I am halfway through Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. It is one of those bucket list books that was always on my back burner until I made the leap a few days ago and down-loaded it to my Kindle from the public library. Too often in WW1 historiography we end the story with Versailles; much in the way we end the story of the Civil War with Appomattox. I believe we do this because wars and battles are so easy to follow, while their aftermaths and consequences are so convoluted and messy. We do the same thing with World War II, as if the carnage ended with the signing ceremony on the Missouri and all was well after that. It’s all so…unheroic.
So many of the problems of the 1920s stem from the Great War. It is not a coincidence that Prohibition–with its disastrous consequences that few foresaw–went into effect when it did. The Red Scare and the tightening of the immigration laws were other by-products. I have always been eager to know more about the three presidents elected in that decade. To the extent that we even think about Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, it is so easy to fall into caricature. The tendency is to jump from Wilson to FDR and skip past these three altogether. Admittedly, it’s tough to get excited about Silent Cal. Still, the best thing one can do for oneself is embrace complexity and avoid easy cliché.
The reason I say all this is because in one of those strange coincidences it was revealed yesterday via DNA evidence that Warren G. Harding indeed had an illegitimate daughter with his mistress Nan Britton. This was no one night stand or Clinton/Lewinsky thing where it was a few trysts and that was it. Britton and Harding were from the same sometime in Ohio and carried on a relationship for over six years. Their affair began in 1917 when he was a senator during the war and it continued after he promised a return to normalcy in the wake of the race and labor riots, veterans housing crisis, Versailles negotiations and everything else. The relationship lasted until his death in 1923.
Apparently there is a bit of a rift in the current Harding generation, with some accepting the news and others not having yet processed it. You would have to think they will come around. The DNA doesn’t lie and they will only look petty if they hold out.
(image/Library of Congress, permalink: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002706913/)