Certainly, the acquiescent, dogmatic, and well-ordered life of simpler ages had, with all its glaring defects, a fundamental harmony and good taste that we seek in vain amidst the excesses of that “jazz period” to which the invention of complex machinery and the spread of democratic fallacies have jointly given birth. Thus I am, whilst utterly radical in such departments of sheer intellect as science and philosophy, thoroughly and cynically conservativeeven reactionaryin social and political matters; a Tory, Czarist, Junker, patrician, Fascist, oligarchist, nationalist, militarist, and whatever else of the sort you can find in Webster’s Dictionary or Roget’s Thesaurus! Lovecraft
The Harding Administration: 1920-1923
Warren Gamaliel Harding was pretty much completely unqualified to be the President of the United States. In his favor, he was handsome and carried himself well. He was very affable and went out of his way to be pleasant with everyone. But there his suitability ended. A provincial newspaper editor at heart, he had been led by the nose through an utterly mediocre career in politics by a domineering wife and a few ambitious friends who hoped to ride his coattails to glory. He had no ambition, no particular personal beliefs, and absolutely no sense of political will. He certainly had nothing to offer the nation as a leader. Although he prided himself on being a good speaker, in this he was almost alone. H. L. Mencken, an abrasive and extremely self-confident political commentator of the time, compared his speeches to “a string of wet sponges.” And yet Harding won the election by an astounding margin. “It wasn’t a landslide,” said Woodrow Wilson’s former secretary, “it was an earthquake.” After an unaggressive campaign, conducted almost entirely from the front porch of his home in Marion, Ohio, Harding won 37 of the 48 states. The voters of Essex County, Massachusetts, where Arkham is located, voted for him more than three to one. Mencken wrote: “The Gamalian plurality in the late plebiscite was so huge that contemplation of it has distracted the public attention from all subsidiary phenomena. One gapes at it as a yokel gapes at a blood-sweating hippopotamus....” How did Harding come by such overwhelming popular support? He offered Americans the one thing they were persuaded they wanted above all others at that time: “normalcy.”
Americans were tired of the war, and even more tired with the political and diplomatic intrigue that had followed it, as exemplified by the constant partisan bickering in Congress over the newly-formed League of Nations. Although at one time Nobel laureate Woodrow Wilson had been hailed as a great thinker, an inspiring visionary, and the architect of world peace, by November of 1920 he was probably one of the least popular men in the country. People were sick of his League, sick of idealism, tired of feeling so connected to events in Europe that were really beyond their control, and weary of the moral challenges that came with being a major world power, of which President Wilson repeatedly reminded them. They wanted to be free of worrying about the fate of a world that seemed ever more bent on destroying itself. They wanted life to go back to normal.
The bleak economic situation in the years following the war also helped Harding’s candidacy. Throughout the war prices had risen, in some cases quite drastically, but income had failed to keep up. The transition to a peacetime economy often made matters worse. Prices continued to rise, but unemployment increased and income remained low. Membership in labor unions and radical groups, like the infamous International Workers of the World, was on the rise, and in the months leading up to the election organized workers were striking for better conditions and higher wages all across the country. These strikes stirred up popular fear of Bolsheviks and radicals, and fueled the hysteria of the “Red Scare” that gripped the nation in 1919 and early 1920. But eventually even the general public got into a protesting mood, calling a “buyer’s strike” in which consumers took pride in being ostentatiously thrifty. Wearing old clothes became a fashion, and men took their worn-out suits to a tailor to have them “turned.” (The tailor would carefully disassemble the suit, turn the fabric inside-out, exposing a new surface, and then put the suit back together for another year’s wear.) People paraded in overalls as a symbol of thrift. People naturally blamed the incumbent Democratic administration for the economic hard times, and embraced the conservatism offered by Harding and his Republican machine. They knew Harding would waste none of America’s resources on foreign ventures, would leave big business alone to make its millions, and not tolerate subversive radicals.
Harding’s nomination was something of a surprise to pundits like Mencken. There were several other Republican candidates who seemed eminently more qualified for the job: first among them General Leonard Wood, who had won fame in the war, and Frank Lowden, the governor of Illinois. In the beginning, only Harry Daugherty, an unprincipled lobbyist and influence peddler, had any hope for Harding’s chances. Daugherty had met Harding many years earlier at a small-town political rally, and decided that he “looked like a president.” Along with Harding’s wife, Florence Kling, he pushed the very reluctant Harding through an extremely undistinguished career in first the Ohio and later the United States Senate. When, at the Republican convention of 1920, the delegates deadlocked over other, more qualified candidates, Daugherty managed to sell the idea of Harding to the Republican political bosses. Henry Cabot Lodge, Boies Penrose, and other major figures in the Republican machine came to see in Harding a man who would do as he was told, and look good doing it. As the Nation at the time observed, he was put forward in the end “like a cigar store Indian to attract trade.”
The Republican leaders used the hard economic times and the country’s war-weariness to completely discredit Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats. The Democratic candidate, James Cox, and his running mate Franklin D. Roosevelt, made the mistake of speaking out in support of Wilson and the League of Nations. They never stood a chance. The Republicans also made use of Harding’s weak will: he knew full well that the office was beyond his capabilities, but he did not have enough character to resist his friends and superiors. As a youth, Harding’s father had remarked to him: “It’s a good thing you wasn’t born a girl. Because you’d be in a family way all the time. You can’t say no.” As the editor of the Marion Star, Harding’s stated editorial policy was “inoffensivism.” His campaign was carefully managed: the decision to leave him on his front porch a very wise idea. It was Penrose who said: “Keep Warren at home. Don’t let him make any speeches. If he goes out on a tour somebody’s sure to ask him questions, and Warren’s just the sort of damned fool that will try to answer them.”
Once Harding took office, the roaring commenced. It was almost as if, with Wilson’s departure, an oppressive schoolteacher had left the room and the children were left on their own. Harding immediately appointed all of his friends to high posts: Harry Daugherty became Attorney-General. Graft and corruption were standard practice. Harding himself hosted late-night poker parties in the White House, complete with illegal booze. Among other things, Prohibition, the new income tax laws (instituted in 1913), the Veterans’ Administration and the seizure of German assets in reparation for war debts offered numerous opportunities for government officials at all levels to make easy money by selling their influence and skimming from public funds.
Other Republicans went about dismantling the structures put in place by Wilson. Congress voted not to join the League of Nations or its branch organization, the World Court, and backed out of the many international agreements that Wilson’s administration had created. A separate peace was negotiated with Germany. In an attempt to restore American prosperity, the Republicans insisted that the allies pay back all their war debts, but then simultaneously imposed absurdly high tariffs on all imports, making it impossible for them to pay through normal trade channels. The allies tried to pay with gold, which the government gladly accepted, at the cost of ruining currency and banking systems the world over. Meanwhile, the U.S. offered its old friends more loans, so they could afford to buy its exports. American prosperity was restored, but the world economy was thrown into chaos.
All of the deal-making went on behind closed doors, of course. To the public at large Harding was a beloved figure: friendly, handsome, satisfactorily eloquent, and in spirit with the times. He brought prosperity to the land, and he sure did look good doing it. His tenure was not completely devoid of notable public achievements: an international disarmament conference and a balanced budget act being two of the most important. He and his wife made themselves out to be “just folks.” When people peeked in the windows of the White House shortly after Harding’s inauguration and the staff went to shut the drapes, Mrs. Harding said: “Let them look. It’s their White House.” Mrs. Harding was also known to consult fortune-tellers and astrologers before making decisions about the first family’s business. Harding himself was a 32nd-degree Mason.
When Harding contracted ptomaine poisoning from some tainted crab meat on a tour to Alaska in 1923, the nation watched with grave concern. And when, in San Francisco, his condition unexpectedly deteriorated and he died suddenly on August 2, the general public was deeply saddened. As the train bearing Harding’s body made its way back to Washington, some three million people waited along the route to watch it go by and pay their respects.
The Coolidge Administration: 1923-1928
Harding’s Vice President, former Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, was sworn in by his own father, a Vermont magistrate, and served the rest of Harding’s term. He was elected to a term of his own in 1924, beating his liberal Democratic opponent, Wall Street lawyer John Davis, with ease. (In Essex County the former Governor won 92,918 votes, where Davis got only 25,135.) The campaign tactics developed in the 1924 election have since become standard practice. The Republicans spent a lot of money to frighten voters with the bugaboo of “radicalism,” suggesting that the election of Coolidge’s opponents would be the death knell of American institutions. Their slogan was “Coolidge or Chaos.” In this way the attention of the country was diverted from Republican corruption by appeal to irrational ad hominem attacks on the opponents. As one historian remarked, “A straw man was set up and everyone was invited to the kill.”
Coolidge’s tenure in office was remarkable primarily because it was so completely uneventful. Of him H. L. Mencken remarked, “It would be difficult to imagine a more obscure and unimportant man.” Coolidge made it clear in his inaugural address (the first ever broadcast on radio), that he intended to do nothing to upset the status quo. He spent two-thirds of his time on vacation. His workday averaged four hours. It was big news when he did anything as exciting as go fishing: on one occasion when he caught trout using worms, instead of the more orthodox flies, the controversy raged in the newspapers for several days. He almost never had anything to say on any subject that was more than a simple platitude: when asked about the politically volatile issue of Prohibition, he would say only that the laws of the land should be enforced. Such brave stands were typical of him. He once said: “When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results.” It was Coolidge who uttered the famous proclamation: “The business of America is business,” and he was as good as his word. He roused himself from his naps on occasion to reduce the taxes of the wealthy, cut government spending and regulations, and tell the nation that everything was going just fine, thereby fueling gross stock market speculation. He made himself, and the government as a whole, as unobtrusive as possible, earning the nickname “Silent Cal.” He was personally as well as publicly taciturn: one story goes that when arriving at a Washington society dinner, he was greeted by a smiling hostess who said “I’ve made a bet that I can get you to say three words this evening.” He responded with a smile, “You lose,” and uttered not another word all night. Socialites found his closed mouth rude, but business loved him for it, and named the enormous economic well-being that resulted “Coolidge Prosperity” in his honor. In the silence coming from Washington, the roaring of big business had never seemed so loud.
