Do you believe the United States is in a time of crisis? Do you believe the economy is terrible? Are you concerned about the rise of Anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant feelings? Perhaps a look at the 1930s will put our time in perspective.
The Great War, as it was called then, was fought from 1914 to 1918. Twenty million people died, including over 100,000 American doughboys who had gone to Europe to “make the world safe for democracy”. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson returned from the peace conference in Versailles, personally delivering the treaty to the Senate. It was to bind the U.S. to Europe with the creation of the League of Nations (a forerunner to the U.N.), Wilson’s brainchild. All that was required was Senate ratification.
The Republican Senate rejected the treaty and the U.S. never became a member of the League. America turned its back on Europe until the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan forced the United States to enter World War II.
Most of you know the 1920s as “The Roaring Twenties”. It was the age of the flapper, the Charleston, silent movies, and Isolationism.
Isolationism was one of the strongly held beliefs of the 1920s and 1930s. Charles Lindbergh, the famous American aviator, pushed the slogan “America first” and Anti-Semitism. Lindbergh was not the only person advocating for American isolationism based on notions of white supremacy, nor was he unique in suggesting that Jews were the single group most interested in involving the United States in the war in Europe” .
The 1920s saw the growing popularity of Eugenics. The theory was popular in the United States and helped to establish Jim Crow segregation in the South beginning in the 1870s. Based upon Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution, it “advocated a system that would allow ‘the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable’” . Out of this theory emerged fascism with its belief in the “Master Race”. Whites were on top of the pecking order with the “less fully evolved blacks and Asians beneath them” in the evolutionary hierarchy. By the 1930s and 1940s “the assumptions of eugenicists became heavily criticized and the Nazis used eugenics to support the extermination of entire races” (Britannica.com).
The 1920s ended with a boom as the stock market crashed in 1929 with almost one-third of the U.S. population being thrown out of their jobs, losing their homes, and seeing their life savings disappear with the closure of thousands of banks.
Father Charles Coughlin had over 30 million American followers who listened to his Anti-Semitic radio sermons. Coughlin fully embraced Lindbergh’s racist and isolationist statements.
Automobile industrialist Henry Ford “used his leverage as an employer to try and aggressively socially engineer workers’ lives and ‘Americanize’ those who had immigrated from elsewhere. Ford bitterly opposed labor unions, which he frequently described as a global Jewish conspiracy” .
Democracy became threatened by the likes of Louisiana Governor Huey Long who later became a U.S. senator.
Long’s supporters were discontented farmers and poor whites. His left-wing populist style was described by the Britannica: “His picturesque if irreverent speech, fiery oratory, and unconventional buffoonery soon made him nationally famous.” He championed public works and welfare laws and had a hospital built where free treatment was intended for all. He fixed the state roads and built bridges, expanded state universities, and got a free textbooks law passed through the legislature. To pay for all of these improvements he angered the rich by increasing inheritance and initiating income taxes.
Long was infamous for alleged corruption and abuses of power. When asked if he was a fascist, just a year before he was assassinated and before he planned to run for the presidency challenging Franklin D. Roosevelt, Long replied, “’I’m Mussolini and Hitler rolled into one. Mussolini [force-fed dissidents] castor oil. I’ll give them tabasco, and they’ll like Louisiana.’ Then he laughed” . Long gained a reputation for punishing political opponents and for isolationism.
Long’s slogan was ‘Every Man a King.” Once in power, Long “showed little concern for norms and standard legislative procedures when pursuing [his] goals.” FDR considered him “one of the most dangerous men in America” (the Atlantic.com). After Long’s assassination, Roosevelt helped enact several of Long’s ideas into law in his “Second New Deal”.
Space is too short to describe the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the Hitler-praising German-American Bund. Reviewing the 1920s and 1930s should cause you to consider its parallels to our time. History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.