America, 1920-1973: Opportunity and inequality (9-1)


American people and the 'Boom'

  • The US lent Britain and France a large sum of money during WWI, many Americans did well with these investments and after the war had money to invest in the USA. The US industry was able to take over exports from Britain.
  • All the Presidents had been Republicans (Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover), "The business of America is Business." They had a strong belief in ideals such as "Laissez-faire". In 1922, the Fordney-McCumber Tariff was imposed on imports. These were part of the return to "Isolationism".
  • Congress refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles and the USA did not join the League of Nations, Warren Harding- "America First". New industries developed and the introduction of the production line and mass production. Mass production in the car industry led to the creation of many jobs.
  • From 1923, shares on Wall Street began to rise. Many bought shares "on the Margin", many believed the stock market would always continue rising.
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Why was there so much inequality of wealth?

  • Old industries were not able to make use of Henry Ford's new methods, fewer ships were needed after WWI. Coal became less important as electricity and oil replaced steam power. It was a city-based boom.
  • Farming did not do well in the 1920s. Prohibition hit the production of barley. Although profits did rose by 80%, wages only rose by 8%. Mechanisation often replaced workers, over 2 million were unemployed.
  • Jim Crow laws enforced segregation in the South. Although free from slavery, Black Americans were still desperately poor. The worst conditions were in the south. They were suffering from dust storms, destroying agricultural land.
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Social and cultural developments

  • As prices fell, people had more money to spend on enjoying themselves. New dances and music were all the rage. Mass production made cars more affordable, giving people a greater sense of freedom. The first great sporting heroes emerged, this was a real sign of prosperity
  • Nearly 100 million people went to see a movie each week, another sign of great prosperity. The main reason for the success of the cinema was escapism. In 1927, the first talkie was produced. Rules were brought in to decide what could be shown on screen.
  • During the war, women took on roles previously closed to them but lost them shortly after the war. Much to the disgust of the older generations, some women became flappers. In 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Us Constitution which became law in 1920; women were allowed to vote.
  • There was still a strong belief that a woman's domestic role was of the greatest importance. Most people from rural areas were devout Christians and had very traditional views on a women's role in society, so women there did not see their lives change very much.
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Was the USA a deeply divided society? 1

  • Prohibition was introduced by the Volstead Act, which became the 18th Amendment to the US constitution. This banned the production, transporting and sale of alcohol. Small towns and women's organisations blamed alcohol for breaking up families and much more. By 1919, 13 states had banned alcohol.
  • People soon found out ways to get around the law. It caused ordinary people to become criminals. It also brought about an increased amount of organised crime. "Bootlegging" was smuggling alcohol into the USA.
  • Police were often open to bribes so the law was never really enforced. It encouraged corruption in American society. Al Capone (a gangster) made over $100,000 a year. The St Valentine's Day Massacre (1929), when members of a rival gang were killed by Al Capone in Chicago, convinced many that Prohibition was not working.
  • Roosevelt personally disproved of prohibition and abolished it immediately (1933).
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Was the USA a deeply divided society? 2

  • New immigrants were dark-skinned Jews or Catholics, unlike earlier immigrants who were WASPs. Because of this, immigrants often lived in the same areas, which meant that there was little integration into American society.
  • The USA had now placed restrictions on immigration. A literacy test was imposed in 1917. The total number was restricted from 1921 when the immigration Quota Act was imposed. This favoured WASPs and worked against immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Poland.
  • The Russian Revolution in 1917, led to a "Red Scare" in the US and many socialists were arrested. The KKK used violent methods of dealing with its opponents, they were whipped or branded. In 1925, David Stephenson (a leading KKK member), was convicted of the kidnapping, ****, and murder of a young woman. After this, the KKK lost millions of members.
  • Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian Anarchists, were accused of robbery and murder in 1920. The trial was clearly biased and the two were executed in 1927, even though someone had already confessed to the murder.
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Why did Wall Street Crash in 1929?