Perhaps part of the reason he kept such a low profile is that he was trying to avoid getting caught up in the scandals his predecessor in office left behind. Shortly after Harding’s death, it was revealed that members of his cabinet had been involved in issuing fraudulent leases to friendly oil companies the unpleasant disclosures of the fraudulent Teapot Dome oil leases and other federal corruption began to make headlines. The trials and hearings of Harding’s former friends and cabinet members dragged on for a number of years, and the details were slow in coming as powerful men sought refuge under the fifth amendment. The full impact of the scandals on the general public was mitigated by the drawn-out nature of the hearings, and by righteous conservatives who actually accused the prosecutors of being Bolsheviki seeking to undermine and discredit the government. Coolidge managed to escape unseemly connections, but many others from the Harding administration were not so lucky. In the end, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, Veterans’ Bureau Chief Charles Forbes, and Alien Property Custodian Col. T. W. Miller, among others, went to jail. Harry Daugherty went to trial but managed to avoid conviction. Many others, including Mrs. Harding and Jess Smith, an old friend and intimate adviser of both Daugherty and the President, died suddenly at about this time. Although Smith was officially said to have committed suicide in the Washington apartment he shared with Daugherty, it has been suggested that he was killed before he could reveal what he knew of the crimes taking place. Similar suggestions have been made about Harding himself: that he was poisoned by his wife, or committed suicide rather than face the disgrace he knew was coming. Over the next few years Harding’s reputation deteriorated, and with the publication of The President’s Daughter by Nan Britton in 1927, it was laid permanently to rest. The book, which many booksellers kept under the counter like pornography, suggested in no uncertain terms that Harding had been the father of Britton’s illegitimate daughter, conceived, she said, in the Senate Office Building.
Although Cal’s laissez-faire approach was great for big business, it had a negative effect on other important issues of the day. Coolidge managed by his unwillingness to take action to scuttle important agricultural relief legislation, and to wreck for a second time America’s participation in the World Court. Although Coolidge steadfastly continued the Republican habit of avoiding involvement with European affairs, on the grounds that America was unwilling to sacrifice any part of its sovereignty and self-determination, he was not hesitant about interfering in the affairs of the Philippines, Mexico, Nicaragua and other Central American nations where American oil companies had invested vast sums. Previously friendly relations with Mexico were severely strained by his heavy-handed tactics, until newly-appointed ambassador Dwight Morrow finally managed to apply a little tact and statesmanship, and mediated disputes over the nationalization of oil resources in 1927.
The Hoover Administration: 1928-1932
Coolidge, who might easily have walked into another term as Chief Executive, stunned the nation during the summer of ‘27 with ten concise words: “I do not choose to run for President in Nineteen-Twenty-Eight.” No one would have guessed that Cool Cal would turn his back on such a comfortable position. The nation’s economy seemed extremely strong. The stock market had been breaking records, and Americans were spending lavishly and having fun. Coolidge himself later said that the reason he chose not to run was that his style of government had been effective while it lasted, but that it was time for a more active one, and he was not capable of leading it. Others have suggested that he bailed out because he could see the country was headed for disaster, and he didn’t want to be blamed for it. If Coolidge did have some inkling of the crash to come, he doesn’t seem to have mentioned it to Herbert Hoover.
Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, was the Republican nominee in Coolidge’s place, and ran with the slogan “four more years of prosperity.” Hoover made the mistake of suggesting that the current economic boom would continue indefinitely, and that in short order poverty would be permanently banished from the land. Those words would come back to haunt him. Against him ran Al Smith, notorious both because he was an ardent “wet,” standing squarely against Prohibition, and because he was a Roman Catholic. The Democrats, in an attempt, perhaps, to fight fire with fire, or perhaps simply because they too had succumbed to the flavor of the times, drafted for the Chair of the Democratic National Committee a man who under other circumstances might have been regarded as an enemy: John J. Raskob, a vice-president of General Motors. An exemplary capitalist, Raskob was useful to the campaign by demonstrating that the wealthy had nothing to fear from Smith’s election: in other words, that in 1928 Democrats could be bought as cheaply as Republicans.
Hoover won his election as handily as Harding and Coolidge had won theirs before him. While the economy continued to boom, America was not inclined to abandon the Republican party. Despite all of the scandals, all of the corruption, all the backward thinking, abandonment of international responsibility, and all the violation of civil rights that came with Republican-led government, America wrote another check, and looked away.
And then it all came crashing down. In October of 1929, just seven months after Hoover took office, the stock market collapsed, revealing an economy that was actually rotten to the core. The reasons for the crash were not understood at the time, and are debated even today. But in the space of a few weeks, thirty billion dollars was simply gone. That was nearly twice as much money as the entire national debt at the time. In the investigations that followed, among them those led by Ferdinand Pecora and Judge Samuel Seabury, shocking levels of fresh corruption and financial scheming were revealed at the highest levels of corporate power. Bank closings followed, and citizens hoarded gold and gold certificates, fearing that the nation’s money supply might become useless. The unemployment rate began to climb alarmingly, and in the autumn of 1930 apple-peddlers began appearing on city street corners: many of them former engineers, architects, or stock-brokers; some of them former millionaires.
Herbert Hoover might have seemed like a perfect president to deal with such an economic disaster. A successful self-made businessman and an engineer by training, he knew how to get things accomplished. He was no stranger to crisis, having been caught in China during the Boxer Rebellion, where he helped build barricades, and in Europe when the Great War started, where he was put in charge of getting American tourists out of harm’s way and getting food into Belgium after the Germans invaded it. In recognition of his talents, President Wilson had appointed him head of the Food Administration, and Hoover had succeeded in mustering the American people to keep the allied armies fed without resorting to rationing at home. Following the Great War, he had been appointed head of the American Relief Administration, and organized shipments of food to starving millions in Europe and Russia. In 1927 he had led the relief efforts for victims of the massive flooding of the Mississippi river, augmenting his impressive national reputation. He never took a penny in payment for his relief work, and raised millions of dollars in charitable contributions to finance it. His scrupulous honesty and dedication to his job were in stark contrast to his immediate predecessors: he worked tirelessly and donated his entire Presidential salary to charity.
But it seems that Hoover’s strengths and experiences actually hobbled him in dealing with the Great Depression. He was rigidly opposed to direct governmental interference in the working of the economy, and unshakably devoted to the principle of “rugged individualism” and self-help. He was unprepared for the kind of innovative thinking that the new situation required, insisting that the Federal budget be scrupulously balanced. He opposed any attempts to put Federal relief money directly into the hands of the people, believing, quite sincerely, that such help would be “soul-destroying.” He vetoed pension plans and denied bonus payments to the veterans of the Great War. He enacted various indirect relief measures instead, including loans to farmers to buy seed and feed for their animals, and offering assistance and encouragement to state and local charitable organizations. He set up the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an agency that provided loans to businesses and banks: the idea was that stronger businesses and banks would provide work and relief for the citizens, but it didn’t work that way. Due to complicated factors that no one fully comprehended, unemployment and personal suffering only increased, and Hoover was seen as a callous man who was willing to help rich businessmen, but not the homeless apple-peddler on the corner; to help a farmer feed his animals, but not his starving children. His excellent and well-deserved reputation was doomed. Makeshift encampments of homeless and unemployed people, built under bridges and in vacant lots in cities throughout the nation out of packing crates, sackcloth, and cast-off junk, were dubbed “Hoovervilles.” He became the scapegoat for the nation’s misery.
The Roosevelt Administration: 1932-1945
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born into a wealthy and prominent New York family, and received a posh education at the most prestigious of New England’s schools. After serving in New York state politics, he had served in Washington as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1913 to 1920, when he was nominated as Vice President. In 1921, however, he contracted polio, losing forever the use of his legs. After spending a few years with a somewhat lower profile, he returned to public life with the help of his wife, Eleanor, and a team of advisors dubbed “the brains trust.” After involvement in national Democratic politics, he was elected governor of New York in 1928. He made a national reputation for himself as an active fighter of the Depression and as a defender of law and order. His nomination to run against Hoover in 1932 was almost automatic. His victory in the election was colossal.
At that time, Presidential inaugurations were conducted in March, which meant there was a delay of four months between Roosevelt’s election and Hoover’s leaving office. Hoover tried to get Roosevelt to work together with him during that time to provide a smooth transition, but Roosevelt did not cooperate, choosing to keep his plans to himself until his inauguration. Hoover believed Roosevelt was holding out so that he could get credit for saving the country. Roosevelt, for his part, didn’t know exactly what he was going to do, and he certainly didn’t want to connect himself in any way to the failed policies of Hoover and the Republicans. Those four months were among the worst of the Depression. There was a nationwide bank panic, with many institutions collapsing. Factories closed, farms were lost, unemployment hit new highs. New scandals of corruption in the world of finance were revealed. On Hoover’s last day in office, the nation’s banking system simply stopped functioning.
Roosevelt took office at this moment of high crisis uttering the famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itselfnameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He had promised the American people a “new deal,” and he delivered. The first hundred days of his administration saw a furious some might say reckless spree of lawmaking. Dozens of new Federal agencies were created, so many that no-one could keep them all straight. Roosevelt and his team attacked the Depression in every conceivable way, setting up program after program, at times in direct contradiction to each other. Roosevelt had none of Hoover’s reservations about tampering directly with the economy. And he had no problems about extending Federal aid directly to the poor and suffering people of America. Where Hoover had tried to fix the Depression from the top down, Roosevelt tried to fix it from the bottom up. And the people loved him for it.
Not all of his policies worked, however, and when the honeymoon was over the voices of critics were more easily heard. Although the average working American remained personally deeply loyal to Roosevelt, the nation’s wealthy classes, career politicians, and the press were increasingly disenchanted and antagonistic. Besides the Republicans, other Democrats with messianic aspirations denounced or derided him, such as Huey Long, the dictatorial ex-governor of Louisiana assassinated in 1935, and a hate-mongering radio evangelist named Father Charles Coughlin who had a broad national audience. As the ‘Thirties wore on, many grew to hate Roosevelt passionately. Such prominent men as Henry Ford refused to cooperate with the Federal government’s attempts to regulate industry, and William Randolph Hearst, in full-page newspaper ads, denounced New Deal programs as “a measure of absolute state socialism” and “a threat to political rights and constitutional liberties.” Hearst was not entirely wrong. The Supreme Court declared a significant portion of the New Deal legislation unconstitutional in 1935, by which time it was generally recognized that Roosevelt had accumulated a level of personal power unheard of for an American President outside of wartime. During his first term in office, Congress, dominated by Democrats, had followed Roosevelt’s lead almost without questioning him. In 1937 Roosevelt, frustrated by the Supreme Court’s decisions against the New Deal, actually suggested adding justices to the bench as part of a general overhaul of the court system, privately hoping thereby to “pack” the court with men friendlier to his plans. Roosevelt’s supporters saw through that scheme as clearly as did his detractors, however, and so did the sitting justices, who cleverly began rendering more decisions in Roosevelt’s favor, thus taking the wind out of his sails.
But by then the worst years of the Depression were definitely over, and the country had been profoundly and permanently changed. Control of the nation’s economy, and, to some degree, its very life, had shifted away from Wall Street and out of private hands, and was fixed in Washington, where it would stay. Although many of the New Deal programs were canceled or reached a natural end, some, such as the S.E.C. and the Social Security Administration, have become fixtures. Roosevelt remained beloved by the general public, and was re-elected for a second, third, and fourth term. All this despite the fact that he could not walk unaided. He never let the public see him in his wheelchair, and newspaper reporters and photographers discreetly avoided revealing his infirmity. If Americans did know that their leader was crippled, they decided they did not care.
