TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
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.
GROSS: It's interesting that Susan B. Anthony was kicked out of a temperance movement because men felt that they should be the leaders of it and that she shouldn't be speaking.
Mr. OKRENT: Well, I guess it says something about where women stood in the political culture of the times. They didn't have any rights. And Anthony, of course, turns her - the primary effort for the rest of her very long life towards suffrage. But as late as the late 1890s, she is appealing to the leaders of the Prohibition movement to make it clear that they should be supporting the suffrage movement because women will vote for Prohibition. And in fact, the only other political movement that the Anti-Saloon League, which was the primary organizing group behind the Prohibition amendment, the only other political movement they supported was the women's suffrage movement.
GROSS: Because they knew that a lot of women would vote for Prohibition.
Mr. OKRENT: They knew that women would vote for Prohibition, and in fact they did. The biggest opponents of the women's suffrage movement in the first two decades of the century were the brewers. The brewers financed anti-suffrage campaigns in many, many states because they, too, feared that vote.
I think my favorite story relating to this has to do with Jack London, famous writer and famous drinker, who had never supported women's suffrage, and then in a vote in 1911 for state suffrage in California, he rides his horse into town and he casts his vote, and he has a few drinks, and he rides back up to his ranch. And he says to his wife that he voted for women's suffrage, and she said, I'm surprised you did that. You've never supported it. Why? And he said: Because if we give women the vote, they will vote to outlaw the saloon, and if they outlaw the saloon, I'll be able to stop drinking.
GROSS: So, you know, in spite of the fact that a lot of women were, like Susan B. Anthony, were kind of kicked out of the temperance movement because the men wanted to lead it. The symbol of the temperance movement kind of became Carrie Nation, and who, you know, I always thought she was, like, a bad image for women because...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: She's like this mean, joyless woman with an ax so that she could go to the saloons and, like, chop down the bars, and it's such a joyless image.
Mr. OKRENT: She absolutely was. I mean, Carrie Nation was really a sideshow. She was somewhat freakish, and she had her two or three years of prominence but really had no influence over the country's turn in that direction. She just made for good mythology.
GROSS: Is that true? Why did she become such a big symbol, then?
Mr. OKRENT: Well, I think that you stated the reason. I mean, here's this six-foot-tall woman with broad shoulders and big biceps and carrying an ax and smashing hatchets. It's what we would say right now is a good photo op. I mean, she just was really good press. She then went on tour, really on the vaudeville circuit, and became the sideshow that I think she was from the very beginning...
GROSS: Seriously, she went on tour with her ax and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: She went on tour with her hatchet, and she handed out hatchet pins wherever she went, and she made a living doing that. There was also another version of the hatchet that used to hang over the bar in almost every saloon in the country in those pre-Prohibition years, and it said on it: All nations welcome except Carrie.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I think a lot of the leaders of Prohibition came from churches. The Anti-Saloon League was a Christian group. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was a Christian group. How much of the temperance movement was connected to the church?
Mr. OKRENT: Well, it was a great organizing tool that could be used. The Anti-Saloon League, which referred to itself as the church in action, was Methodist and Baptist entirely. Its entire board of directors was made of Methodist and Baptist ministers. And they used the network of churches that they had to raise money and to organize people and to bring people into the political arena.
One stops to think about it. This is the only constitutional amendment that was put into the Constitution because of political agitation, very organized political agitation, organized by an incredible figure named Wayne B. Wheeler, now entirely forgotten, who was among the most powerful people in America for a period of about 15 years. He was the combined Karl Rove, James Carville, Lee Atwater, roll them all up into one, of the Prohibition movement. And he used the churches very clearly and very openly as his organizing tool.
GROSS: Was he a religious man? Was he connected to the church?
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, he was a classic sort of a liberal Methodist, I guess you would call it. He was involved in abolition. He went to Oberlin College, which was involved in many what we would call liberal causes today. And he believed that liquor was truly something that was terrible for the American people.
Interestingly - I found it interesting that the people who supported Prohibition really did come across the political spectrum in many ways. They ran across the political spectrum in many ways. Elements of the Socialist Party supported it. The Ku Klux Klan, as we said before, supported it. The Industrial Workers of the World supported it. There were many people on the left, on the economic left, who believed that liquor was the tool that the capitalists used to keep the worker down. So you had this bizarre coalition put together, but at its center were the Methodist and Baptist churches.
