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Last Call

How dry was Prohibition? Some say the law did much to spike sales of alcohol.

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Racists – including the Ku Klux Klan – also agitated for Prohibition. One fervent Prohibitionist warned, “the grogshop is the Negro’s center of power.” It did not help that Jews were often the purveyors of liquor. The beer industry was largely controlled by Germans, which did not bode well as World War I gripped Europe.
But the ratification of the 18th Amendment – brought about by the bulldog Anti-Saloon League – proved to be a curse for the “drys.” Prohibition was rammed through by intimidating local and national politicians, but enforcement was lax and support tenuous. The laissez-faire attitude toward drinking emanated from the White House of Warren G. Harding, where could be found “trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whisky ... a general atmosphere of the waistcoat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and the spittoon alongside.”

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Enforcement through the Prohibition Depart­ment was, in Okrent’s words, “inept and venal.” There were only 1,500 federal agents, and slightly more than 50 boats to patrol 4,993 miles of coastline. In Boston, “four speakeasies were located on the same block as police headquarters.”

Okrent estimates that drinking declined by about 30 percent in the early years of Prohibition, but eventually Americans seemed to drink much more as alcohol became an underground industry.

Obviously, it could not last. Opponents of the War on Drugs will recognize the frustrating hallmarks: misspent money and wasted manpower, a legal system choked by petty cases.

By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office, the nation had also tired of hectoring blowhards like the reformer William Jennings Bryan (mocked even by some fellow Democrats as “The Beerless Leader”). They also saw the thinly disguised racism that Prohibition had long masked. And once the Great Depression settled over the land, it became impossible to ignore the profit in a sales tax on alcohol. When Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, just about everyone was glad.

Okrent treats both wet and dry causes with nuance, although his sympathies clearly lie with the former. “In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure,” he writes. “It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy. It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system, and imposed profound limitations on individual rights.”

Prohibition may have been a failure. But its story – as recounted by Okrent in “Last Call” – is popular history at its best.

Alexander Nazaryan is a writer and teacher in Brooklyn. He is working on his first novel.

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