While the domestic Depression preoccupied the first half of Roosevelt’s administration, the international situation dominated the rest. In Germany, Adolph Hitler’s rise to power coincided closely with Roosevelt’s, with concentration camps in operation by 1933. By 1938 Mussolini had invaded Abyssinia and Albania, Japan was at war with China, Stalin had taken over Russia, and Spain had been wracked by a horrible civil war. A new world war was coming, and with it America would be transformed again.
Although the Great War was officially over when the armistice with Germany was signed in November of 1918, the peace was really only on paper. Nothing much had been resolved by the fighting, and many new problems were created by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, dictated by Britain, France, Italy and the United States. Woodrow Wilson was the ranking statesman at the Paris Peace Conference, and as such had enormous influence on the structure of the postwar world. Germany was forced to take the blame for the war, and her territory, as well as that of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, was reduced, while new European countries were created as the maps were redrawn, almost from scratch. The Ottoman Empire was also dismantled, and lands in the Middle East fell under the protection of victorious European states, as did African colonial possessions of the defeated Central Powers. The Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon, and European countries struggled with poverty and unemployment as much as did the United States. Germany was particularly hard hit, and with economic hardship coupled with the deep resentments caused by defeat in war and humiliation in peace, she was fertile ground for the seeds of the greater war yet to come. America’s Congress refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty, and Harding didn’t care about international politics the way Wilson had: America declined to join the newly-formed League of Nations and retreated into isolationism during the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties. But her growing status as a world power had an influence whether she admitted it or not. As someone who might well find him or herself traveling to foreign lands, a Lovecraftian protagonist would know something of the incredibly complex and often dangerous politics of the international scene. The violent forces of nationality, language, religion, race, ethnicity, economic ideology and historical grudges were plainly visible throughout the world.
It is probably impossible to exaggerate how deeply Europe was traumatized by the Great War, and how fearful it was of further conflict. American losses were quite minor compared to the devastation suffered in Europe, especially by France, Russia, and Germany. Ten million people died, and more than twenty million were wounded or maimed. France lost half of its male population between the ages of 20 and 32. Those that survived were left with a battered and different world: one of nationalistic anger and fear, driven by greed and violence, in which governments had more control and individuals less, and the promises of church and country seemed empty and false. In this atmosphere the fundamental social revolution professed by the Russian Communists was a deeply significant and, to some, a frightening development which spread across the globe. Many watched the “Russian experiment” closely, in hope or in dread.
Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov was a Russian intellectual born to relatively wealthy parents in 1870. After receiving an excellent education, his philosophy turned to radical Marxism, and he adopted the revolutionary name of Lenin. He spent the war years in exile in Switzerland. After Czar Nicholas fell from power in 1917, he arranged with the Germans, who were eager to further destabilize Russia and thus weaken one of their enemies, for transportation back to his mother country. Lenin took advantage of the chaos of the war to take control, and by November of 1917 his Bolshevik party was on top and the Communist Russian Revolution was underway. Lenin pulled Russia out of the war, signing a separate peace with Germany in the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. He then had to deal with three years of civil war, as his Red Army fought against a variety of foreign and domestic enemies loosely joined as the White Armies. In various parts of Russia’s vast territory the people suffered from the fighting and the widespread famine it caused. Russia from the Revolution until the early ‘20s was an extremely dangerous place to be. In 1920, having firmly established control, Lenin backed away from the pure economic theories that had fired up many of his comrades, and consolidated his political power through the New Economic Policy. Although worldwide communist revolution was one of the original stated goals of the Bolsheviks and still advocated by Leon Trotsky, among others, Lenin contented himself with taking control of Russia. The Soviet Union was officially formed in 1922, with the joining of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Transcaucasia. When Lenin suffered strokes and died in January of 1924, he was succeeded by a man equally strong willed and at least equally pragmatic: Joseph Stalin. Stalin grew in power throughout the later 1920s, until the communist revolution and the party were just tools used to enforce his control over the ever-increasing territory of the Soviet Union. In 1928 he instituted the first Five-Year Plan, in which he compelled the Soviets to submit to his economic reforms, moving the peasantry by force onto collective farms, and emerged as a totalitarian dictator. Trotsky was expelled from Russia the following year, and the increasingly paranoid and megalomaniacal Stalin in 1934 began a series of horrific purges. He wiped out all his old enemies and millions of Russians were subjected to arrest, Siberian exile, torture, labor camps, and execution which lasted until the outbreak of the second world war.
In the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties the British Empire began to give way to the British Commonwealth. The transition was brutally painful in Ireland, where savage killings, reprisals, and political turmoil became terribly common throughout the time. An abortive rebellion on Easter weekend of 1916 and the subsequent execution of its leaders by the British led to guerilla warfare by the Irish Republican forces, led by Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins. This fighting lasted until 1921, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty established the Irish Free State as a dominion of the Commonwealth, but kept six predominantly Protestant counties in northeastern Ireland partitioned from the rest of the country as a province of the United Kingdom. Collins, who had helped negotiate the treaty, believed that it gave the Irish “the freedom to gain their freedom,” but de Valera and others accused him of betraying the ideals of the Republican cause. The treaty was narrowly ratified, but there followed an additional two years of bloody civil war in which each side accused the other of destroying the dream of an independent sovereign Ireland. Collins was assassinated in an ambush in 1922. De Valera was imprisoned when the civil war ended, but was released in 1924 and became the leader of the political opposition to the new Irish Free State government. In 1932 he became the president of the very government he had fought so hard to destroy, and took his chance to rewrite the constitution and further distance Ireland from the British Crown. The partition of Northern Ireland remains a cause for bloody fighting to this day. The other British dominions of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Newfoundland also yearned for more autonomy in the ‘20s, but they were all geographically far from England and none of them had Ireland’s long and inflammatory history of subjugation and grievance. Their separation from the Empire was much more amicably managed with the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which granted each of them co-equality and genuine independence while maintaining friendly cultural ties.
India remained completely dominated as a colony of Great Britain throughout the time of Lovecraft, but the work of Mohandas K. Gandhi and others began to change all that starting in 1920, when Gandhi was named the leader of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi was already an experienced political figure, well known to both the Indians and the British for his work on behalf of Indian inhabitants of South Africa, which was also under the control of Great Britain at the time. He might have been willing to work with the British in their already stated plan to gradually turn India over to the Indians, but in 1919, a British military officer had ordered his soldiers to open fire on a crowd of Indian civilians, killing some four hundred and wounding more than a thousand. The Amritsar Massacre, as it was called, convinced many, including Gandhi, that cooperating with British plans was a bad idea. Throughout the 1920s Gandhi led protests against British rule that stressed non-cooperation and a complete lack of violence, pioneering the techniques of civil disobedience. In 1930 he adopted the spinning wheel as a symbol of Indian economic independence and began to dress in homespun cloth, rejecting all the trappings of western European society, thus dramatizing his cause as no other political leader in the world. He was imprisoned repeatedly for his practices, but it didn’t stop his efforts: “I always get the best bargains behind prison bars,” he said. Although full independence for India would not come until after the second world war, Gandhi made gains throughout the time of Lovecraft. Unfortunately, as an extremely devout and open Hindu, his success also frightened and alienated the many Muslim inhabitants of the region. Ironically, he was also disliked by extremist Hindus, who thought he was not anti-Muslim enough.
Although China and Japan had both fought on the side of the allies in the Great War, they had a long history of mutual antagonism which, after Versailles, only got worse. China had officially become a republic in 1912, but government there was highly chaotic. Although the central government at Peking was the one recognized by other nations of the world, the actual territory of China was controlled from region to region by individual warlords, each devoted to his own interests. American travelers, like explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, in the more remote provinces of China learned to carry weapons and expect to defend themselves. Sun Yat-Sen had been rejected by several world governments in his requests for help to build a more modern state in China, until Soviet Russia agreed to assist him in 1923, when Sun formed the Kuomintang, the most influential political party on the scene. Although Sun was willing to work with communists, he died suddenly in 1925, and was succeeded after a period of political confusion by military commander Chiang Kai-shek, who broke sharply with the communists and formed a nationalist government. Chiang cracked down on the communist party in China throughout the later ‘Twenties and into the ‘Thirties, much to the dissatisfaction of its young leaders, including Mao Tse-tung, who was forced to flee to the mountains and nurse his plans for eventual takeover. Fighting continued in China throughout the period. Japan, meanwhile, which already controlled Chosen (Korea) as a colony, had additionally been granted former German territories in the Shantung province by the Versailles treaty, which perhaps inflamed her long-standing territorial ambitions. Emperor Yoshihito was replaced in 1926 by his son, Hirohito, but he was increasingly dominated by the army and its leaders. In 1931, the army, without the prior knowledge of the civilian government, took over the eastern Chinese territory of Manchuria and installed a puppet regime, the Empire of Manchukuo, with the deposed former Emperor of China as the figurehead leader. America and the League of Nations voiced strong protests, but Japan ignored them and later even resigned from the League. The Japanese extended the borders of Manchukuo through military action in the mid-‘30s, until at last Chiang Kai-shek was forced to join forces with the communists and declare war on Japan in 1937.
Looking at a map of Asia in the time of Lovecraft you will not find Thailand. You will find, instead, Siam, which was a rather peaceful absolute monarchy until 1932, when a combination of ongoing westernization and the Great Depression led to one kind of social chaos or another that would last a very long time. As the ‘Thirties wore on, military dictatorships began to compete with royal and civilian powers, and the country’s government shifted often in response to its even more volatile neighbors. It would not change its name to Thailand until 1939. The rest of Asia in the time of Lovecraft was pretty thoroughly dominated by European colonial powers. Burma and the Malay states were directly controlled by Great Britain, who regarded them pretty much just as an extension of India. Cambodia and Laos were just districts of the French colony of Indo-China, along with the provinces of Tonkin, Anam, and Cochin-China, which only later would be reunited and called Vietnam. The many islands forming the country we now call Indonesia were, at that time, collectively known as the Dutch East Indies, and were directly controlled by The Netherlands. Many resident Asians resented European domination, and there was political unrest and fighting throughout the region in the time of Lovecraft. Among the many who fought for their area’s independence were Phan Boi Chau, who inspired many anti-French protests and riots in Hanoi in the mid-‘20s, and a former schoolteacher who called himself Ho Chi Minh. Ho helped to form the Communist Party of Indo-China in 1930, which was viciously suppressed by the French, and spent much of the ‘20s and ‘30s fleeing from one place to another, avoiding arrest and gathering power.
