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9-08-2015, 21:38

BRITAIN, FRANCE AND THE US FROM WAR TO PEACE

The democracies of the West were tested in the period after the war. If they failed to retain the active support of the people, then others were ready to take over power. To the right, fascist movements and later the Nazi movement developed, promising new solutions. To the left, the communists pointed to the Soviet Union and the new society being created there as the right goal for all progressive peoples. Before the Great War the triumph of liberal democracy had seemed certain in the West. Even Russia had begun to establish embryonic parliamentary institutions, and Italy had extended the vote to all adult males. The war, which ended with the victory of the democracies, might have been expected to confirm the superiority of the parliamentary form of government. The tide first turned against democracy in Russia after the revolution of 1917, in Italy in the 1920s with Mussolini and the emergence of the fascists. Forms of fascism spread to a number of the new Balkan successor states of the Habsburg Empire. Czechoslovakia was the shining exception, a bastion of Western liberal ideas and institutions in Eastern and central Europe. The most critical question was whether Germany would become a liberal democracy. The immediate danger from the Bolsheviks faded. The Polish defeat of the Red Army in 1920 halted any dream of spreading revolution with the Red Army in the vanguard. Lenin and Stalin did not lose their sense of isolation and insecurity. On the contrary, they expected the capitalist West to turn on communist Russia and crush it. In foreign relations the initiative nevertheless passed out of the hands of the Kremlin. Soviet policy in the 1920s was directed to increasing the difficulties of ‘imperialist’ Britain by encouraging the colonial peoples, especially in Asia, to struggle for independence. Another objective was to divide the Western democratic nations from each other; separate agreements of technical and military cooperation were concluded with the government of Weimar Germany (Treaty of Rapallo, 1922; Berlin, 1926). Even while cooperating, however, the third prong of Soviet policy, surreptitiously masterminded by the Comintern, was to promote internal disruption within the Western democracies with the objective of weakening them and so making it a safer world for the first and only communist state – Russia. In Weimar politics the German Communist Party exerted a harmful influence on the attempts to construct a parliamentary democracy. Thus, although the Soviet Union lacked the strength to endanger peace in Europe directly, communist tactics in the democratic states and fear of communism were among the formative influences of the 1920s. The communists were weakest in the country which they had mistakenly believed would lead the ‘capitalist assault’ on the Soviet Union one day. There was never any danger between the two world wars that Britain would deviate from its evolutionary democratic path. The tradition of parliament, the impartial administration of the law and civic freedoms of the individual were too deeply embedded in the British way of life to be overthrown by any authoritarian movement. But, within the constitutional framework the struggle for ‘social justice’ increased. Working people demanded the satisfaction of basic economic rights; they called for state intervention to assure them of these rights should this prove necessary; they wanted work, a decent wage and adequate support for themselves and their families when out of work or unable to work due to sickness; they expected the ending of bad housing and, as they became increasingly aware of their disadvantaged position in society, a better future for their children. Industry, the manufacturers and the mine owners all looked back to before the war and wanted to be rid of all wartime government control and direction, though not subsidies when forthcoming. The majority of the Conservatives believed in market forces to remedy the economic difficulties, in sound money and in a balanced budget. Government’s business in the direct control of industry, they believed, was to divest itself as rapidly as possible of such controls as had been brought in during the war. The Labour Party had scarcely begun in the 1920s to translate socialist aspirations into practical policies. That work was not done until the 1940s. Meanwhile the Labour Party knew clearly what it did not want: communism on the Russian model. The small British Communist Party was refused affiliation to the Labour Party and in the mid-1920s communists could no longer be individual members of the Labour Party. The Labour Party, supported by the Trades Union Congress, sought power within the constitution knowing that to be tainted with communism would drive away moderate political support. It became the main opposition party, and held office on its own twice during this period, briefly in 1924 as a minority government and from 1929 until the financial debacle of 1931. Labour prospered on the decay of the once great Liberal Party. The Liberal Party