  • By 1929, US industry was running out of customers, and they could not sell abroad as other countries had put up tariffs in retaliation to the USA. More people were going into unemployment as they were not needed to make the now overproduced goods.
  • The Boom was based on Credit. The public was pressured by advertising to buy more and to use hire purchase. Wages did not rise and more money found its way into the pockets of fewer. 
  • In 1929, some investors realised the crisis and sold their shares. On Thursday, 24th October 1929, people started to buy more shares. But a further big collapse took place on Tuesday 29th.
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The impact of the crash

  • 5,000 banks collapsed in the next few years, not only did this wipe out the savings of millions of Americans, it also destroyed thousands of companies who could not finance their debts. Unemployment reached 14 million by 1933 and many farmers went bankrupt.
  • There was no dole or state welfare so people had to turn to soup kitchens for food. Possessions and homes were repossessed due to people previously opting for hire purchase and mortgage repayments.
  • Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1928, he claimed the boom would go on forever. Hoover made several attempts to improve the economy and reduce poverty, however, he still received the title of a "do nothing" President. He cut taxes and passed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff but unfortunately, this backfired.
  • The Bonus Marchers (1932) camped outside the White House, Hoover refused to meet them and ordered the army to clear them away. General MacArthur sent in tanks, this caused even greater unpopularity for Hoover.
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How the crash lead to the Great Depression?

  •  In the 1932 election, the Democrat candidate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he promised a "New Deal" for the American people and was elected.
  • He had shown that he had been able to tackle a tragedy in his personal life and he gave the impression that he cared. He won with a majority of 7 million votes.
  • However, Roosevelt may have won the election due to the unpopularity of Hoover. As Hoover was a Republican he stuck with the "do nothing" policies which did not help his case.
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How effective was the New Deal?

  • When Roosevelt became president he immediately began action. In the "First 100 Days" many measures were passed. The Emergency Banking Relief Act closed down all banks so they could check that they had sufficient funds to operate. He spoke on the radio explaining what he was doing.
  • Alphabet agencies provided soup kitchens, loans, dams, new homes and jobs to those suffering from the Depression. They helped farmers, the environment, poverty, and unemployment. (FERA, HOLC, CCC, AAA, TVA, NRA, PWA)
  • Wagner Act (1935) gave all workers the right to join a trade union. Social Security Act (1935) set up a basic system of welfare including pensions, unemployment, and sick pay. The WPA provided government money for bridges, schools, hospitals, parks, airports...
  • Originally Roosevelt planned to reduce spending in his second term but found that unemployment rose rapidly. The farmers in Mid-West states saw no improvement due to the area becoming a dustbowl. Roosevelt insisted that Black Americans should be allowed to the CCC camps, but these ended up being segregated.
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Who opposed the New Deal?

  • In 1936, the supreme court decided the NRA exceeded the powers of the president and that part of the New Deal was illegal. In 1937, Roosevelt increased the numbers in the supreme court from 9 to15 and those he added were loyal to him. Some supporters felt that this was going too far.
  • The Republican party complained about what they call "deficit spending", they felt that the New Deal went against the American ideals of "rugged individualism". The wealthy weren't happy due to the high taxes they had to pay.
  • Businessmen believed he was giving too much power to trade unions. The Left complained that he did not go far enough. E.g. Fr Charles Coughlin, a Catholic "radio priest". Townsend set up the Townsend Plan, which wanted to solve unemployment by forcing the elderly to retire and offering them pensions.
  • Senator Huey Long wanted to take the fortunes of the rich and give them to the poor, any savings over $5 million would be confiscated and used to help the poor. He was planning to stand up against Roosevelt in the 1936 election, but he was shot and killed in September 1935.
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The role of Roosevelt in the New Deal

  • He did not have a worked-out scheme and some of his plans were inconsistent. But he brought a belief that things could be done.
  • He used the government money to set up recovery even if it was "Deficit Funding" (money that the government does not have).
  • He was re-elected President in 1936, 1940 and 1944: the only President to serve four terms.
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The extent of recovery by the beginning of WWII


  • By 1940, unemployment fell by 40% since 1933.
  • Black Americans given access to CCC camps.
  • Gave people hope and restored confidence in the government.
  • Gave social benefits, e.g. old age pensions.
  • Alphabet agencies supported the poor.
  • Ended the banking crisis.


