A Sketch of a Century

One hundred years ago, the 20th century swept up civilization and hurled us forward into a world inconceivable. While Verdi’s “Aida” spun a fable of ancient Egypt at the opera house in New York, “madmen” raced through the city in noisy, stinking devices called automobiles. Edwardian elegance was being pushed aside. The captains of industry became the new royalty. What lay ahead came upon us in a flash.

In Paris, the young Spanish painter Pablo Picasso exhibited his works in a gallery on the Rue Lafitte, lighting a fire under the world of art. Orthodoxy was out, revolution was in. The 20th century would be more tumultuous, exciting, dangerous and progressive than all that came before. Now, the century passes, its years having encompassed great achievements in literature, the arts, medicine and science, with trips to the moon and the bottom of the seas.

A Century Takes Flight

The first decades of the century were marked by industry, invention and imperialism. A couple of bicycle makers from Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright, built and flew the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. The first film hit, “The Great Train Robbery,” pioneered an industry that blossomed in Los Angeles and spread American culture around the world, for better or worse. Thomas Alva Edison, America’s most prolific inventor, was still going strong as the century turned. The Wizard of Menlo Park lighted up our cities with the incandescent lamp and our souls with the phonograph. And Albert Einstein gave the world his theories of relativity.


The flowering of science, art and invention would be the hallmark of the century’s first decades, but there was a downside to progress. The world was being drawn and quartered, and the United States fell right into the middle of it. U.S. territories were expanded by the 1898 Spanish-American War, and Spain’s loss made the United States a global power. Under the Treaty of Paris, Madrid ceded to the United States Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. The price: $20 million.

America focused inward, on its growing agricultural, steel, oil and manufacturing industries. Europe was “over there,” where rich Americans went on the Grand Tour, to London, Paris, Florence and Rome. Soon, in the second decade of the century, this playground would become a battleground.

World in Conflict

World War I was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The armies of France, Britain, Russia, Belgium and Italy within a matter of weeks were pitted against Germany and Austro-Hungary and eventually against Turkey. The Great War lasted from 1914 to 1918, and the youth of Europe--and at the end America--was liberally bled on the fields of France, the main battleground. Germany lost the war, but no nation could claim victory, not with the horrific casualties in a conflict that introduced to warfare the fighter plane, tank, submarine and poison gas.


The industrial economies of Belgium, Germany and France were ruined. Politics were unstable, with leftist regimes making headway in the midst of disaster. Russia listened to the message of Vladimir I. Lenin and became a communist state. In the 1930s, the Germans gave power to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism. Neither dictatorship would survive, but they continue to engage historians in argument over which was worse. Surely mankind had never seen so graphically anything like the horrors that Hitler imposed on the helpless with his “final solution,” the genocide of Europe’s Jewish populations. For the sheer volume of carnage among one’s own people, Josef Stalin was unmatched in the 20th century.

In America, the euphoria of the triumph in France was short-lived for the doughboys returning from World War I. They danced and drank while the money held out and then returned to the factories and fields. Before too many years they faced a world depression--"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” The ‘30s proved in many cases a much harder battle than war, so tough that it would take another war to recover. Hitler provided that when German tanks crashed into Poland in 1939, launching the most terrible war in history, the Big One, World War II.

This time the armies of the United States, Britain, France, Canada and their allies had no illusions. Germany would have to be crushed, along with its Japanese and Italian Axis partners. The combined will of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Britain’s redoubtable Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Stalin defeated Hitler’s Nazi legions. The war was fought on a monumental scale, in some way on every continent, and victory was total, grimly symbolized by the awesome cloud over Hiroshima.

In California, the Japanese American internees began returning from their wasteland camps, along with their many sons and fathers who had stood against Hitler.

America’s Time

There was more joy than sorrow when the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines came home. This had been a just war. The men and women in uniform had fought for their countries and for their futures, which now were there for the taking. With the GI Bill, hundreds of thousands of returning veterans got housing loans and college tuition. America was in a rush to get on with interrupted lives. Families and marriages needed nurturing. Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams came back to take another swing.

Television sold the image, giving us a community of interests and entertainment. Betty Furness made every home a castle, peddling refrigerators on the tube. The iceman went out of business.

Within five years America was riding high again. Detroit was ready for the market, and there wouldn’t be any running boards on postwar automobiles. This would be a generation of sleek cars, advancement on the job and fast work with the family. Hospitals had difficulty keeping up in the maternity ward as the baby boom reverberated across America.


Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin defeated the horrible childhood disease of polio. The miracles of penicillin and its cousins spread around the world. But the newer scourge of AIDS, the killer of the century’s final decades, has defied a cure to this day.

Home builders were ready for the new families. In Southern California, houses climbed the hills and filled the valleys; schools were full before the mortar dried. Jobs were plentiful, and Los Angeles had more than most cities, stirring migrations from the Midwest and particularly the South, where Jim Crow, lynchings and racial segregation had been America’s most egregious sin. Restrictive covenants barring home sales and rentals to African Americans, Latinos, Jews and Asians were as prevalent in Southern California as almost anywhere.

In the 1950s, war came again, the Korean conflict, and then, in the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnam, the most tragic and unpopular of America’s wars, one that split society and triggered a time of political rebellion. President Lyndon B. Johnson pressed the war and saw his hopes of reelection go up in smoke.

Tumult and Progress

In a country already devastated by the political assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., angst gripped society. Richard M. Nixon won the White House in 1968 but could not win the war and ultimately fell in the 1974 Watergate scandal and resigned, the first American president to do so.

With U.S. foreign policy badly damaged by Vietnam, the focus shifted to issues of race, gender and age that had risen in the 1960s. Progress was fitful, but from the day in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her bus seat to a white, things changed in America. With every freedom march, every sit-in, every piece of legislation, America was pushed forward by brave men and women.

The United States took a quantum leap into space with manned landings on the moon. Those television viewers who saw Neil Armstrong’s shadowy figure descending the ladder from Apollo 11 to the surface of the moon in 1969 can never forget the moment. The U.S. went on to send space probes to Venus, Mars and the moons of Jupiter.

How can we measure the experience of a century? American men entered the 1900s wearing bowlers and straw skimmers, switched to billed caps in the Depression, bounced up fedoras in the ‘40s and, after JFK, went bareheaded. American women stepped into the century with ankle-length hemlines, which rose in the ‘20s, dipped in the ‘30s and took a sizzling send-off in the ‘60s. Then hemlines quit mattering.


What awaits tomorrow, the beginning of a new century and a new millennium? It’s a Saturday, a good time to get the yardwork done, take the kids to the park, visit relatives, catch a movie or hit the post-holiday sales. Verdi’s “Aida” surely is playing somewhere. And certainly young men are tearing around in motorcars. Or take a chair and reflect. None of us who live today, nor any born for a number of centuries to come, will see the arrival of another millennium. But this far, we made it.