viernes, 24 de septiembre de 2021


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 temperance?

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 Prohibition.

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 longer exist.

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 that period.

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 enemy.

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......................

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