Ethnic and racial prejudice are not only vile but also dangerous. Remember that time we surrendered the right to get drunk because we hated the Germans?
Well. It's a little more complicated than that. But without good old fashioned anti-German sentiment Prohibition likely would have gotten no further than the "Bad Ideas" drawing board. The short version? Glad you asked.
The year was 1915. America's involvement in World War I was that of a spectator, at least until Germany came up with the brilliant idea of unrestricted submarine warfare on Atlantic shipping. Their theory was that any shipping to its European enemies aided the Allied Powers and hurt the German war effort. So, they sunk the passenger ship RMS Lusitania, which carried nothing but civilians. It sank in less than 15 minutes and 1,198 people died. Many were women and children. Many were Americans. Germany, to its credit, immediately apologized for the unfortunate incident.
Just kidding. They celebrated the sinking like a great battle had been won.
"Fuck Germany" attitudes were peaking in the United States, and an opportunistic weasel and Anti-Saloon League activist named Wayne Wheeler, a masterful politician if a very silly human being, seized upon this pretext to build public support for prohibition by framing it as a patriotic blow against the German-dominated brewing and distilling industry in the United States. Nearly every alcohol enterprise of significance was run by German-Americans or non-citizen German immigrants at the time, so Wheeler's characterization contained enough grains of truth to feel plausible. Thus were Americans who loved a good drink convinced to support Prohibition.
Well. Sort of. That was part of it. The other part was that Prohibitionist lied a lot about what their goals were.
When the 18th Amendment was passed, it is historically accurate to say that anti-German prejudice was an important component of building public and political support for it. The other part was the widespread belief that Prohibition was not really full Prohibition. The 18th Amendment proscribes "intoxicating liquors" and nearly everyone – even the people voting directly on the Amendment – believed that this was to be read literally, meaning that beer and wine would continue to be available. As the 18th Amendment is not in itself an enforceable law, specific legislation (which became known infamously as the Volstead Act) was required to spell out the minutiae of what, when, and how the spirit of the Amendment would be put into practice. The public, not to mention many elected officials who had supported the 18th Amendment, were effectively stunned to discover after the fact that they would in fact lose the legal right to purchase or manufacture any alcoholic beverages.
As everyone knows well, the law was widely flouted and it is fair to say that most Americans did not panic too much when they realized that Wheeler and his small group of influential Congressmen behind the Volstead Act had pulled a bait-and-switch. But no one really seemed to realize what Prohibition was until Prohibition began. It was a disaster, and a disaster that we as a nation stumbled into – blindly, and practically by accident.
The good thing is that we all learned a valuable lesson about the futility, danger, and enormous cost of trying to enforce the prohibition of something widely consumed (whether legal or illegal) and harmless in moderation. And we never made that mistake again. The End.