  • In 1937 US industry was only at 75% of its 1929 level.
  • Many schemes only lasted for a few months.
  • Some went to CCC camps and still could not find jobs.
  • Black Americans, farmer and women still received poor treatment and inequality.
  • New Deal laws allowed Black Americans to be paid less than whites.

Entertainment was mainly unaffected by the Great Depression. The 1930s was regarded as Hollywood's Golden Age

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The impact of WWII (1941-45)

  • In 1939, Roosevelt asked Congress for $1,300 million to build armed forces. In 1940, he signed the "destroyers for bases" deal with Britain. In 1941, he signed the "Lend-Lease Act" that supplied Britain with equipment. In December 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl harbour, Congress voted to go to war against Japan, Germany, and Italy on 11th December.
  • The war ended the problem of unemployment. Many women now had the jobs that the men had previously. Black Americans were allowed to serve in the war, but in separate troops. In 1941, Roosevelt set up the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
  • By the end of the war, some units were desegregated. The war was a big boost to the civil rights movement, they were fighting against a racist dictator yet they were the victims of racism. Many black Americans moved to the north where they were treated generally better.
  • By 1946, the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) had 460,000 members. In 1942, Core (the Congress of Racial Equality) was set up. When war broke out 110,00 Japanese-Americans were moved to relocation camps due to a security risk.
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The impact of WWII on the economy

  • WWII provided an enormous boost to American industry and economy, finally ended the Great Depression. Wages rose faster than prices, despite the controls on both. 17 million jobs were created in the USA.
  • The war in Europe meant a big increase in demand for US farm products. By 1944, the USA was making half of all the world's weapons.
  • The USA emerged from the war as an industrial giant. Its economy was way above the ruined economies of other nations.
  • Government spending doubled from 1950-1960. The standard of living of almost all Americans rose as a result.
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Post-war American society

  • Many expected another depression after the war, but the economy continued to expand. The economic boom carried on into the 1950s. The "American Dream" seemed to be coming true. By 1960, 87% of homes had a TV, families watched programmes together which featured regular adverts promoting the latest consumer goods.
  • After WWII, increasing numbers of Americans took up these anti-communist views. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began hearing to expose "Communist influence in American life". Their accusations were extended into the entertainment industry. Whittaker Chambers identified Alger Hiss as a secret communist party member. Hiss was tried for perjury and sentenced to 5 years in jail.
  • In 1950, at the hight of the Hiss Case and Rosenberg Case, Congress passed the McCarran Internal Act. Which meant the Communist Party had to register with the justice department to ensure that the party and its members could be carefully monitored.In 1950, the British arrested Klaus Fuchs for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. This created an atmosphere in the USA similar to the "Red Scare" in the 1920s.
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  • In February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to have a list of 205 names known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party. A Senate Committee found his accusations "a fraud and a hoax". The Chairman was then accused of being a communist.
  • For many Americans, McCarthy offered simple answers to complex cold War questions. McCarthy was made Chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate, enabling him to investigate state organisations.
  • He bullied the accused and his statements destroyed the lives of many, those accused were unable to find jobs for several years. In late 1952, McCarthy banned many books that he believed contained communist ideas.
  • In 1954, McCarthy accused the army of sheltering Communist spies. The Army-McCarthy hearings began in April 1954, finally, the American public saw the true nature of McCarthy - the bully who had no hard evidence.
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Changes in youth culture

  • Teenagers identified themselves from their parents through different clothes, leisure activities, and music. Elvis Presley became a cult figure.
  • James Dean was a film star whose film "Rebel without a cause" seemed to sum up the feelings of many young people.
  • What horrified many adults was the clear influence of black music and culture on Elvis and teenagers, especially at the time when the civil rights movement was becoming more powerful.
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State of civil right in the USA c. 1950

