America In The 1920s

Many things accounted for the depression in American agriculture, but preeminent 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 doors of the world market were slowly swinging shut.

Restriction of immigration during the 1920s marked a significant change in American policy. During the first 15 years of the 20th century, over 13 million people had come 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 no longer willing to accept vast hordes of immigrants. This sentiment expressed itself in a series of measures culminating in the Immigration Quota Law of 1924 and a 1929 Act. These limited the annual number of immigrants 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. Thus, immigration was made selective, since the stream now largely came from southern and eastern Europe instead of from the north and west. By drastically limiting numbers, the measure curbed one of the great population movements of world history, a process three centuries old.

As immigration slowed to a mere trickle, a small but significant movement of Americans to Europe was taking place. The emigres were writers and intellectuals; dissatisfied with the United States as a home for art and thought, they emigrated chiefly to Paris.

American culture in the eyes of critics at home and abroad was both materialistic and puritanical. Symbolizing the puritanism of the period was the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. After almost a century of agitation, this prohibition had finally been imposed in 1919 by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Prohibition was intended to eliminate the saloon and the drunkard from America; instead, it created thousands of illicit drinking places and opened a profitable criminal career to bootleggers. Widely violated, prohibition was morally hypocritical and, to many Americans, comparable 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, who was unsparing in denouncing sham and venality in American life, became immensely popular. Perhaps no serious novelist had a wider audience than Sinclair Lewis, whose satires on American middleclass 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 were made when the nation was experiencing a high point of general well-being.

During the 1920s 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, millions of investors lost their life savings, business houses closed their doors, factories shut down, banks failed, and millions of unemployed walked the streets in a hopeless search for work. In American national life there had been nothing, except the long-forgotten depression of the 1870s, to compare with this.