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.

34 thoughts on “NPF: PLAYING WITH FIRE”

  • Around that time my German ancestors had to leave rural North Dakota and live in Manitoba for the duration of the war.

  • "And we never made that mistake again." Irony, right? Gawd I'm so perceptive.

    Anyone who thinks a hundred years ago was a good time to be alive breaks the dial on the ignorometer. It was brutish nasty and whatever else that Hobbes fellow said. An unbelievably stupid and dangerous time on the planet.

    And now, and now . . .

  • My great-great grandfather was put on trial in 1914 in Wausau, Wisconsin for what was largely an accident that turned fatal largely because of the ineptitude of medicine at that time. A boy, through unfortunate circumstance, got some buckshot under his skin, which became infected and the boy died three months later from sepsis.

    Anti-German sentiment was clearly present during the trial. The non-German people of the town where he lived went so far as to forge threatening notes in faux-German English saying that if my grandfather was not released they would blow up local businesses, trying to stoke the racial fires.

    As a result, my great-great-grandfather was sentenced to 12 years in prison for murder when it was 2nd-degree manslaughter at best, and more accurately medical malpractice.

  • not sure this post completely fits as politics are kinda in there. I never new about the history as told. Very interesting. thanks.

    Bob M, check your snark detector settings….


    The Lusitania was absolutely carrying weapons and Germans knew that the British were using passenger ships to transport weapons to the UK from the US. Human shields and all that. The US was looking for a reason to go to war, and the Lusitania was a good scapegoat. And yes, anti-German feelings ran high during the war.

    The real problem with Prohibition was the rise of organized crime that accompanied it, and we are still dealing with the fallout from it.

  • Yeah, the Lusitania wasn't what brought the US into the war. The US didn't declare war until 1917, and the vote was a near thing then. The Zimmermann telegram was more proximate, but the most important driver was the fact that financiers were afraid that the Allied nations would lose and default on their war loans. Check out the history of preparedness days and the like to see the kind of organizing the moneyed interests did to mobilize support for American entry into that war.

  • Just this week the DEA perpetuated the problem, refusing to re-schedule marijuana, for what were in all likelihood the proximate reason they did it in the first place after Prohibition: they're afraid of losing their budgets, toys and jobs, just as the Prohibition agents were in danger of after 1933.

    It will change as states legalize it, though, to paraphrase a moderately famous American: " this government cannot endure, permanently half stoned and half not."

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Back when I was in HS back in the early 70's, there was an old joke:
    What did Abraham Lincoln say after a 3-day drunk?
    "I freed the WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!"

    I suspect it was the same for the vote on Prohibition.
    After a week-long bender, Congress and the states said, "We DID WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!"

  • Gina Spadafori says:

    The right kind of people were also quite unfond of those garlic-eating Dagos and their love of vino. Two birds with one constitutional amendment! Wheee!

  • Skepticalist says:

    Right Gina. This isn't so old either. Even in the 1950s we had Dagos, Kikes, Spics and Micks in my town. Lutherans just didn't care for Catholics. It was more complicated than that however and even uglier.

  • Americans and Brits are the only people in the world who knit with their right hands, everyone else uses their left. Using the right hand is way less efficient, but we do it because using the left hand used to be called the "German method" of knitting, and as a show of anti-German fervor in WWI American and English women (who were knitting a lot as part of the war effort) started using their right hands. Now several generations removed we still use our right hands. It's sometimes nice to know that misguided displays of patriotism didn't start with Freedom Fries

  • Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Daniel Okrent.

    I think I heard about it here at Gin & Tacos. Very entertaining and comprehensive. It wasn't just the Germans. Lots of loopholes especially for religious purposes.

  • A friend of mine was the son of a mixed marriage. His father was a Sephardic Jew and his mother was Ashkenazic. Some in the family never approved and would darkly refer to his mother as "the German". Prejudice is a wonderful thing, in the old sense of the word "wonderful".