Latin America in the time of Lovecraft was a wild place where poverty and tropical diseases and dictators ran rampant. The economies of Latin America in the ‘Twenties were completely dominated by foreign money: the vast wealth of natural resources and cheap native labor were shamelessly exploited by American and European companies, much to the approval of their respective governments. Local Latin American leaders who cooperated with the foreign companies received the support of foreign governments, including military assistance, no matter how brutally they treated their own people and no matter how treacherously they rose to power. (The United States navy went so far as to actively sell arms to warring nations in South America so as to help keep America’s favorite dictators in place and boost American business.) The financial investment of foreign powers grew by vast amounts throughout the ‘Twenties, and many of the loans carried with them harsh mortgage terms which left many South Americans feeling that their countries and their futures were being sold right out from under them. Bolivia and Paraguay got into a shooting war with each other over a jungle territory called the Chaco which lay between them: nobody had much cared exactly where the border was until foreign companies wanted to drill for oil or harvest timber, when suddenly it was worth fighting over. When the American stock market crashed in 1929, the foreign investment suddenly dried up and a wave of armed revolutions swept through Latin America. Augusto Leguía, who had run Peru since 1919, was the first dictator to be taken down in 1930. He was followed in rapid succession by the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. In 1931 the rulers of Chile, Panama, Honduras and El Salvador were overthrown. Many of the rebels who stepped into power proved to be just as tyrannical, and instability followed in almost every country: Brazil in particular suffered from bloody civil strife. Uruguay and Argentina were by far the richest and most European of all the countries in South America at the time. Uruguay was frequently likened to Switzerland, and it enjoyed an extremely liberal socialistic government under José Batlle y Ordónez throughout the ‘20s, with a unique constitutional structure and a strong international presence. But even Uruguay succumbed to dictatorship in 1933 when president Gabriel Terra led a coup against his own government. Venezuela and Costa Rica were remarkable for their relative peace and quiet during the period.
Cuba was a very popular tourist destination for Americans during Prohibition, and Havana was a party town where the liquor flowed freely. The country was occupied by U.S. Marines in 1917, and they stayed for five years, during which time America more or less ran the country. But in 1924 Gerardo Machado was elected president, and at first seemed to be a liberal, responsible leader who initiated lots of good public works and maintained friendly international relations. The U.S. withdrew her troops and let him run the country as he saw fit. Sadly, he rapidly turned into one of the most brutal dictators of the entire region, closing the university, crushing the press, and imprisoning and murdering his critics. Fishing in the harbor at Havana was made illegal for fear that someone would hook a human corpse. He manipulated politics and the law in order to lengthen his own tenure in office, and accumulated vast personal wealth. Secret terrorist groups formed to oppose him, most notably the A.B.C., composed of students, the intelligentsia, and former political leaders. Machado continued in power into the early ‘Thirties, and despite growing opposition at home, Hoover did nothing to stop him. It wasn’t until Roosevelt took office that the U.S. finally withdrew its support. Machado fled from Cuba in late 1933, and the country remained in political turmoil, marked by resentment of America, from that time on. The U.S. also interfered heavily in other Central American countries: Marines occupied Haiti continuously from 1915 to 1933, and the Dominican Republic until 1924, when a dictator similar to Machado was installed. They occupied Nicaragua from 1912 until 1925, and went back in 1927 to fight the brilliant guerilla leader Augusto César Sandino until 1933. The U.S. backed off, at least militarily, when Roosevelt took office and proclaimed the “Good Neighbor Policy,” forswearing further armed intervention.
Germany in the ‘Twenties was governed by the Weimar Republic, set up after the fall of the Kaiser. The Treaty of Versailles, in addition to forcing Germany to take the blame for starting the war, also required her to pay massive reparations, which ruined the German economy. A loaf of bread, for example, had cost 0.63 Marks in 1918; by the end of 1922 the price had risen to 250 Marks. In 1923 Germany experienced hyperinflation: prices rose drastically day by day, and by November that same loaf of bread cost 201,000,000,000 Marks. Claiming that Germany was causing the inflation intentionally to get out of paying reparations, France occupied the Ruhr valley, site of the Krupps munitions factories and many other German industries. International criticism and local resistance to the occupation was intense, but in 1924 a committee led by U.S. banker Charles Dawes devised a plan of fixed payments and international loans that brought some stability back to the situation. When the German government agreed to the Dawes plan, the French withdrew from the Ruhr, and the following year European relations were further improved with the Locarno treaties that guaranteed the integrity of national borders. The aging war hero Paul von Hindenburg was elected president of the republic in 1925, and Germany simmered along until the Great Depression. Berlin, along with Paris, became famous for its decadently hedonistic night life.
Adolf Hitler had served as a corporal in the war, and had won three medals for bravery in combat. In 1920 he was one of the first seven members of the German Workers’ Party, preaching the rejection of the Versailles treaty, the hatred of Jews and Marxists, and the return to glory of a military German empire. In 1921 he formed his own personal paramilitary force, the S.A. (Sturmabteilung), made up of thugs outfitted in brown-shirted uniforms with swastika armbands. With their force behind him he became leader of the party, which was renamed the National Socialist (Nazi) Workers’ Party. In November of 1923, at the height of the terrifying hyperinflation crisis, he attempted to take over the government in the Munich beer hall putsch. His march into Munich with 3000 men was defeated by police resistance, however, and a few days later Hitler was arrested and sentenced to prison for five years. Commentators regarded him as a crackpot and his political career seemed to be over. He served nine months of the sentence, during which time he dictated the first volume of Mein Kampf, his autobiography and manifesto, to fellow prisoner Rudolph Hess. He waited patiently after getting out of prison, having come to the conclusion that the best way to take over the country was to do it from within the existing political institutions. In 1926 he formed his own personal bodyguard, the S.S. (Schutzstaffel). When the American economy collapsed in 1929, and with it the network of international loans which supported the European economy, Hitler’s career was revivified. Using his extremely effective oratory skills and the intimidating power of his stormtroopers, he attracted mass support for the Nazi party amongst the suffering German population. The Nazis won seats in the Reichstag, and an intense struggle for power developed between Hitler, the army, sometime chancellor Franz von Papen, and sometime chancellor Kurt von Schleicher, each of whom baffled old president Hindenburg with lies and false promises. Papen and Schleicher each thought they could use Hitler and the Nazis to gain power for themselves: “Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in the corner that he'll squeak,” Papen had said. Masterfully taking advantage of the intrigues and his rivals’ tendencies to underestimate him, telling numerous lies and promising people anything they wanted to hear, Hitler managed to get himself named Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. In February the Reichstag building was burned down: the fire was set by the Nazis, but blamed on the communists and pinned on a Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe. The anti-communist hysteria generated by the fire enabled the Nazis to win a majority in the elections the next month, and helped convince Hindenburg to sign an emergency decree that gave Hitler some dictatorial powers. On March 23rd, just three weeks after Roosevelt had been inaugurated, Hitler was legally made the dictator of Germany, when the newly-elected, Nazi-dominated Reichstag passed the Enabling Act. He had taken over Germany from the inside, just as he’d planned.
All parties but the Nazi party were immediately outlawed, as were all labor unions. The Dachau concentration camp was in operation by 1933, and in the same year Hermann Goering created the Gestapo. In June of 1934, as part of a deal to retain the support of the regular army, Hitler launched a ruthless purge of the S.A. known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” in which Ernst Röhm, Kurt von Schleicher, and many other rivals were murdered by the S.S. Hindenburg died in August, and Hitler promptly declared the Weimar Republic over, and the Third Reich begun with himself as Führer. In 1935 the Nuremburg laws were passed, formalizing anti-Semitism and depriving Jews of all rights. In 1936 he began rearming Germany, and initiated the territorial expansions that would lead to the second world war.
In 1911 Italy had taken over Libya from the Ottoman Turks. Italy had fought with the Allies in the Great War, but it was not very well represented at the peace negotiations and received only Tyrol and Trieste, which many Italians felt was inadequate reward for their efforts. In 1919, a wealthy and flamboyant former novelist and poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had fought bravely in the Italian air force in the war, raised a private band of troops, the Blackshirts, and seized the Adriatic port city of Fiume on the border of Yugoslavia. For fifteen months he held it, ruling it as an authoritarian dictator, until the Italian government starved him out. D’Annunzio had many supporters, however, and the incident precipitated a crisis in Italy that led to governmental paralysis and virtual civil war in 1920 and ‘21, with rioting in many cities between communists and right-wing nationalists. Benito Mussolini, who had been a socialist newspaper editor before the war, was inspired by D’Annunzio’s style. In 1919 he helped to form the Fascist party, gaining support from wealthy landowners and industrialists who feared Communist takeover. In 1922 he led the Blackshirts in a dramatically staged march on Rome, after which he was invited by the king to be Prime Minister of a new government. Mussolini relied on the brute force of the Blackshirts to gain political advantage, and in 1924 a socialist politician named Giacomo Matteotti accused him openly of intimidating voters and destroying opposition newspapers. Matteotti was murdered, which led to further rioting. Although Mussolini acknowledged responsibility for the murder, he used it as an excuse to impose censorship on the press and ban all socialists. By 1925 he was the undisputed dictator of Fascist Italy. In 1929 he signed a treaty with Pope Pius XI which established Vatican City as a separate political entity, and greatly improved relations between the government and the Catholic church.
In addition to Libya, Italy dominated Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, two coastal areas on the horn of Africa separated by the independent country of Abyssinia (also called Ethiopia). The Italians had been beaten by the Ethiopians when they had attempted to colonize in 1896, and Mussolini was eager to try again. In the 1920s, Abyssinia was ruled by a regent, Ras Tafari, the great nephew of the former tribal emperor. Ras Tafari was internationally popular, recognized as a capable statesman and well liked by fellow world leaders: he even persuaded the curmudgeonly Paul von Hindenburg to give him an autograph in exchange for a pair of zebras. He brought Abyssinia into the League of Nations, and in 1928 was crowned as king. In 1930 he was elevated to Emperor and renamed Haile Selassie, in a fabulous ceremony that combined the modern and the traditional. Mussolini launched a cold-blooded invasion of Abyssinia from his neighboring territories in 1935, conquering it and establishing Italian East Africa in 1936. The League of Nations protested and even imposed some sanctions, but Mussolini did not back down and the League, fearful of provoking a war, let him have his way. Haile Selassie fled to exile in Britain.
