The Most Sobering Mistake in U.S. History


Prohibition: It certainly seemed like a great idea at the time: Just outlaw liquor and, bam!, goodbye social ills of every stripe—from the Germans to the Irish. Yes, pandering to xenophobia was the favorite tactic among Prohibition crusaders, who painted saloons as a filthy underworld brimming with undesirable foreigners. Ultimately, however, the event that probably did the most to push America toward Prohibition was the country's 1917 entry into World War I. Prohibitionists began arguing that all of America's resources were needed to fight the German menace, using the logic that, if the government needed to maximize agricultural production to win the war, then it couldn't waste all that grain on booze. Apparently, their message worked. By the end of 1917, the majority of Americans were living in alcohol-free states or counties.

The Dry Party began on January 17, 1920, when the Volstead Act went into effect. All across the nation, Prohibitionists got down and boogied—as best they could. In Norfolk, Va., this included a mock funeral for the alcohol effigy "John Barleycorn," featuring 20 pallbearers and a horse-drawn hearse.

The Wet Party began on January 17, 1920. Within hours of the Volstead Act's passing, bandits reportedly began looting train yards and warehouses, making off with thousands of dollars worth of whiskey that had been reserved for medicinal uses. Despite steep penalties (a first offense meant a potential $2,000 fine and 18 months in prison) Americans went right on producing, selling, and drinking booze.

In fact, statistics indicate that more Americans were drinking than ever before.

Far from being dead, saloons were flourishing. By 1930, there were 32,000 speakeasies in New York City—more than twice the number of legal drinking establishments in town before Prohibition. Two years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for the presidency on a platform of "a New Deal and a pot of beer for everyone." For a nation beleaguered by alcohol-financed organized crime, the offer was too good to pass up. Six months after Roosevelt entered office, the Not-So-Great Experiment came to an end.

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