Roaring Twenties: 1916–1929

Post-World War I Social Upheaval

Red Scare

Isolationism, unemployment, and a series of terrorist acts provoked nationwide panic over communist radicalism. Alarm manifested itself in vigilante attacks on union rallies and in raids that rounded up thousands of immigrants for deportation.

The early decades of the 20th century witnessed a radical change of government in Russia. Faced with the nation's disastrous losses in World War I, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his throne in the spring of 1917. He was replaced by a provisional government that lasted just eight months. In the autumn of 1917 leadership of the country was taken over by communist revolutionaries known as Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks claimed to be champions of workers' rights against an oppressive monarchy and soon changed their name to the Russian Communist Party. In the summer of 1918 the new regime executed the royal family. Then they announced their intention to spread revolution around the globe.

After the brutality of World War I, people in the United States withdrew into isolationism; that is, they wanted to concentrate on America and avoid international involvement. Americans' postwar patriotic sentiment tended toward nationalism—or the strong commitment to U.S. interests above those of other nations. These beliefs led to unrest as throngs of immigrants entered the country. These foreigners and returning American soldiers were soon in competition for jobs. But there were few jobs to be had because—with the war over—businesses were no longer producing war supplies and needed fewer workers.

Anti-Immigrant Sentiment Followed by Panic

An unstable job market led to higher union membership and labor strikes and contributed to an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment. Americans also began to fear many immigrants might be communists and anarchists who were plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. An anarchist is someone who hopes to spread revolution by rebelling, often violently, against political authority or the established order. This growing wave of anxiety became known as the Red Scare.

In the spring and summer of 1919 the Red Scare turned into a nationwide panic as a series of bombings and attempted bombings occurred. These attacks were aimed at capitalist targets such as Wall Street and prominent businessmen, as well as government officials and others. Public fear and distrust focused on immigrants—especially those from eastern and southern Europe—and on labor unionists, who were thought to be communists. Many believed this could be the revolution the Russian Communist Party had threatened. In retaliation against suspected anarchists, May Day parades of union workers were attacked by vigilante mobs in New York, Boston, and Cleveland.

Palmer Raids

One of the government officials targeted was U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose house was bombed. Palmer spearheaded a government response in 1919–20 to apprehend suspected anarchists. Palmer's response was characterized by invasive searches, arrests, and deportations. He justified his actions by invoking the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. These raids came to be known as the Palmer raids. On one day alone—January 2, 1920—Palmer raids were carried out in over 30 cities, resulting in between 3,000 and 10,000 arrests. Many of those arrested were tortured and starved.

Predicting a May Day revolution in 1920, Palmer insisted that hundreds of thousands of radical, mostly immigrant, anarchists were still at large. However, May 1 came and went without any such uprising. Meanwhile, others in the government and the public became concerned about the constitutionality of Palmer's actions, and the raids ceased.

Arrests and Trials

Several arrests during the Red Scare drew particular attention. One was the case of Emma Goldman, a well-known anarchist who championed women's rights, civil liberties, and European literature. Another was the case of two young Italian immigrants, shoemaker Nicola Sacco and fishmonger Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Neither had ever been in trouble with the law, but they were believed to be associated with known anarchists. Despite a lack of convincing evidence, in 1921 the two men were accused and convicted of robbery and murder. In 1927, after a series of appeals, they were executed by electric chair, causing a public outcry in the United States and Europe.
The government kept files on known anarchists, such as "Red Emma" Goldman. She and her associate Alexander Berkman were apprehended and deported to Russia in December 1919.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 31480000 (International Film Service)
Even after the Red Scare abated, anti-immigration sentiment continued. When the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, it established quotas on immigration from most nations and prohibited entirely any immigration from Asia.

Prohibition and Organized Crime

Prohibition outlawed the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol, but it had an adverse effect on American society and led to the rise of speakeasies, bootlegging, and organized crime. After 13 years the law was deemed unenforceable, and Prohibition was repealed.