GROSS: Now, there was an expression called the wet-drys, and this referred to people who advocated Prohibition but drank anyways.
Mr. OKRENT: Well, it was really extraordinary. I mean, the wet-drys were people who had no problem perceiving themselves as moral in a public arena and maybe less so in a private arena. Or maybe they didn't see it as a moral issue at all. So you had many, many scores of congressmen and senators who very openly appreciated their alcohol, continued to drink their alcohol, but voted against it.
Wheeler, of the Anti-Saloon League, said: I don't care how a man drinks, I care how he votes and how he prays. That was the way that he kind of put the shine on people who might have been rather not so appealing.
Warren Harding was a great example of it. Warren Harding loved his scotch and soda. He owned stock in a brewery. He also valued his political survival, and he made a deal with the Anti-Saloon League that he would vote to support their cause if they would support him when he ran for office. That's how he got elected to the Senate.
GROSS: So did he drink during Prohibition?
Mr. OKRENT: He drank during Prohibition and until really the last month of his life. He announced he had stopping drinking when he was on the Western trip where he finally died. But Alice Roosevelt Longworth said that the atmosphere in the Harding White House was one, that of the vest unbuttoned and the foot up on the bar.
Florence Harding, his wife, used to serve drinks at the poker games that Harding and his friends had. Some of the people at the poker games included the attorney general, the secretary of the Treasury, everybody who was involved in enforcing Prohibition, happily drinking away on their own.
GROSS: So there were two things that created Prohibition. There was the 18th Amendment, and then there was the Volstead Act, the legislation in Congress. Why did you need - this may sound terribly politically stupid, but I'll ask it anyway. Why did you need legislation and a constitutional amendment?
Mr. OKRENT: Well, the constitutional amendment simple says that it is against the law to transport, manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages - actually intoxicating liquors was the phrase - but said nothing about enforcement and said nothing how the government was going to go about doing it.
So once you had that in place, then you needed a body of law to establish various rules and principles and penalties. You had to allocate sums to enforce it, create agencies to enforce it. So there was this great regulatory structure that had to be put into place, regulatory and enforcement structure.
And that was the Volstead Act, which was put together by Congressman Andrew Volstead, who was a classic progressive liberal Republican of the era. But he also believed in this cause, and he was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. So it was his responsibility to write the act.
Interestingly, there were three things in the Volstead Act that made it possible for people to continue to drink legally in certain circumstances.
GROSS: Little loopholes?
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, they were very, very large loopholes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: You could drive beer trucks through them. The first was that it enabled the farmer to preserve his fruit, in Wayne Wheeler's phrase, which is to say, to take the crop, the fruit crop, and be able to save it over the winter, which literally meant to take the apple, turn it into hard cider and the hard cider into applejack. So that was legal in the farm districts across the country.
Interestingly, the farm districts were the ones that most supported Prohibition, but they continued to have their hard cider and applejack.
The two more bizarre and interesting ones, to me, the second one was medicinal liquor. I have a bottle on my shelf at home, an empty bottle, that says: Jim Beam, for medicinal purposes only.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: In 1917, the American Medical Association, supporting Prohibition, said that there was no reason at all to use alcohol as a therapeutic remedy of any kind. Then they realized with this loophole there was an opportunity to make some money, and capitalism abhors a vacuum. And within two or three years of the enactment of the Volstead Act, you could go into virtually any city in the country and buy a prescription for $3 from your local physician and then take it your local pharmacy and have it filled and go home with a pint of liquor every 10 days.
And this is really how many of the large distilleries in Kentucky and elsewhere in the middle of the country stayed in business throughout the Prohibition years.
GROSS: And the doctors didn't have to check with their HMO before...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: They didn't have to check - not at all, but they did have to file with the government a list of people they were giving the liquor to, the prescriptions to. I have in my collection of weird Prohibition effluvia and ephemera a ledger book kept by a physician in Providence, Rhode Island, in which on the left-hand column is the person's name, then the address, then the prescription, and it's always for a pint of rye. And then in the last column is what is the ailment that's being treated, and it goes page after page after page. It says: debility, debility, debility, debility. Occasionally, somebody has la grippe, but it's really debility, whatever that means.
