Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



Ken Burns’ newest documentary, as he skips happily around in the parts of American history that have enough photographs to make it interesting. In three parts:

One: A Nation of Drunkards. It sounded like such a good idea. All the liberals, yesterday’s progressives, were in favor of it, and a great many conservatives. But that is the greatest weakness of liberalism (and I’m a lifelong liberal myself … up to a point), the idea that a social problem can be solved by enacting a law, or spending a lot of money on it. Sometimes it can solve the problem, more often it can help a little, but sometimes it leads to disaster, and Prohibition is the prime example of it in this country.

What I hadn’t known was just how much alcohol American citizens drank, right back to colonial times. Most people drank beer with breakfast, and then all through the day. True, it was weak beer, but still. Then distilled spirits became more popular, and people kept consuming it like it was beer. We really were a nation of drunkards.

The people who suffered the most (aside from the damage the hard liquor did to millions of livers and brains) were the women and children. Women had no rights at all, nor did children. If hubby came home drunk and angry he could clobber his wife and kids all he wanted to and no one would say a thing. He had to kill them to get in trouble, and maybe not even then. So this cause, temperance, became the first issue that American women really became involved in, and it was completely entangled with suffrage.

Another thing I didn’t know was how divided the country was between “real Americans” (white Protestants who had been here a while), and immigrants, Germans in particular. The Germans of the Midwest were determined to have their beer, and a dozen beer barons got very, very rich on it. You would know their names instantly, as they are still on the beer bottles and cans. Likewise, other ethnic new arrivals wanted their alcohol. It was also divided between city and country people.

Still another thing I didn’t know was that the federal government got fully one third of its money from liquor taxes. We couldn’t afford prohibition … until the Anti-Saloon League got the 16th Amendment ratified in 1913. That provided for a federal income tax, and now the government could get along without liquor.

The Drys won the day, passing the 18th Amendment in only 13 months, and the nation embarked on the Great Experiment.

Two: A Nation of Scofflaws. It was at this point in the series that I realized that the subtitle could have been “America’s War on Drugs: Part One.” Prohibition of alcohol was sort of like World War One, and after 14 years of it most Americans were thinking, “Well, that was a dumb idea. Let’s get rid of it.” And we did. But we learned nothing. Nothing at all. The actual declared “War on Drugs” was announced by Nixon in 1971, but we had in fact been waging war on chemicals since 1914. In a few years we can celebrate the Centennial of the war. Hip, hip, hooray! How many billions of dollars have we squandered, how many, many thousands of lives has our schizophrenic love/hate relationship with drugs taken (mostly down below the border where it’s only brown people who die, so who cares?). I’m sure somebody knows those numbers, but I won’t look them up. They’re too depressing. (You don’t think we love drugs? Then why do we spend billions of dollars every year buying them?) Part One was really trivial in terms of the damage it did to our society. Almost everyone who died in the piddling little shootouts in the streets of Chicago and elsewhere was a bootlegger. It is estimated that 50,000 people have died in Mexico alone, a great many of them killed in crossfires. Seven mobsters died in our legendary St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Massacres bigger than that happen every day in Mexico.

One in every 100 Americans is in prison, by far the highest percentage of any country in the world, and the majority of them are in there for drug offences, including simple possession and use. Drug addiction is the only medical problem we have seen fit to criminalize. Why don’t we put cancer and AIDS victims in jail, too, for getting sick? It makes just as much sense.

The list of things we should have learned from Prohibition is long, and includes the fact that when people want something, they will get it, no matter what the consequences. Someone will find a way to provide it and if you kill or imprison that person, two more will step up to take his place.

There is huge money in prohibition, of anything, and when lawbreakers get fabulously rich, they spend some of that money suborning police, judges, legislators, mayors, and anyone else in government who can do them a favor. This promotes disrespect for the law. During the 13 years of Prohibition bootleggers regularly delivered booze to the Capital Building—and not just to the janitors, to the very men who voted for Prohibition—and to the White House. They bought entire police forces in Seattle and other cities. At the same time they passed the Volstead Act, Congress pitifully underfunded it, hired thugs as “federal agents,” and sent them out into the countryside with machine guns. City cops wanted nothing to do with all this, except to take payoffs from speakeasies and rum runners. There were so many ships parked outside the three-mile limit, storing booze to run ashore at night, that it looked like a floating city out there.

All of this isexactly like our current prohibition … except that in 1933 the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment. I see no signs that we will ever stop doing what our ancestors were wise enough to give up. I think it’s probably because we call it a war. Like our other wars, in Afghanistan, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror, no one will admit that they are lost, or at least lost causes.

Three: A Nation of Hypocrites. On the day Repeal took effect, H.L. Mencken celebrated by downing a tall, cold glass of ice water. He said it was the first water he had drunk in thirteen years. Now, that’s funny! There were a lot of funny things about Prohibition, most of them blackly ironic. Did you know it’s harder to get a drink now than it was at any time during the Dry era? Think about it. Nobody asked for your ID at a speakeasy. There were no closing hours, no problem getting a drink on Sunday, as it is now in many places. A speak never had to apply for a liquor license. Today, with all the sensible restrictions we place on alcohol, it just isn’t as freely available as it was when it was illegal. Makes you wonder if the same would happen if we legalized marihuana and other drugs.

What’s depressing is that so much that was happening eighty years ago is paralleled exactly today. Someone said that Prohibition divided the nation into three groups: Wets, Drys, and Hypocrites. The first two were committed to their pro- or anti- positions, but the vast majority professed morality and drank anyway. One of the women who led the fight to repeal the Volstead act and the Eighteenth Amendment had finally had enough when she saw that the very legislators who consistently voted Dry and also for increasing the penalties (five years for a first offense!) expected to be served liquor at the parties she gave.

When Al Smith, a prominent Wet, ran for president, he was attacked because of his Catholicism by the deeply racist Drys, with fantastic, untrue, made-up stories very like those given out by the Birthers and those who believe Obama was born in Kenya. Totally disgusting behavior by those who saw themselves as the guardians of morality. When people died from drinking medicinal alcohol which had been mixed with poison at the order of the government, the leader of the Anti-Saloon League called it “voluntary suicide.” That was too much for even most Drys. The woman in charge of Prohibition enforcement went to Ohio and gave a speech blatantly urging the good Protestant churchgoers in that state to bring the power of the pulpit into the voting booth by voting against the goddam Catholic. Al Smith lost in a landslide for that incompetent asshole Hoobert Heever, largely by character assassination.

One very interesting thing I didn’t know, however, was the role Prohibition inadvertently played in women’s liberation. (Just about everything about Prohibition was a result of the Law of Unintended Consequences.) It did indeed get rid of the saloon, a traditional meeting place for men, where women were not allowed. What took its place was the speakeasy, where everybody was welcome. Men and women drank together, danced, just had a great time. The country was never the same again.

Hell, I’m not even going to get into the growth of the cancer of organized crime, Prohibition’s blackest legacy. It’s covered well here, particularly that greasy little scumbag Al Capone. The Mafia is still around, and was the pattern for even worst gangsters to come. Prohibition made small-time thugs like Capone into multi-millionaires, and stained the streets of Chicago and other cities with the blood of innocent bystanders.

The lesson is so very, very simple: Make something illegal, and people who never even used it will find it fascinating, and give it a try. And those who already used it will find a way to get it. The phrase “stay the course” was used by many people right up to the end. The literal translation of that phrase is “We know it’s not working, but if we stop now all that effort and all those lives will have been wasted.” As in Vietnam, as in the War on Drugs, as in Afghanistan, our longest war ever. It is so sad.