The only other independent country in Africa in the time of Lovecraft was Liberia. Founded in 1847 by freed African slaves from America, it was the oldest independent republic on the continent. In the 1920s it was just beginning to enjoy some prosperity when the Firestone Rubber Company planted huge areas for rubber production. The rest of Africa was ruled by European powers, either as mandates, protectorates, or outright colonies. France had the lion’s share of the land, controlling almost all of west Africa (including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and the Sahara desert), “equatorial Africa” (including what would later be Chad, Gabon, Central Africa, and Congo), and the island of Madagascar. Britain had less land but more population, controlling Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, the Sudan, a portion of Somaliland the Italians didn’t get, Tanganyika (which they took over from the defeated Germans), and most of southern Africa including the Rhodesias. Portugal controlled Angola and Mozambique, and Spain controlled the Rio de Oro, a western coastal area just opposite and including the Canary Islands, along with the small patch of Morocco just across the strait of Gibraltar not including Tangier, which was declared a neutral, international port. And at the heart of it all was the Belgian Congo. The European landlords tried to keep order without caring too much about their tenants, leaving various missionaries and industrial companies to their work. The richness and complexity of tribal cultures and history were not given much chance to express themselves under European domination, and the continent remained relatively quiet throughout the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties. Resistance forces in Morocco led by Abd al-Krim did fight against both Spain and France in the early ‘Twenties: in July of 1921 they inflicted 12,000 casualties on the Spanish army. But Abd al-Krim was finally forced to surrender in 1925 and sent to prison on Réunion. More demands for autonomy were made in the later ‘30s, and it was from Spanish Morocco that Francisco Franco launched the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
Spain had been dominated by her armed forces for a long time, and the tensions between civilian and military authorities in the time of Lovecraft proved unbearable. Many forces threatened to tear Spain apart: socialist revolution, regional separatist movements, anti-clericalism, and anarchy were everywhere. The defeats in Morocco were leading to political embarrassment at home, and to forestall parliamentary investigations, in 1923 King Alfonso XIII gave power to General Primo de Rivera, who ruled as a military dictator until 1930. His firm regime managed to keep order, barely, but by catering to the wealthy landowners it only served to increase the hostility of the socialists, the separatists, and the desperate peasant farmers for whom daily life itself was a monumental struggle. When he finally stepped down because of his poor health, the king went with him, fleeing the country and the hatred of his subjects in 1931. A republican government was set up led by Manuel Azaña. It separated church from state, tried to reform the army, granted some autonomy to discontented Catalonia, and allowed for participation by many different, and mutually antagonistic, political parties. But the Republic of 1931 was simply not capable of dealing with the incredible internal struggles of Spain. And with the rise of militant Fascism in Italy and Germany in the early ‘Thirties the situation became much much worse. Violent incidents between Fascists and Communists occurred with increasing frequency, general strikes and separatist fighting led to armed uprisings against the government and against the Catholic church, and in 1934 an attempt at social revolution by miners in the province of Asturias was smashed by the government using Moorish troops and the Foreign Legion. Martial law was declared and tens of thousands were imprisoned on political charges. Young leaders of political parties formed armed groups of men whose devotion to their beliefs bordered on fanaticism: they marched and drilled in public, and frequently fought each other in the streets. Elections in 1936 established a new government led by the Popular Front, a coalition of Socialists, Communists, and left-leaning members of the previous government. The military, led by Francisco Franco and Emilio Mola, decided that the time had come for a military coup against this new government.
Coordinated attacks starting in Morocco began in mid-July, and within a few days Franco’s Insurgents controlled about a third of Spain. But they did not succeed in taking the major cities, and what was intended to be an efficient coup turned into a three-year nightmare: in some very real ways an international rehearsal for the second world war. Both sides almost immediately turned to foreign governments for assistance. Franco received abundant help from Italy and Germany, whose Fascist regimes were very much on his side. Italy sent 70,000 men and materiel; Germany sent The Condor Legion to get some practical field experience for the next war which Hitler was planning. The Republican government turned first to France, which at that time was led by Socialist Premier Léon Blum, and then to Soviet Russia. The English people generally were sympathetic to the Republic, but the English government wanted Franco to win. Although Léon Blum wanted to help the Republic, he was afraid to antagonize the British government, which he saw as the only ally France would have if Germany resumed its warlike ways. After hurriedly providing some airplanes and other arms, the French joined the British in creating the Non-Intervention Committee, the professed goal of which was to prevent the Spanish conflict from becoming a general European war. Germany and Italy both agreed to the Non-Intervention plan “in principle,” but in actual fact both governments went right on assisting Franco. The Russians gave help to the Republic, while at the same time pursuing their own international revolutionary agenda. The United States officially stayed out of it, although American oil companies sold oil to Franco.
No horror fiction writer could come up with a more terrifying picture of fanatical and violent chaos than was seen in Spain in those days. In the areas controlled by the Republic, full-scale social revolution broke out with socialists, Communists, anarchists, peasants, separatists and everyone all fighting with each other as well as with the Franco forces. Catholic churches were attacked and symbolic executions of religious statues were staged, along with real executions of priests and political prisoners, with unburied corpses left to rot. As the Russian Communists took greater control, Stalin’s paranoia was exported to Spain. In the areas controlled by Franco a brutal Fascist counter-revolution was established: martial law was declared and army officers were empowered to shoot civilians, seemingly at random. Local governmental leaders and intellectuals were routinely executed. The people were subject to arrest or execution at any moment and for any reason. Bands of teenage thugs drove stolen cars through the streets, shooting people at random, just for fun. And in both zones, the only authorities to whom you might turn for help were the very ones who sponsored the terror.
In November of 1936 Franco’s Insurgents prepared to assault the capital, Madrid. Largo Caballero, then prime minister of the Republic, didn’t think the city would survive, and so he arranged for the evacuation of the government to Valencia. He left a loyal but otherwise undistinguished general, José Miaja, in charge of the defense of the city, presumably to supervise its surrender. Much to everyone’s surprise, Miaja managed to coordinate his army’s efforts with the civilian population and the special voluntary fighting forces. He told his troops there was only one order, “to resist,” and when they asked him where they should retreat to if retreat became necessary, he replied, “to the cemetery.” When the Franco attack against Madrid began on November 8, Miaja and his forces were ready. They were assisted by members of the newly-formed International Brigade, volunteers from all over the world who believed in the anti-fascist cause: many of them were veterans of the Great War, and they were instrumental in turning back the Franco forces. The first battle for Madrid lasted ten days without pause. The Insurgents dropped thousands and thousands of bombs on the city, which of course had no air-raid shelters and almost no anti-aircraft guns. Savage hand-to-hand combat raged on the outskirts of the town. But the Republicans held their positions, and after November 18th the Insurgents had to give up, focusing their attentions elsewhere. Madrid became a besieged city, and would remain one until the very end of the war in 1939.
The volunteers of the International Brigade believed that they were doing their part to fight Fascism, which in the later ‘Thirties was a serious concern to everyone in Europe. But many of them were deeply disillusioned by their experiences with the Republic, experiences which often descended into the realm of Kafkaesque nightmare. They found that the International Communist Party was in control, and that it employed methods just as oppressive and violent as any Fascist atrocity. Volunteers were subjected to rabid political indoctrination, frequent arrest and detention, and censorship in their personal communications. Completely cut off from their home countries, if something happened to them they were helpless. If they ever complained they were accused of being Fascists, risking imprisonment or even death. After the successful defense of Madrid the tenuous unity of the Republican forces deteriorated still further, while the Insurgents gained increasing support from other world governments. The fighting continued on the northern front, where one of the most infamous attacks of the war took place in 1937, when the Condor Legion, apparently just for practice, bombed the small defenseless town of Guernica and slaughtered 1600 civilians. In 1938 Franco formed a government of his own which was increasingly regarded as the legitimate government of Spain: his troops came to be known as the Nationalists. By then, Hitler had already taken Austria and was making moves on Czechoslovakia, and Spain’s ongoing stalemate was of less concern to European leaders than their own problems were. England’s prime minister Neville Chamberlain was trying to prevent a general war by appeasing the Germans. When England, France, Italy and Germany signed the Munich Pact in September of 1938, giving away Czechoslovakia to the Germans, it became clear that the Republican government could expect a similar fate. In February of 1939 Britain and France both recognized the Franco government, cutting the Republic loose. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had not been invited to sign the Munich Pact, which was one of the reasons why it distrusted the British. Worried that Britain was trying to provoke a war between Russia and Germany, Russia made its own friendly overtures to the Germans. The Republic had no friends left. After a few last battles, at the end of March the Republicans surrendered, and Francisco Franco became the undisputed ruler of Spain.
The Spanish Civil War was the proving ground for much of the weaponry and strategy which would soon tear up all of Europe. In particular it demonstrated how useful fighter planes and bombers could be, and created a huge market for anti-aircraft artillery: governments around the world invested huge sums in developing such weapons. Although Franco’s forces were generally well supplied by the Germans and the Italians, Republican Spain bought much of its arms on the black market, relying on Great War surplus and 1920s munitions. (At times their supply of ammunition was so low that some soldiers were issued blanks, just so that they could keep up appearances and bolster the morale of their comrades!) The war also refreshed bitter cynicism worldwide, a generation after the Great War had created it. Spain’s war would not have lasted so long if not for foreign interference: Franco’s coup probably would have failed from the very beginning if it hadn’t been for Italian and German aid, and the Republic could not have held Madrid without Russian help and the soldiers of the International Brigade. On one hand, the Western democratic powers had sat by and allowed a democratically elected government to be crushed by Fascists: had even helped the Fascists do it. On the other hand, that democratically elected government had turned out to be, according to the international volunteers who had fought for it, just as brutal and ruthless and politically self-serving as any Fascist could be. It was hard to know who to root for, and it all seemed ugly, ignoble and useless.
The Middle East site of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylon and Çatal Huyuk, location of the mystical city of many-pillared Irem, home of Abdul Alhazred, birthplace of the Necronomicon is a region of particular interest to a Cthulhoid protagonist. It was, as it still is, an incredibly complex and ever-changing place, with bitter struggle amongst a wide variety of players motivated by an even wider variety of loyalties, from the most passionately religious to the most selfishly venal. Some of the maps of the early ‘20s don’t even bother to show the borders, because they changed so often or weren’t agreed upon. The countries and many of the rivalries that we know today were created in the time of Lovecraft.
