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The era from 1920 to 1960 was one of economic boom and bust, of war and sacrifice, and

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of the development of the modern American consumer culture with its love of the

automobile. It was also the period where the United States gave up isolationism in

foreign affairs and became a world superpower.

The two decades between the world wars were like day and night. During the Roaring

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20s anything was possible. The era was a release from both the devastating war and from

the exhausting reforms of the Progressive Era. It was a New Era with flappers and

speakeasys serving bootleg alcohol (it was also the era of Prohibition). This flaunting of

the law made it easier to flaunt social convention as well – with educated, middle class,

urban your women rebelling against the double standard applied to the behavior of the

sexes. The New Era also included the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of black arts,

music and literature which influenced mainstream American urban culture as well. But

not everyone approved of the “anything goes” mentality of the new era. Traditionalists –

mostly rural citizens and religious fundamentalists – believed they were in a war for

civilization against the modern world. This reflected not only disapproval of the world of

the flappers, but also the move to scientific knowledge supplanting Christian teachings in

the schools. Business also remade itself during the 20s – in what it called the New

Competition. Businesses began implementing “Welfare Capitalism” – developing the

modern practice of offering paid vacations, health insurance, retirement funds, and stock

plans to workers.

The Roaring 20s ended with Black Tuesday, the day the stock market crashed in 1929.

The American economy had been in an economic bubble, stocks were overpriced, people

and companies were deeply in debt, factories overproduced goods and the financial

system had systemic problems which only came to light after the crash. As American

banks failed, first the United States and then the rest of the capitalist world became mired

in the Great Depression.

When FDR was sworn in as president in 1933, the United States economy was near total

collapse. His multi-pronged strategy to rescue and strengthen the capitalist system

remade America. Only the federal government could take on the task – state and local

governments were out of money and private charities had used up all their resources.

There were hunger marches in major American cities, thousands of mortgage

foreclosures every month, massive unemployment and underemployment. The New Deal

reformed the banking and financial systems, reformed industry, and gave money to the

people in the form of direct dole and in immediate, make-work relief programs which

built not only the National Parks but also much of the infrastructure still used today. One

of the most far reaching reforms of the New Deal was Social Security, which provided a

safety net to the old, the disabled and to dependent children. Critics of FDR hailed this as

socialism, but it remains today, the most popular and enduring legacy of the New Deal.

While the New Deal helped to stem the bleeding and kept the American economy from

total collapse, what ultimately pulled the US out of the Great Depression was the massive

federal spending on the war effort in World War II. The causes of World War II vary by

theater. In Europe, the war was caused by the failure of the British and French to stop

Hitler’s expansion. In the Pacific, the war was an imperial war, with the Japanese,

Americans and British and, to a lesser extent, Soviet empires trying to control the same

territories and resources. World War II was fought as a total war – meaning that all

aspects of the warring societies, not just military, were involved in the war effort. This

led to the targeting of civilian populations to hamper the enemy’s war effort. For the first

time, more non-combatants than combatants died. The war also represented the clash of

three political-economic systems – fascism (Germany and Japan), communism (Soviet

Union) and liberal capitalism (the US and Great Britain).

The Big Three (US, USSR, GB) teamed up to defeat fascism. Then, as the war drew to

close with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the alliance began to fall

apart. The Cold War developed between liberal capitalism and communism, as

represented by the two remaining superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Cold War would last for more than four decades and brought with it the fear of a

nuclear World War III. This fear of nuclear annihilation colored every aspect of

American life, from foreign policy to domestic culture to the civil rights movement. As

the Cold War descended, American society redefined itself against its enemy. We were

the god-fearing, family centered, and morally upright society – a blessed land of plenty

and opportunity which believed in the ideals of freedom and justice. But the darker side

of this redefinition of American society was the imposed conformity of 1950s upon its

growing suburban population. It was a society which feared that home grown

communists had infiltrated every facet of American life, where nonconformists could be

blacklisted and school children were taught how to “Duck and Cover” and take care of

themselves in the face of a nuclear attack.

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