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books The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State

How Prohibition helped create today's "War on Drugs" infrastructure.

The War on Alcohol : Prohibition and the Rise of the American State
by Lisa McGirr
W.W. Norton
ISBN 978-0-393-35352-5

MUCH OF WHAT WE BELIEVE about Prohibition is wrong. In the prevailing mythology, militant church ladies, some of them wielding hatchets, achieved a complete ban on alcohol. The ban was so despised, the story goes, that liquor flowed even more freely in a wild outbreak of speakeasies, and so the “noble experiment” failed.

But “Prohibition” was never a complete ban: It was much easier to drink spirits legally under the 18th Amendment than to smoke pot legally today. You could get a prescription for medicinal whiskey in any state, drink liquor you had stocked up before the law went into effect, or make your own wine. Not only was it not a complete ban, it did not fail — at least not as a public health measure. Liquor became scarcer, American drinking habits shifted, and alcohol consumption remained relatively low for the next three decades. Another misconception: we assume that Americans drank like fish before (and during) Prohibition, much more than we do now. In fact, we now drink about as much as we did in 1910.

Lisa McGirr’s The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State is dry and tendentious, like certain counties in Tennessee. But anyone with a serious interest in drug policy should read her book to understand how we arrived at our present tragedy.

Like our current war on drugs, Prohibition thrived on prejudice. McGirr, a Harvard historian, sees Prohibition as the beginning of centralized police power — “the rise of the American State” — and argues that this power was mainly directed against minorities. It became a war on the poor and in particular against poor urban minorities. These groups then responded at the voting booth: they secured Repeal by voting in Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today we forget that FDR could have lost without the anti-Prohibition vote.

Arguably, but for the temporarily moderating effect of the temperance movement, this country has always had a drinking problem. America was born in rye whiskey and grew up on bourbon and beer. “Since the beginning, drinking and taverns have been as much a part of American life as churches and preachers, or elections and politics,” writes Susan Cheever in her book Drinking in America: Our Secret History (2015). In 1830, in part to sanitize the water, a typical American drank more than a bottle of distilled spirits a week. In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America,” “someone observed to me one day, in Philadelphia, that almost all crimes in America are caused by the abuse of intoxicating liquors, which the lower classes can procure in great abundance, from their excessive cheapness.” If we tried to tax liquor, his informant explained, the people would “revolt.”

Although drinking actually declined by the end of the 1800s, saloon culture remained a scourge. Clustered around the places where men cashed their pay, saloons beckoned with gambling, lively debate, access to power brokers, and prostitutes plying the men with alcohol. In his entertaining and well-researched Whiskey Women (2013), Fred Minnick describes a French prostitute in San Francisco in the 1850s who earned $50,000 a year, or $1.6 million today, mostly in commissions on whisky. Coming home with empty pockets, men told their wives, “The whiskey made me do it.” This was fertile soil for a movement: Drinking was dubbed a male sin and only temperance could safeguard families.

Women were gaining some power at this time, achieving the right to vote in 1920, eight months after Prohibition took effect. This was also a time of reformist zeal: The beginning of the last century gave us the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and movements toward the five-day work week and the end of child labor. The same reformist instincts generated a vision of a nation freed from the pernicious grip of saloons. Progressives and conservatives formed an unholy alliance, according to McGirr, built on shared contempt for immigrant and dark-skinned sinners, by definition alcohol-imbibing.

We know that racism, xenophobia, and class are part of every conversation about drug policy, but it’s easier to see and feel the ugliness of another era; we’re desensitized to our own. Before and during the Prohibition years, blacks traveled north, and “ethnics” by way of Jews and Italians immigrated to America’s industrial heartland. In a riveting chapter about a town called Herrin, in southern Illinois, McGirr details how the local “respectable” (i.e., non-ethnic) folk, including all but one of the area’s Protestant pastors, enlisted the KKK to scapegoat immigrants.

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The tale of this particular unholy alliance begins with a massacre. In June 1922, after a mine called in scabs, striking union miners marched on the mine, and three of them were killed. The next day, the union miners retaliated and killed 19 of 50 strikebreakers and mine guards. To restore the town’s reputation, according to McGirr, the town leaders organized a rally. Some 1,500 residents responded to a call to assemble before the courthouse, where Protestant pastors denounced the evils of alcohol. McGirr quotes a certain Reverend Glotfelty as saying, “the fellows who are most to blame [for the evils of alcohol and unrest] […] are those imported from across the sea.” At the time, the town’s foreign-born population (with their children) came to 15 percent of the total. Herrin had a thriving Catholic parish and plans for a second church. Glotfelty declared that all Catholic bootleggers should be jailed before Catholics built a new church.

Led by a chief officer of the Klan, called an “Exalted Cyclops,” and a county official, a delegation traveled to Washington, DC to meet with Prohibition commissioner Roy Haynes, who promised to send in federal agents if local citizens gathered enough evidence. They did. Herrin became a battleground between the Klan on the one hand, backed by Protestant and town leaders, and anti-Klan forces on the other. Finally, the governor put the county under martial law, enforced by the Illinois National Guard. In 1925, Young and his counterpart on the anti-Klan side died in a gun battle. Thousands of Klansmen poured into Herrin for Young’s funeral.

