What was the United States movement towards social conservatism following World War I?

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larrygates's profile pic

larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The Social Conservatism that followed World War I was more a result of the nationalism that accompanied the war itself and carried over after its end. Among the elements of that conservatism:

  • Fundamentalist religion. A series of pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals urged a return to the "old time" religion of the past. A chief target of the fundamentalist movement was the teaching of Darwinism. Through the efforts of William Jennings Bryan, several states passed statutes prohibiting the teaching of Darwinism in schools. Texas Governor Miriam Ferguson commented:

I am a Christian mother, and I am not going to let that kind of rot go into Texas schoolbooks

The Scopes Monkey Trial prosecuted by Bryan is indicative of the Fundamentalist spirit that swept large areas of the country.

  • The resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan. Although the Klan had originally been confined to the South and had fought racial segregation and equality, it now appeared throughout the country and dedicated itself to "100% Americanism. Aside from Blacks, the Klan targeted Jews, Catholics, and all immigrants.
  • Prohibition. The "noble experiment was the greatest failure of the twenties aside from the stock market crash. It resulted from the crusade for morality and rightness that was sweeping the country. It gained much support from the fundamentalist movement.
  • Nativism. The above answer seems to suggest that communists alone were targeted. In fact, anyone who was foreign born was treated with suspicion. Nativist sentiment was aided by the publication of The Passing of a Great Race by Madison Grant, and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, both of which suggested that Anglo-Saxon society had entered a state of decline because of an influx of non-Aryan blood. Madison was a proponent of Eugenics, a false science which suggested improvement of society by natural selection and breeding:

A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit — in other words social failures — would solve the whole question in one hundred years, as well as enable us to get rid of the undesirables who crowd our jails, hospitals, and insane asylums. The individual himself can be nourished, educated and protected by the community during his lifetime, but the state through sterilization must see to it that his line stops with him, or else future generations will be cursed with an ever increasing load of misguided sentimentalism. This is a practical, merciful, and inevitable solution of the whole problem, and can be applied to an ever widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased, and the insane, and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives, and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.

  • As a result of this sentiment, Congress passed the Emergency Immigration Act of 1923 which skewed immigration in favor of those from Northern and Western Europe, and virtually excluded people from Asia.
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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The movement towards social conservatism right after WWI was driven mainly by unhappiness with immigrants and with political radicals.

The most prominent example of this movement was, perhaps, the Palmer Raids.  After anarchists sent bombs in the mail to many public figures, there came a "Red Scare."  This involved the Palmer Raids in which more than 4,000 suspected radicals were rounded up.

Along with this fear of communists came anti-immigrant sentiment.  This was partly because so many of the radicals were immigrants.  This eventually led to anti-immigrant laws being passed in the 1920s.  The anti-immigrant sentiment is also seen as part of the reason for the successful passing of Prohibition, which also came about soon after the end of the war.

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