Prior to the Great War, the lands of Egypt and the Arabian peninsula had long been under the domination of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The sultan’s capital at Constantinople was also the seat of the caliphate, the spiritual leadership of the Islamic faith. The sultan and the caliph were, in fact, one and the same person: Mehmet VI Vahideddin. But the empire was destroyed by the war, and was set to be dismantled by humiliating peace settlements. Before the details of those settlements could be worked out, local rebellion against partition by Turkish resistance fighters broke out, led by Mustafa Kemal. Determined to preserve Turkish national independence, Kemal led his forces against a brutal invasion by the Greek army beginning in 1919. Kemal was declared president of a new Turkish government in 1920 with its capital at Angora, and gained the friendship of the Russian revolutionary government: the alliance worked well for both of them, as it allowed them to focus their efforts against their other enemies, and they sealed their new friendship by invading and splitting up Armenia between them. The Greeks, strongly encouraged by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, continued to fight and both sides committed atrocities against the other. By 1922 it was turning into a disaster. The Greek commander-in-chief was generally regarded as insane, and the Greek army was losing badly, despite being backed up by the British. Western powers were quick to blame each other for the debacle, and the alliances of the Great War broke apart. The United States was accused of having created the situation by manipulating the postwar peace terms to suit itself, meddling in the political and religious structures of the region, and then backing out of all its obligations. The great ancient city of Smyrna was the site of one of the last cataclysmic battles. On September 13, 1922 it was set ablaze: three quarters of it were destroyed, and an uncountable number of residents were killed. Young Ernest Hemingway was a war correspondent covering the scene, and wrote that he could not shake the sight of a twenty-mile long procession of vanquished Greek refugees. Greece acknowledged defeat in late 1922, and in 1923 the world recognized Turkey as an independent democratic republic, with Mustafa Kemal as its president. The Constantinople government was dismantled, the sultan was banished, and the Ottoman Empire, after almost 600 years, was dead.
Kemal forcefully guided Turkey through a transformation into a European, western-style state. Over a million Greeks living in Turkey were forcefully sent back to Greece, and Turks living in Greece were compelled to come home to Turkey. Kemal made Angora (now called Ankara) the permanent capital of the country, and removed military and religious influences from the government, doing everything he could to wipe out the public memory of the Ottoman past and replace it with secular Turkish nationalism. In 1924 the caliphate itself was abolished, and shortly thereafter the Islamic holy law, the shariah, was replaced by European legal traditions. In 1928 he ordered that the Latin alphabet be used to replace the Arabic one in the Turkish language. Although authoritarian in execution, most of his reforms were liberal and progressive in spirit: he greatly increased the public education system, industrialization, and the emancipation of women. In 1930 Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. In 1932 Turkey joined the League of Nations, and enjoyed good foreign relations throughout the period, remaining neutral and disavowing any expansionist ambitions. In 1935 the national assembly bestowed upon Kemal the name Atatürk (“father of the Turks”): he died in 1938 one of the most remarkable leaders of the world in the time of Lovecraft.
During the Great War, in order to protect the Suez canal and its route to India, the British had declared Egypt a protectorate, installing a British high commissioner and a considerable military force. They also made deals with Hussein ibn Ali, the Sherif of Mecca, as a result of which Hussein believed that if he led an Arab revolt against the Turkish army, he would receive British support for his personal family power and the independence of Arabia. British army officers, among them T. E. Lawrence, served as the military advisers to Hussein and his sons, Feisal, Abdullah, and Ali, in their campaign against the Turks. At the same time, the British and the French were making secret deals of their own to carve up the Middle East between themselves when the war was over. And, to complicate matters still further, in 1917 the British released the Balfour Declaration, which said that the British would support the creation of a Jewish national state in Palestine, with the understanding that the non-Jewish people who lived there would not lose their own civil or religious rights in the process.
The vast network of promises made or implied or assumed during the war were broken or denied or bargained over in the peace process. Settlements regarding the Middle East took an unexpectedly long time it was two years before details were finally put on paper and by the time they were enacted it was in some ways too late. The Arab forces led by Feisal were left in control of Damascus at the end of the war, and in March of 1920 they declared Feisal King of Syria, which to them included all of Palestine, Lebanon, and what is now the country of Jordan. But the European allies had other ideas. The United States government, which was originally meant to have played a more significant part in the post-war administration of the region, decided to pull out completely, leaving Britain and France to form an uneasy alliance. And at the San Remo Conference of April 1920, under the authority of the League of Nations, Britain took over Mesopotamia and Palestine, in addition to Egypt which it already controlled; France took Syria, subsequently booting Feisal off his throne by force. The rest of the Arabian peninsula would be “independent,” but under the indirect control of Britain, which already controlled Koweit (Kuwait), Aden, and other areas along the coasts of the Persian Gulf, and the Red and Arabian Seas. Britain and France were authorized to hold these territories as “Mandates,” and were theoretically responsible for preparing them for ultimate independence as self-sufficient nations. The native inhabitants were not remotely satisfied, and fighting against the Europeans continued throughout the region.
Hussein and his sons felt deeply betrayed by the San Remo settlements, and Britain may have felt a little bit guilty about Feisal’s treatment at the hands of the French. Britain had also been fighting against strong popular uprisings in Mesopotamia, and the losses of men and money were high. Winston Churchill, then serving as the colonial secretary, summoned all the British leaders of the region to a conference at Cairo in March of 1921 to discuss the situation. As T. E. Lawrence wrote to his brother, “Everybody Middle East is here.” In an attempt to cut costs and keep the situation from getting more unpleasant, the British took their three embattled but unrelated Mesopotamian provinces of Mosul, Bagdad, and Basra, drew a border around them, and called them Irak (also sometimes spelled Iraq). They then offered Feisal the throne, and he was installed as the King of Irak in August, with the band playing the British national anthem at the ceremony. Thus was created a completely artificial country, inhabited by mutually antagonistic communities of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Sunni Moslems, Shiite Moslems, Christians, Jews, etc., all ruled by a man who had never lived among them and who was regarded by some of them as a foreigner in league with the British. Considering what he had to work with, Feisal did a rather good job, and built Irak into a western-style nation which gained more genuine independence in 1932, when it was admitted to the League of Nations. Feisal died in 1933, and was succeeded by his son Ghazi, who proved a much less talented king. Without a strong central leader, various politicians and army officers struggled for power throughout the rest of the ‘Thirties, sometimes violently. Although they gave up direct political and military control, the British did hold on to the oil rights in Irak, having signed in 1925 a 75-year deal which gave the British ownership of the oil and promised royalties to Irak for each ton pumped from the ground.
In 1922 Hussein’s other son, Abdullah, was similarly given an invented country to rule. The Bedouin tribes and other inhabitants of the deserts in eastern Palestine did not pay much attention to European intrigues, and went on living after the war much as they had for centuries. This included raiding their neighbors in the chivalric and occasionally deadly game of livestock theft, known as ghrazzu. The French, who controlled Syria, were getting very annoyed with Bedouins who raided their territory from inside British Palestine, and tensions between the two western powers rose. In an attempt to bring the raiding parties under control, the British drew borders around their mandated Palestinian territory east of the Jordan river and called it Transjordania, and installed Abdullah as the Emir. Amman, at that time a village with no more than 5000 inhabitants, was made the capital. (The lands of Transjordania comprised a large part of what was historically considered to be Palestine, but few people in charge at the time seemed to appreciate the long-term implications of arbitrarily making it a separate political entity.) Abdullah was on the British payroll, and the British retained control of the army, the economy, and foreign policy. A military police force known as the Arab Legion was created to keep order on the frontiers, and in 1930 an internal force, the Desert Patrol, was established under the command of Captain John Glubb. The Desert Patrol proved very effective at subduing the local Bedouin raiders using armored cars and airplanes, and by recruiting them to join its ranks: their passionate love of fighting and intense loyalty to Abdullah combined with British military discipline made them formidable soldiers. Transjordania remained relatively calm and stable throughout the time of Lovecraft, with Abdullah slowly gaining increasing independence from Britain. The name of the territory was popularly shortened to Transjordan by the mid-‘20s, and after the second world war it would become a country in its own right, known even more simply as Jordan.
Hussein himself didn’t fare as well as his sons. During the war, he had declared himself “king of the Arab countries,” but there were a great many Arabs who disregarded his pretentious claims. After the war, he had to content himself with being King of the Hedjaz, the territory along the western edge of the Arabian peninsula that contains the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But Hussein was not at all popular with the Hedjazis, who had preferred the Ottoman government and regarded him as a puppet of the British. The British didn’t like him either, since he had megalomaniacal tendencies and grandiose ambitions which antagonized everyone. In 1924, when the Turks abandoned it, he claimed the title of caliph, the most exalted position in Islam, and this arrogance was more than his neighbors could bear. Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, the king of the Nejd, which constituted the vast bulk of the Arabian peninsula, invaded the Hedjaz and captured Mecca. Hussein stepped down and was escorted by the British to exile in Cyprus. Saud, with his conservative fundamentalist Muslim sect of the Wahabis, was thus left in control of most of Arabia, and he proved to be a potent leader who commanded the respect of his people and the international community. In 1927 he signed the Treaty of Jeddah with the British, formally establishing himself as the King of Hedjaz and Nejd, but permitting the British to retain their domination over the coastal areas, thus protecting their route to India. In 1932 Saud’s territories were officially renamed Saudi Arabia. Oil was finally discovered in 1938, but it was not to be fully exploited until after W. W. II. Saud’s kingdoms in the time of Lovecraft were not wealthy: most of the government’s money came from the pilgrims making the hajj to Mecca and Medina, or from British subsidies.
And in the rest of British Palestine was born the conflict between Jews and Arabs which rages to this day. Zionism as an active political movement was founded in the 1880s in Russia, and focused through the writings of Leo Pinsker and Theodor Herzl. During the Great War, Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist spokesman in London, successfully made his case to members of the British Government, and in 1917 the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, wrote to Lord Rothschild that the British would “view with favour” the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Zionists took this for a promise, and throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s tried to hold the British to it. The Zionists, the British, and the resident Arab majority could never agree on just what form a Jewish national home would take, however, or what lands were included in Palestine, and while the British tried to avoid commitments, the Jews and the Arabs adopted increasingly hostile and irreconcilable positions. Zionist leaders encouraged immigration and settlement, and Jews bought land from absentee Arab owners, which greatly increased the tension. Jewish immigrants arrived in waves called aliyahs: one aliyah lasted from 1919 to 1923, and another aliyah came from 1924 to 1926. Violent conflict broke out in 1929 when riots which started at the Wailing Wall led to the deaths of over 200 people. More than 1000 people, mostly Arabs, died in 1936 as a result of further riots, mutual attacks, and a general strike led by Arabs against the British and the Jews. A British commission investigating this round of violence recommended that Palestine be divided into separate Jewish and Arab states, but neither side would agree to it: the Arabs objected outright, and the Jews complained that their half wasn’t big enough. Spontaneous popular Arab revolt against the British and the Jews followed, leading to all-out rebellion in 1938. The British sent 20,000 troops into Palestine, and the independent Jewish security forces also took military action against the rebellious Arab peasants. By the time the chaos was ended in 1939, at least 3000 Arabs, 2000 Jews, and 600 British had been killed.