had lost its identity, its reforming policies absorbed by the Conservatives to the right, with Labour to the left offering a dynamic alternative to Conservative rule. The working man’s vote in the industrial towns swung to Labour; many Liberal supporters deserted liberalism for the Conservatives, giving the latter an almost unbroken hold of power in the inter-war years. The Liberals in the post-war years had neither great national causes nor political leaders who could command a mass personal following as Gladstone had once done. Lloyd George appeared the obvious candidate, the man through whose energy and leadership Britain’s war effort had been galvanised to victory; Lloyd George had then become a leader on the world stage at the Paris Peace Conference. His standing in 1919 was, indeed, high. As prime minister of a coalition government of those Liberals who followed him and the Conservatives, the elections of December 1918 gave the Conservative–Lloyd Georgian Liberal coalition parties a landslide victory. The Liberals under Asquith, who opposed them, won no more than twenty-eight seats. Labour, with 2.3 million votes and sixty-three seats, for the first time became the main opposition party. This election marked a profound change in British politics. The results, moreover, reflected a greatly enlarged electorate. For the first time the vote was exercised by women over thirty; having proven during the war that they could do a man’s job on the land and in factories, women could no longer be denied the vote. For a time Lloyd George’s personal ascendancy obscured the collapse of Liberal support in the country. He had agreed with his coalition partner, Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservatives, that the Conservatives would support 159 Liberal candidates, and the majority, 133, were elected as a result. Nevertheless, the Conservatives predominated over Lloyd Georgian Liberals in the coalition by almost three to one. This meant Lloyd George was at the mercy of Conservative support. They would drop him for a Conservative leader when he ceased to be an electoral asset. And that is what they did in 1922. An immediate problem facing post-war Britain was Ireland. ‘Home rule’ was no longer enough for the Irish nationalists, whose cause had been spectacularly enhanced by the Easter rising in Dublin in 1916. Sinn Féin fought the general election of December 1918, won all but four seats outside Ulster, and met in Dublin – those members not in prison – in a self-constituted Irish parliament which promptly declared the whole of Ireland an independent republic. Bloodshed, guerrilla war and the breakdown of law and order followed. The ‘Troubles’ began in 1919. Allied with Sinn Féin was the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which attacked the armed police (Royal Irish Constabulary) and the British volunteer troops known as the Black and Tans. The IRA attempted to force the British government in London to recognise Irish independence. It was the worst sort of violent conflict – civil war, without battle lines, carried on by ambush, assassination and murder on both sides. Two problems stood in the way of a solution: Lloyd George’s refusal to grant total independence without any link with Britain, and the attitude of the six counties of Ulster, where a majority of Protestants fiercely defended union, refusing to be merged with the predominantly Catholic south. An attempted British solution of December 1920 did not satisfy the south. Atrocities on both sides multiplied. But an appeal by the king in June 1921 led to a truce and a negotiated settlement that December. The Irish Free State became a Dominion and so remained within the British Empire, and the six counties of Ulster were granted the right to vote themselves out of independent Ireland and so remain a part of the United Kingdom. But the Irish leaders in London, in accepting partition, brought about a new civil war in Ireland in 1922 with those who rejected the treaty. Not until the spring of 1923 was Ireland at peace, with partition a fact. Yet the seeds of conflict tragically remained. Dominion status in practice meant independence. The other British Dominions were independent, though the personal links between Dominion leaders and the British political leaders remained close and every Dominion except the Irish Free State independently joined Britain in declaring war on Germany in September 1939. As significant as this insistence of the right of the ‘white Dominions’ to exercise independence was Britain’s declared intention to extend Dominion status to the ‘brown empire’. During the war, in 1917, the British government had declared that its aim was ‘responsible government’ for India. Fourteen years later, in 1931, a viceroy of India had advanced this to ‘Dominion status’ for India eventually. No one in Britain believed this would come about for a generation or two. But the major Indian independence party, the Congress Party, agitated for independence to be conceded quickly. During the 1930s Mahatma (‘great-souled’) Gandhi had launched his remarkable movement of non-violent passive resistance to the British– Indian