Government in the 1920s

Contemporary Context:

The First World War was the type of war in which the last man standing won, and as the United States was clearly the Last Man Standing, President Wilson pretty much got to dictate the peace terms. [n.1] He had always declared that the purpose of the war was to make the world safe for democracy, and sure enough, the number of full democracies in the world surged forward from 6 in 1917 to 21 in 1922, reaching the highest percentage of sovereign nations (55%) that the century would see until the 1990s.

Although democracy was on the upswing, a couple of new forms of government emerged in the post-war world to challenge democracy's ascendancy. Russia pulled out of its years of chaos with a Communist government that would attempt to level the extremes of rich and poor by restructuring the whole of society and bringing the entire economy under state control. In Italy, the Fascist Party came to power on the promise of restoring the lost glories of the nation by subordinating the individual to the people, the state and the leader.

The crisis of empire at the end of the First World War brought at least seven (and possibly ten) new countries into existence, most of them following ethnic boundaries. [n.2] The concept of defining nations by ethnicity was hardly new in history, but it had not been given a high priority in the great power politics of the previous century. Even at this juncture of history, several major ethnic groups (such as the Armenians, Arabs and Ukrainians) were prevented from achieving their desired nationhood, a fact which was helping the fuel many of the civil wars in the immediate aftermath of the war.

The enfranchisement of women turned a corner in the 1920s when the United States and Great Britain granted them the right to vote. Until this point, female sufferage had only existed in small countries at the periphery of the civilized world, but now it was going mainstream.



Yes, I know that mainstream opinion considers the Versailles peace treaty to be a failure and Wilson to be a naive, impotent pawn, but all in all, Truth, Justice and the American Way scored some major points. My opinion (definitely the minority opinion) is that the failures of Versailles have been overemphasized by

  1. American statesmen trying to justify their isolationism and apathy during the post-war period.
  2. German statesmen trying to justify (or at least mitigate) launching the Second World War. ("Well, we had legitimate grievances."), and
  3. British and French statesmen trying to justify not standing up to Hitler early enough. ("Well, they had legitimate grievances.")

The truth is that the peace terms imposed on Germany after World War I were considerably less harsh than the terms imposed after World War II, and no one ever complains about those.



Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Yemen were brand new. Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia were butterfly nations formed from the caterpillars of earlier countries -- and therefore harder to classify as "new".


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Last updated April 1999

Copyright © 1999Matthew White