People speak of a new year as turning the page or starting out fresh or forgetting the past. At the start of a new year, I like to look back a century ago to see what has changed and what hasn’t.
In 1923, America had finally recovered from the Spanish flu, which killed 675,000 in the United States and an estimated 50 million worldwide. If we learned anything from that plague, it wasn’t enough to have protected the 1.08 million Americans who have died from COVID-19 (through November, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
The biggest political event of 1923 was the death of Warren Harding, which elevated Calvin Coolidge to the presidency. The centenary of his inauguration will be observed in several ways this year, but it is worth noting that virtually every economic principle Coolidge held (smaller government, reduced spending — he left office with a budget surplus and a smaller budget than when he entered) has been thrown over to our national detriment and disgrace.
Among my favorite Coolidge quotes is this one about government: “If we give the best that is in us to our private affairs we shall have little need of government aid.” If only that attitude prevailed today.
In the early 1920s, Rowell’s Directory calculated that there were more than 20,000 newspapers published in the United States, including dailies, weeklies, monthlies and quarterlies. As of 2018, there were 1,279 daily newspapers in the United States. One-third of large US newspapers experienced layoffs in 2020, more than in 2019. More than eight in 10 Americans now get their “news” from digital devices, including social media. If we get the leadership we deserve, the decline in good journalism might have something to do with it.
One hundred years ago, the USSR was born. By the time of its collapse, an estimated 61 million people had been murdered, with Joseph Stalin said to be responsible for 43 million.
The last American troops left Germany following the end of World War I, but they would return 19 years later. Fascism was already on the rise in Germany and Italy in 1923.
Here’s a personal favorite: It became legal in 1923 for American women to wear trousers. Admit it, you never knew it had been illegal.
Harry Houdini freed himself from a straitjacket while hanging upside down. There must be a modern political analogy involving our upside-down economy and politics.
The Disney brothers launched their cartoon studio. It turned out that Washington was not the only Mickey Mouse operation.
The Senate issued its first report on the scandal known as Teapot Dome. More scandals would follow as they inevitably do when too many politicians hold too much power for too long. Term limits, anyone?
In December 1923, President Coolidge delivered the first radio broadcast speech, and at the end of the month the first transatlantic radio broadcast took place.
There were conflicts, labor strikes and other problems we still experience today in one way or another. Air travel became easier and more available, although safety was still a major concern in 1923.
Looking back 100 years at least two things are clear: While leaders and events may change, human nature never changes. As King Solomon wisely observed thousands of years ago, “There is nothing new under the sun.” A French saying echoes his observation: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The familiar English translation: The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Happy New Year!
Cal Thomas’ latest book is “America’s Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires and Superpowers and the Future of the United States.”
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