authorities. He served notice to the Raj that India could not be ruled in the long run without the consent of the Indian masses. And these masses of the poor of India were responding to a Western-educated lawyer, now turned into a holy man and skilled politician all in one, walking the length and breadth of India wearing a loincloth and carrying a stick. The emaciated figure of Gandhi was as powerful a symbol for change as the strutting militaristic dictators of Europe. His teaching of how the poor and powerless could force the hand of the powerful and armed proved to be one of the most potent influences in the world of the twentieth century. Violence in Ireland and mass protest movements in India did not complete Britain’s difficulties. Nearer home British governments from 1920 down to the present day became preoccupied with Britain’s relative industrial decline, the threat of falling living standards and, most of all, the miseries of unemployment. Britain was not a happy land between the wars. The problem was deep-seated and arose from a combination of changes. Britain had increasingly derived earnings from trading as well as manufacture to offset the cost of importing food and raw materials. After a short post-war boom world trade contracted, particularly in the 1930s, and the earnings from carrying the world’s trade fell correspondingly. There was no demand for more ships, and the shipyards of Scotland and north-east England became symbols of the deepest depression and unemployment. World patterns of trade were also changing. Britain’s traditional trade in textiles and other goods to the empire suffered as the poor of the world became even poorer. As raw material prices fell with slackening industrial activity so the poorest parts of the world earned less and less; this in turn gave them less to spend on British goods. Then textile factories, the first stage of industrialisation, were springing up in India and Japan and with their low labour costs drove Britain out of many traditional markets. Actually Britain was remarkably successful in developing the industries of the second industrial revolution, the chemical, electrical and motor industries. But these successes could not take up the slack of Britain’s pre-war traditional exports. The coal industry was one of the worst affected. The mines were not efficient, and demand for coal slackened with declining industrial activity in Europe and the competition of oil. The powerful miners’ union saw nationalisation as the solution that would enable the numerous privately owned mines to be developed on a national basis. The mine owners, faced with declining profits, argued for increasing hours and cutting wages. But the owners’ case was weakened by the fact that they had not used their large profits of the war years to modernise the mines. The mines had then been under state control and the miners were embittered when Lloyd George returned them to their owners’ control in 1921. A miners’ strike failed to win better terms. In 1925 a strike was narrowly averted when the government paid a temporary subsidy to the mines to prevent wage cuts, and set up an inquiry. The report of this inquiry (the Samuel Commission) the following year found much in favour of the miners’ view but rejected nationalisation and suggested that less drastic cuts in wages were probably inevitable. The miners were anxious to avoid a strike which would bring hardship to themselves, but in negotiating with the owners refused to countenance any further cut in wages or increase in hours. At the end of April 1926 the government subsidy came to an end and the mine owners now locked out the miners. The importance of the dispute with the miners lay in the fact that it led to the General Strike of 1926, the most widespread and dramatic breakdown of Britain’s industrial relations for a century. It lasted only nine days from 3 to 12 May 1926. But these days manifested Britain’s division into the labouring class and the middle and upper classes, who for the main part wished to break the strike. There was more involved than a strike of miners. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) involved itself and in doing so involved organised labour on the one hand, and the prime minister Stanley Baldwin and the British government on the other. Its sincere intention was to facilitate a compromise settlement between the mine owners and the miners. When these efforts foundered the TUC used its industrial muscle to call out on strike key industries, including transport. The government countered by putting into practice carefully worked-out emergency measures to keep the essential services going. The TUC’s attempt to force the government to coerce the mine owners failed, though the rank and file overwhelmingly supported the call to strike. What was the strike really about then? It certainly was not an attempt to bring about a revolution. It was not purely industrial either. At the end of the General Strike, which the TUC called off, the miners were left to fight their own battle, which lasted several bitter months. In the 1920s and 1930s Conservativedominated governments of