My great grandparents were born at the beginning of the twentieth century, between 1901 to 1905. In looking at this specific time in American history, I decided to put my sociology glasses on and reflect on the society they lived in, rather than the history they were a part of. So many big things happened within three decades. America ultimately joined The Great War (which was later termed World War 1),women gained the right to vote,there was The Jazz Age & The Roaring 20s, alcohol was Prohibited!, and allowed again, mobsters became a new trend, we experienced The Great Depression, and America was
forced into a Good War (which was later termed World War 2). All of this highlights some of the most memorable, and arguably important, events in American history. Yet for my great grandparents, and others born in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this wasn’t history, it was their life, part of society. Much like those of us who watched the news as a second plane hit the Twin Towers in 2001, we weren’t conscious of the historical content, yet it is now covered in our children social studies and history books.
The basis on which we, as a country, entered World War 1 was noble. We did not initially get involved in the mess Europe had going on. We sat back and used our ethnocentric mindset to judge them, European white men, for turning against each other. I suppose that we had come so far from the hostilities that caused America to separate into two armies and kill well over a half million men. Nevertheless, President Woodrow Wilson was determined for America to remain in neutral in a fight that had nothing to do with us, and was too far across the ocean to effect us. He is quoted in Becoming America Volume 2 as saying “There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” America eventually entered the war because Germany was sinking ships, one which had 129 American passengers, and attempting to form an alliance with Mexico to oppose us. We went to war in 1917 to protect our people and our land. Nobility at its finest. During the war, Americans needed money
and food for the troops, and life had to go on back at home. Society does not just stop because one person dies, or hundreds, or even thousands. That is an example of our relevance to society as a whole, it is almost nonexistent; Yet what we do changes society, and everything about our society changes us. People were encouraged to eat less and start gardens, so there was more food, especially meat, being sent to the troops. Women took on all kinds of jobs that were previously designated for men. They held clerical and office positions, and even took on industrial factory jobs. Now, as much the American military claimed to physically need EVERY SINGLE young, healthy male, social control still dictated the mores that had been set in place regarding African Americans. Black men were limited in the positions they could serve in the Navy and Coast Guard, they could not serve in the Marines at all, and there was an overall maximum quota for blacks. Even in a time of great physiological need for millions of people, the social rules took priority.
So America joined in on the winning side, with Britain, France, and Russia. Germany lost, exactly 5 years after the death that launched a world war, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, with Germany accepting responsibility. That is one thing that is very different between my great grandfather’s world and mine. The “bad” people are country was against did not feel they were wrong. Terrorist against America today are often eager to claim responsibility for their wrongdoing, pretty much to taunt and challenge us. After the war Americans were happy. Now I cannot testify to the individual happiness of American citizens, but looking at society as a whole, the twenties seem like an era I wouldn’t mind time traveling to. As a result of the hard work and support women provided during wartime, and possibly all the women that were holding rallies and campaigns for about one hundred years, they (socially) earned the right to vote. The Roaring 20s were a decade filled with people just enjoying life. Consumerism was now deemed acceptable by society. People shopped and purchased all kinds of stuff. Going to huge ball stadiums was a folkway. Celebrities symbolized happiness, and served more of a purpose than just the job title they were famous for. For example Babe Ruth was now known for more than just playing baseball. This sounds a lot like my surroundings now. Athletes and their endorsements took on new meanings in the 1990s, as well as the obsession with celebrities in general since technology and mass media has flourished this millennium.
Flappers were young women who decided to express themselves and their sexuality in ways they were almost taboo to their parents and grandparents. For some reason since so many women wore short hair cuts, and shorter dresses that clung to their boyish shaped bodies, it was just a norm. Women smoking in public was accepted, as well as young single women living in their own apartments and going out without a chaperone. Another change was the movement of Jazz. This music, originating in St. Louis by African Americans, changed the nation and entertainment. It crossed color lines and the oceans, as black soldiers had began to share this style of music with Europeans while overseas during the war. People gathered by their radios to dance to music, instead of playing their own instruments. Everything about this screams rap music in the 1990s, and its snowball effect thereafter.
One thing many Americans were not so happy about was The Prohibition that lasted 1920-1933. I looked and looked, but could not find any health concerns as the basis for getting rid of alcohol. Reasons listed have included alcohol lead to domestic violence and poor work habits, and the fact that many cultures of various immigrant communities incorporated one liquor or another as part of their unity. What I did find was advertisement for milk as a healthy option, after alcohol was prohibited. Again, the basis and outcomes were socially generated, not biologically necessary or driven.
America went through a time period known as The Great Depression, some of which can be attributed to social consumerism and rumors (yes RUMORS), which played a part in the single largest one-day loss in American stock market history on Tuesday, October 29, 1929. Many people lost their life savings. This information is detailed in Becoming America Volume 2. The Great Depression was a long, deep, economical situation until America entered the second world war. So now if we entered WWI with great noble intentions, then we went back into war with double that amount of nobility right? Wrong. The men and women that have served our country over the years have been noble and brave. But the information that went into deciding if what we would do and why were socially motivated. To the untrained eye it would seem America was forced into the war by the attack on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor right? Wrong again. On the surface that is when we officially entered the war, and Americans again felt this was a European problem we should stay out of. Franklin D. Roosevelt even promised he would not “send American boys into any foreign wars.”, but unofficially he had been planning and indirectly waging war on Germany for two years. Not because Germany had murdered 129 people again, but simply because the American ethnocentrism had decided Fascism was not good. Fascism in other countries was not effecting the United States, but we had already went to war against it. On September 2, 1945 Americans celebrated the end of World War 2, and Winston Churchill is quoted as saying America was now at “the summit of the world”. Our American society celebrated with a similar patriotism when Osama Bin Laden was pronounced dead on May 1, 2011.