Following ratification in 1919 of the 18th Amendment, the National Prohibition—or Volstead—Act was passed, becoming law in 1920. Prohibition banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, except for medicinal and sacramental purposes. The new law did not, however, stop people from making and drinking alcohol. In fact, it had the opposite effect, leading to the rise of speakeasies. A speakeasy was a secret club designed to allow patrons to drink without getting caught. Bootlegging, specifically the trade in illegal alcoholic beverages, led to police raids on nightclubs. Soon clandestine groups of professional criminals sprang up in major cities.

Known as organized crime, these networks of criminals worked together to make money from bootlegging alcohol. To protect clubs from raids, they paid off corrupt officials. Organized crime "families" controlled different parts of each city, warring against one another to maintain their territories. The favored method of keeping people quiet about their illegal activities was murder for hire. Gangland shootings in clubs became a common event, and notorious gangsters, such as Italian immigrant Albert Anastasia, built their reputations on the viciousness of their methods. Crime bosses ordered "hits" on their enemies and sometimes on their own people to keep them from spilling secrets. Many of the leaders of organized crime ended as victims of murder themselves if they weren't taken to jail first.

Legislators believed they had enacted Prohibition for the good of the country—what President Hoover called an "experiment, noble in motive." However, by the early 1930s it seemed a failed concept. In 1933 the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, and alcoholic beverages became legal again. The repeal not only allowed people to purchase alcohol, it also restored legitimacy to the brewing and distilling industries and created many thousands of much-needed jobs. In addition, sales of alcohol generated tax revenues for the cash-strapped federal government.
During Prohibition, government agents raided sites where alcohol was produced, sold, and consumed. Here, police watch agents pouring confiscated liquor into the New York City sewers after a raid.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-123257

Scopes Trial

In 1925 the Scopes trial held the country's attention as a teacher was tried, convicted, and fined for teaching evolution in a test case brought by the ACLU. The event prompted widespread debates about evolution and the separation of church and state.

When Charles Darwin published his controversial theory of evolution in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859, it aroused protest from people convinced of the biblical account of creation. These feelings continued long after the book's publication. In the U.S. South, several states banned the teaching of evolution. Tennessee became the third state to do so when it passed the Butler Act in March 1925. The governor signed the bill but stated he did not expect the new law to be enforced. Instead, he considered it a protest against the godlessness of the times.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), however, considered the Butler Act unconstitutional. Because this organization's stated mission is to preserve the rights guaranteed by the laws and Constitution of the United States, they searched for a teacher who was willing to become the subject of a test case. This teacher was John Scopes. Scopes was a football coach who also taught biology. Because the state-sanctioned biology textbook included evolution, Scopes admitted that, like other teachers, he had probably discussed evolution with his students. The Scopes trial, also called the Scopes monkey trial—referencing the idea that humans had descended from monkeys—took place in mid-July 1925.

On the prosecution team was the former congressman and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. On the defense team was Clarence Darrow, who had risen to fame for his work as a labor lawyer. Bryan, a noted Presbyterian, sought to discredit Darwin's theory. When Darrow was not allowed to call scientific expert witnesses to testify, he took the unprecedented action of calling Bryan to the witness stand as a Bible expert. Darrow then questioned Bryan regarding Bryan's literal interpretation of the creation story and mocked him when he admitted, for example, he didn't believe Earth was created in just six days. Darrow also presented the argument that the Butler Act violated the constitutional separation of church and state expressed in the 1st Amendment. The judge instructed the jury that constitutionality of the Butler Act was not significant; the only issue was whether Scopes had presented evolution as a fact to his students. Because Scopes had discussed evolution in the classroom, the jury found him guilty, and the judge fined him $100. The ACLU appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which found in 1927 that the Butler Act was constitutional. Nevertheless, the court acquitted Scopes on a technicality, saying his fine should have been decided by the jury rather than the judge.

Teaching about evolution remained controversial long after the Scopes trial. Although Tennessee did not repeal the Butler Act until 1967, no additional cases involving the law were prosecuted. Scopes had a meaningful cultural effect. Through media coverage of the case, the public had been widely exposed to discussions about evolution. As a result, people became more aware of the separation of church and state issue.