the Lloyd George, Baldwin and Chamberlain era were socially conscious and anxious to pass measures that would protect the sick and unemployed and help the poor. Their finance was orthodox, believing the country was best served by sound money and balanced budgets but not by direct control of industry. The minority Labour government of 1924 was just as orthodox in financial questions as the Conservatives. Neither Conservatives nor Labour followed policies of confrontation and even the General Strike was not a confrontation that either side had been keen to invite. What would be held against the governments of the inter-war years was the persistence of 1 million unemployed, and much higher numbers during the most severe years of depression, concentrated above all in the north of the country. No government knew how to ‘cure’ this unemployment in the prevailing international conditions. It was the biggest argument against ‘democracy’, yet the great majority of the British electorate turned neither to fascism nor to communism. France emerged the victor from the Great War, but no country, excepting Russia, had suffered more physical damage, human and material. In the struggle for power on the European continent, France was the loser. Population losses had been such that there were now three German for every two French. French industry had been devastated in northern France. The war had deeply scarred the towns and countryside of this region, whereas no battles, apart from the early encounters in East Prussia, had been fought on German soil. One in every five Frenchmen had been mobilised during the war (one in eight in Britain), 1.4 million killed and another three-quarters of a million permanently invalided. Put another way, it has been calculated that for every ten men between the ages of twenty and forty-five, two were killed, one was totally invalided and three were incapacitated for long periods of time, leaving only four available for work. The French governments faced the common problems of demobilisation and changeover from wartime and industrial controls to a peacetime economy. In addition the French had to cope with the task of reconstruction in the war-torn regions of France. The acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine and the utilisation of the Saar mines were important compensations for the losses suffered, but did not cancel them out. Financially France was in a difficult plight. The government had financed the war not by taxes but largely by making loans at home and receiving loans from Britain and the US. After the war, yet more money had to be found for reconstruction and invalid or widows’ pensions. France was dependent on the goodwill of the US and Britain. It was also dependent on receiving reparations from Germany to cover the gap between what it could earn and what it spent. French needs and policies in the 1920s have not received the understanding and sympathy they deserve. In British judgement, the French were acting vindictively and arrogantly towards defeated Germany, and thus were responsible in part for Germany’s fervent nationalism and for delaying a ‘normalisation’ and pacification of Western Europe. Britain came to see its role not as an ally of France so much as a mediator between France and ‘helpless’ Germany in the interests of creating a new balance of power. This British attitude of ‘conditional’ support could only strengthen France’s anxieties about its longterm security once Germany had revived its strength. For France the ‘German problem’ was insoluble, because France alone could not enforce any solution in the long run. Britain and the US could express their disapproval effectively by applying financial pressure on a weakened French economy. But the exaction of reparations from Germany was, for France, not only a necessary financial operation; far more was involved. Nothing less than the question of whether Germany would be required, and if necessary forced, by the Allies to abide by all the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. On that issue depended the security of France. If Germany could set aside reparations with impunity, then why not also the military restrictions and finally the territorial clauses of Versailles? Marshal Foch had expressed these deep fears when he called the Treaty of Versailles no more than a twenty-year truce. France had already lost one pillar of its security when the Senate of the US failed to ratify the Treaty of Guarantee, and Britain, too, according to its original terms, had backed out. The second pillar of its security was the Allied (including its own) right to occupy the Rhineland zones and to continue to do so beyond the five-, ten- and fifteen-year periods specified if Germany did not fulfil its obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. After the failure of the Treaty of Guarantee, the French were naturally all the more determined to maintain their rights. In the third pillar, the League of Nations, the French realistically did not place much faith. In March 1921, with the Germans appearing to be evading the military and financial obligations placed on them, the