GROSS: Oh, I was going to ask you what it means. I guess you don't know, either.
Mr. OKRENT: I think it means: This person wants some liquor, and I'm going to let him have some.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: I don't think it means anything besides that. The drugstore business became a very different business as a result of this. You know, in "The Great Gatsby," when Daisy is telling Tom about this handsome and dashing man who's moved in next door that she's just met, she says, and he's very rich. He owns drugstores. And Tom knew - now, I didn't know when I read this in high school - Tom knew that owns drugstores was a euphemism for he sold liquor through his drugstores.
The Walgreen chain in Chicago went from 20 stores in 1920 to 525 stores by the end of the decade. And one of the primary means of growth was the amount of liquor that they were selling.
There was a guy in a - a Chicago lawyer named George Remus(ph) who moved to Cincinnati. He saw an opportunity to make a lot of money. He went to Cincinnati because most American liquor was distilled within a couple hundred miles of there. He bought up a number of distilleries, got the rights to produce what was so-called medicinal alcohol, formed a company called The Kentucky Drug Company so he could distribute it. And then, clever fellow that he was, he would have his own men hijack his own trucks to take what was legal liquor and get it into the illegal market.
GROSS: We've been talking about loopholes in the law that created Prohibition, and I think the third loophole you were going to mention was sacramental wine?
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. This is the - I'm building up to the best one of all...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: ...and it wasn't just sacramental wine. As I think I said earlier, the people who opposed Prohibition - among the groups that opposed Prohibition were the Catholics and the Jews, very avidly, and not necessarily for religious reasons, but I think more for cultural reasons. Yet the loophole in the law that allowed people to, with a license, and going through procedures...
GROSS: Wait, wait. They opposed Prohibition? Catholics and Jews opposed Prohibition?
Mr. OKRENT: Oh, yes. Catholics and Jews hated Prohibition. They were, you know, the Catholics were 100 percent against Prohibition. They did not want it to come in and, in fact, the two states that never ratified the constitutional amendment - the 18th Amendment, were Rhode Island and Connecticut, which were the most Catholic states in the country. Maryland, another very heavily Catholic state, never had an enforcement law and had an official state bootlegger who actually operated out of the state Capitol building. So the -wherever the Catholic population was, that's where Prohibition was most opposed.
Now, secondarily to that, or I guess tangentially to that, there was the reality that wine is used in the Catholic sacrament for communion. A very smart and appealing man name Jorge de la Torre, born French, operating in the Napa Valley, an excellent winemaker, received what is called an ecclesiastical approbation from the archbishop of Northern California to sell altar wines, to be able to send around the country to Catholic dioceses the wine that would be used for the communion. Within two years, he was making wine in 14 different varietals. You could get Tokay. You could get Riesling. You could get Cabernet.
This was a very different take on communion than anybody had seen before. He built an enormous company. He was producing a million gallons a year. It was going out to the archbishop, and the archbishop would distribute it, or the cardinal in whatever city, to the monsignors, to the priests, and then the priest really to the laity, as well, very clearly and very widely.
It was different for the Jews. The Jews needed their sacramental wine for the Sabbath service and various other services. They were entitled to, under the rules put forth in the Volstead Act, at first at 10 gallons per adult, per year. But the Jewish religion did not have the hierarchal framework that Catholicism had. Who was to say who was a rabbi? There was no official body that determined if you were a rabbi or not. So people claiming to be rabbis would get a license to distribute liquor to congregations that didn't even exist.
On the other side, those that did exist in Los Angeles, the Congregation Talmud Torah, went from 180 families to 1,000 families within the very first 12 months of Prohibition. You joined a congregation, you got your wine from your rabbi. This created terrible conflict between the reform rabbis who felt it wasn't necessary to have fermented grape juice to use at the Sabbath services and the Orthodox rabbis who did.