  • In 1945, Roosevelt died and was succeeded by Harry Truman. In 1946, he set up a President's Committee on Civil Rights and produced a programme of reforms in 1947, including a bill to ban "Jim Crow" laws, but it was rejected by Congress.
  • In 1948, Truman issued an Executive Order ending segregation in units in the armed forces. In 1950, the Supreme Court declared that schools were no longer to be segregated.
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The struggle over desegregated education in 1950s

  • In 1954, Oliver Brown was told by the Topeka Board of Education that his daughter could not attend her nearest school. Brown took the City of Topeka to court, the NAACP supported his case and Oliver Brown won his case.
  • In 1955, the Supreme Court ordered all states to integrate black and white students into their schools, however, some southern states simply ignored the ruling. In 1955, Emmet Till was dared to speak to a white woman, the storekeeper seized him and he was found dead a few days later. The Jury found the shopkeeper not guilty.
  • In 1957, Elizabeth Eckford and eight other black students tried to enroll at Little Rock High School. They were stopped by the State Governor, Orval Faubus. President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort and protect the 9 students.
  • In 1957, Eisenhower introduced the first Civil Rights Act since 1875, it prosecuted anyone who tried to deny American citizens of their rights. By 1960, attitudes in the south towards black Americans in education had not changed.
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Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King

  • In 1955, Rosa Parks, an NAACP member, was arrested in Montgomery, for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was set up to organise a boycott of buses led by a local church minister, Martin Luther King.
  • In 1956, the Supreme Court decided that segregation on buses was illegal. The boycott established King as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and became its president in 1957.
  • His aim was to use peaceful tactics and use the media to expose the radical views of those in the south. He called this "Project C" (C = Confrontation)
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Success of non-violent direct action in the 1960s

  • The election of John F Kennedy in 1960 was a major turning point for the Civil Rights movement. 85 students demanded to be served at a whites-only counter in Woolworth's Greensboro, North Carolina. They were refused and instead of being violent they sat and waited.
  • By 1961, 810 towns and cities were desegregated. The Supreme Court decided in December 1960 that all transport should (was not law) be integrated. In 1961, the CORE wanted to test that decision by using the tactic of the Freedom Ride.
  • The Freedom Riders began to make bus journey to break the Jim Crow Laws. At Anniston, a bus was attacked and burnt. Later the same year all transport were desegregated by the Interstate Commerce Committee.
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Birmingham, Alabama and the March on Washington

  • In 1962, the city of Birmingham closed all public areas to avoid integration. King organised a campaign to force the city to back down but it was unsuccessful. In 1963, Kennedy forced the city to give way and Alabama was forced to allow desegregated schools.
  • Influenced by the events, Kennedy introduced a Civil Rights Bill to Congress, however, it got held up due to democratic opposition. By the time he was assassinated in November 1963, he had 97 measures stuck in Congress.
  • 1963: Martin Luther King tried to put pressure on the president and planned a march through Washington. Kennedy asked him to call it off, but King refused and this was where he made his most famous speech "I have a dream". It was then that Kennedy promised to pass a Civil Rights Act.
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John F Kennedy and President Johnson

  • Kennedy began to appoint black Americans to important positions. His brother Robert, who was Attorney General, prosecuted people who persecuted people who tried to prevent blacks from voting.
  • In the same year, both Kennedys held meetings with the main civil rights groups, they formed the Voter Education Project.
  • The Civil Rights Act was passed by President Johnson. Johnson was a southerner from Texas, so it was surprising that he forced Congress to accept the Civil Rights Act. This was partly due to Kennedy's assassination, but also Johnson was a skilled and ruthless politician. 
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The Civil Rights Act (1964)

  • King's campaigns played a key role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
  • The 1964 Civil Rights Act made segregation in education and housing illegal. It stated that all Americans were entitled to equal employment opportunities.
  • This meant that most of the old "Jim Crow" Laws had been abolished
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The March on Selma and the Voting Rights Act