French, with Britain’s blessing and cooperation, occupied three industrial German towns. Almost immediately afterwards the Germans were presented with the total reparations bill of 132 billion gold marks (£6,600 million) and a method of payment. The Germans gave way. Reparations were regularly resumed until the end of 1922. Then the Germans defaulted once again and disputed with Poincaré, by then prime minister, the amounts due and already delivered. Despite British disapproval, French and Belgian troops occupied the industrial Ruhr in January 1923, ostensibly with the object of collecting what was due. The more important objective was to weaken Germany’s reviving power by occupying its most important industrial region. French uncertainties about Germany’s ultimate intentions had been increased by the murder of Rathenau, by the political instability of the country and by what appeared to be deliberate attempts to evade its obligations. The French move was no sudden reaction but the result of a carefully thought-out policy. It separated France from Britain, as the Germans could not fail to note, and they exploited the split successfully in the 1920s. The German government called an industrial boycott in the Ruhr, thereby providing the French with a reason for staying there; only the German coal owners refused to behave so patriotically and continued delivering coal to the French. The ruin of German finances, which was the consequence of Germany’s decision to order industrial passive resistance in the Ruhr, was a victory of sorts for Poincaré. In outward appearance his resistance to British mediating pressure seemed justified too. He demanded that the Germans call off their industrial boycott before fresh negotiations over reparations could be started to resolve the underlying problem that had led to the occupation. In September 1923 the new Stresemann government abandoned resistance and agreed to resume reparations payments. All along, however, reparations had been only part of the reason for the conflict. The French felt too weak to control the Germans single-handed. The years 1923–4 marked France’s last effort to attain what it had failed to secure at Versailles, a means of checking the future threat of German preponderance in Europe. France failed in 1924 and had to bow to the pressure of the US and Britain. This was marked by its agreement that experts should work out a new reparations settlement which, when accepted by Germany, would leave France no excuse to stay in the Ruhr. The American expert Charles G. Dawes gave his name to the reparations plan of 1924; it did not fix a final total but, as expected, scaled down the immediate annual payments and coupled payment to a loan to the Germans. The Germans accepted the plan and with the restoration of the value of their currency became internationally creditworthy. Poincaré fell from power. Briand, who returned to power, had no option but to end the occupation. Meanwhile, all the efforts that the French had made to encourage separation in the Rhineland failed. The French had to make the best of the situation. The outcome was the European reconciliation of Locarno. Briand and Stresemann to all outward appearances had buried wartime enmities. In the Locarno Treaties, signed on 16 October 1925, the Germans renounced any desire to change their western frontier with France and so accepted the loss of Alsace- Lorraine. Britain and Italy guaranteed the western frontiers and the continued demilitarisation of Rhineland against a ‘flagrant breach’, and engaged themselves to aid the victim of aggression whether France or Germany. The British congratulated themselves that their original Versailles obligations were now lessened, since ‘flagrant’ was an adjective open to different interpretation. The French sadly noted that they had secured British support not in an equal Anglo- French alliance but with Britain in its new role as mediator and arbitrator. Much would therefore depend on the view Britain took of any particular situation. France was left with no secure allies. Its position was worse than in 1914 when Russia, militarily, had been a powerful and reliable ally. It had a new alliance with Poland and Czechoslovakia, but these two countries could not be relied on to fight for French security, nor France for theirs, for there was a ‘catch’ in the European security arrangements. The Germans had refused to include their eastern frontier with Czechoslovakia and Poland in the Locarno Treaties package. Britain and Italy did not act as guarantors of these frontiers, either. The Germans had signed arbitration treaties with Czechoslovakia and Poland separately, but they were worth little. The Germans could still resort to force if arbitration did not give them what they wanted. Only the separate alliances of Poland and Czechoslovakia with France might deter Germany. But now, by the terms of the Locarno Treaties, France would be arraigned as the aggressor if the French army sought to come to the aid of their eastern allies by the only means available to them – an attack on Germany. Britain was to exercise this ‘leverage’ to the full when, thirteen years