Chapter 29 Disease, Disillusion, and All That Jazz – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 29 Disease, Disillusion, and All That Jazz

In This Chapter
  • The great postwar influenza pandemic
  • Postwar conservatism and isolationism
  • Postwar social changes
  • The world of the Roaring Twenties
  • The postwar “lost generation”

Americans had much to be proud of after World War I. Almost certainly, the Allies would have been defeated without the intervention of the United States. As many Americans saw it, their nation had indeed made the world safe for democracy.

Unfortunately, before the century was half over, it would become all too apparent that the world had been made safe by no means. In fact, it had been made an even more dangerous place than it had been in 1914. Nevertheless, it is beyond dispute that the United States emerged from World War I a great world power. Paradoxically, however, most Americans emerged from the war and the war years with a desire to have very little to do with the rest of the world.

The experience of war, with four million men in an army and two million sent to Europe, broadened the intellectual and cultural horizons of many. A new sophistication dawned in America. As a popular song of the era asked, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” Yet as many American minds opened, others closed, and an unthinking, cynical, and thoroughly corrupt political conservatism also descended upon the nation.

 Words of War A pandemic is an epidemic of global scope.

There were other mass emotions as well, most notably a combination of desperate energy, frenetic amorality, deep despair, and empty-headed hedonism known as the Roaring Twenties.

Social critics spoke of the postwar era’s moral devastation and emotional burnout as a “malaise.” More immediately, another sickness attacked the United States and the rest of the world. Popularly called the Spanish Flu, it would kill more people than the war that had just ended.

The Plague of War

In the ancient world, war frequently brought in its wake plagues of epidemic disease. The mass movement, filth, and deprivation of World War I created the conditions in which an influenza pandemic—called the Spanish Flu—swept the world.

First Cases

As far as anyone can tell, the term “Spanish Flu” is a misnomer. It is likely that the disease began not in Spain, but in a U.S. Army training facility at Fort Funston, Kansas. After taking hold here, it spread with alarming speed to assume pandemic proportions worldwide.

 From the Front In the dozen major American cities for which the U.S. Public Health Service kept records, 22 percent of the population caught the flu. A total of 20 million Americans contracted the disease, of whom 668,000 died, not including the 50,000 soldiers who had died of flu during the war. (U.S. combat deaths from enemy fire numbered 50,585.)

The first troops to fall ill at Fort Funston did not get terribly sick—fever, chills, upper respiratory symptoms characterized the illness, nothing more. But as it spread from North America to Europe and from west to east across Asia and the Pacific, the disease underwent a deadly mutation, beginning much like the original flu but then bringing on a virulent form of pneumonia that seemed to single out young adults for attack.


By the fall of 1918, the flu reappeared simultaneously in Boston, in Brest, France, and in Freetown, Sierra Leone. All were important ports of embarkation for Allied troops. This time, the disease was accompanied by an alarming rate of mortality. In October and November 1918, one fifth of those infected died of pneumonia within hours of initially falling ill.

To avert public panic as well as to avoid betraying weakness to the enemy, wartime censors purposely underreported the incidence of the disease. United States and French authorities each claimed 10,000 deaths in 1918, and British authorities claimed a mere 3,500. Actually, in Great Britain alone, 4,000 were dying each week at the height of the pandemic, and some 668,000 Americans succumbed to the disease during 1918–1919. Some historians today believe that even these numbers may represent underestimates by as much as 25 percent.

No effective treatment existed for the disease, other than quarantine to contain its spread. The flu attacked the United States in three waves through 1918–1919 and then left as suddenly as it had come. It had played a silent but devastating role in the war. In 1918, for example, 40 percent of the U.S. Navy fell ill; of U.S. Army deaths that year, 60 percent were the result of flu. The disease likely was chiefly responsible for bringing the Meuse-Argonne Offensive to a halt. Indeed, in the desperate final months of the conflict, Erich Ludendorff entertained the hope that flu would come to the rescue of his crumbling forces. But, of course, the disease knew no national allegiance, and it soon proved as deadly to the Germans as to the Allies. In later life, Ludendorff sometimes even blamed the failure of his five great 1918 offensives on manpower shortages caused by influenza.

 From the Front A certain number of the pandemic’s survivors later contracted a form of Parkinson’s disease popularly called “sleepy sickness.” Characterized by extreme dullness and lethargy, in its worst form, “sleepy sickness” left its victims in a lifelong state of catatonia, apparently conscious, but unable to move or communicate in any way.

“Return to Normalcy”

Warren G. Harding took office in 1921, having promised America a “return to normalcy.”

Just what did that mean?

The New Isolationism

To many Americans, “normalcy” meant calming the wartime madness and returning to the feeling that America was safely insulated and snugly isolated from the chaos of the rest of the world. As the war itself and the Red Scare (see Chapter 28, “The Tragedy of Versailles”) that followed it proved, this feeling was an illusion. But, in the postwar years, many Americans—perhaps most—welcomed and embraced such comforting illusions.

