How did Americans, a
freedom-loving people, decide to give up a private right that had been freely
exercised by millions upon millions since the first European colonists arrived
in the New World: the right to drink alcoholic beverages?
Daniel Okrent asks and
answers that question in his new book, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of
Prohibition." Americans couldn't legally drink from 1920 to 1933, after
the 18th Amendment was added to the Constitution. Okrent's book also reveals
how Prohibition affected American politics, the suffrage movement, organized
crime, taxes and the social relationship between men and women.
Daniel Okrent was
the first public editor of the New York Times and is former editor-at-large at
Time. Daniel Okrent, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm always interested in
connections between the past and the present. So, before we really get into the
history of Prohibition, can you see a style of activism or a moralistic streak
in American politics today that you think is descended from the leaders of
Mr. DANIEL OKRENT
(Author, "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition"): Well, I
certainly think that styles of activism and political agitation come directly
from what happened in the years leading up to Prohibition.
The issue wasn't entirely Prohibition. That was a stand-in issue for a
whole set of issues, just the same way today I think we could say that same-sex
marriage is a stand-in issue. If you tell me what you think about same-sex
marriage, I can probably tell you what you think about 10 other things. And
Prohibition became the same sort of political football that people on either
side would use trying to struggle to get it toward their goal, which was
control of the country.
GROSS: So if you believed in Prohibition, what are some of the other things
you were likely to believe in?
Mr. OKRENT: Well,
there was a mix. I shouldn't oversimplify, but it largely had to do with a
xenophobic, anti-immigrant feeling that arose in the American Middle West among
white, native-born Protestants. It also had a strong racist element to it.
Prohibition was a tool that the white South could use to keep down the black
population. In fact, they used Prohibition really to keep liquor away from
black people but not from white people.
So you could find a
number of ways that people could come in to whatever issue they wished to use
and use Prohibition as their tool. The clearest one, probably, was women's
suffrage. Oddly, the suffrage movement and the Prohibition movement were almost
one and the same, and you found organizations like the Ku Klux Klan supporting
women's suffrage because they believed women would vote on behalf of
GROSS: Now, let's
look at how a fear of immigrants in the early 20th century fed the Prohibition
movement. I mean, we're talking about the period coming out of World War I.
Mr. OKRENT: Well,
also coming into World War I. The cities are filling up with people from
Ireland and from southern and eastern Europe and central Europe, from - really
for the whole second half of the 19th century. They're gaining enormous
political clout, particularly in the big cities, where the saloon owners were
the political bosses.
As the immigrant
populations elected their own representatives to Congress and to the Senate,
the middle of the country, the white Protestant, native-born part of the
country, was seeing themselves losing political power.
GROSS: Yeah, I want to quote something that you quote in the book by a
politician named John Strange, who supported Prohibition. This was in 1918, as
the 18th Amendment, the Prohibition amendment, was going through the state
legislators. He told the Milwaukee Journal that he was worried about Germans in
this country, and he said: The worst of all our German enemies, the most
treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller. And of
course, those are all the names of beers at the time. Some of those beers no
So there was this link between, like, not only Germans in America who drank
beer but companies that had German names that made beer.
Mr. OKRENT: Well, this was the final thing that put Prohibition across. It
enabled the ratification of the Prohibition amendment. You needed 36 states to
approve it, and this was happening just as the U.S. was entering World War I.
And the great enemy was Germany, and the brewers were seen by the
prohibitionists as tools of the kaiser.
If they weren't actually seen as them, they were used for that purpose to
make their political point. So as you have a rising tide of strong anti-German
feeling sweeping across the country, the brewers got swept away with it.
GROSS: Now you
mentioned earlier that Prohibition was also tied to fear of African-Americans.
And you say, like, the worst nightmare for some people was the idea of a drunk
black man with a ballot in his hands.
Mr. OKRENT: A ballot
in one hand and a bottle in the other, and that was very clearly used
throughout the South, and it comes up very openly in debate.
This is a time that
the Jim Crow laws are first being carved into the statute books in many
Southern states. And the effort to keep the black man away from the poll was
very much tied to the effort to keep the black man away from the bottle because
of the fear of, you know, the other, which swept across the South throughout
GROSS: And the Ku
Klux Klan became pretty active during the movement leading up to Prohibition.
Mr. OKRENT: That's
an interesting thing. The Klan, that version of the Klan which rises in the
late 1910s, is really more of an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish
movement. One of the realities is that in addition to the brewers who were
largely German, the distillers were very heavily Jewish, and they were seen as
The Catholics in the
cities, the Irish and the Italians, they were the ones who were doing the
drinking, as the Ku Klux Klan saw it. And they were the ones who were electing
their members to Congress and really creating a terrible fear in the minds of
those who wanted to keep the country white, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon.
GROSS: You write in
your book that for some populists, Prohibition was a good way to justify the
institution of an income tax. What was the connection between Prohibition and
an income tax?
Mr. OKRENT: Well,
going back as far as the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s and then the beer tax
that was brought in during the Civil War to finance the Civil War, the federal
government had been dependent upon the excise tax on alcohol to operate.
In some years,
domestic revenue, as much as 50 percent of it came from excise taxes. So the
Prohibitionists realized that they couldn't get rid of liquor so long as the
federal government was dependent upon liquor to get its revenue and to operate.
So they supported the income tax movement, and in exchange, many of the
populists who were behind the income tax movement supported Prohibition.
In 1913, the 16th Amendment is passed. The income tax comes in. The federal
government has another means of supporting itself. And at that point, the
Prohibitionists who had been operating state by state by state decided we can
now have an amendment to the federal Constitution because the government is no
longer dependent. There's another source of revenue.
GROSS: So the income tax made it possible for Prohibition.
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, you couldn't have Prohibition without the women's
suffrage movement, you couldn't have it without the income tax, and you
couldn't have it without World War I. In other words, three things that really
had nothing to do with liquor but everything to do with political power.
GROSS: Now, you said that the temperance movement, Prohibition wouldn't
have been possible without the women's suffrage movement. I've always been
interested and kind of confused about that connection. So can you describe why
that connection existed?
Mr. OKRENT: It
largely had to do with the fact that women in the 19th century had almost no political
rights or property rights. So as the saloon culture began to grow up, and we
would see men going off to the saloon, getting drunk and drinking away their
money and coming home and beating their wives and mistreating their children,
bringing home from the bordellos that were attached to the saloons something
called syphilis of the innocent. They would pick up a venereal disease and
bring it home, and the wife would be infected.
So there were all
sorts of reasons why women hated alcohol and hated the tavern. Susan B. Anthony, in the late 1840s, makes her first effort to give a
speech in public life at a temperance convention. This was before she connected
to the suffrage movement.
She rose to speak at a meeting of the Sons of Temperance in New York, and
they said: You can't speak. You don't have the rights. Women aren't allowed to
speak here. And that's what pushed her into the suffrage movement. So in fact,
you could say that the birth of the suffrage movement comes with the wish to
get rid of alcohol......................