later, France declared itself ready to aid its Czech ally against Germany in 1938. Britain then insisted that, should such an eventuality lead to war with Germany, it was not bound to help France. In the new spirit of conciliation, France also relinquished prematurely its territorial guarantees permitted by Versailles, the occupation of the Rhineland zones. In order to prove their goodwill, Britain and France had pulled out their last troops by 1930. The ‘goodwill’ and ‘faith’ were not justified, as the later experience of the 1930s was to show. Briand played this last card of defusing the German problem by seeking to make Germany and France the nucleus of a ‘new Europe’, but in vain. Where, then, was the most serious single flaw in the way in which Britain and France, with American financial connivance, dealt with Germany? Was the right policy coercion or conciliation? Both were tried, with some good results and some bad. But the basic fault of Allied policy lay in not maintaining Anglo-French unity after the war. Allied policy of either coercion or conciliation should have been based on strength, on the capacity and determination to preserve peace if ever again threatened by Germany. The French realised this and tried to act as if they were strong. It was Britain that basically undermined this stance. Horrified by the Great War and the millions of dead and maimed, it attempted to withdraw and limit its European commitments. At Locarno it had refused to guarantee the frontiers of Poland and Czechoslovakia, an open invitation to German revisionism. Britain acknowledged that its strategic ‘frontier’ now ran along the Rhine, but the British Cabinet was not willing to match this concept militarily by maintaining a British army capable of defending this supposedly ‘joint’ frontier. France alone stood as guardian of the European frontiers of Versailles, and France by itself was too weak for that role. Briand’s policy of reconciliation was sincere enough; it seemed also the only way left to achieve French security. Despite the grave uncertainties of France’s European position, and weakness of its international financial position, it achieved a spectacular domestic recovery in the 1920s. The majority of Frenchmen resisted the siren call of those on the right, the fascist Action Française, or the Communist Party on the extreme left, who sought to overthrow the institutions of the Third Republic. The elections of November 1919 were won by groups of the conservative right allied in a Bloc National. Led by an ex-socialist, Alexandre Millerand, its commanding figure was Clemenceau, the ‘father of victory’. Behind the Bloc stood big business interests and the mass of voters, especially the peasantry frightened by the Bolshevik bogey. They approved of a policy of dealing sternly with Germany; exacting reparations rather than paying taxes. Once elected, the Bloc National reverted to the tradition of the Third Republic in denying the presidency to Clemenceau in 1920. They preferred a weak president, only this time overdid it in electing a man who a few months later had to retire into a mental home. Clemenceau’s career, too, was ended. The work of reconstruction was begun in north-eastern France and with government credits there was enough to do to ensure full employment in the 1920s. Some concessions were also made to the workers in legislating for an eighthour day and conceding collective bargaining. But control of industry was handed back to the owners. The government was firmly opposed to nationalisation and socialism. Among industrial workers after the war there was much discontent. Their wages had not kept pace with rising prices. The main French trade union – the Confédération Générale du Travail – was determined to challenge the government in a series of large, well-organised strikes. The socialist-inspired strikes were as much political as economic. Confident of the army and of majority electoral support, the government would not yield; the unions had no chance and lost. In the 1920s French socialism split, as it did elsewhere in Europe. The communists formed their own party and separate trade union. The ‘democratic’ socialists, led by Léon Blum, and democratic trade unions organised themselves also. The split of the ‘left’ was mirrored by a split on the right, Poincaré’s policies having failed to produce the expected results in 1923. The elections of 1924 gave power to a grouping of centre radicals and socialists, the so-called Cartel des Gauches. The Bloc National formed the main opposition to the right, and the small Communist Party to the left, but the presence of the communists to their left, bitterly critical, had the effect of inhibiting the socialists from collaborating with the radicals of the centre. The split of French socialism thus deprived the large socialist electorate from exercising an influence in the government of the Republic commensurate with their strength. It was a formula for sterility. Meanwhile the undoing of the Cartel government was its inability to master the financial situation. The franc fell precipitously in value. While American loans were reaching Germany, the