As McGirr puts it, in high form: “Williamson County’s ‘better citizens,’ successfully mobilized the grievances of their less-well-heeled evangelical Protestant brethren, only recently expressed in class conflict, toward the shared agenda of white Protestant nationalism. This militant nationalism focused its resentment on the more vulnerable working-class men and women of a different ethnicity and religion” — now seen as a threat to Protestant values. In the end, the raids closed 50 “soft drink parlors” for good. McGirr notes that immigrants fled the area.

It was thus a time of both social reform and violence.

In the Prohibition mythology, we think of liquor-related crime and forget the labor unrest, race riots, KKK, and anarchist bombings. The story we hear is that Prohibition gave us organized crime. In truth, organized crime already controlled gambling and sex trafficking, largely through saloons. Prohibition did kill those saloons, as well as distilleries and breweries, and with them distinct regional flavors of liquor (a regrettable loss, to be sure). But it also gave crime kingpins new riches, which they used to cultivate corrupt politicians, judges, and police. The public’s fear of the ensuing crime changed our history.

In a chapter entitled “Building the Penal State,” McGirr describes how federal officials seized the opportunity to collect fingerprints, embrace wire-tapping (with a nod from the Supreme Court in 1928 in Olmstead v. United States), and centralize crime reporting. The New Deal’s expansion of central power was on its way. Prisons filled and so more were built. Marijuana, opium, and cocaine were all banned during the same period. In 1930, drug offenders and the bigger group of liquor-law offenders made up more than half of all state and federal prisoners. Three or four men might be crammed in a cell meant for one. Even after Repeal (in December 1933), the prison population continued to grow until 1940, alongside high unemployment, notes McGirr. The incarceration rate peaked at 125 prisoners per 100,000 Americans and then fell until it began rising again, in the 1970s, with “the second war on drugs.”

In both eras, selective enforcement has meant that people imprisoned for drug crimes tend to come from stigmatized groups. Like the celebrated flappers, our middle-class pot smokers, coke snorters, heroin addicts, and drunken drivers break laws without much fear of the police. Meanwhile, gangs decimate poor neighborhoods and small-time minority dealers get crushing sentences. But in this second war, now vastly bigger than its parent, McGirr sees new kinds of players pursuing secret interests. There’s a whiff of conspiracy thinking in her account: Morphine, opium, and coca have medicinal properties, so pharmaceutical companies that would benefit from limiting the competition have become allies of “moral entrepreneurs.” These same reformers give the feds an excuse to meddle in the politics of the poor countries that grow marijuana, poppies, and coca.

The result: We now incarcerate a higher proportion of our citizenry than we did at the end of our longest, deepest depression — a decade when people stole to eat. By the end of 2014, the ratio was 471 prisoners per 100,000 Americans, nearly four times the ratio in 1940. Nearly half of all federal prisoners today have been convicted of drug crimes.

McGirr ends her history without offering options.


In our opinion, alcohol abuse is an underappreciated problem. Few people realize the full cost in crime, driving fatalities, illness, and family pain. Anywhere from a third to half of murders, for example, may be committed by intoxicated people.

Someday Americans may look back on our era of drug bans and leniency towards alcohol and see it as a misstep. One option might be to make it harder to drink alcohol to excess while decriminalizing other drugs, but at the same time designing conditions that discourage or limit their use. Already, we have records of success. Smoking is down because it became expensive, inconvenient, and uncool. Public education may be slowing the epidemic of obesity.

There’s a large academic literature analyzing which “harm-avoidance” policies are most likely to work. With political support, we could begin seriously trying them. They may in theory infringe on liberty, but we must ask ourselves whether a nation with fewer people in prison is not in fact a freer nation. As countries around the world decriminalize drugs, we need to understand the ugly politics of the last century and launch a more noble experiment in the new one.

For the sake of discussion, imagine an expedition, say on Star Trek — something like “Return of the Archons” — in which our voyagers arrive on a planet and find all the natives partying. Everyone is intoxicated or stoned and having a wonderful time. The party lasts two hours and then everyone goes home. Mr. Spock asks a native for an explanation.

The response comes: “Oh, a century ago, we had problems with people partying too much and getting sick and hurting other people. We tried making the most popular drug partly illegal, but that just put people in prison. We tried making that drug legal and the others completely illegal. Even more people landed in prison. So then we treated all party drugs the same way. You can pick up any drug you want, free, at special outlets and use it in public on Sunday morning. You get one serving a person a week, just enough to last three hours.”

“So how is it working out?” Mr. Spock asks.

“Very few people get sick now and crime is way down. There’s some trade between people who don’t want their serving and people who use off-Sunday. It’s a lot of trouble for the sellers and super-expensive for the buyers. We made all that legal too.”

“What about the producers? Couldn’t they make more of the stuff secretly and drive down the market price?”

“We thought of that. They sell in bulk to the Party Commission, and we drop any producer we think is selling on the side. It’s not worth their while to cheat. We rotate management at the commission every year to avoid corruption. To keep people coming to the official outlets, we offer lots of varieties. The producers compete and the drugs are much better now. Sunday morning is awesome.”


Temma Ehrenfeld is a ghostwriter and journalist in New York. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Reuters, and Fortune and her literary work in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, Chicago Literary Quarterly, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Prism International. She blogs at Psychology Today and is shopping her first novel, The Wizard of Kew Gardens.

Josh Feldman is the Network Administrator of The Morgan Library & Museum. He is also a whisky blogger known for detailed historical essays at The Coopered Tot.