The “Roaring Twenties” are the only decade in American history with a nickname. In his book 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, Eric Burns explores the first year of a captivating decade and shows that it wasn't all flappers and jazz bands. Every aspect of life today was in some way influenced by the title year. Here are 10 things that 1920 has to say about 1920.
1. The League of Nations was established.
In an address to Congress in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson presented what he called the “Fourteen Points” (derided by others as his Ten Commandments because of Wilson’s insufferable self-righteousness), a plan to end war forever. The following year, he traveled to Paris to help negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Upon his arrival, as Burns relates, “he was hailed by the French as no American since Benjamin Franklin had been hailed.” The Fourteen Points were enthusiastically adopted by diplomats, and became a framework for the League of Nations. On January 16, 1920, the League held its first Executive Council meeting, consisting of the major member-powers. In November of that year, it held its first General Assembly in Geneva, which was open to all members. At its height, the League of Nations had 58 member states. The United States never joined.
2. America had a de-facto woman president.
While on the campaign trail pushing for the U.S. to accept the League of Nations, President Wilson suffered a blood clot that caused paralysis, partial blindness, and brain damage. For the remainder of his term—another year and a half—he was, as Burns describes, “an invalid at best, little more than a rumor at worst,” totally incapable of meeting with lawmakers, governing, or performing the duties of the presidency; the First Lady, Edith Wilson, stepped in and assumed his role. She controlled access to the president and made policy decisions on his behalf. When something needed to be signed or written, she wrapped her hand around his and scrawled words with a pen. The French ambassador to the United States reported back to his superiors that Wilson was a non-factor in governance. The real power rested with “Mme. President.”
3. America sustained the worst terrorist attack in its history.
On September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart carrying a massive, improvised explosive was detonated on the busiest corner on Wall Street. One eyewitness described “two sheets of flame that seemed to envelop the whole width of Wall Street and as high as the tenth story of the tall buildings.” Thirty-eight people were killed in the Wall Street Bombing, and hundreds were injured. It was, at the time, the worst terrorist attack in American history, unsurpassed in horror until the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. The perpetrators were likely Italian anarchists.
4. J. Edgar Hoover began his ascent.
As a result of a series of bombings in 1919, the attorney general of the United States, Mitchell Palmer, mounted a campaign to capture and deport foreign radicals. The next year marked the “most spectacular” of the Palmer raids, in which thousands of accused communists and anarchists across the country were arrested in a single swoop. The raid’s organizer was a young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau of Investigation’s General Intelligence Division.
Ultimately, the raids proved to be fraught with questionable confessions and illegal warrants, and Palmer’s career was derailed as a result. Hoover, however, would go on to lead the Bureau and its successor agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, from 1924 until 1972.
The raids were a formative lesson for Hoover. After witnessing what happened to Palmer, Hoover would work obsessively to keep in the good graces of the politically powerful (the FBI never investigated a member of Congress while Hoover was in charge), and work always to protect the FBI’s image.
5. Women gained the right to vote.
The women’s suffrage movement reached as far back as 1638, when Margaret Brent, a successful businesswoman in Virginia, demanded the right to vote in the state’s House of Burgesses. By 1920, every state west of the Mississippi River allowed women to vote. Burns notes that “a mere nine states denied women the vote in all instances, and seven of those, to their inexplicable shame, were among the original thirteen colonies.” The last “yes” vote needed for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which provided for women’s suffrage, was Tennessee. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of the amendment by a vote of 50-49.
6. The Constitution was twice amended in a single year.
It was the only year since the passage of the Bill of Rights that the Constitution was twice amended. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited alcohol in the United States. It was, writes Burns, “the most openly ignored regulation in American history ... Not only did the Amendment fail to be heeded; it often failed to be acknowledged with a straight face.” As Will Rogers asked at the time, “Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.” In 1920, Burns provides an astonishing array of statistics that were the result of Prohibition: drunk and disorderly arrests increased 41 percent; drunk driving increased 81 percent; violent crime and murder went up 13 percent; the federal prison population swelled by a staggering 366 percent; and “federal expenditures on penal institutions of all sorts soared a thousand percent!”
7. The “Lost Generation” began its transformation of American literature.
In 1920, the “Lost Generation”—expatriate writers who lived in Europe following World War I—became a force in American literature. Among books published in 1920 were Main Street, a skewering of small-town America by Sinclair Lewis; This Side of Paradise, the debut novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald; and Flappers and Philosophers, Fitzgerald’s first collection of short fiction. That year, Fitzgerald also introduced Maxwell Perkins, the famed editor for Scribner’s, to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, who would go on to some success.
8. The KKK terrorized the nation.
The Ku Klux Klan, a genocidal domestic terrorist organization founded during Reconstruction, was revitalized in 1920, the result in part of new Klan leadership with an eye for publicity. The Klan’s activities, Burns describes, were “reigns of terror, spaced widely in time and place,” that could be “loosely compared to latter-day outbreaks of the Inquisition.” But while the Inquisition targeted heretical Roman Catholics, the Klan “hated not only Catholics, but Jews, Asians, African-Americans, and Europeans who were not from the non-Nordic countries of the north.” Fifty years later, President Johnson turned J. Edgar Hoover loose on the KKK, and the FBI would achieve the greatest law enforcement victory in its history, all but eradicating the terrorist organization.
9. A guy named Ponzi came up with a sales scheme.
In the early 1900s, representatives from countries around the world worked out a way to make it easier for people to send mail across national borders. They created an “international reply coupon,” which could be bought in one country and traded for postage stamps in another. Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States, discovered a loophole in the system. Because World War I left much of Europe in economic ruin, Ponzi realized that he could buy coupons in various countries and redeem them in the United States for a return on investment. Because he wanted large returns, he needed a large investment. He set up a business called the Security Exchange Company (which, Burns writes, “had just the right sound to him. Respectable, trustworthy, and accurate; the company was, after all, exchanging securities”). He hired agents to bring in new investors, promising large commissions for the money brought in. Eventually, word spread that investments could bring massive returns, and investors were able to bring in new investors, who brought in new investors, and so on. Ponzi soon found that profit was no longer even a necessary ingredient for the company to operate; investors were essentially funding each other’s commission. The system, of course, eventually collapsed, though Ponzi schemes live on today.
10. The mass media was born.
In November 1920, the first commercially-licensed radio station began broadcasting live results of the presidential election. The transmission of breaking news was new and unprecedented, and as word spread of this new medium, the “talking box” exploded in popularity. Two years later, Americans bought 100,000 radios. In 1923, they bought 500,000. By 1926, there were over 700 commercial radio stations, and virtually the entire country was covered by radio signals. As Burns writes, “No other event of 1920 would have more of an effect on the future than the birth of radio, with was in turn the birth of American mass media.”