French inability and refusal to negotiate a debt settlement with the US closed the American money market to the French. In 1926, the Chamber turned once more to the strongman of French politics, Poincaré. Poincaré was granted special powers to restore France to financial health, which he promptly succeeded in doing by raising taxes and cutting expenditure. France now experienced a few golden years of progress and prosperity until the effects of the worldwide slump made themselves seriously felt in France in 1933. In industrial strength and influence the US had emerged as a world power by the close of the First World War. But victory left the American people disillusioned with the role of world leadership that Wilson had sought to thrust upon them. Yet during the 1920s and 1930s there was no way in which the Americans could opt out of world affairs and return to what appeared only in retrospect as a golden past of American self-sufficiency. The immediate post-war mood favoured a rapid return to freeing the individual American from all constraints of wartime control and freeing business too to get on with the job of expanding American prosperity. An amiable conservative Republican politician, Warren G. Harding, had been elected to the White House in November 1920 on a campaign slogan that reflected the public mood precisely: ‘less government in business and more business in government’. Businessmen were no longer depicted as the ‘robber barons’ ruthlessly amassing wealth but as the new patriotic leaders who would benefit the average American. On 4 March 1921 Harding was inaugurated. Big business was brought into government with the appointment of Andrew Mellon, one of the richest men of the US, whose wealth was exceeded only by Rockefeller and Ford, as secretary of the treasury. Mellon’s fortune was founded on banking, channelling money into steel, railroads and a wide range of industry. There were other appointments of men of proven ability: Herbert Hoover, Henry Wallace and, as secretary of state to take charge of foreign affairs, a brilliant lawyer, Charles Evans Hughes. Unfortunately, Harding made grave errors too in rewarding political cronies of his own state, Ohio. The ‘Ohio gang’ were to surround Harding in 1923 during the last months of his administration with spectacular scandals of corruption. The early boom which had absorbed the exservicemen in 1919 collapsed in 1920 and the depression lasted until 1922. But then followed seven years of remarkable economic expansion and rising industrial prosperity led by the growth of the automobile industry, electrical machinery and appliances and building. Yet, the decade was to close with the most severe and long-lasting economic collapse in American history. The 1920s did not turn out to be the new era of never-ending prosperity. With hindsight the weaknesses of the 1920s can be discerned. Industry, enjoying the protection of a high tariff, had over-expanded as its productivity had increased. Wages had failed to keep pace with the increases in production. Big business had successfully defeated the great waves of strikes that spread across the country in 1919 by characterising the strikers and their leaders as Bolsheviks. Acts of terrorism in the cities were blamed on the ‘radicals’ and communists. Antilabour hysteria swept the country. Aliens were arrested as suspected communists though few were actually deported. The most celebrated case of prosecution of suspected radicals arousing worldwide interest was the arrest and conviction in 1920 of two anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for robbery and murder. Liberals insisted that their trial was a travesty of justice and called for their release. They were executed all the same in 1927. Intolerance and hysteria extended to other minorities: black people were vulnerable as well as Jews and Catholics. The racial prejudice by whites and competition for work in the cities exploded in racial riots in some twenty cities in 1919. Before the Great War the great majority of the black population had lived in the south. During the war half a million African Americans sought an escape from poverty by migrating to the industrial cities of the north. Wilson’s efforts to establish democracy and self-determination in Europe stood in glaring contrast to intolerance and discrimination at home. In the south the Ku Klux Klan greatly expanded its violent activities. One of the most extraordinary aspects of American government in the era of financial and industrial ‘freedoms’ of the 1920s was the invasion of people’s privacy and right to lead the life they chose through the enactment of Prohibition. Congress had passed the law in 1919 over Wilson’s veto. The law could never be properly enforced as ordinary citizens constantly broke it by surreptitiously consuming liquor. On the now illegal manufacture and transportation of alcoholic drinks gangster empires flourished. The most notorious, Al Capone’s, in Chicago, with its aura of violence and series of street murders undertaken by rival gangs, became as much a symbol of America in the 1920s as jazz and the stolid respectability of