The ancient country of Persia was separated from its neighbors by language and religion (predominantly Shiite Muslim, rather than Sunni), but like them it was also reshaped following the Great War. Russia had taken over the north half of the country during the war, and Britain had occupied the south half. The Russians pulled out once the Communist revolution got underway, but the British remained to protect their oil interests, and the government in Tehran grew increasingly dependent on British help. In 1921 a colonel in the Cossack Brigade named Reza Khan saw his opportunity. He marched with 3000 men into Tehran and led a bloodless coup d’état: by 1925 he had arranged for himself to become the Shah, claiming for himself the oldest monarchy on earth. Like Atatürk, Reza Shah instituted liberal western-style reforms with an iron-fisted, authoritarian approach, suppressing his enemies and occasionally killing them. He accumulated great personal wealth and ensured the loyalty of his army and bureaucracy by spreading the money and the favors around. Like Atatürk, Reza Shah tried to secularize society: Islamic law was replaced by European systems, although the shariah continued to be applied in family matters. The social status of women was improved somewhat, though the changes were mostly superficial. The country’s transportation and educational systems were greatly improved, and industrialization was increased. Reza Shah didn’t care much about the tribes and peasants who lived outside the cities, and the life of the common people was made more difficult during his reign. Reza Shah was never able to take control of the country’s oil away from the British, and relations between the two countries became increasingly strained. In 1936 the name of Persia was officially changed on Western maps to Iran, a traditional name meaning “land of the Aryans,” in reference to the ancient ancestral conquerors of the region. The Shah grew increasingly friendly with Germany throughout the ‘30s, and German propagandists exploited the Aryan link. By the time the second world war erupted, Reza Shah was regarded as a Nazi sympathizer and a serious threat by the British and the Russians, who once again occupied the country.
Syria, site of Damascus where Lovecraft’s Alhazred met his fate was very firmly in the control of the French throughout the time of Lovecraft. Claiming a long-standing commercial and religious interest in the region, the French won Syria as a mandate in the San Remo conference, and ruled it directly and without much concern for the satisfaction of the local population. In an attempt to ensure that the Maronite Christian community of Mount Lebanon would not have to live in a country ruled by Muslims, the French created a separate district of Syria called Greater Lebanon in 1920, giving the Maronites the religious majority. Beirut was the capital, but the French added several non-Christian territories to Greater Lebanon including the ancient cities of Tyre and Sidon, so that the Maronites were not a majority in the population at large, thus guaranteeing that Lebanon would remain a politically unstable place dependent on French control. The Lebanese people were able to work with the French and with each other with reasonable success, and in 1926 the Lebanese Republic was founded, still very much under French domination. In 1936 Greater Lebanon signed a treaty with France that would have gained it still greater freedom, but with the outbreak of the second world war France canceled the plans. The rest of Syria did not take to French rule so calmly. The French made no pretense of setting up local rulers, as the British did, and maintained a strong administrative and military presence throughout Syria, earning the enmity of the native inhabitants. In 1925 local animosity reached the boiling point, and violent popular revolts rocked the region for two years. The fighting was led by Sultan Atrash, chieftain of the Jabal Druze, a religious sect living south of Damascus, and quickly spread to other areas. The French responded with massive military action, bombarding Damascus in October of 1925 for forty-eight hours. When the fighting finally ended in 1927, more than 6000 Syrians had been killed. Local leaders formed a political organization after the revolt called the National Bloc, and France worked with it to avoid new violence. There was some hope in the later ‘30s that France might actually relax its grip on the country, and a treaty allowing greater independence was drafted, as it had been in Lebanon, in 1936. But, as in Lebanon, these hopes were dashed in 1938 when the French government in Paris itself had hard times. In 1939 the French high commissioner suspended the Syrian constitution, dissolved the parliament, and ceded to Turkey the northern district of Alexandretta.
The British occupied Egypt during the Great War, declaring it a protectorate in 1914 and imposing martial law. The people of Egypt suffered hardships and were compelled to assist the British in the war effort against the Ottoman Turks, a group of people with whom they shared a religion and historical ties. After the war there was much resentment, especially as it became clear that the British had no intention of leaving the country. In 1919 this resentment became rebellion. A group of prominent, European-educated Egyptians led by Saad Zaghlul formed a delegation called the Wafd and asked the British to be allowed to represent Egypt at the Paris Peace Conference. When the British refused, Zaghlul and the Wafd toured Egypt appealing directly to the people, gaining much support. The British were so alarmed by their success that they arrested Zaghlul and his companions and exiled them to Malta. This was exactly the wrong move for Britain: it made Zaghlul a hero and stirred up popular anger which led to nationwide riots and protests for independence, making the Wafd a major political party. General Edmund Allenby, who had commanded the British army in the Middle East during the war and who was newly installed as the high commissioner of Egypt, decided to bring Zaghlul back and try to work with the Wafd. When the negotiations went nowhere, the British broke the impasse in 1922 by simply declaring Egypt to be independent, and promoting local sultan Ahmad Fuad to king. But the “independence” they granted reserved a lot of privileges for the British, and King Fuad was really under British control. In 1923 a European-style constitutional government was established, and the Wafd won control of parliament in 1924, with Saad Zaghlul serving as the first elected prime minister. The king, the British and the Wafd spent the rest of the time of Lovecraft struggling for power over Egyptian politics. Zaghlul died in 1927, and the influence of the Wafd was thereafter diminished by internal fighting. King Fuad died in 1936, and his heir, Farouk, did not quite fill his father’s Savile Row shoes. The British renegotiated the terms of independence in a new Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936, still retaining military privileges, and Egypt was admitted to the League of Nations in 1937, regarded by the world as an independent nation.
While the ruling elites were struggling for political control, the average Egyptian in the street was left feeling abandoned by all of the country’s would-be leaders. A number of popular movements arose to address the neglected needs of the general population, including a feminist movement, a labor movement, and an appeal to the classic pharaohnic past. But the most important grass-roots movement was the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna. It stressed the importance of Islam in Egyptian life, and did far more to help common Egyptians than the government did, setting up soup kitchens during the Depression, for example, and schools and factories. It attracted a devoted following among the working classes and among university students, and would go on to become a major political player after the second world war.
British and other western archeologists in Egypt had long enjoyed a loot-and-pillage style which left them free to take whatever they pleased, but that was changed in 1922. Once Egypt was technically declared “independent,” control over Egyptian archeological sites fell to local authorities. When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, he had to be quite sneaky about stealing the good stuff. He and his team entered the tomb secretly on the night of November 26 and removed choice pieces for themselves. They then resealed it and staged another “first entry” the following day in the presence of the new Egyptian authorities. An official for the Egyptian Service of Antiquities was present from then on to safeguard the treasure. British officials in Irak and other places also smuggled relics past newly-established local agencies.
With the constant turmoil and violence, travel in the Middle East in Lovecraft’s day was risky, and it was extremely important to have the sponsorship or hospitality of the right people. Although a Westerner could usually rely on the protection of the colonial authorities within the large cities, showing allegiance to Britain or France out in the countryside could get you killed. It certainly wouldn’t get you much friendly cooperation. It would be safer to rely on the hospitality of a local chieftain and make some effort to respect the local customs, no matter what advice to the contrary the British or French might give you. Middle Easterners had a strong sense of class structure and highly developed etiquette: the ancient desert laws of hospitality were taken quite seriously in many places, and Arabs could be quite sensitive to insult. They could also be quite fanatical about religion, and there were a truly dizzying variety of competing sects throughout the region, with hidden temples and ancient secrets aplenty. Clothing was a very powerful signifier of social status and political and religious affiliation. It could also be a matter of life and death. As part of his general reforms in Turkey, Atatürk made the wearing of a fez illegal in 1925, since in his view it represented a tie to the Islamic Ottoman past. He set an example by adopting the Panama hat for his public appearances. In Persia, Reza Khan made it illegal to wear any sort of traditional ethnic clothing: from 1928 Persian men were required to obtain and wear European-style suits. And in 1935 he passed a law requiring men to wear hats. (In a valiant attempt to obey this law, the poor men of remote villages would often share a community fedora, to be worn in turns by anyone who might have to confront the authorities.) Both leaders abolished the wearing of veils for women. Out in the desert, the Bedouin wore voluminous black wool robes which were actually far more comfortable and practical than any Western fashion. Even so, T. E. Lawrence was disdained by his fellow countrymen for “going native” when he abandoned his British uniform for a gumbaz and abba.
Although it was known that there was oil in the region, and some wells were active in Persia and Irak, the Middle East was not yet a major player in the petroleum industry (which itself was still subordinate to coal). Large cities like Cairo and Bagdad were increasingly equipped with modern amenities, but out in the country life was quite austere: in some places downright medieval. Even so, a traveler would occasionally see a Druze warrior in traditional costume wearing a modern pair of sunglasses, or find an Ever Ready flashlight in the tent of his Beni Sakhr host. Camel caravans and airplanes were available ways to travel, but the Nairn transport company operated a guarded fleet of Cadillacs that drove straight across the desert from Damascus to Bagdad three times per week. It was the quickest, safest, and most comfortable way to cross Arabia: part of the $125-per-person fare went to pay off the Bedouin tribes who might otherwise have been tempted to rob it more often.
American Minority Politics
Most people today envision women in the 1920s dressed in fringe and pearls, dancing the Charleston and tippling from a boyfriend’s flask. Although such flighty and picturesque “flappers” did exist, they were only a very ostentatious minority, found mostly on college campuses and at posh New York society parties. In general, women in the ‘Twenties were an increasingly serious and important influence on American life.
On August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was finally passed, giving women the right to vote. The fight for women’s suffrage had been a long and hard one, beginning during the Civil War era in the anti-slavery movement, and involving such formidable figures as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Opponents of suffrage feared, among other things, that women would rapidly become a powerful reform-minded voting bloc that would wreak havoc on established power structures. No such upheaval occurred, however: many women, especially young flappers, displayed no interest in politics and didn’t exercise their new-won right. Some others voted in line with their husbands or fathers. Many women, however, were eager to jump into the political scene, not least the ones who had been in it all along.
With the achievement of suffrage, most people believedor assumedthat women were at last socially and legally equal to men, and the organized women’s movement went into a decline as a result. The principal objective having been won, the focus of women’s issues shifted from political and economic equality to social and sexual identity. Modern household conveniences, available in ever growing numbers, made housework much simpler, giving the average housewife much more free time. And, much to the concern of many conservative male preachers, traditional behavioral and social restrictions on women were quickly being eased. Ten or twenty years earlier, a woman unescorted by a man would not be permitted to eat in a restaurant, for example, and she couldn’t dare smoke a cigarette in public. In the 1920s such constraints were cast aside. Young women wore lots of makeup, risqué clothing, drank in bars, and smoked like chimneys. As women discovered that they could now get away with behavior that would have landed their mothers in jail, they struggled to define their new place in society.
This strugglea big part of a so-called “moral decay of America” (which was never really as dire as the preachers claimed)tended to obscure the fact that actual political and economic equality had not in fact been achieved. During the war, women had gone to work in factories and offices, replacing men who were fighting overseas. They were not paid as much as the men had been, because it was understood that they were only filling in temporarily. But after the war, when women still in the labor force were obviously permanent, regular workers, they still earned less than half of what men made doing the same jobs. Realizing that such inequities still dominated the system, the women at the forefront of the suffrage movement went on to new political challenges. Carrie Chapman Catt and Lucretia Mott, who had inherited the legacy of Susan B. Anthony, continued to fight for women’s issues, and Alice Paul drafted and began promoting an equal rights amendment in 1923 (which has yet to be adopted).
