VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > D. North America, 1915–1945
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Oct. 15)
D. North America, 1915–1945
1. The United States
The two world wars and the Great Depression completed the urban industrial transformation of America. The changes of this era accelerated the rise of the United States as a world power; heightened the process of democratization; and increased the role of the state in shaping the economy, culture, and society. After World War I isolationismdefined most American foreign policy, but the nation's international economic role continued to expand; periodic intervention in Central America and the Caribbean also continued (See 1912), (See 1914, June 26). During this period the rise of new forms of mass culture—e.g., movies, radios, and automobiles—would also help to transform American attitudes and values. New sexual attitudes, including growing belief in the centrality of sex for marriage, accompanied rising consumerism. This development joined growing acceptance of artificial birth control devices for married couples (particularly middle class) and also new sexual suggestiveness in advertisements and movies. With radio and movies, more standardized cultural fare became available. Following the introduction of sound to feature-length films in 1927, for example, movie attendance increased by nearly 30 million people over the next three years. The cultural differences among Americans would appear less apparent than in previous years.  1
Still, by the end of World War II, the dynamics of class, race, and region continued to shape definitions of American nationality. Participation in two world wars expanded the federal bureaucracy, which gained expression in a number of wartime agencies: the National War Labor Board (World Wars I and II), the Selective Service system (World Wars I and II), and the War Industries Board (World War I), to name only a few. Under the leadership of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt, a variety of New Deal social welfare programs reinforced the growing role of the state in the political economy. The Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Works Progress Administration were among the many measures that signaled the changing role of the state in American society. Supporting these developments was the rise of a new political coalition of urban workers, ethnic groups, blacks, and women. These constituents of the so-called New Deal Coalition demanded relief and security from the vagaries of industrial capitalism. Significantly, FDR appointed the first woman to hold a cabinet-level position, Francis Perkins, secretary of labor.  2
The rise of the welfare state was by no means unproblematic. Corporate elites dominated the development of American society during this period. Following a brief recession during the early 1920s, the industrial sector (except for coal, textiles, and a few other so-called sick industries) soon recovered and prospered. Corporate mergers accelerated, and by the stock market crash of 1929 the number of such combinations had exceeded the record set during the late 19th century. As industry recovered during the mid-1920s, however, agriculture con-tinued to face the destructive impact of competition with European products. New Deal programs had limited impact on the fortunes of American farmers. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, for example, encouraged the concentration of agricultural production in the hands of large landowners, hastened the demise of the small farmer, and reinforced the movement of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the urban North and West.  3
Despite the passage of New Deal labor legislation, industrial workers faced stiff resistance to their quest for equal rights. In 1936, it took a 44-day sit-down strike to produce victory for the CIO's United Automobile Workers. While large companies like General Motors and U.S. Steel negotiated contracts with their workers, others like the so-called Little Steel companies held out and refused to recognize the union until 1941. Women and ethnic and racial minorities also faced persistent patterns of inequality. Even during the acute labor shortages of World War II, for example, employers were reluctant to train women for available skilled jobs. Only when African Americans launched the March on Washington movement (1941) did they gain access to heretofore racially restricted defense industry jobs. Indeed, Native, Hispanic, African, and Asian Americans faced special problems, which culminated in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Racism not only challenged America's domestic tranquility, but questioned its growing claims as leader of the free world. Along with new forms of repression unleashed by the cold war, fear of Communism, and the threat of nuclear annihilation, racism and questions of social justice would emerge as key issues of the post–World War II years.  4
The Birth of a Nation heralded as a modern cinematic triumph, although it inflamed racial hatreds by portraying African Americans as inferior and black men as threats to white womanhood. The Ku Klux Klan was revived in Georgia during the same year and flourished as a national movement during the early postwar years, as membership rose to over 2 million and covered urban as well as rural America.  5
The Woman's Peace Party formed following the international women's congress at The Hague. At the same time women escalated their demands for suffrage, which they received in 1920 with passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.  6
Alice Paul spearheaded the formation of the militant National Woman's Party and advocated a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women in one stroke.  7
Under the leadership of the Jamaican Marcus M. Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association established a Harlem chapter and spread rapidly among the African-American population. Emphasizing race pride and “Africa for Africans,” the organization struck a responsive chord among black Americans in the racial environment of wartime and especially postwar America.  8
With the assistance of Harriet Stanton Blatch, the Food Administration launched an extensive consumer education program and became one of the most successful wartime regulatory agencies.  9
The AFL argued for a no-strike rule for the duration of the war. In exchange for its loyalty, it received federal support for its collective bargaining efforts.  10
Thirty-nine black men, women, and children lost their lives in an outbreak of racial violence in East St. Louis, Illinois.  11
April 6. WAR DECLARED ON GERMANY (See April 6). Diplomatic relations with Austria-Hungary were terminated on April 8, but war was declared on Dec. 7. Diplomatic relations with Turkey were severed on April 20, but war was never formally declared on either Turkey or Bulgaria.  12
May 18
Selective Service Act passed providing for the registration of those between 21 and 31 years of age, inclusive. On June 5 local draft boards registered 9,586,508 men. The U.S. ended its traditional dependence on volunteer units for defense and used conscripts almost exclusively. Seventy-two percent of the nation's armed forces were draftees: 13 percent black, 18 percent immigrant, and the remainder American-born. Nearly 400,000 African Americans served in the war.  13
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.