The Great Depression (1920–1940)

by: History SparkNotes

The Politics of Conservatism: 1920–1928

International Disarmament

Harding’s foreign policy was likewise dominated by conservatism. Although Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes opened negotiations for American rights to oil in the Middle East, the president focused mainly on maintaining the status quo and reducing American involvement abroad.

In 1922, the United States convinced Britain and Japan to sign the Five-Power Naval Treaty, which would reduce the number of battleships each country had in the Pacific to a ratio of 5:5:3, respectively. The United States and Britain promised not to fortify their Pacific bases but allowed Japan to fortify its bases to counter the battleship imbalance. The United States also signed the Four-Power Treaty with Britain, Japan, and France, which forbade the countries from acquiring new possessions in the Pacific, while the Nine-Power Treaty upheld John Hay’s old Open Door policy in China.

Developments in Germany and Japan

During this period of American isolationism, events were unfolding around the world that would have catastrophic consequences later on. In Germany during the 1920s and during the Great Depression, a man by the name of Adolf Hitler began to gather a tremendous political following as he proposed solutions to Germany’s economic problems and promised to make the Fatherland strong again. Desperate Germans clung to Hitler’s rhetoric, as hyperinflation was causing the German mark to fall in value literally by the minute. This inflation in Germany became so extreme that prices of meals at restaurants would increase significantly between the time patrons started eating and the time they finished.

Japan, meanwhile, was capitalizing on the Five-Power and Four-Power treaties by strengthening its presence in East Asia. It had had its eyes on the Manchuria region of China for years and was waiting for the right moment to take it.

The Teapot Dome Scandal

At home, Harding’s deregulation of big business led to government scandal and corruption that tainted his presidency. The most notorious scandal during his term was the Teapot Dome scandal of 1923, which erupted after a private company bribed the secretaries of the interior and navy to overlook the illegal drilling of oil from government lands in Teapot Dome, Wyoming. Harding himself was implicated in the scandal but died later that year before anyone made any serious accusations. He was replaced by the even more conservative Vice President Calvin Coolidge.

The Election of 1924

A year later, the American people elected Coolidge president in yet another three-way election. Coolidge’s opponents were Democrat John W. Davis and the recently revamped Progressive Party’s nominee, Robert La Follette. La Follette campaigned for more debt relief and protection from big business and a constitutional amendment to revoke the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review. Coolidge won a landslide victory, though La Follette did receive thirteen electoral votes.