  • Dave Dell – that is an excellent social history of the period. What I hadn't known was how long the Prohibitionists had been working on it. Interestingly, much of the support for abolishing Prohibition came from the economic elite, who hoped that once the excise taxes started rolling in they could get rid of the income tax.

  • "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."

    I do declare there's that rapscallionista Ed lurkin' in the weed.. I mean weeds.. with that dry sensayuuma we all know and love.

  • I hate to be a bother but the temperance movement goes way back to the late 1800s and involves a lot more than one person. There were many temperance leagues at the time who had successfully banned all alcohol sales in most of the states at the time.

    And in its way prohibition worked. Americans today drink way less alcohol per capita than before prohibition.

    Just sayin'

  • This brief telling of the story of Prohibition isn’t the sort of plausible but completely wrong folk history we have all seen foisted on unsuspecting and credulous readers, but as a professional historian friend of mine often demonstrates, the full story is a lot more complicated and nuanced than can be communicated in a few paragraphs. And where controversy exists, she admits blithely “historians disagree.” So the significant points are xenophobia, provocations to war, moralism, and political maneuvering. Little has changed over the years, as human nature has not changed. We have come a little ways with regard to some virulent thinking (patting ourselves on the back the whole time) but are now backtracking. Some might reinterpret refinement of demagoguery over the last century as progress, but it’s still in service of venal motives, so faux progress. That’s the point of the last ironic statement. We learn but yet we don’t learn. Or we learn and then promptly forget. Take your pick.

  • Missing from the post, perhaps too much to include or not very relevant, was that prohibition was catalyst to the development of organized crime.

  • Prohibition also messed up the tax code, without sin taxes from alcohol the state and local governments turned to taxing and therefore discouraging income and wages.

  • OK. Off thread. RJ Reynolds, any corporate Kentucky distillery, they've got it engineered for the end of prohibition: seed stock at the ready; acreage planned along with irrigation and water needs as well as tech knowledge.

    Those cannabinol tech pioneers in places like Colorado will sell out or be relegated to barefoot farmer status.

    Shit follows the money.

    Coming soon to a kiosk near you.

  • We also killed universal health insurance because the Germans thought of it first. Only took a hundred years to get halfway back to that idea.

  • So basically, everyone thought it'd still be OK to have gin and ONE tonic, because they were only banning gin and TEU tonics.

    …..I'll show myself out.

  • @major kong

    They also drank a lot because they did not drive cars as much/at all. No need to be stone cold sober when you have a horse as a copilot.

    Same goes for texting. People used to text like crazy while driving buggies.

  • mago: from what I read, COLUMBIA is THE place to grow marijuana….at a much cheaper wage rate and with a better distribution of day and night hours that cannabis plants prefer.

    It will ultimately be yet another American industry lost to evil foreign competitors! Better let Trump know!

  • Skepticalist says:

    Just in case I saved a prohibition alcohol prescription. You never know when I might need some distilled sprits.

    They're all over ebay and pretty interesting.

  • Efforts to fuel prohibition pre-date the Lusitania. I'd strongly recommend Daniel Okrent's 'Last Call' for those of you who are interested in the subject.

    In fact, I'd recommend it anyway, because we're going to see a replay of the 1930s fight over redistricting in the early 2020s.

  • EvilOverwench says:

    Wasn't one of the major drivers of Prohibition the Suffragettes? They wanted to avoid women being beaten up by their drunk husbands all the time, thus the Temperance movement. Feminism and an acknowledgement of domestic violence as A. A thing, and B. A bad thing, still being far in the future at that point…

  • Gina Spadafori, nice call, bringing up the anti-Italian sentiment of the time. Sacco and Vanzetti weren't convicted in a vacuum. Meanwhile, it appears with temperance being all the rage, the wants and needs of the Irish were dismissed where alcohol is concerned, as well. I suppose they hadn't moved up the ladder far enough to be a mitigating force against Prohibition. Writing as an American of both Italian and Irish descent, I would observe my forebears weathered some tough times, albeit completely sober.

Comments are closed.