But there was another issue going on, which is that the Orthodox rabbis who were largely poor immigrants living in the worst ghetto neighborhoods of the cities needed the income, as well. So you had a great doctrinal fight between these two groups. It finally came to an end when even the Orthodox rabbis realized how bad - in the age-old phrase, this was bad for the Jews, because you kept on getting stories reported in the newspapers about, you know, a rabbi arrested for distributing wine to people who don't deserve wine. A rabbi arrested for moving wine from one place to another that has nothing to do with the synagogue. And then when they started to arrest rabbis with names like O'Hara and McLaughlin...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: ...then said, oh, we've got a real problem here, and it was finally tightened up. But you could go into any immigrant Jewish neighborhood in any major city in America and you would be able to find the wine store that had a sign - that had a photograph in the book, you know, kosher wine for sacramental purposes only, and people taking it away by the jug.
GROSS: Okay. So we're talking about loopholes in Prohibition. And people who didn't fit into those loopholes, they had access to alcohol in other ways. One of those ways was products like paint varnish that people would manage to drink, to get...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: Well, the people who actually drank the paint varnish regretted it really greatly in the morning and for long after...
GROSS: If they survived, I suppose.
Mr. OKRENT: If they - exactly. The - first, there was the business of industrial alcohol. The Volstead Act allowed various uses - commercial uses for alcohol, because you needed to make paint to make, to make varnish, to make aftershave, to make lead pencils, to make the felt for hats. There were explosives. There were thousands of - thousands, probably, of commercial uses for alcohol. So you had to have a permit to get what was so-called industrial alcohol.
The government would de-nature the alcohol. They would add poisons to it of various kinds, or emetics, so that nobody would want to drink it. And then it would go directly into the black market, where it would be re-natured, and you would have all these distasteful things taken out of it. And then it would be put into bottles, sometimes colored with creosote, among other things, because that gave it a smoky flavor, or sometimes with prune juice to make it look like it was real whiskey.
Mr. OKRENT: And then it would be sold, and it was really rotten, you know. And then there was big business in counterfeit labels so that it would seem that it was the real stuff. In fact, you know, it was the spread of this really lousy liquor throughout the '20s that led to the idea of call brands that we have today.
You know, if you walked into a bar before Prohibition, you would ask for a scotch or you would ask for a rye. The idea of a brand name really hadn't settled in at that point. Once Prohibition came in, you were fearful that you might be getting shoe polish or something that had once been shoe polish. You would ask for a Dewar's or you would ask for an Old Overholt, and that really established those brand names.
Among the scotches, Haig & Haig and Cutty Sark were two brands created by the Scotch industry strictly, particularly for the American Prohibition market.
GROSS: Well, another fascinating thing about Prohibition is the speakeasy and how the speakeasy kind of democratized drinking in the sense that speakeasies were places for men and women, whereas, like, the old tavern, the old saloon was strictly for men.
Mr. OKRENT: The saloon was a male-only place. That was always the case. Wealthier women would drink with their men perhaps in hotel restaurants. Middle-class women maybe at home - although one of the primary means for middle class women who wanted to drink, one of the primary means for them to get their alcohol was with something called Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Tonic, which was ostensibly a patent medicine for female complaints, but was, in fact, 21 percent alcohol and did the job very effectively. Poor women would hang outside of the saloons in the pre-Prohibition era and, with a pail called a growler, get it filled with beer and then take it home.
Prohibition changes everything. The saloons become speakeasies, and because it is an outlaw operation, it begins to behave in outlaw ways. Women start to come because it's an exciting thing to do. They're accommodated. That means they have to put in tables, because you can't just have the women standing at the bar, so table service begins. Music shows up for the first time. If you have men and women drinking together, you have to have music. Jazz, the outlaw music, is rising at that very same time. There were no bars in the pre-Prohibition era that had live music. It just didn't happen.
One of the other things that was a result of women drinking with men for the first time in public in large scale was you needed bathrooms for them. In the pre-Prohibition era, there was a bathroom for men. Nobody thought that you needed separate facilities for women, but they were required now in the 1920s, if you're going to have a female clientele. So tiny bathrooms were put into, you know, lost corners of the saloon.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: They'd put underneath the stairwell or they'd be put by the back door, a very small toilet and a sink. And these were called powder rooms. That's the origin of the term, and that's the origin of the phenomenon. They didn't exist before that.
