The Grand Old Party had won another landslide.

The result was not all doom and gloom for the Democrats. They had cut into the traditionally Republican vote in the agricultural West. The ethnic issue helped them in the cities (Smith won a majority of the total vote in the country's twelve largest cities), although this was harming them in the South. The results highlighted the need for the Democratic party to position itself clearly as the party of social reform, but one that also supported business. For the United States of the time was too wealthy, too prosperous and too powerful to contemplate wholescale change and social reform. There hadn't been a serious depression for a whole generation.

But the good times were drawing to a close. Americans had become obsessed with the stock market, and were drawing on money from anywhere to finance their gambles. Newspaper reports in 1928 began to nervously question this situation. In October the American Bankers Association issued a warning against the danger of the situation.13 But the government maintained that the foundations of business were very strong and that evidence of this was the nation's continued prosperity. Another serious problem was the increased lawlessness of the country. Homicide rates and armed robberies had increased dramatically and criminal gangs were now armed with a variety of machine guns.

Economists had been warning that a depression was on its way for several years. As early as 1926 steel and automobile spokesmen were warning of the need for still more and bigger overseas markets. Wealth had not been distributed equitably, with only 2.3 percent of the nation's families enjoying incomes of over $10,000, while 60 percent of families received $2,000 or less, the figure needed &ldquoto supply only basic necessities14 . It proved increasingly difficult to raise the capital needed for continued investment, and the poor distribution of wealth meant sufficient purchasing power by consumers could not keep pace with productivity.

On October 24th 1929 President Hoover announed that the fundamental business of the United States was solid. It was not. During the next fortnight the markets collapsed. 'Black Tuesday', the 29th of October, wiped 10% off the value of U.S. common stocks. In less than a month, the securities listed on the New York Stock exchange lost $26 million- more than 40 percent- of their face value.15 The Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought to an end a period of intense speculation, which had artifically propped up an increasingly sagging economy. America would face a depression like never before.


1Pg. 173 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, 1991)

2Quoted from

3Quoted from

4Quoted from

5Quoted from

6Quoted from

7Pg. 338 of A History of the American People: From Civil War to World Power by James Adams (London, 1933)

8Pg. 629 of The National Experience: A History of the United States by Blum, McFeely, Morgan, Schlesinger, Stampp and Woodward (Fort Worth, 1993)

9Pg. 337 of A History of the American People: From Civil War to World Power by James Adams (London, 1933)

10Quoted from

11 Pg. 251 of A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner (New York, 1991)

12Pg. 674 of The National Experience: A History of the United States by Blum, McFeely, Morgan, Schlesinger, Stampp and Woodward (Fort Worth, 1993)

13Pg. 397 of A History of the American People: From Civil War to World Power by James Adams (London, 1933)

14 Pg. 436 of The Contours of American History, by William Appleman Williams (London, 1961)

15Pg. 675 of The National Experience: A History of the United States by Blum, McFeely, Morgan, Schlesinger, Stampp and Woodward (Fort Worth, 1993)


A History of the American People: From Civil War to World Power by James Adams (London, 1933)

The Contours of American History by William Appleman Williams (London, 1961)

The National Experience: A History of the United States by Blum, McFeely, Morgan, Schlesinger, Stampp and Woodward (Fort Worth, 1993)


White House Website
American Presidents Website

The Spanish-American War Home Page

Theodore Roosevelt Website
Georgetown University

Part I 1776-1876 America: From Colony to Superpower

Part III 1929-1960 America: From Colony to Superpower

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