Americans have always been changing. From revolutionary wars to industrial revolutions, Americans have always tended to go slowly with the flow. In the first half of 20th century, Americans saw many changes, from the introduction of labor unions and automobiles to surviving two world wars and trying to deal with the emergence of materialism and communism.
A popular image of Americans today is a materialistic one. Many think this is a new image for America, but the desire of material things goes back a long way in American history. According to some, people’s lust for finer things led to a complete change in American activities. It began with the automobile. In 1924, a Sunday school teacher asked students if there were any animals the world could do without. After naming several animals, someone finally says the horse. To these children, horses are no longer needed because there is something better available: the car. Some people really believed that they needed a car. Women were reported as saying that because the car was their one luxury, they did without in other areas, such as new clothes and food. Others were able to take mini-vacations for the first time. These Americans say that the car is keeping their families together.
Other argued that the car pushed families and towns apart. Teenagers had less time for family porch time because they wanted to “motor” with other teenagers. The excitement over town functions, such as holiday parades, lessened because people can leave town for their excitement. People began skipping church in favor of going on Sunday drives. 19 girls were accused of committing “sex crimes” in cars. Not everyone felt that everyone deserved a car. “An automobile is a luxury and no one has a right to one if he can’t afford it. I haven’t the slightest sympathy for anyone out of work if he owns a car.” (Middletown 255).
Smaller technology also changed the ways of Americans, with movies and radio. Before movies were available to watch, people went to plays, but only when actors were able to perform. Before people went to plays but because plays involved live actors, the plays were not always available. The local movie theater made over 300 performances available for the townsfolk to enjoy. Attending the movies led to less people going to other social activities, such as the lodge or saloon. But movie goers rationalized that the cinema was an escape from real life. Some women sent their daughters to the movies to learn about life, while local judges began citing movies as a main cause of juvenile delinquency. Radios had a similar effect in allowing people to stay isolated in their homes, skipping out on church and other social activities.
During the Great Depression, there were many changes in the United States, including with how people dealt with each other. Different experiences led to different attitudes and actions. Some found that they were stronger than they once thought and others found it was easier to just take care of themselves and not worry about others.
To many, there was a sense of camaraderie that did not exist before the Great Depression and has not existed since. One man, a former World War I soldier recalls riding the rails from Indiana to Washington DC to join a protest for wages due to soldiers. He mentions the kindness of railroad conductors who would check out the “jungles” of travelers and add extra, empty boxcars for the soldiers and their families to ride in. When stopping in towns, the travelers would pass around their hats during a speech and make some money for food and cigarettes. And when a hungry baby dies along the way, the whole group feels the loss, despite having tried to help feed the family.
Others were afraid of travelers or bums. Once in the capitol, the travelers found many shacks and shantytowns, referred to as Hoovervilles. When the men from these towns lead a march demanding their war bonsues, they are run out of the city by the military, and the Hoovervilles are burned. People were surprised to find that some women were open to feeding travelers. One woman remarks that her mother was not afraid of the traveling men because her husband was not abusive, and did not have a general fear of men. Some people were not able to empathize with their fellow Americans going through hard times. They saw those who were homeless or out of work as lazy and claimed that in that situation, they would not be suffering so much.
Many women saw a great change in their lives. One woman from St. Louis found herself organizing labor unions in the factories she worked in, showing no fear. She claimed that because she already had so little, there was nothing for her to lose. She led her co-workers in sit-ins and walk outs and demanded better pay and conditions. Another woman found herself going from a spoiled southern belle to a Civil Works Administration employee, helping people receive relief checks. She took great pride in knowing that the people she helped were able to better themselves, despite the proclamations that most of the people on assistance were lazy.
There were also people who did not see a great change during this time. A black man interviewed said that his life, as well as his fellow blacks lives, were always in a depression, and that it did not become great until it affected the white man. This man says he was used to eating beans for supper, but the white man was used to steak and when he had only beans, he became less of a man. This is the reason given for why more white men killed themselves during this time. Some wise businessmen knew to withdraw money before the Bank Holiday and were walking around with thousands of dollars in cash in their shoes.
After World War II ended, there were two super powers in the world; the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The idea of an effective communist state in the world terrified the leaders of the United States and led to what is now known as the Red Scare. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed the Loyalty Security Program, requiring federal employees to take a loyalty test to determine if they were communists. The test involved having their backgrounds full investigated. If the investigation led to proof of communist activity, the employee was required to attend a hearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activites. 101 federal employees were dismissed after this test.
J. Edgar Hoover, the first directory of the FBI, spoke before this committee in 1947, about the problems with communism. He instigated fear into many, claiming that the only way communists could succeed is with “bloody revolution”. Claiming there was one communist for every 1,847 Americans, Hoover played off these fears, making his agents spy and harass supposed communists, and encouraged American citizens to spy and report on their neighbors. According to Hoover, Joseph McCarthy and many other law makers at this time, a true American was not a communist. He warned that labor unions were full of communists and told loyal American union members that they needed to take over the unions. It became Americans’ jobs to stop the infestation of communism.
After a few years of the Red Scare, some Americans had had enough, including high officials. Liberals began to fight against these activities and demand their right to freedom of speech. The Internal Security Act of 1950 was vetoed by President Truman. He reminds Americans that without free speech, they would be oppressed and suffer the same state as the communist forces they are trying to defeat. Truman insists that communist espionage can still be defeated but not at the expense of civil liberties of law abiding citizens. The veto was over turned by Congress, claiming it would make a mockery of the United States to the rest of the world, and show that they are not serious about fighting communism.