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The lingering distortions in trade, capital flows, and exchange rates occasioned by the punitive Treaty of Versailles, as the economist John Maynard Keynes observed at the time, managed to perpetuate in peacetime the economic disruptions that had wrought so much hardship in wartime.What was more, memories of the war’s bitter fighting and vengeful conclusion rendered the postwar international atmosphere toxic.
The United States had participated only marginally in the First World War, but the experience was sufficiently costly that Americans turned their country decidedly inward in the 1920s.
They disarmed their military forces and swiftly dismantled the nation’s war machinery.
Among those eventually excluded (though none could yet know it) were thousands of Jewish would-be fugitives from Nazi persecution.
Militarily, diplomatically, commercially, financially, even morally, Americans thus turned their backs on the outside world.
Each embraced a pair of episodes with lastingly transformative impacts.
From 1776 to 1789 the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the Constitution brought national independence and established the basic political framework within which the nation would be governed ever after.The overwhelming majority of black Americans still dwelled in the eleven states of the old Confederacy, the poorest and most disadvantaged people in America’s poorest and most backward region.And well before the Great Depression, almost as soon as the Great War concluded in 1918, a severe economic crisis had beset the farm-belt.Washington also insisted that the Europeans repay the entirety of the loans extended to them by the US Treasury during the war.And in 1924 the republic for the first time in its history imposed a strict limit on the number of immigrants who could annually enter the country.American prosperity in the 1920s was real enough, but it was not nearly as pervasive as legend has portrayed.The millions of immigrants who had swarmed into the nation’s teeming industrial cities in the preceding decades remained culturally parochial and economically precarious in gritty ethnic ghettoes."The primary cause of the Great Depression," reads the first sentence of President Herbert Hoover’s , "was the war of 1914–1918." And that so-called Great War, along with the Depression it spawned, was the driver that eventually produced the even greater catastrophe of World War II.Economists and historians continue to this day to debate the proximate causes of the Great Depression.Yet for most of the 1920s the mood of much of the country, impervious to news of accumulating international dangers and buoyed by wildly ascending stock prices as well as the congenital optimism long claimed as every American’s birthright, remained remarkably upbeat. The Great Crash in October sent stock prices plummeting and all but froze the international flow of credit. Herbert Hoover, elected just months earlier amid lavish testimonials to his peerless competence, saw his presidency shattered and his reputation forever shredded because of his inability to tame the depression monster—though, again contrary to legend, he toiled valiantly, using what tools he had and even inventing some new ones, as he struggled to get the upper hand.By 1932, some thirteen million Americans were out of work, one out of every four able and willing workers in the country.