Authors: Eric Burns
Broadcast Blues: Dispatches from the Twenty-Year War Between a Television Reporter and His Medium
The Joy of Books: Confessions of a Lifelong Reader
The Autograph: A Modern Fable of a Father and a Daughter
The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol
Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism
The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco
Virtue, Valor and Vanity: The Founding Fathers and the Pursuit of Fame
All the News Unfit to Print: How Things Were â¦ and How They Were Reported
Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television's Conquest of America in the Fifties
THE YEAR THAT MADE THE DECADE ROAR
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED, WITH ENVY, TO
Michael and Jan
Mitchel and Kim
Mark and Melissa
who, knowing the meaning of life
will forever be together
as was intended by the vows at the outset
T WAS THE FIRST FULL
year after the Treaty of Versailles had officially ended the Great War, and Americans were not as relieved as they had hoped to be. They were joyful, of course, but at other times saddened; optimistic, but no less confused; enthusiastic, yet unable to escape a certain sense of dread. It is neither easy nor usual to hold such conflicting emotions at the same time; then again, the year was neither easy nor usual.
Americans were joyful, naturally, that the fighting in Europe was over and their troops were back home; but their sadness that the troops had ever had to depart in the first place still lingered, as did an even deeper sadness that so many young men had
returned. Americans were optimistic that the twentieth century could at last begin without interference, and that its remaining eighty years would be the most productive and profitable ever for the nation. But they were not productive and profitable now, as, in the words of one historian, “a punishing postwar recession” had settled like a cloud of mustard gas over manufacturing and industry and would not fully disperse for another two years.
They were enthusiastic, though, about something else in the air, the beat of distant music, music that had never been heard before, making those who felt it celebratory, eager to twist their bodies into contortions
new and lascivious, unable to sit still. And, in some cases, unable to behave conventionally any longer. Some women began to smoke cigarettes in public. Some joined men in sipping cocktails to the point of giddiness, cocktails that had not even existed before the war and could be as dangerous to the imbiber's health as the war's weaponry.
Other Americans were also enthusiastic about more substantive matters: the League of Nations, which would never come to be, but which President Woodrow Wilson had assured them would bring everlasting peace to the world; and advances in transportation, education, and factory output.
Even so, they were fearful, a chill running through them as they wondered whether the treaty agreed upon last year in Paris could hold, would keep them safe. Might future conflicts break out regardless of the present accord, conflicts even more brutal than those they had just known?
Might those conflicts even be fought on their own soil? Might the armaments be more powerful? In the wake of the Great War, the French composer Claude Debussy lamented to a friend, “When will hate be exhausted?” He did not expect an answer.
Many men and women, soldiers and civilians alike, especially those between the ages of twenty and thirty, were, in the phrase uttered by Gertrude Stein but popularized by Ernest Hemingway, a “lost generation,” unable to find their moorings, to regain their belief in the visions of political leaders who kept speaking at them. In the wake of the fighting and devastation abroad, they found themselves living in a world they thought was “shallow, corrupt, and depraved.” They were suffering, as Thornton Wilder said about his older brother, who had served in France, from “some kind of radical depletion, made up of battle fatigue, sleeplessness, and nervous strain.”
On the one hand, Americans were hopeful that the worst was behind them and ahead lay homes and employment for all, as well as families to raise and children to be watched as they grew benignly into adults never to know war, living as beneficiaries of the ease that technology would inevitably bring.
Yet, on the other hand, it might have been true that, in the words of historian Paul Fussell, “Neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning.”
Nineteen twenty, and the nine years to follow, make up the only such period in the country's history to have its own clear identity, a widely applied nickname: the Roaring Twenties. But although the year that is the subject of this book was a preview of a decade, it turned out to be more than that: it would be a preview of the entire century and even the beginning of the century to follow, the one in which we live today. The year was like the trailer for a movie, and the movie was an epic beyond the scope of a director even as skilled as D. W. Griffith, a film of such sweeping proportions that it seemed there would never be a last reel. The birth of an even
nation. But it did not start out that way. Nineteen twenty was not the happy-go-lucky year of popular myth.
It was then, for instance, that the United States pretended the Constitution was a high school term paper and, ignoring it, conducted raids on suspected terrorists, battering down the doors of men whom government agents believed had sent bombs through the mail to prominent state and local officials. Later in the year, terrorism on a much greater scale struck Americans for the first time, and among the reactions were calls for homeland security, although the term was not used back then.
But just as there were pleas to close the borders, so were there arguments to keep them open. The issue was an incendiary one, and disagreements, heated and sometimes irrational, broke out both in legislative chambers and private settings that housed family, friends, and co-workers. Were those who wanted the borders closed xenophobic, those who wanted them open unrealistic? Or were the former self-protective and the latter self-destructive? Was closing the borders even possible? The “perimeter” of the United States, a much more difficult calculation than it seems, one dependent upon definition as much as pure measurement, is somewhere between 19,857 miles and 54,670 miles; could such an area be sealed so tightly that an organism as slight as a single man or woman, a small family, could not get through? And, perhaps most important, did a nation of immigrants really want to do something like that?
It was in 1920 that the increasing power of American women first became legally recognized with passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, exactly 365 years after the first American woman had insisted
on voting in the New World, demanding a voice in her government and being told she was not entitled.
Coincidentally, as the Nineteenth Amendment became law, one woman was already running the entire nation, although no one had marked her name on a ballot and few people even knew of her power. Many who
know resented it and found the circumstances surrounding her ascension intolerable. This could not be allowed to happen again. For the time being, however, there seemed no alternative.
Another woman, much less influential as 1920 began, would soon begin to touch the lives of millions, becoming much more powerful in the long run than the lady “president.” Imprisoned a few years earlier, she had by now been free long enough to plan and begin to create the institution that would forever change the meaning of intimacy between men and women. She was, at present, simply looking for a place to set up her headquarters.
Yet 1920 was the only year in American history, postâBill of Rights, in which two constitutional amendments were passed, and the second became the most openly ignored regulation in American history. Even by those who were normally law-abiding citizens. Even, in many cases, by those whose occupation it was to enforce the law. It had its heart in the right place, one might have said of the Eighteenth Amendment, but its brain was severely defective. Not only did the Amendment fail to be heeded; it often failed to be acknowledged with a straight face. Vaudeville comedians began to work it into their acts, and it always brought painful laughs of recognition.