GROSS: Powder rooms as in the place women would powder their nose.
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, presumably. That's a nice euphemism for what they're doing in there, I suppose.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: One of the things Prohibition created was organized crime. Can you talk a little bit about how Prohibition led to organized crime?
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. And God knows, crime was organized in its own fashion before Prohibition, but it was localized. So in a particular city - take Chicago and the First Ward, which was the red light district - you would have a local mob that controlled prostitution, that controlled gambling, that controlled the drug trade that existed at the time, but had no reason to go beyond its own borders. When you start to have the need to move huge quantities of liquids - often in bottles and cases and barrels - from one place to another, then you need to have somebody at the other end to help you either send it out or to receive it. So you had to have allies in other cities.
The best illustration of that was Detroit. So much liquor came pouring across the Canadian border at Detroit - you know, one mile away was Windsor, Canada -and it was then distributed from Detroit. So, in Chicago, Al Capone and his organization made a treaty with the Purple Gang, which was the mob in Detroit, that they would be the, almost the freight forwarding agents for the liquor that was coming in from Detroit to bring it Chicago.
And this network across the country - Philadelphia was a center of the industrial liquor business. The mob that operated there was shipping - first, they had to make a deal with the railroads, which was interesting enough on its own, and various local banks, and then they were shipping the goods to St. Louis, St. Paul, Chicago and other places, so they had to come together. And in Atlantic City, in 1929, was the first formal organization of mobsters from seven different cities who came together, divided up the country, set prices and created the thing that we now know to be organized crime on a national scale.
GROSS: Now the 18th Amendment, the amendment that established Prohibition, is the only amendment that has ever been repealed.
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. And before we even get to repeal, Terry, if I may, it's also a distinctive amendment in one other characteristic: It's one of only two amendments ever put into the Constitution that limited the behavior of individuals rather than the behavior of government. If we look at all the other limitations that are particularly in the Bill of Rights, the government can't do this, the government can't do that. The individual retains these certain rights. There were only two amendments that said - that puts limits on the behavior of individuals. The 18th said you couldn't have liquor. The 13th said you couldn't own slaves. So the notion that these two things were put on the same legal and moral plane is really incredibly bizarre.
In any case, now I'll answer your question. The 21st amendment comes around finally, and ratified in 1933 to repeal the Prohibition amendment. And as you say...
GROSS: After 13 years of Prohibition.
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. And this is only the - the only time it's happened in American history, which I think gives you an indication of how unpopular Prohibition had become. But in addition to its unpopularity, for its limitations on people's lives, for its encouragement of crime, for the collapse of respect for law and order, which many people were worried about, there were other factors that brought about Prohibition's eventual death, and they were motivated by the Depression.
In 1929, the stock market crashes, incomes crash and federal income crashes. And just as the federal government's need for tax dollars had played a role in the creation of Prohibition, because of the income tax coming in, now the income tax and other taxes, they weren't producing enough revenue for the government because of the Depression. And there were people who very clearly got very involved in the movement because they felt they needed to bring back the liquor taxes - some because they felt government needed its money, and others because they didn't want to pay so much in the income tax any longer.
And it was Pierre Du Pont of the Delaware Du Pont family who really financed the repeal movement. And I have found letters, they're quoted in the book, from Du Pont to his brothers and to friends saying if only we can bring back the excise tax on liquor and beer, then maybe we can get rid of this damnable income tax that we hate so much.
The second factor was the need for jobs. Brewing and distilling combined were the fifth-largest industry in America before Prohibition, and bringing them back suddenly put tens of thousands of people back to work at a time when unemployment in the U.S. was running as high as 25 percent.
So just as there were these economic factors that created Prohibition, economic reality ended Prohibition. And I think we might be seeing something like that going on today, as there continues to be this widespread resistance to any increase in taxes and as there continues to be a huge federal deficit. Someone soon is going to light upon the idea, aha: I know where we can find some more revenue, some tax revenue, and we can find it in a marijuana plant.
GROSS: Oh, so you think marijuana will become legalized and taxed and generate income.