President John Calvin Coolidge, who had succeeded to the presidency in August 1923 following the death of Harding. Related to the attitude of intolerance was the change in immigration laws. They, too, exhibited a racial aspect of discrimination. Immigration from eastern Asia was cut off. Quotas for immigrants were now established, which favoured the British, Germans, Irish and Scandinavians as against the ‘new immigrants’ from central and southern Europe. The era of virtually free entry to the US from Europe was over. Something special which the US stood for – a haven from persecution – was ended. American soldiers returned from Europe believing they had won the war for the Allies, and their president sailed home believing he had put the world on the road to peace and prosperity. Dreams turned sour. The American people now wanted to get on with their own lives, to own a home, a Model-T Ford and a refrigerator. The Hollywood dream industry started on its phenomenal growth. In the inter-war years more and more Americans questioned why the US had involved itself at all in the war. The overwhelming feeling was that the American continent was far enough away from the storm centres of Europe and Asia to enjoy geographical security. There was thus no reason why Americans should again sacrifice their lives for other nations. They needed no large army. Their security could be guaranteed by a navy powerful enough to meet any challenge. International naval disarmament was welcomed as it would allow less to be spent on the US navy. President Harding bowed to the public revolt on armaments expenditure. Secretary of State Hughes was successful in hosting a naval disarmament conference in Washington. The British, too, were anxious to turn their backs on the war and reduce armaments expenditure. The outcome of the conference was a treaty in which Britain and the US agreed to limit their battleship strength to 500,000 tons each and Japan to 300,000 tons. It was said that the Washington Conference between November 1921 and February 1922 sank more ships than all the naval battles of the war put together. As there were no American or British naval bases anywhere close to Japan, and American and British naval defences spanned the Atlantic and Mediterranean too, the apparent Japanese inferiority was not so real. At that same conference, in further treaties, the Americans hoped to ensure that China would remain free and independent. More important, the Japanese government itself decided to withdraw from Siberia and China. The treaties provided the illusion of peace in eastern Asia without solving the underlying conflicts, just as the later Locarno Treaties created the illusion of peace in Europe. The climax came in 1928 with the Briand–Kellogg treaty ‘outlawing’ war. They lulled the West into a false sense of security. No doubt many people wished to be lulled. Americans did not speak of ‘isolationism’ in the 1920s, but of ‘America first’. Even the Midwesterner knew that the US could not be separated from the rest of the world. What Americans demanded was that in dealings with the rest of the world it was the duty of Congress and the administration to take care of American interests and not to meddle in the world concerns of the League of Nations. Above all, America should not be dragged into conflicts by concluding a military alliance with any other country but should preserve a ‘free hand’, confident in its ability to defend its interests. It was an attitude based on confidence. In fact, the American administrations involved the US more in problems of international diplomacy than the American people would have approved of. One aspect of ‘America first’ was the insistence on collecting all the moneys lent mainly to France and Britain but also to the other Allies, during the Great War. Since Europe remained in desperate need of American loans, the administration could pressurise the wartime Allies by closing the American money market to those nations which defaulted. One of the curious results of this outlook was the treatment of Germany. When the US, at length, concluded a separate peace with its former enemy, only token reparations were demanded. Consequently, Germany had free access to the American money market. American financial orthodoxy in the 1920s had the effect of dragging out the reparations problem which did so much to unsettle Europe. Americans did play a major role in 1924 and 1930 and gave a lead in sorting out the reparation question, but rejected the British suggestion that German reparations should be linked to Allied indebtedness. It would have created a very much healthier international financial climate if both large reparations and large debts had been cancelled altogether. Lessons were learnt only after the Second World War. A narrow, nationalistic approach to international finance and trade, in the end, harmed the US as much as it did other countries, for it contributed to the great collapse of 1929 and to the depression of the 1930s and so, indirectly, to the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Second World War.

 

 

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