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Is our country repeating errors of the 1920s?

December 14, 2018

Recent news offers many disquieting similarities between the 1920s and the present. They bring to mind familiar sayings such as “History repeats itself” and “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

My parents and their friends sometimes talked about the fun times of the 1920s. From the beginning of 1920 until October 1929 is referred to as the “Golden Age” or the “Roaring 20s.”

World War I was over, the vets returned home, many countries gave women the vote (1920 in the U.S.), new businesses developed and optimism reigned. Consumer demands for new products and innovations rose and a new mass communication tool, radio, became a must have. Automobiles were available to more people as production methods improved.

Politically, there were pressures from the left and right. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia brought out the fear of international communism, and many European countries shifted to the far right. The Klu Klux Klan had a resurgence directed most harshly at African Americans, but also to Jews and Catholics.

The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 came about because of our nation’s fears of foreigners coming to our shores and changing our country. The new law had restrictions on immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, the Far East and some of Latin America. Despite the fears of our nation’s leaders, the immigrants of the 1920s and ’30s have been fully absorbed into our country’s fabric.

The stock market looked like a sure winner and was on a marvelous upward trajectory. It was so fantastic that people borrowed to invest and buying “on margin” became a way to gamble that the past financial schemes would continue forever. It never does. On Oct. 29, 1929, the stock market crashed.

The nation’s devastation was instant and immense. The really rich lost their wealth and the rest of the nation lost everything. Until this time, there were few if any restrictions on finances, banks and investments. Government leaders had insisted that with no rules or limitations on businesses and investing, all would benefit. Do we not hear a similar chorus today?

It wasn’t until President Roosevelt (FDR) was in office that our national government acted to get the country out of the Depression and set regulations in banking and finance to prevent future economic meltdowns. For years, my father, who became an unemployed CPA during the Depression, praised FDR for setting up the Civilian Conservation Corps and giving him an opportunity to be paid for building roads and clearing land.

It’s eerie that there are so many similarities between today’s America and the 1920s. The stock market has climbed to amazing heights; how can it possibly fail, many ask? Politically, we are divided between the left and right, and immigration is still a major fear.

We’ve learned to feel comfortable with European and Asian newcomers; now the Latin Americans are feared. The Charlottesville marchers might not have worn white robes and pointy hats, but they shared KKK and ultra-right sentiments.

The 1920s were considered a time of rapid change in social mores, industry, innovation and immigration. It’s the same today, and yet our leaders are again removing consumer and financial protection and stoking fears of foreigners.

Let’s hope that our country is not repeating the errors made nine decades ago.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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