Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

After Wilson — Harding and America's Return to Normalcy

Warren G. Harding Campaigning in 1920

The aftermath of the war in America was tumultuous. President Wilson's illness and his ill-fated effort to push through the League of Nations had recently dominated national politics. Economic disruptions followed from demobilization as industries re-tooled and work needed to be found for the 4.7 million able-bodied men who had been called to arms. Labor and racial discontent festered. Much of the nation, especially the returning veterans, was utterly perplexed and seething over the recently implemented Volstead Act enforcing Prohibition. All this was on American's minds during the fall of 1920 when the nation was to elect a new president. The most likely frontrunner, Theodore Roosevelt, had surprisingly died in 1919, brokenhearted over the loss of his son Quentin in the war. President Wilson, still debilitated after his stroke, was absent from the campaign trail.

A fresh face representing a steady approach to governance was needed to restabilize American life. The face was that of Ohioan Warren Gamaliel Harding; his policy came to be known as a "Return to Normalcy." Before his nomination, Warren G. Harding declared, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

Most of America Rejected Prohibition

A war- and world-weary electorate handed the U.S. senator and former newspaperman—whom it was universally agreed, "looked like a President"—a landslide victory over his Democratic challenger and fellow Ohioan, James M. Cox, making Harding the 29th U.S. president (1921–23). Most remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal, which came to light after his death in 1923, Harding's Administration had some notable achievements including the calling of the Washington Arms Conference, cutting down the wartime controls and bureaucracy, limiting immigration to allow for assimilation of the tens of millions arrived since the turn of the century, improving the budget process, and proving sympathetic to minorities and business innovation. Ironically though, Harding's "Return to Normalcy" in many ways helped set the stage for the Roaring Twenties, which turned out to be anything but normal.

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Library of Congress, The White House Website

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