America in the 1920's

Many things accounted for the depression in American agriculture, but pre-eminent was the loss of foreign markets. American farmers could not easily sell in areas where the United States was not buying goods because of its own import tariffs. The products of Argentinian and Australian cattle raisers; Canadian and Polish bacon manufacturers; Argentinian, Australian, Canadian, Russian, and Manchurian grain farmers; and Indian, Chinese, Russian, and Brazilian cotton producers were replacing American exports. The doors of the world market were slowly swinging shut.

Another development of the Twenties, the restriction of immigration, marked a significant change in American policy. During the first fifteen years of the Twentieth Century, over 13,000,000 people came to the United States. For some time, public sentiment against unrestricted immigration had been growing. The United States no longer thought of itself as having a great internal empire to settle, and it was not so willing to accept new immigration. Through a series of measures culminating in the Immigration Quota Law of 1924, the annual number of immigrants was limited to 150,000, to be distributed among peoples of various nationalities in proportion to the number of their countrymen already in the United States in 1920. This measure made immigration selective; since the stream now largely came from southern and eastern Europe instead of from the north and west, and by drastically limiting numbers, it put a stop to one of the great population movements of world history, a process three centuries old. From 1820 to 1929, over 32,000,000 persons from Europe had come to the United States, where they had found new homes and built new lives and contributed richly to its culture.

As the stream of immigration slowed to a mere trickle, a small but significant movement of Americans to Europe was taking place. The emigr6s were writers and intellectuals; their quest was not part of a great migratory movement but a criticism of national failings. Dissatisfied with the United States as a home for art and thought, they emigrated chiefly to Paris. The very prosperity of the age seemed to give substance to the charge that the United States had an excessively materialistic culture. Perhaps even more urgent than this charge was the charge of Puritanism. The symbol of this Puritanical character was the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic liqtior, which, after almost a century of agitation, had finally been imposed in 1919 by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Prohibition had been intended by its advocates to eliminate the saloon and drunkenness from America, but it created thousands of illicit drinking places and opened a profitable career in criminal business to bootleggers. Moreover, the existence of a law so widely violated was morally hypocritical. To many Americans, prohibition was comparable in its significance to the widespread political corruption of the Harding era. Relentless criticism became the dominant note in American literature. H. L. Mencken, a journalist and critic, unsparing in denunciations of American life and character, became immensely popular; and perhaps no serious novelist had a wider audience than Sinclair Lewis, whose satires on American middle-class life in such novels as Main Street and Babbitt became landmarks in the national consciousness. It is ironic that these criticisms of America by Americans should have been made during the nation's period of greatest prosperity; the depression, and after it the menace of militarism and Fascism from abroad, brought American intellectuals back to their country with renewed affection and respect for both its humane and democratic traditions and its great inheritance of material resources.

During the Twenties, it seemed as if prosperity would go on forever; even after the stock market crash in the fall of 1929, optimistic predictions continued to come from high places. But the depression deepened rapidly and steadily; the economic life of the country spiralled dizzily downward, millions of investors lost their life savings, business houses closed their doors, factories shut down, banks crashed, and millions of unemployed walked the streets bitterly in a hopeless search for work. In American national experience, there had been nothing except the long-forgotten depression of the 1870's to compare with this.