A Return to Normalcy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Warren G. Harding was not known as a particularly exuberant, or passionate, politician. Indeed, as John W. Dean (of the Nixon White House and Watergate fame) has written in his brief biography of Harding, Harding is perhaps “best known as America’s worst president.” Dean goes on, nonetheless, to try to extricate the man from the myth, and finds that Harding was a reasonably effective leader in his short time as president (1921-1923). The Ohio Republican worked to reestablish order in the nation following World War I, having campaigned on a message of a “return to normalcy.” He brought a business mind-set to the executive branch of government, launching a Bureau of the Budget to track government expenditures and revenues. For better or for worse, he also refused to listen to popular calls for supplying soldiers who had fought in the war with bonuses–on grounds that it would bankrupt the US Treasury. (This issue remained alive under later presidents.) Finally, he promoted a set of naval disarmament talks to help ensure the peace in the postwar era.

Warren G. Harding was not known as a particularly exuberant, or passionate, politician. Indeed, as John W. Dean (of the Nixon White House and Watergate fame) has written in his brief biography of Harding, Harding is perhaps “best known as America’s worst president.” Dean goes on, nonetheless, to try to extricate the man from the myth, and finds that Harding was a reasonably effective leader in his short time as president (1921-1923). The Ohio Republican worked to reestablish order in the nation following World War I, having campaigned on a message of a “return to normalcy.” He brought a business mind-set to the executive branch of government, launching a Bureau of the Budget to track government expenditures and revenues. For better or for worse, he also refused to listen to popular calls for supplying soldiers who had fought in the war with bonuses–on grounds that it would bankrupt the US Treasury. (This issue remained alive under later presidents.) Finally, he promoted a set of naval disarmament talks to help ensure the peace in the postwar era.

What Harding is most remembered for, however, is an incident known as the Teapot Dome scandal, a case of political corruption. His association with the scandal is unfortunate, in a way, because Harding had little to do with it, and most of the revelations regarding it came out after his death from heart failure while serving in office. Still, the scandal did involve members of his Cabinet, and it came to color public opinion about the 34th president.

In the present section, we look at Harding and the idea of American life returning to “normal” following the trauma of the Great War. We hear Harding speechifying about normalcy and Americanism as a presidential candidate in 1920. We also hear about Americanism from the Democratic vice presidential candidate in that year, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Teapot Dome scandal is explored, and Harding’s role in it discussed. Additionally, we include a chapter on the Transportation Act of 1920. The act returned control of the nation’s railroads to the private sector following government control during the war. Rounding out the section is an examination of the Immigration Act of 1924, a bill signed by Calvin Coolidge and which set strict limits on immigration based on national origins. Its main effect was to restrict immigration from “undesirable” countries like those of Eastern and Southern Europe and East and Southeast Asia in an effort, arguably, to preserve an idealized notion of (white) ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Such is the legacy of the 1920s and its return to normalcy.

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