How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm?

Other Americans were not pleased with the status quo. Boys who would have followed in their fathers’ footsteps as farmers or factory workers found that their experience of war had made them restless for something more meaningful and fulfilling in life. They had seen the cosmopolitan civilization of Europe at its most exciting as well as its most terrifying. In the space of a few months, they had grown—not only grown up, but, for many, grown beyond the confines of a working-class, a middle-class, or a rural American life.

 From the Front Many men assumed (and fretted) that women would tend to vote in a unified liberal bloc. They were wrong. Women voted for a variety of candidates from all over the political spectrum, but it was certainly the women’s vote that helped put Warren G. Harding, product of a conservative “old boy network,” into office.

For many young women, too, the war had been eye-opening and mind-expanding. With the men off at war, women left the confines of the house and housework to do war work, whether in a munitions plant or for such war-related relief agencies as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Such experiences gave new impetus to a movement that had begun back in 1848 with a convention in Seneca Falls, New York. There, 240 women and men met to draw up a list of feminist grievances that included, paramountly, a petition for the right to vote.

The struggle for woman suffrage dragged on through the rest of the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth, until President Woodrow Wilson approved the tersely worded Nineteenth Amendment, which was ratified by the states in August 1920. Women were now voters.

Woman suffrage arrived at the threshold of a decade in which women generally assumed a new identity in America. The cherished Victorian image of the innocent girl who married for love to become a chaste wife and mother dissolved into the “modern woman,” a socially and sexually savvy female who was capable even of pursuing a career independent of husband and family. At her most extreme, the 1920s woman was a flapper, a sexually liberated female devoted to having a good time and beholden to no man.

 Words of WarFlapper was the label for the “liberated” young woman of the 1920s whose interests were unabashedly worldly and whose inhibitions were few or none. The origin of the term is obscure but may refer to the wild flapping gestures associated with such 1920s dances as the Charleston.

Although women did not get the vote until 1920, African-Americans had had that right since 1870, which brought ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, barring states from denying the vote to anyone on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Nevertheless, they, too, were in many respects disenfranchised within American society.

In the twentieth-century South, racial segregation was not only legal, but it was also supported by law. In the North, the law was silent on segregation, but prejudice and discrimination were no less real. During World War I, African-Americans served with distinction, albeit within segregated military units. In many U.S. Army units, African-American soldiers served in proximity to French poilus or even under the command of French officers. In contrast to their white American counterparts, the French did not segregate or discriminate, and for some African-American soldiers, the overseas experience opened up a whole new world of possibility. They returned home no longer willing to accept second-class citizenship.

In many parts of postwar America, white attitudes toward blacks also began to change. Sophisticated white audiences flocked to the clubs and cabarets of New York’s Harlem, a predominantly black neighborhood where such great jazz musicians as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington played. They also found themselves attracted to the work of African-American artists and writers who were coming from all parts of the country to live in Harlem. A lively exchange between white intellectuals and black Harlem artists developed into what has been called the Harlem Renaissance.

Running parallel with these cultural developments was the social activism of such black political leaders as W.E.B. Du Bois, a principal founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois argued that blacks could not achieve social equality by merely emulating whites, but that they had to awaken black racial pride by discovering their own African cultural heritage. A host of African-American poets and novelists—most notably the poet Countee Cullen (1903–1946), novelist Rudolph Fisher (1897–1934), poet-essayist Langston Hughes (1902–1967), folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1901–1960), poet James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), and novelist Jean Toomer (1894–1967)—brought the African-American community an unprecedented degree of attention, interest, and respect.

Going Dry

As the rise of women and the growing equality of African-Americans played against the prevailing do-nothing conservatism of the Harding administration, so another prudishly conservative backlash counterpointed the perceived loosening of American morality in the Roaring Twenties. The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in 1919, prohibiting the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages anywhere in the United States. It was called Prohibition—or the Volstead Act (which was the name of the legislation passed to enforce the amendment). Like woman suffrage, it had its origin in the nineteenth century.

By 1916, 21 states had voted themselves “dry.” They, in turn, sent a “dry majority” to Congress. The lawmakers hammered out the amendment in 1917, and, over the veto of Woodrow Wilson, it was passed and sent on to the states for ratification.

 Words of WarProhibition is the popular name for the law enacted by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution forbidding the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages anywhere in the United States.

Although politically liberal, President Wilson was as strait-laced a moralist as any, and he certainly favored sobriety. But he believed that Prohibition would create a nation of lawbreakers—which is exactly what it did.

