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Calvin Coolidge and the Staid 1920s

Robert H. Ferrell, Indiana University
January 29, 2005

Robert H. Ferrell taught for many years at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he was Distinguished Professor of History. He is the author or editor of many books in American foreign relations, presidential history, and military history, including Dear Bess: The Letters from Harry to Bess Truman, 1910-1959 (1983), Harry S. Truman: A Life (1995), The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1998), and most recently Collapse at Meuse-Argonne: The Failure of the Missouri-Kansas Division (2004). His Five Days in October: The Lost Battalion of World War I, will be published this spring.

Session One

Focus: The typical view of the 1920s as it appears in textbooks and other readings is a time of excess-when if there were any time of excess in American history it surely would be the present moment, 2004-05, when personal incomes have never been higher, consumption (despite ups and downs) at its most opulent. The 1920s, with President Calvin Coolidge setting the scene, was a staid time, comparatively. And it marked an entire era, 1917-33, which might be described as the 1920s figuratively speaking, when the American nation and its people moved, not always asking where they were going, into the twentieth century, which new century was to show developments, domestic and foreign, that would have been unimaginable to Americans of an earlier age.

Session Two

Focus: The grand question is whether the presidential personalities of the 1920s broadly conceived, that is, from 1917 to 1933, were adequate, and the answer might well be “no” but then, who could have imagined what was to follow? Too, American government was still small at this time, despite the then huge outlay to support participation in the World War in 1917-18. It is a perplexing question over how much individuals can confront the major movements of history, how much control they can have. And how, despite the only guide to the future that we have, which is history, what has gone before: how we can look ahead?

Readings:

  • Robert H. Ferrell, Woodrow Wilson and World War I, pp. 1-12, 219-235
  • Robert H. Ferrell, The Strange Deaths of President Harding, pp. 1-29
  • Robert H. Ferrell, Calvin Coolidge: Autobiography, ch. 1
  • Robert H. Ferrell, American Diplomacy in the Great Depression, pp. 1-18

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