  • King went on with his campaign and tried to encourage more black Americans to register to vote. He targeted the town of Selma, Alabama for his non-violent campaign. The March was to present a petition to Governor Wallace. He banned the March but King ignored the ban.
  • The marchers were attacked, a second march took place 2 days later, but King turned them back as he promised that he would avoid another violent confrontation if Johnson introduced a Voting Rights Bill.
  • The Voting Rights Act, 1965 made it possible for a million more black voters to be added to the registers. In 1964, King became the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize. In 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated, this pushed the government into a further Civil Rights Act which ended all Jim Crow laws.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned discrimination in housing and made it a federal offence to injure civil rights workers.
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Malcolm X and Black Power

  • Some believed that because they were legally entitled to equality, they shouldn't have to wait for white people to be persuaded. Others believed that no matter what blacks would never be accepted.
  • Malcolm X did not want to be integrated into white society. He accepted that black Americans had the right to use violence in self-defence if they were attacked. The growing interest in Islam amongst black Americans was also a sign of a basic change in the campaigns for civil rights.
  • However, by the mid-1960s Malcolm X was beginning to moderate his stance. This led to a split with the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammed. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.
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Black Power (mid-1960s onwards)

  • By the mid-1960s, many younger black Americans felt that MLK's methods were not achieving enough - they felt MLK had only been interested in achieving political rights rather than improving their living conditions.
  • Activists from CORE and SNCC began to help in the ghettoes, this resulted in the organisations becoming more extreme - they began to identify far more with frustrations of black youth. After Malcolm X's murder, leadership of the Black Power Movement was passed to Stokeley Carmichael. He became the leader of the SNCC in 1964, but he decided to expel all white members.
  • The Black Panthers wanted full employment, good housing, and adequate education. They wore prepared to use weapons. In 1969, 27 Panthers were killed in clashes with the police. They disbanded in 1982. Many historians argue that black power highlighted the frustration of many young black Americans, it may have weakened the whole civil rights movement.
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The social policies of Kennedy and Johnson

  • Kennedy called his idea for getting the USA going again, the "New Frontier". It included tax cuts, a programme of public works and the Area Redevelopment Act, these were successes. Less successful plans for MEDICARE was meant to bring improvements to education and housing, but these plans were held up by Congress.
  • In a series of speeches, Lyndon B Johnson declared "war on poverty", and wanted to create a "Great Society". His achievements in Civil Rights and Voting Rights were part of this plan. He established the Medical Care Act (1965), which provided MEDICARE (for the old) and Medicaid (for the poor); the Economic Opportunities Act (1964) and the Development Act (1964).
  • The policies brought huge opposition from both Republicans and Democrats. By the late 1960s costs were reduced due to the USA joining the Vietnam War. Johnson became far more remembered for the disastrous war in Vietnam than his success with the "Great Society".
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Progress for women's rights

  • In the 1950s, a growing number of women began to challenge their traditional role. By 1960, women were now much better educated so they could have a professional career. Eleanor Roosevelt found that women only earned 50 - 60% of the wages of men who did the same job.
  • In 1966, Betty Friedan set up the National Organisation for Women (NOW). The Equal Pay Act of 1963 required employers to pay men and women the same. The Civil Rights Act (1964) made it illegal to discriminate based on gender, but this was not fully enforced.
  • The Equal Rights Amendment Act and the Educational Amendment Act in 1972 gave women the right to equality. "Women's Lib" AKA "feminists" had far more extreme aims than NOW, they were much more active in challenging discrimination.
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Abortion and Opposition

  • Abortion was illegal in the US. Feminists challenged this, arguing it was wrong to force women to have a child they did not want. Sarah Weddington defended the right of one of her clients  (Jane Roe) to protect her anonymity, to have an abortion. She won the right, which led to abortions becoming more readily available. (Roe Vs. Wade 1970-73)
  • Some women opposed the movement as they felt that there was nothing being done to help poor women. Other women accepted the traditional role and therefore did not agree with the movement.
  • Phyllis Schlafly, an author, set up STOP ERA. She believed that ERA would require women to join the armed forces and that would be a bad influence on family life. Many working-class women were not interested in feminism - they just wanted better pay which was still not achieved.
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