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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.
The United States Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and rejected membership in the nascent League of Nations.
Congress in 1922 effectively closed the American market to foreign vendors with the Fordney-Mc Cumber Tariff, among the highest in United States history, and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff eight years later.
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.
As for government—public spending at all levels, including towns, cities, counties, states, and the federal government itself, amounted only to about 15 percent of the gross domestic product in the 1920s, one-fifth of which was federal expenditures.
Ideology aside, its very size made the federal government in the 1920s a kind of ninety-pound weakling in the fight against the looming depression. Millions—nobody knew at first how many, so primitive were the government’s fact-finding organs—went unemployed.
Even those horrendous numbers could not begin to take the full measure of the human misery that unemployment entailed.
Given the demography of the labor force and prevailing cultural norms that kept most women—and virtually all married women—out of the wage-paying economy, a 25 percent unemployment rate meant that, for all practical purposes, every fourth household in America had no breadwinner.
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.