Curtain Raiser

Johnny Comes Marching Home

This was it. The Great War was over. It was a glorious homecoming.

New York TimesThere were parades on all the Broadways and all the Main Streets. There were brass bands and wild, cheering throngs that had to be held back by the horse cops. There were long and lavish tributes . . . There were miles of ticker tape, and Red Cross ladies with coffee and hot buns. And there were nameless girls (later to be known as flappers) to hug Johnny to their bosoms and maybe light up his troop-ship pallor with a kiss that left a vivid red stain lipstick.

And there was always Old Glory, waving from all the same windows and from 130,000 windows that had a new decoration glittering in the sun: the Gold Star, for the boy who did not come marching home but lay in Flanders Field or on some lonely knoll Over There. There was a Blue Note 130,000 Blue Notes and there were others, too.

DoughboysFor all the hurrahs and all the hosannas, Johnny would find something less than wonderful about the America of 1919. It was not the same place he had left in '17. It was changed, and changing still; there would be agony in peace, as in war. In a word, Johnny had some shocks coming when he flecked off the confetti and packed away his hero's khaki.

The Postwar Blues
Johnny didn't march back into the short day and high pay he was enjoying when Uncle Sam tapped him to go make the world safe for democracy. Oh, no. The prosperity of 1914-1918 dried up as fast as the signatures on the Armistice. There would be two years of depression and more than five million unemployed before the economy could adjust itself to peace. Our factories were overexpanded, our shelves glutted, our foreign markets devastated by the years of havoc and destruction, and our price structure shot.

strikeThe wartime honeymoon between labor and capital blew up in fearful strife. Four million men hit the bricks in 1919 alone: the unions didn't want to go back to the long week and low wage of the prewar years, nor to the Open Shop cherished by the patriotic defenders of free American enterprise. Strikes swept the nation by the thousands, hitting steel, the meat packers, the railroads, the building industry, the garment trades, even the vaudeville houses.

John L. Lewis took 435,000 minors out of the pits and relaxed with Homer's Iliad as Detroit closed its freezing schools and factory owners everywhere talked of banking their furnaces. Seattle was crippled by a general walkout. On the Atlantic Seaboard, striking longshoremen shut down the ports. Blood ran, too. Pennsylvania's coal and iron police bent clubs over strikers' skulls and U.S. troops ran interference for U.S. Steel's scabs in Gary, Indiana. In West Virginia, the Weirton Steel Company's private police force made 118 strikers kneel and kiss the American flag; in the temper of the time, with the Government's Red Raids picking up steam, you were a Bolshevik if you shouldered a picket sign. "The American businessman," said Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday, "was quite ready to believe that a struggle of American laboring men for john l lewisbetter wages was the beginning of an armed rebellion directed by Lenin and Trotsky, and that behind every innocent professor who taught that there were arguments for as well as against socialism there was a bearded rascal from Eastern Europe with a moneybag in one hand and a smoking bomb in the other."

So Johnny found that the festival of homecoming ended with the Big Parade. The dreams he had in the mud and the trenches were wafted away by very hard realities. Maybe he heard about the twenty thousand millionaires up from a prewar sixteen thousand and the legions of the New Rich on the native hearth. He was more likely to qualify for the New Poor. To begin with, the dollar in his discharge pay was worth only forty-five cents in the inflated postwar economy. Maybe he thought he would settle down in a new home or a new apartment when he got back; he found housing short and rents sky-high. He might wind up in the shabby "temporary" barracks built for wartime and kept standing for years afterwards because the construction industry couldn't catch up. Maybe he thought he was coming home to a tranquil shore; he would find race riots in Chicago and Washington and a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, where it was strongest.

girlMademmoiselle From Main Street
On the more practical levels of his day-to-day existence the soldier home from the wars did find something to cheer about unless he happened to be an Honor Scout or otherwise excessively strait-laced. Johnny found his American Beauty drifting away from the prim morality of the pre-1914 world even faster than Henry Ford's Model-T would carry her. The girl who kissed him demurely at the depot, while her skirt swept the dusty floor, had been working harder and harder on the New Freedom in his absence. When he got home she wanted to be more like the Mademoiselle from Armentieres not to mention some of the real-life fast-steppers Over There. She wanted to be the life of the party indoors, or in the open roadster parked on the lonely road.

FlapperLet's face it: The girl hadn't sat out the war. The process of emancipation that set in before '17 quickened perceptibly while the boys were away. The revolution in underwear offered perhaps the most vivid case in point. The old cotton undergarments, layer upon layer, gave way to the much sexier, much more feminine, silk. The long black stockings gave way to sheer hose that exposed the leg and some of the girls weren't averse to rolling'em below the knees when the band turned on that hot fox trot tempo. Skirts went up six inches from the ground. The high-laced shoe started toward the museum, replaced by low pumps that hair bobbingshowed off the well-turned ankle. Bobbed hair arrived, consigning the old-fashioned bun and long locks to the beauty parlor floor. (In the beginning, that took courage; there were those who associated short hair with free love and radicalism, but the best families permitted it after a while.) Rouge was on the way, too.

Thus Johnny found a social scene that was much more varied and surely more interesting than the one he had left. The curtain had come down on the girl he used to know. She was a flapper now, raring to go. She was entirely ready for her role in the Lawless Decade. She was even ready for the speakeasy, which happened to be at hand. If Johnny complained, only the stuffier historians recorded it.