- Exploration & the Settlement of the Americas
- The Revolutionary War
- The Growth & Expansion of The Nation
- The Civil War & Reconstruction
- The Gilded Age & the Second Industrial Revolution
- World War I & The Roaring Twenties
- The Great Depression and The New Deal
- World War II
- The Cold War
- The Civil Rights Movement and The Sixties
GED Social Studies Practice Test: World War I & The Roaring Twenties
Causes Of World War 1
The war (later known as the “Great War” and not called “World War I” until the end of “World War II” in 1945) erupted in Europe in the summer of 1914. There were many causes: militarism; nationalism; imperialism; and alliances among the great powers. The spark that set off the war was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Diplomatic maneuvers failed, and the horrific fighting that would last four long years began.
On the one side were the Allies: England; France; and Russia. Opposing them were the Central Powers: Austria; Germany; and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.
The U.S. maintained neutrality — in keeping with the practice set by George Washington — in the European conflict, although many people in the U.S. had cultural ties to both the Allies and the Central Powers. England was one of the country’s largest trading partners, and U.S. trade with the Allies far outstripped commerce with the Central Powers.
Concern over Germany’s U-boat (submarine) policy grew when the Lusitania, a British passenger liner, was torpedoed in 1915, killing over 1,000 people, including 128 Americans. In its attempt to blockade the North Atlantic coast (and starve Britain), Germany declared that it would fire on any ship, whether armed or unarmed. American ships were sunk, but President Woodrow Wilson resisted calls for the U.S. to enter the war against Germany.
Nonetheless, preparations for war began. A draft for young men was instituted in 1917, and the U.S. built up its army and navy. The final straw for the U.S. came when the British intercepted a message from Germany’s foreign minister to the president of Mexico. The Zimmerman Telegram proposed that Mexico ally itself with Germany and, at the (presumably successful) conclusion of the war, it would get back the lands it lost to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War! While the plan was ludicrous, the U.S. was infuriated that Germany was attempting to meddle with America’s neighbor to the South. The U.S. declared war on the Central Powers in April, 1917.
Civilian industries had to be converted to war industries, and countless women took jobs in factories that churned out guns, ammunition, uniforms, and airplanes. The U.S. also had to raise over $3 billion to fight the war. Over 4.7 million men (and women, who volunteered as nurses) were in uniform, including 400,000 African-Americans. In addition, enormous numbers of African-Americans, lured by the promise of well-paying factory jobs, left the South to go to the large industrial cities of the North. This Great Migration continued into the 1920s and changed the face of urban America.
Training and preparation took a lot of time. As the war ground on in Europe, the U.S. moved carefully before sending troops, and the first American “doughboys” (a nickname for U.S. soldiers) did not arrive in Europe — “over there” (in the words of a popular song) until 1918, when the Allies and the Central Powers were exhausted. The Americans were “fresh blood” and helped turn the tide for the Allies. Despite the grueling fighting — trench warfare — and poison gas, Americans fought valiantly. About 53,000 American soldiers were killed.
Starving and depleted, the Central Powers surrendered in November 1918. Americans were elated. Their boys were coming home! President Wilson, an idealist, proposed a set of principles — known as The Fourteen Points — for creating a postwar world of peace and order. Central to his plan was an international organization of countries, The League of Nations. While the European victors sought to punish Germany for the war, Wilson wanted a more lenient peace. At the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson pushed for a softer line, but the victors were in the mood for vengeance. At home, isolationist sentiment ran strong. Many people believed the U.S. had performed valiantly to help bring about peace, but they wanted no further involvement in European affairs. The U.S. Senate voted down the Treaty of Versailles and the U.S. never joined the League of Nations.
The Roaring Twenties: A Decade of Prosperity and Peril
Americans were proud to go “over there” and fight in “The Great War.” But as soon as it was over, the United States entered another period of isolationism. President Woodrow Wilson failed to win public (and Congressional) support for the Treaty of Versailles, and it was never ratified (passed).
In the presidential election of 1920, the Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, called for a return to “normalcy” (normal conditions). Harding won in a landslide, and both houses of Congress were also won by the Republican Party. Americans were ready to leave Wilson and his idealism behind.
Political and Economic Conservatism
Harding and the Republicans believed in laissez-faire (“let it be”) economics, with as little regulation of business as possible. Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans made the rich even richer, and while the benefits of the tax reductions were meant to “trickle down” to middle- and lower-class people, this never happened. Farmers were particularly hard-hit. Declining prices for agricultural goods left farmers in a weakened state. In addition, import taxes were raised, making it harder for war-torn Europe to rebuild its shattered industries and export goods to the U.S.
When Harding died suddenly (just as news of wrongdoing by some of his political friends was emerging), he was succeeded by his vice president, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was even more of an economic conservative than Harding. His favorite saying was, “The business of America is business.” He stood for limited government and did little to help ailing industries and farmers.