In 1919, state legislatures and Congress were dominated by rural lawmakers, whose constituents supported Prohibition. But the big-city neighborhoods always voted against such measures, and now urbanites began to brew their own beer and distill their own “bathtub gin.”

 Words of War A bootlegger was one who made, smuggled, or sold liquor during Prohibition. The term originated not in the 1920s, but in the nineteenth century, and came from the practice of hiding a whiskey flask in the upper part of one’s boot.

Nor was all this production strictly for home consumption. Neighborhood bootleggers sold homebrew and booze to neighbors and even distributed the stuff through local ice cream parlors, grocery stores, pharmacies, and the like. As to the cop on the beat, well, he usually looked the other way—or, for a few dollars or a few bottles, could be induced to look the other way.

At first, bootlegging operated on a small scale, but soon it became a big business and formed the foundation of a new kind of American criminal activity: organized crime. Prohibition fueled crime on an unprecedented scale as a network of mobster gangs organized the illegal trade in liquor into an underworld enterprise of truly corporate proportions.

 Words of WarJazz is a highly improvisational form of music primarily developed by African-Americans who combined European harmonic structures with African rhythmic complexities. These, in turn, were overlaid with European and white American dance and march rhythms, and with elements borrowed from the blues tradition. The word “jazz” is probably derived from a slang term for sexual intercourse.

The Jazz Age

Speakeasies—the eateries, clubs, and back-alley dives purveying bootleg liquor—sold more than booze. Also flowing freely was a new kind of popular music, called jazz. The American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald even christened the decade of the 1920s the “Jazz Age.”

New Music

After the war, jazz migrated north from the red-light district and French Quarter of New Orleans. Its ambassadors were such musicians as King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and, paramountly, Louis Armstrong, the first great jazz soloist and one of the genre’s greatest musicians. Jazz was rooted in African-American folk music, the music of the slaves, combined with the popular dance music of European immigrants. By the 1920s, the early practitioners of jazz were both black and white, but the prime movers of the music were African-American. The audience for the music, however, was mostly white.

The hot, expressive beat and tonalities of jazz came as an antidote to the cruel mechanical rhythms of war and of industries associated with war. At the same time, the longing, poignant emotionalism of jazz was in tune with the pain and despair that continually hovered around the postwar years—even when the Roaring Twenties roared their loudest.

Opting Out

While jazz was becoming a uniquely American postwar form of expression, many other American artists and writers, some of whom had fought overseas, were finding the Harding-era United States intellectually and morally oppressive. Many of the most exciting new American authors, people such as the poet e.e. cummings (whose fondness for lowercase type extended to the way he spelled his own name) and the fiction writers Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, gravitated to Paris after the war.

Many of the young American expatriates regularly gathered at the Paris home of yet another expatriate, Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), a rotund, homely woman with close-cropped hair and an ever-present mousey companion named Alice B. Toklas. With her brother, Leo, an art collector and dealer, Stein amassed a highly discriminating collection of modern art and developed enduring friendships with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Gertrude Stein also earned a reputation in her own right as the author of avant-garde prose.

The Lost Generation and a World Remade

In the epigraph to his novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway attributed to Gertrude Stein this remark: “You are all a lost generation.” Although some have disputed the actual source of the quotation, all agree that the last two words of the sentence captured the mood of the postwar era, the period depicted in Hemingway’s prose, the time of a generation that had come of age in the Great War, even as it had been physically, emotionally, and spiritually wounded by it.

The war had physically destroyed countless lives, but it had also scarred even those who lived through it without any physical wounds. From many, especially those with questioning minds and active imaginations, it stole faith itself. The old familiar beliefs, in God and country, in the essential rationality and goodness of humanity, and in the wisdom of one’s elders, were blasted apart by a war fought for seemingly empty reasons to achieve questionable or even worthless goals.

In one respect, the result of the war was a generation cast adrift without a moral, intellectual, or spiritual compass. In another respect, however, this “lost generation” was a liberated generation, freed of the old beliefs, old ideas, and old ways that had culminated in a bloody catastrophe. World War I had shattered the world, and now it was up to the new generation to remake it. For all the despair and frenzy and cynicism of the postwar generation, there was also great creativity, idealism, and hope. And it was all aimed toward one end: not to make the same old mistakes again. Tragically, World War I and the climate created by the Treaty of Versailles made it all too possible for the new generation to make new—and even more terrible—mistakes.

The Least You Need to Know
  • The war spawned a worldwide influenza pandemic that was responsible for more deaths than the war itself.
  • Following its triumphal role in Europe, the United States retreated into a policy of isolation from world affairs.
  • The experience of war caused many Americans to rethink society and their place in it; ideas of morality and social justice changed, and women and African-Americans began to make major strides toward mainstream equality.
  • The war produced an alienated “lost generation” of artists and writers, including a group of American intellectuals who chose to live in Europe, where they created a wealth of challenging new art and literature.