Mr. OKRENT: Yes. I'm not the world's greatest political prognosticator. I said in 2004, after Barack Obama's speech, I said oh just wait until 2012, I know the Democratic ticket. It's going to be Spitzer-Obama. So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OKRENT: So don't count on me for prognostication. But I do think - I am an economic determinist. I think that governments and populations do things for economic reasons more than anything else, and the need for tax revenue I think eventually will lead to legalization of marijuana.
The other thing that it might do is create regulation of marijuana, or would have to do that. And one of the most interesting phenomenon about the whole Prohibition, to choose your word, experiment or nightmare or joke, one of the most interesting things is that it became harder to get a drink after Prohibition than it had been during Prohibition. I know that sounds odd. But during Prohibition there was no set of regulations. There were no licenses to be given to people who were spreading liquor.
Either you were able to bribe the cop on the beat or your local federal agent or you weren't. But if you wanted to - if you were selling liquor you were selling it to anybody who wanted it all day, all night, all week. After repeal in 1933, then each state passes its own regulations and you have laws that you can't, you know, you have to close at 2:00 AM, you can't be open on Sundays, there's 21-year-old drinking age.
GROSS: In your book you say that in almost every respect imaginable Prohibition was a failure. And you write: it encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy, deprived the government of revenue, imposed profound limitations on individual rights, fostered a culture of bribery blackmail and official corruption. So the one successful thing about Prohibition that you point out is that it actually led to people drinking less.
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah.
GROSS: And that we still have the impact of that.
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah. It's a fascinating thing. At the end of Prohibition - well, the first few years after repeal, the alcohol consumption in the U.S. is measured by tax stamps, which is the best way you can do this, was about 70 percent - 60 to 70 percent of what it had been in the last really open era, which is like 1913 - 1914, before a lot of states had Prohibition laws and it stayed down.
It did not get back to pre-Prohibition levels until the 1970s when it peaked and then it went down again. And today, we're somewhere between the post-Prohibition valley and the 1970s peak. So something worked. Something happened that made people be careful about their drinking or, as I said before, regulation worked. That putting in all these regulations about it and things like drunk-driving laws and various other criminal prescriptions combined collectively to get people to cut down on their drinking and I don't think that's a bad thing.
GROSS: So when you follow American politics today, what echoes do you see from Prohibition?
Mr. OKRENT: What I mostly see is that it is easier to have a positive campaign to do something than a defensive campaign to prevent people from doing something, to prevent other political actors from doing something. And somebody said at the time of Prohibition that the difference between the pro-Prohibition and the anti-Prohibition groups in the years leading up to the passage, the enactment of the 21st Amendment is that the pro-Prohibition people were out there marching and organizing and voting and the anti-Prohibition people were too busy drinking to do any of those things. I think that that's a joke of sorts but not entirely, which is to say we dont fight to keep things the way they are; we fight to change things. And I think we're seeing that again today, that there are political movements that want to change the way we live our lives in America and very few who are visibly and effectively defending existing means of government.
The other thing is I think that what was brilliant about Prohibition - it was never a majority movement and I think that there's no argument that can be made to indicate it was a majority. The Anti-Saloon, the Wayne Wheeler controlled the politics in the margins. He had 10 percent of the vote in most places and if that 10 percent could make the difference between a winner and a loser he didn't care what your positions were on any other subjects so long as you were with him on Prohibition, and I think that today we're seeing the same thing about how people are effectively able to use minorities to bring about legislative majorities.
And then the final thing that I take from Prohibition, and I take this with hope in my heart, is the notion that this too shall pass. We go through these periods in American history, these great explosions and convulsions of one cause or another like Prohibition in an effort to see who's controlling the country and then it dissipates in time; it goes away. And, so I'm hopeful whenever I see something happening in the political landscape that is really scary, I say yeah, you know, we once outlawed liquor and if that went away, this can go away too.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. And should we be looking for you in the Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition that will air, I think, in 2011?
Mr. OKRENT: Yeah, it's coming in 2011 and I yak in it endlessly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: All right. I'll look forward to it.
Thank you so much.
Mr. OKRENT: Thank you.
GROSS: Daniel Okrent is the author of the new book "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition." You can read the first chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, John Powers reviews the new DVD release of a popular BBC series from the 1970s, the "Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries."
This is FRESH AIR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.