In 1928, Coolidge declined to run for another term, and he was succeeded by Herbert Hoover, who also believed in a hands-off style of government.
A Good Era for Business
Business enjoyed a tremendous boom in the 1920s. The war years meant that industries were busy producing military goods. When the war was over, pent-up demand for consumer goods meant that manufacturers could barely keep up with the public’s desire for new things such as electric fans, refrigerators, and — most significantly — cars. Henry Ford, whose assembly-line approach to manufacturing allowed him to churn out Model-T cars at an astounding rate, kept dropping the price, and the automobile led to vast changes in American life. More Americans moved to suburbs. Shopping centers were born, and more roads were built. America was on the move. In only ten years, the number of cars manufactured by U.S. companies increased more than threefold — from 1.5 million in 1919 to 4.7 million in 1929. By the end of the decade of prosperity, Americans owned more than 25 million cars.
Increasing use of oil and electricity also led to increasing productivity. Whereas oil was once primarily used for lighting, it now powered factories and was converted into gasoline for car-hungry Americans. Electric motors powered new appliances, such as the vacuum cleaner, washing machines, and electric toasters.
Women adopt new attitudes: Women gained the right to vote in 1920. In the 1920s, sexual and cultural standards changed dramatically. Women smoked in public, wore short skirts and adopted the flapper look, flaunted their sexuality, and became freer about sex and sexual appeal. In addition, more women entered the workforce — in both industrial jobs and white-collar jobs.
Fundamentalism: Many people, particularly in the South, were alarmed at the new pace of life and turned to a Fundamentalist approach to the Bible, in which the written Scripture was taken as truth. In Tennessee, a science teacher was tried and found guilty for teaching evolution. The Scopes “Monkey Trial,” as it was known, illustrated the tension between the old and the new.
Consumerism: With the maturation of the advertising industry and the wealth of goods available, Americans became a people who wanted everything — and wanted it now. Whereas saving up and buying goods for cash, more and more people now bought goods on credit (“buy now, pay later”) or on installment (in which they paid weekly or monthly but took possession of the goods immediately).
Anti-Immigrant Sentiment: During the war, many of the critics of militarism were foreign-born. And in the year after the war ended, a wave of communist- and socialist-inspired violence — often initiated by foreign-born people — in some cities terrified many Americans. A new wave of Nativism (anti-immigrant hysteria) swept through America. Immigrants — especially those from Southern and Eastern Europe — were deemed “undesirable” and immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 cut immigration from those areas to a mere trickle.
African-Americans and the Harlem Renaissance
Life in the South for African-Americans remained oppressive and limited — most were employed in agriculture, and the Great Migration to the industrial cities of the North continued.
In many cities, blacks gathered in particular neighborhoods and formed their own self-contained communities. In the early 1920s, a talented group of artists in New York City’s Harlem began to celebrate “The New Negro” — proud, unafraid, and beautiful. The Harlem Renaissance produced an astonishing array of poets, dramatists, painters, essayists, and musicians. White people were fascinated by black culture, and flocked uptown to see the new art forms.
Some blacks believed that the U.S. could never provide a fair shake for African-Americans. Under the leadership of Marcus Garvey, a charismatic speaker and thinker, a “Back-to-Africa” movement took hold. This movement, however, was short-lived.
Perhaps the longest-lasting and most significant contribution of African-Americans to national culture was a new form of music: Jazz. With its complex rhythms and never-before sound, Jazz swept the country, attracting attention to musicians such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The Blues, another new genre, produced great singers and musicians such as Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson.
Despite the Harlem Renaissance and greater economic opportunities, blacks continued to suffer the effects of systematic racism and segregation. The Ku Klux Klan, founded as a white pride organization after the Civil War, enjoyed a brief resurgence, only now it was also opposed Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and other “undesirables.”
The Stock Market and the Economy
Before the Great War, the stock market was seen as the preserve of the rich. After the war, however, many middle-class Americans began to invest, often using borrowed money to purchase stock (shares of ownership in a company). The prices of stocks soared, and many people — at least on paper –became wealthy. The stock market seemed to be limitless (it wasn’t).
However, unequal distribution of wealth meant that the very richest Americans were getting even richer, while the poorest Americans (especially farmers) were left behind. Wages for most industrial workers did not increase dramatically, despite gains in productivity. In addition, as people bought and bought an ever-expanding number of consumer goods, they piled up debt.
In 1920, the national ban on alcohol went into effect. This experiment in Prohibition was a disaster. People were going to drink whether it was legal or not. Organized Crime flourished in the bootlegging (illegal importation and distribution of liquor), and many people made their own beer and wine and home. It seemed that every official could be bought or bribed, and the hoped-for effects — less drunkenness, more stable family life, and more religion — sought by reformers were nothing more than a bad joke. In 1933, Prohibition was repealed.
Despite the simmering problems, it seemed that the spirit of the “Roaring Twenties” could continue indefinitely. But the good times would crash down — and crash down hard.