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American boy scout Maurice Black Rosemaur with a Liberty Loan poster The second series of America charts the development of the United States, exploring three key themes: Empire, Liberty and Faith. (In three series)

Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 2 - 19 January - 27 February 2009


Watch The jazz age hits Main Street (audio-video slideshow).

Watch The Great Depression (audio-video slideshow).

Week 11 - War & Peace

'Too Proud to Fight'

President Woodrow Wilson tried to keep America neutral when war broke out in Europe in 1914, but U.S. trade was entangled with Britain's and U.S. banks raised loans for the Allies. And, although Wilson won re-election in 1916 with the slogan 'He Kept Us Out of War', his victory was partly due to the war boom.

After the outrage caused in America by the German sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, Wilson persuaded Germany to suspend its all-out submarine warfare, but the strategy was resumed in January 1917. The Germans knew this risked war with America but gambled on cutting the Allies' Atlantic lifeline before the U.S. could become fully engaged. In April 1917, America declared war on Germany.

A World 'Safe for Democracy'

Before America joined the war, Wilson had opposed conscription as an erosion of American liberties. But he conceded to avoid the chaos of volunteers denuding industry of vital skills and, within 18 months. 4 million Americans were in the armed forces.

US troops began arriving in France in earnest in the summer of 1918. A massive German spring offensive had stalled and, with American help, the Allies rallied and counter-attacked. Reports of the arrival of legions of strong, well-fed Americans had a devastating impact on German morale. Military defeat combined with the Allied economic blockade to trigger Germany's collapse.

Back in America the struggle for nationwide women's suffrage was escalating. There was opposition from many quarters, not least Southerners who feared setting a precedent for black rights. In June 1918 suffragettes picketing the White House were arrested, and some given prison sentences. The outrage this aroused across America made a huge impact on political leaders. Wilson finally gave his backing to female suffrage, although he cited wartime expediency rather than equal rights. In the summer of 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote passed both Houses of Congress.

The Lost Peace

In 1918, Wilson seemed to be in a powerful position to honour his pledge of making the world safe for democracy. The Allied war effort depended on American finance and fresh troops from the US. Germany and its allies had agreed an armistice based on the President's 'Fourteen Points' in which Wilson had called for a new world order, the abolition of secret diplomacy, freedom of the seas, halting the arms race, and consideration for the interests of colonised people. All this would be based on a League of Nations giving mutual guarantees of independence and territorial integrity to all states.

By the time Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conferences In 1919, the balance of power had shifted. Britain and France were much less dependent on American finance and manpower and, at home, Wilson's Republican opponents now dominated Congress. Wilson was tired and ill and there was intense pressure to finalise the peace before Europe followed Russia down the road to revolution. Britain and France won concessions, including financial reparations from Germany and a 15-year occupation of the Ruhr. Wilson got his League of Nations but the harsh peace in which it was embedded seemed a far cry from his original ideals.

Under the US Constitution treaties have to be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate to become law, so Wilson returned home to another battle. Having been blocked on Capitol Hill, he took his case to the country. In three weeks he covered 8,000 miles, giving dozens of speeches. The strain caused a massive stroke, but this only hardened Wilson's intransigence. He couldn't win a two-thirds majority for the League but he wouldn't compromise. By 1920 there was paralysis on Capitol Hill. The U.S. would not join the League of Nations that its President had designed.

'One Hundred Percent American'

During and after the First World War ultra-patriotism and social conformity dominated America, finding a variety of outlets. German-Americans were targets even before America entered the war, and Congress passed tough wartime Espionage and Sedition Acts targeting anyone who spoke or wrote against the U.S. government, flag or uniform.

As the war ended, fear of communists and anarchists began to escalate. There were only 70,000 communists in the US in 1919, but concern was intensified by a rash of strikes, reflecting a delayed reaction to wartime wage restraint. In 1919 America's small anarchist movement launched a bombing campaign against politicians and businessmen. Government reacted by reorganising the Justice Department, creating a new Bureau of Investigation - forebear of the FBI - and a General Intelligence Division to target terrorist radicals. However, as the strikes abated, America pulled out of its post-war slump, and the Bolshevist tide receded in Europe, the Red Scare subsided.

The tide of 'patriotism' also turned against immigrants. The resumption of post-war immigration coincided with a recession, so unions joined in, concerned about the perceived threat to jobs. In 1921 and 1924 Congress passed acts slashing immigration from Europe to 150,000 a year, and imposing quotas discriminating against eastern and southern Europeans.

The crusade for social conformity had another triumph. For decades evangelical Protestants had campaigned against the demon drink. Using the war as an excuse, in 1917 Congress approved an amendment to the Constitution banning the manufacture, import and sale of 'intoxicating liquors'. 'Prohibition' came into force in January 1920.

The Jazz Age Hits Main Street

The Twenties were the decade when the Jazz Age hit Main Street. The cinema was a powerful influence, spreading new values and fashions across the nation. 'Prohibition' drove alcohol underground, with illegal alcohol manufacture run by organized crime. Gangsters like Chicago's Al Capone used profits from illicit liquor to dominate their territories, settling turf wars with dramatic shootouts.

At the same time, thousands of Southern blacks - 750,000 during the 1920s - were fleeing to northern cities to escape discrimination and economic depression. In the South, the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was resurrected, with 4-5 million members in the early 1920s. Blacks were its main target, but it also attacked other non-whites and also non-Christians and supported Prohibition. The KKK was really an extreme manifestation of the backlash by conservative white Anglo-Saxon Protestants against a country that was losing all these characteristics.

The conservative heartland was rural small-town America and there was much debate about the supposed clash of rural and urban values. The most dramatic example was the Dayton 'Monkey Trial'. In 1925 Tennessee banned the teaching of evolution in schools as it contradicted the Biblical account of creation. Teacher John Scopes deliberately violated the law to stand in a widely publicised test case. He was convicted but the trial was seen as a setback for the anti-evolution camp. Modernists proclaimed it as the end of an era, banishing small town provincial values. This was premature - Fundamentalists went on to impose anti-evolution laws all over the South and would create their own sub-culture.


Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.



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