The end of World War 1 was essentially a period of worldwide turmoil. Newly-built nations like Poland and Greece engaged in immediate territorial conflicts with their neighbors. Every belligerent European power was wracked by massive strikes and insurrections organized by workers who saw inspiration in the Bolsheviks’ success in Russia. Munich, Budapest, Berlin, and even Limerick in Ireland saw armed workers seize much of the city and declare short-lived workers’ republics.
Meanwhile, nationalists of regions not released in the WW1 peace, such as Ireland and Ukraine and Russian Central Asia, declared their own wars of independence against their governments. Far-right nationalists Italy were furious at a perceived lack of wartime gains, and formed the first fascist movement to correct that.
In Germany, the Nazi Party lost its postwar bid for power but successfully reorganized into a parliamentary movement which a decade later took power alongside the Italian fascists. Most old monarchies had been pushed over, and those that remained seemed to be on their shakiest ground since 1848, or even the time of the French Revolution. Literally everywhere, radicalism was emerging to the forefront of global politics.
Now let’s come to the US. While America’s workers never had a socialist movement as militant or well-organized as their counterparts in Europe, no fascists came to power, and there were no territories seeking independence, echoes of the European radical turn could be seen in America.
While part of this might be explained by a radical influence seeping in from overseas (America’s right-wingers believed so, at least), a handful of major factors contributed to America’s own turmoil in 1919 and 1920.
First, the end of the war marked the immediate shutdown of munitions plants, leaving many out of work and causing a brief but severe economic recession. The breakout of the Spanish flu, which killed nearly 700,000 Americans, also contributed to a net shrinkage in GDP and caused many businesses to shutter. But what really caused voters in 1920 to demand normalcy was not this crisis itself, but instead the social and political forces that responded to it.
America’s own socialists, who at this time were largely enmeshed within the general labor movement, demanded new freedoms and rights for the working class. Anarchists especially planted hundreds of bombs across American cities, targeting right-wing politicians and major capitalists.
While this militancy had begun well before WW1 (Los Angeles workers blew up the Times headquarters in 1910), it came to a head during the 1919 recession. The federal government responded to this with extreme force. New laws were passed restricting workers’ organization, and being a socialist was rendered all-but illegal.
Blaming this upswing in worker militancy entirely on immigrants from Europe, hundreds of well-known labor organizers such as Emma Goldman were deported to the countries of their birth.
World War 1 also coincided with the first Great Migration, when millions of African Americans migrated out of the South and into Northern cities, most prominently Chicago, New York, and St. Louis. Many of them worked in factories that had been previously staffed by white workers who had been drafted.
Some whites also panicked at the thought of “upjumped” black servicemen demanding social equality after returning home. So, when the war ended ant many urban whites returned, white people targeted blacks in race riots marked by extreme violence. Hundreds of African Americans were killed across America’s cities at the close of World War 1, with white-on-black racial violence only escalating across the 20s.
The most famous race riot, better-known as the Tulsa Massacre, wasn’t until 1921. A newly-reformed Ku Klux Klan enforced campaigns of racial terror all across the United States, using the law to keep black people out of towns and neighborhoods where they could not live and using bombs and nooses and burning crosses to keep black people out of places where they could.
Harding essentially promised an end to all of this. Campaigning not against his opponent directly, but instead against this maelstrom of social turbulence, voters saw his isolationist platform as a return to the prewar status quo. The Republican base of white Protestants from outside the South eagerly voted for someone who they thought would end this “foreign radicalism,” while foreigners themselves, the white ethnic minorities who had previously been part of the Democratic coalition, voted for the Republican Harding largely because his Democratic predecessor Wilson was seen as too pro-Britain and too repressive toward immigrants.
All this resulted in Harding winning the greatest popular landslide in American history: over 60% to his opponent Cox’s 34%.