Life in the Roaring Twenties

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Why was 1919 such a watershed year for the United States and the world?

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1919 was an important year for the United States and the world because of the apocryphal changes that the world experienced in the aftermath of what later became known as World War I. Globally, the result of the war was the end of Europe’s great empires: specifically, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The British Empire would survive through the end of World War II, but its end was in sight as the anti-colonial forces set loose by the weakening of these empires and, as importantly, by the rise of Bolshevism following Russia’s revolution, further undermined the old system.

The anti-colonial forces that emerged in the aftermath of World War I reached across the entire world. Imperialism was not dead, however. The war’s victors sought to retain colonial holdings while reaching understandings on the boundaries that define international relations. The map of the modern Middle East was redrawn by British and French diplomats seeking to exploit the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s own reformation into a secular republic of sorts. The map concocted by those British and French diplomats was formalized by what became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, named for the two main architects of today’s borders. The haphazard manner in which those borders were drawn would have far-reaching consequences for the world right up to the present.

Another major outcome of the Great War that could be seen to have its genesis in 1919 (albeit only loosely) was the rise of Chinese nationalism. China, as much as any nation, had been victimized by the powerful imperialist dynasties that were weakened with the war’s protracted and destructive path. As a member of the victorious alliance with a presence at Versailles, Chinese officials successfully agitated for the removal of European colonial vestiges, especially those previously occupied by Germany, and for its emergence as an independent political entity—an entity that would, as with most of Europe, once again see its status radically transformed following the next world war.

In the United States, political and social changes were abundant, although not always in the more practical way that one typically characterizes as progress. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which granted women the right to vote, was passed by Congress, with ratification to follow the next year. The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” within the United States was ratified, with far-reaching consequences for political discourse regarding prohibitions on harmful or potentially harmful substances that were nevertheless in great demand among segments of the populace. The history of the American labor movement began well before and would continue well after the year 1919, but that year was significant for the increase in power wielded by organized labor. Strikes by coal miners and female telephone operators, two professions whose importance transcended their seemingly limited job description, reverberated across the nation. As importantly, the November 1918 elections deprived President Woodrow Wilson of his party’s dominance in the legislature. The 66th Congress of the United States was dominated by the opposition party, the Republicans, which rang the death knell for Wilson’s plans for a prominent American role in the newly established League of Nations—a precursor to the United Nations that bore Wilson’s thumbprint.

In short, 1919 was an enormously significant year in world and American history, due in large part to the destructive effects of the world war that ended the previous year.

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In many ways, 1919 marked the end of an old order. The termination of the First World War spelled the end of a European continent dominated by large empires and the beginning of nation states. The German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires did not survive the war and the states that replaced them ushered in a new era for Europe. This is particularly the case with the birth of the Soviet Union. Once people saw that a communist revolution was possible, the fear of a socialist uprising became a real concern throughout the world.

The weakening and dissolution of the old European empires left the United States as one of the world's preeminent powers. Even though there were significant isolationist tendencies in the US, by 1919, it was becoming increasingly clear that the country was becoming a major influencer in geopolitics and global economics.

The United States was also experiencing major population shifts. African American communities from the southern states were increasingly moving to northern cities and starting new communities in what became known as The Great Migration. Additionally, even though European immigration had fallen steeply since the pre-war years, new and more diverse communities of European immigrants were taking hold, particularly in urban areas. All this, coupled with the rise of the automobile and light-rail networks, meant that the country's population was shifting from rural areas to cities and their nascent suburbs like never before.

Even in 1919, people in the United States and around the world were recognizing that they were entering a new age. Social norms, political systems, and economic structures would never be the same.

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In regard to the aftermath of the First World War, 1919 was the year of the Paris Peace Conference. This conference, which included Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Vittorio Orlando—the leaders of the United States, France, Great Britain, and Italy, respectively—was the site at which the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

The treaty reassigned German borders, found Germany responsible for the war (Germany did not participate in the conference), and required them to pay reparations. Resentment over these decisions stoked German resentment against other Western nations and led to the rise of Adolf Hitler (a soldier during the war) and the Nazi Party. The treaty also instituted Wilson's idea to form the League of Nations, an international diplomatic organization which countries could use to solve disputes—a cooperative idea which served as a precursor to the United Nations.

1919 was also the year in which the Volstead Act, better known as the National Prohibition Act, was passed. The act "charged the Treasury Department with enforcement of the new restrictions" on alcohol or intoxicants that were not used for medical purposes. Though President Wilson vetoed the bill, Congress overrode it (Amendment XVIII). The Volstead Act set up the legal framework for the Eighteenth Amendment, which put the prohibition of alcohol into the Constitution.

Finally, 1919 was the year in which the Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Southern states strongly opposed the amendment, both to preserve traditional notions of femininity, which opposed the inclusion of women in politics, and to prevent black women from voting. As a result, the amendment was not ratified until 1920, when Tennessee provided the three-fifths vote that was required.

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