By Patrick N. Allitt, Emory University
The ending of the First World War made it clear that the United States was now a major world power, but its disengagement from world affairs in the 1920s showed that it wasn’t a world power yet willing to flex its muscles in the way that most of its rivals wanted to do. Why did the US show no interest in the world affairs? Was it related to the internal crises that had followed the Prohibition?
Ban on Alcohol
The 1920s began on a sour note for the native Protestants. Their hopes for a morally improved nation, which were expressed in the Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution had collapsed. Prohibition created ideal conditions for the development of organized crime.
So many otherwise respectable citizens violated the alcohol ban that it became unenforceable. Criminal scofflaws like Al Capone became half-villain, half-folk hero. Why did this happen?
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Social Evil
The social costs of alcohol use in America were very high. In a time when most wages were low, and most working-class families lived close to the subsistence line, to have the man of the family drinking heavily was catastrophic. It could make him far more vulnerable to industrial accidents. A drunken father with a lot of stress because of lack of money was much more likely to commit acts of domestic violence. Marital rape was very common. Drunken and disorderly behavior was extremely widespread.
It didn’t seem like a utopian idea to ban alcohol in the hope that the quality of social life and the quality of family life would improve. Banning of alcohol was the first political issue to mobilize large numbers of women in a political campaign in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU had emphasized the transformation of individuals, moral improvement of individuals, one-by-one, so that they’d eschew alcohol voluntarily.
The Call for Patriotism
By contrast, the Anti-Saloon League was more legislation-oriented, and it began to press for a constitutional amendment in 1913. The First World War provided it with the ideal conditions. This was a time when grain was needed for export as a food, and diverting it into alcohol manufacture could seem irrelevant to the war effort.
Most of the prominent American brewers were themselves Germans. You could associate alcohol production with disloyalty or latent disloyalty. In other words, it seemed to be patriotic to be in favor of Prohibition.
Prohibition was introduced by legislation (Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution) and enforced beginning in January 1920, but it wasn’t very long before the law was being widely violated.
Prohibition: A Disappointment
Right from the beginning, Prohibition lacked effective enforcement. Rather than being put into the hands of the police forces, it was put into the hands of the Treasury Department, and the department never had enough agents to be able to deal with it adequately. There was widespread bribery of local enforcement officials. Policemen everywhere were susceptible to bribes from the liquor traffickers.
Walter Ligget, a journalist who favored Prohibition, was horrified by the way it was being violated openly, not only by ordinary people, but also by elected officials. He says:
There came to my attention in the city of Detroit a wild party given at a roadhouse, a very wild party, where the liquor was donated by one of the principal gamblers of Detroit, Denny Murphy… And there were at that drunken revel, the Governor of Michigan, the Chief of Police of Detroit, the Chief of the State Police, clubmen, politicians, gamblers, criminals, bootleggers, all there fraternizing in the spirit of the most perfect equality under the god Bacchus…You find that hypocrisy today over the length and breadth of this land.
The law didn’t have the basic minimum of citizens’ consent necessary to be enforceable. The basis where it was effective was usually in small rural communities, particularly in the ‘Bible belt’ of the South and the Midwest. There, there had been a lot of support for it in the first place, and the enforcement was a little bit more rigorous.
Prohibition facilitated the rise of organized crime. The ordinary citizens would break the Prohibition laws, and they’d connive at the protection of the bootleggers without feeling that they were criminals.
Al Capone, one of the great cargo bootleggers said this in the mid-1920s:
I make my money by supplying a public demand. If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am…Everybody calls me a racketeer. I call myself a businessman. When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lakeshore Drive, it’s hospitality.
When he was finally convicted, it wasn’t of racketeering, nor of the numerous murders he and his gang had committed, but of tax evasion. It was due to actions of the Treasury Department, which at the national level was doing the enforcement. The benefit of having alcohol legally was that its quality could be controlled, and it could be taxed and regulated, etc., and the criminality could be eliminated.
However, just as today there are many Americans who hate the idea of legalizing certain drugs because they don’t like the idea of permitting an immoral substance onto the market. It rouses Puritan ire.
That is why the experiment persisted for 14 to 15 years.
Common Questions about the Prohibition
The WCTU had emphasized the transformation of individuals, moral improvement of individuals, one-by-one, so that they’d eschew alcohol voluntarily.
Al Capone was one of the great cargo bootleggers. He was later convicted for tax evasion.
Prohibition was put into the hands of the Treasury Department, and the department never had enough agents to be able to deal with it adequately. There was widespread bribery of local enforcement officials. Policemen everywhere were susceptible to bribes from the liquor traffickers.