How the Great War Helped the Prohibition Campaign
Kathryn Smith is a journalist and history writer, and the author of Baptists and smugglers: A prohibition expedition across the south … with cocktail recipes.
This article is republished from its sub-stack, “Baptists, Bootleggers and Everything In Between”.
The Great War – better known as World War I – was drawing to a close this month in 1918. On November 11 at 11 a.m., an armistice was declared and the war which had claimed the lives of over 20 million people ended.
At the same time, states were voting on two amendments to the US Constitution that had been passed by Congress. One, the eighteenth, would make it illegal to produce, transport or sell any intoxicating drink. The 19th century would allow women to vote. Both were ratified in 1919. When the surviving boys returned home, they arrived in a very changed world.
The efforts of the Christian Union of Women for Temperance and its most politically powerful ally, the Anti-Salon League, had drained much of the country in 1919 because of local option laws and the statewide ban. The only southern state that still allowed the sale of alcohol was, unsurprisingly, Louisiana, I write in my new book Baptists and smugglers: a prohibition expedition across the South … with cocktail recipes. The WCTU, which had been formed in 1871, espoused a number of progressive causes in addition to prohibition, primarily women’s suffrage, which its members believed was vital in giving women some control over their own lives. The ASL, established in 1893, also provided support for suffrage, so it’s no surprise that the two causes moved in tandem to Congress.
The war in Europe began in 1914 at a time when America was becoming isolationist and there was enormous mistrust of the culture brought to the United States by a great tide of European immigrants. The Germans, Italians and Irish came from drinking cultures, anathema to the white Protestants who dominated the non-urban areas of the country. Once war broke out in 1914, everything German became very unpopular in the supposedly neutral United States and the FSA took full advantage of it. Why? Because 80% of the saloons in the country belonged or were affiliated with German breweries. Their number had tripled during the last thirty years of the 19th century. Defender of radical temperance Carry the nation, asked her why she hadn’t brought her saloon demolition ax on a visit to Cincinnati, said: “I would have fallen from exhaustion before I walked a block.”
It was not just beer that suffered from anti-German sentiment. I write in my book: “Dachshunds were so despised as a breed that the American Kennel Club tried to rename them ‘badger dogs’, the German translation of their name. People named Schmidt changed their name to Smith. On top of everything else, the war pretty much put the nail in the coffin of German brewers.
When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the FSA moved into high gear. His legal advice, Wayne B. Wheeler, orchestrated propaganda and political pressure in a pattern that would be repeated by all the one-themed pressure groups that followed. At his suggestion, opinion makers accused that the grain that goes into making beer and alcohol robs soldiers and the starving of Europe of their daily bread. Alcohol makers, usually multi-generational Americans, have tried to distance themselves from foreign beer makers, but they all failed together.
Under Wheeler’s able hand, the US Senate began an investigation into the German-American Alliance, a lobbying office funded by German brewers. The hearings revealed such sensational discoveries as the million-dollar German war bonds held by the Adolphe busch family and the fact that Busch’s widow – he had died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1913 – was treating wounded German soldiers at his villa in Germany, costs guaranteed by the Anheuser-Busch company. writes Daniel Okrent in his excellent history of Prohibition, Last call, “The hearings had called the underhand tactics of the Brewers pure disloyalty.
Okrent quotes a 34-year-old French army captain who wrote to his fiancée in Missouri:, and some of us want to go downstairs. At least we want to get there in time to build up a supply for future consumption. The captain, future President Harry S. Truman, was later known to drink a glass of dark liquor – in moderation, of course.
Another factor was crucial in sealing John Barleycorn’s fate. The Sixteenth Amendment, creating a federal income tax, had been ratified in 1913. This relieved the government of its own dependence on alcohol: the excise tax on alcohol brought in one third of federal revenues at the time. .
The dry train rolled towards victory, carrying horsemen as disparate as Southern Racists, Nativists, Suffragists, Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians (but not Episcopalians or Catholics), John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford, evangelist Billy Sunday, social worker Jane Addams and the Ku Klux Klan. The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified January 16, 1919, declared that “after one year from the ratification of this article, the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages in the interior, their importation or their exportation to drinking purposes is hereby prohibited. . “
Now imagine that you are a young soldier returning from the war. Either way, you survived hellish trench warfare, German submarine assaults on your navy ship, or air combat of the very young Air Force. In Europe, you got used to drinking alcohol; indeed, it was part of military life. Rum and whiskey were used medicinally to treat shock and shell shock. Soldiers were given tons of rum or gin before going over the trenches, and airmen were known to drink while on duty and, above all, while on leave. (The sailors had to work under the Secretary of the Navy’s alcohol ban Josephus Daniels, a strict prohibitionist, who prohibited anything stronger than coffee. That’s why we still call it a Cup of Joe.)
If you’ve been lucky enough to arrive in Paris for a few days, you’ve learned the meaning of the lyrics to the song “How ‘ya Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” drank real champagne and French brandy, flocked to Shepherdess Follies and enjoyed the many pleasure ladies of the French capital.
So the pasta came home, many of it horribly mutilated and mentally unbalanced, some already hopelessly alcoholic, in a country where even 2.5% beer and light wine would be banned on January 16, 1920. Is it amazing that so many of them brought him back to Europe to join the ‘Lost generation‘?