Women with real political power were rare, and usually operated behind the scenes. First Lady Edith Wilson had basically run the country on several occasions when her husband Woodrow had been critically ill, and rumors that Florence Harding was the real brains in the White House during her husband’s term were reflected in one of her nicknames: behind her back people called her “The Duchess.” Miriam Ferguson was the First Lady of Texas until her corrupt husband was thrown out of office: then she ran for governor herself and won an equally corrupt two-year term in 1924. Marie Caroline Brehm ran for U.S. Vice President with the Prohibition Party against Coolidge in 1924. She and her running mate, Herman Faris, got about 50,000 votes. Women took a more visible role in national politics during the ‘Thirties, led by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt herself. She was famous for her activism, and for her syndicated newspaper column, “My Day.” Frances Perkins was appointed Secretary of Labor by F.D.R., becoming the first woman to serve on a Presidential cabinet.
The vast majority of American women did their work at home. Those with careers outside excelled in every occupation, although most were nurses or teachers. Forty percent of all Master’s degrees were earned by women in the ‘Twenties, and 15% of all Ph.D.s. Among the very interesting notable women of the period were Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Sanger and Amelia Earhart.
Victoria Woodhull had run for President of the United States against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, and had become the first woman ever to address the U.S. Congress when she spoke there on behalf of women’s rights in 1873. Claiming the gift of psychic powers from infancy, she and one of her sisters did a spirit medium act as children. In adult life she ran a very successful Wall Street brokerage house. A pioneer of the women’s movement, she advocated free love and a host of other extremely liberal beliefs, for which she was demonized in the press and jailed on several occasions. Iconoclastic and uninhibited, she retained a very active interest in the supernatural throughout her life, and was twice elected president of the National Association of Spiritualists. She died in 1927 at the age of 89.
Margaret Sanger, a woman of awe-inspiring courage, established the first public, aboveboard birth control clinic in America. A nurse by profession, she had seen the horror and despair of women whose health and lives were destroyed either by the stress of too many children or by clumsy self-induced abortions, and vowed to devote her life to helping them. She started publishing books and magazines, all of which were brutally suppressed. When she opened her clinic in New York City in 1916, it lasted nine days before the police shut it down and she was sentenced to a month in jail. Undaunted, she continued her work in the face of the fiercest opposition. In November of 1921 she called the first meeting of the American Birth Control League at Town Hall, in New York. Cops barred the doors before it even began. When she snuck her way past them and tried to start the meeting anyway, she was arrested on the grounds that “an indecent, immoral subject is to be discussed.” This outrageous violation of constitutional rights finally began to alert the general public to her plight. As the papers the next day reported: “The police broke up the meeting without waiting for the expression of an opinion which would warrant repressing. ...It was arbitrary and Prussian to the last degree.” She was released, and when she tried again a few days later, the capacity crowd went unmolested. Her efforts gained more support throughout the decade, and by 1925 she was widely recognized and much sought after for her work. By the end of the decade, “population planning” had become the standard term. Birth control techniques, in the 1920s, were officially permitted only for married women, and only for medical reasons. The advocacy of discretionary birth control, or providing it to single women, was still completely out of the question.
After having served as a nurse in the Great War, Amelia Earhart enrolled as a pre-med student at Columbia University in 1919. But the following year she went to California to visit her parents, and took a ten-minute ride in a biplane at an aerial meet in Los Angeles that changed her life. She was hooked on aviation the moment the plane took off, and sought out another woman pilot, Anita Snook, in Long Beach, who taught her to fly. Despite a poor reputation as a pilot, Earhart was setting speed and altitude records by 1922. She traded in her first airplane for an extremely cool canary-colored Kissel roadster (which she dubbed “the yellow peril”), but she remained active as a proponent of women’s aviation throughout the mid-‘Twenties. In 1928 she was invited by New York publisher George Putnam to become the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air: she was merely the passenger in a plane flown by two men, but as part of the publicity stunt they named her the “commander” of the flight. In 1932, by which time she and Putnam had married, she crossed the Atlantic again, this time flying the plane herself, and all alone. Not only was she the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, she was the only person in the world to have flown over it twice, and she had done it faster than anyone before her. She followed this success with a dangerous trans-Pacific flight from Hawaii to California, and cemented her fame as a role model for women throughout the nation. In 1937, she began an extremely ambitious round-the-world flight with co-pilot/navigator Fred Noonan, flying a special Lockheed Electra 10E. Noonan was an expert navigator with lots of experience in the Pacific. They left Miami on June 1, headed east along the equator. In a month of flying they made it as far as Lae, New Guinea. The hardest part of the journey, 7000 miles across the Pacific to California, lay before them. They left New Guinea on July 2, 1937. Earhart’s last transmission was received that evening by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was waiting near a small coral outcrop called Howland Island to refuel the plane for the last leg of its trip. The plane never made it to Howland. Although President Roosevelt authorized a search including 9 naval ships and 66 aircraft, no trace of the plane or its occupants was ever found. (In recent years, some physical evidence of a crash that may be Earhart’s has been found on the uninhabited Pacific atoll of Nikumaroro, near Howland, but no conclusive identifications have been made.)
Although the 1920s was not really afflicted with homophobia as we’ve come to know it today, gay people in general lived their lives very much in the closet. Perhaps because they had yet to assert any collective claim to civil rights, homosexuals were not so much hated but feared more and swept under the rug much more in the 1920s. The subject just wasn’t discussed, and when it was, gays were as often laughed at as attacked. The decade had its share of high-profile homosexualsGertrude Stein, Alexander Woollcott, Richard Halliburton, James Whale, Noel Coward and Bill Tilden, to name just a fewbut their fame came from their abundant accomplishments, not their sexual orientation.
The word “gay” in the 1920s had no homosexual connotations. Gay people were called, by people who were trying not to be insulting, “homosexual” (this word was just starting to catch on), “invert,” or “Uranian” (a term coined in the mid 1860s by a German writer and used by the New York Times). People who didn’t care about being insulting used the word “pervert,” or the slang “fairy,” “pansy,” “twilight,” or “temperamental.” The first mainstream public use of the word “gay” to mean homosexual seems to have been in the 1939 film Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant, to explain his appearance in a dress, says that he’s “gone gay.”
While there were inverts at the highest levels of government (there were rumors about Harry Daugherty and Jess Smith, who shared an apartment, and J. Edgar Hoover), homosexuals were in no way a coherent political force. Gay organizations did exist, but they tended not to last long. The first one known in America, the Society for Human Rights, was founded in Illinois in 1924 by Henry Gerber, and stayed in operation for a few months before police closed it down. Gay organizations, publications and theatre companies fared better in Europe, especially Berlin and Paris. Lesbian relationships were more easily tolerated than gay male ones, and were depicted in a number of plays and novels during the decade. Most famous was the book The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall, appearing in 1928. A couple of Broadway plays that included lesbian characters created quite a stir. Literary accounts of same-sex relationships usually ended quite unhappily: accidental death or suicide frequently relieved the unfortunate suffering homosexual of his or her burdens.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been founded in 1909 by a bi-racial assortment of concerned citizens, and throughout the ‘20s, under the leadership of W.E.B. DuBois, it continued to do its work. Black students at various colleges, including Fisk, Hampton, and Howard, went on strikes from time to time throughout the decade to call attention to discriminatory practices. The political status of African-Americans varied greatly from region to region, but gross racism and segregation were standard practice in even the most tolerant and enlightened communities. All over the country, blacks were routinely turned away from white hospitals, white restaurants, white beaches and parks. Washington D.C. itself was completely segregated: when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, the many distinguished black guests on the speakers’ platform were kept separate from the white guests, and some left in fury. (Eleanor Roosevelt made a very conscious effort to integrate things in the ‘Thirties, even going so far as to resign from the Daughters of the American Revolution when they refused to allow black opera singer Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall.)
Without question the southern states were the most merciless. African-Americans were routinely prevented from voting, but this was perhaps the least of their problems. There were almost 300 lynchings during the ‘Twenties, including more than fifty each year from 1920 to 1922. Henry Lowry, a black soldier, was seized in uniform and burned alive in front of a huge crowd of witnesses in 1921. There was a double-lynching in Texas in 1930, in which the crowd not only hung two black men, but shot at their swinging bodies, then cut them down and burned them with gasoline. Many African-Americans were held in debt-slavery in the south, unable to leave the rented lands they worked on and completely dominated by white landlords to whom they owed money. White law enforcement officers always supported the interests of the landlords, leaving blacks powerless. Convict-slavery was also practiced in the ‘Twenties, in which white planters would “rent” black convicts from jails and penitentiaries to work their fields: the workers could not refuse and could be made to endure every kind of mistreatment.
Race relations in the north were not as hostile. Despite ever-present racial tensions and an extremely bad riot in 1919, Chicago was a good city for black political ambition: Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson courted black constituents amicably. New York City was the seat of the “Harlem Renaissance,” a dramatic upsurgence of African-American literature, art, and music that graced the 1920s. Led by DuBois, poet Langston Hughes, and philosopher Alain Lockethe first black American to become a Rhodes scholarthe Harlem Renaissance showcased a large number of extremely talented writers and artists throughout the ‘Twenties. Along with the growing dominance of jazz music, it ensured that African-Americans were recognized for their artistic achievements if in no other way.
Political strategies came in two basic typespatient assimilation or militant nationalism. DuBois and the NAACP basically advocated the former, and some critics accused them of wanting to be white. Marcus Garvey strongly advocated the latter. Garvey, a Jamaican nationalist, founded the United Negro Improvement Association before the war, and financed it with proceeds from the Black Star Line, a steamship company consisting of two somewhat questionable boats. Claiming that America was a white man’s country in which no Negro could hope for justice, he called for black people to abandon the U.S. He proposed the foundation of a new nation exclusively for blacks in Africa, and named himself its provisional ruler. Although he would not deal with communists, he achieved a rapprochement with the Ku Klux Klan, which was eager to support him in encouraging blacks to leave America. Although many agreed that African-Americans needed to value and develop their own heritage and culture, Garvey’s secret deals with the Klan alienated many of his supporters. Not a favorite of the white establishment, he ended up in jail in 1922, accused of mail fraud: Coolidge released and deported him in 1927.
In some ways, 1928 was a good year for African-American politics: Oscar DePriest of Chicago was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first black man in Congress since 1901. The 1928 Presidential campaign, on the other hand, featured some very nasty racial rhetoric, and Democrats and Republicans alike appealed to prejudice and intolerance.