Prohibition—which took effect one hundred years ago—was the culmination of a century-long backlash against America’s seemingly insatiable drinking habit. What began as a grassroots religious appeal for temperance morphed into a stunningly ambitious campaign to legislate morality by trying to put one of the country’s largest industries out of business. The push for prohibition was caught up in broader societal anxieties about rapid urbanization and mass migration. It also provided a powerful catalyst for organizing women—most notably through the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—who not only resented that wages were being spent on booze rather than bread but were on the receiving end of much of the drinking-induced male violence. But only by adding patriotism and the intensely anti-German climate of World War I to the mix were prohibitionists actually able to do what no other lobby group has ever done: change the Constitution of the United States.
World War I was a godsend for the anti-Saloon League, the most powerful single-issue lobby organization the country had ever seen. German drinkers and brewers could now be cast as not just sinners but traitors. As Wayne Wheeler, the head of the league, who devoted his life to the cause of Prohibition, told the New York Times in 1917, “The liquor traffic aids those forces in this country whose loyalty is called into question at this hour.” Speaking German in public or on the phone was outlawed in Iowa, playing Beethoven in public was prohibited in Boston, and German books were burned in Wisconsin. German toast became French toast, Frankfurters became hot dogs, Sauerkraut became freedom cabbage, and Kaiser rolls became liberty buns. Little wonder, then, that it was so easy to cast the country’s German brewers as unpatriotic, even downright traitorous.
Dry advocates masterfully exploited the war to push their own agenda, and indeed their eventual success in imposing Prohibition is difficult to imagine in the absence of the war. They made frightening claims about how alcohol was putting the country at risk: “Brewery products fill refrigerator cars, while potatoes rot for lack of transportation, bankrupting farmers and starving cities. The coal that they consume would keep the railroads open and the factories running.” The Anti-Saloon League declared that “Kaiser kultur was raised on beer.” Going dry was the best way to beat the wet Germans: “Prohibition is the infallible submarine chaser we must launch by thousands. The water-wagon is the tank that can level every Prussian trench. Total abstinence is the impassable curtain barrage which we must lay before every trench. Sobriety is the bomb that will blow kaiserism to kingdom come.”
The 1917 U.S. Food Control Act, meant to secure the nation’s scarce resources in wartime, became a prohibitionist tool: even though there was no serious food shortage, the law was used to curtail turning food into distilled spirits. The law also stipulated that the president could “limit or prohibit the manufacture of beer or wine as he saw fit.” President Wilson opted to cut the supply of grain to brewers by 30 percent and water down the alcohol content of beer. Beer drinking was not only portrayed as Germanic and therefore unpatriotic, but the German roots of American brewers were used to taint them as traitors. The leader of the Anti-Saloon League wrote to the federal custodian of alien property: “I am informed that there are a number of breweries in this country which are owned in part by alien enemies. It is reported to me that the Anheuser-Busch Company and some of the Milwaukee Companies are largely controlled by alien Germans….Have you made any investigation?” It was this wartime context that helped to fuel calls for a nationwide prohibition on alcohol.
By the time WWI began, the treasury was generating as much as one-fifth of its total annual revenues through the taxation of alcohol. And as was true elsewhere, the war prompted even higher taxes on alcohol through the War Revenue Act of 1917. This continued a long-established pattern: starting with Hamilton’s establishment of an alcohol tax to help pay off war debts, every major U.S. military engagement had brought with it a spike in the alcohol tax.
But this time there was a crucial difference: the first peacetime income tax in American history had also been introduced in 1913, and was generating more revenue every year. This gave the Anti-Saloon League another opening: they lobbied the government that not only was prohibition the righteous thing to do, but it was also becoming more fiscally viable as reliance on alcohol taxes declined.
The new fervor of wartime patriotism and long-festering moral indignation proved a potent political mix. The Eighteen Amendment to the Constitution was passed with remarkable ease, with Congress pushing through the needed votes to overturn President Wilson’s veto. Prohibition advocates were far less successful in persuading European allies to follow their lead. The U.S. government suggested that the allies should cease brewing beer in the interest of rationing. The British declined, pointing to “the difficulties and dangers of imposing upon the working classes any sweeping measures of prohibition especially at a moment when drastic compulsory rations are coming into force.” In November, 1919, American prohibitionist William “Pussyfoot” Johnson gave an invited speech at Essex Hall in London about the benefits of prohibition, and was quickly shouted down by the students in attendance. “We say that if Britain wants to be wet or dry,” one of them came up to the front to proclaim, “that is a thing for Britishers alone to decide. We don’t want Americans coming over here with elaborate and ornate speeches, telling us what we ought to do. We won the battle of the Somme on rum, and rum only, and the sooner Mr. Johnson realises that the better.” The raucous crowd cheered him on, and the event soon devolved into a riot through the streets of London in which Johnson lost his right eye.
If World War I was the crucial context that gave birth to Prohibition, the Great Depression was the crucial context that killed it off. The great need for tax revenue in desperately hard times ultimately trumped America’s waning enthusiasm for Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League had promised that Prohibition would cleanse and purify the nation. Instead, an increasingly weary public and skeptical media came to blame Prohibition for poisoning the nation by fueling corruption, violence, and lawlessness. Although no one saw it coming—a constitutional amendment, after all, had never been repealed before—in the end Prohibition was discarded as easily as it had been imposed.
Peter Andreas is the John Hay Professor of International Studies at Brown University. This essay is adapted from his new book, Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs.