Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Great War and the Coming of Prohibition in America

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol was adopted by both houses of Congress in December 1917 and ratified by the necessary two-thirds of the states on 16 January 1919. The amendment was implemented by the National Prohibition Act (known as the Volstead Act after Andrew Volstead, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a leading prohibitionist) in October 1919. Under the terms of the act, Prohibition began on 17 January 1920. The act defined "intoxicating liquor" as anything that contained one half of one percent alcohol by volume but allowed the sale of alcohol for medicinal, sacramental, or industrial purposes. The final push for  imposing an unpopular,  and ultimately socially disastrous, program on the American public came during the First World War, when 4.7 million Americans, almost all men, were under arms with over half of them deployed overseas or on the high seas.

The Ohio State University "Temperance & Prohibition" website takes the position the war did not  help push Prohibition "over the top:"

It is a myth that the First World War somehow "caused" the United States to enact prohibition. The prohibition movement was already very powerful before the nation declared war in 1917--the dry forces had already elected two-thirds majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States Congress. When the elections of 1916 concluded, both wets and drys knew that the battle was nearly over. . . The war, however, provided powerful new emotional messages on behalf of prohibition.

America's Heroes Succumbing to Temptation

I find one flaw, though, in the thinking of the Ohio State group, however.  Although the United States did not enter the war until 1917, it was fully engaged in the Great War from its outbreak in August 1914. The make-up and behavior of the combatants resonated through the nation first in what we now refer to as the national security sphere and then into domestic politics, where the drys were trying to finalize their long crusade and the wets were fighting a last-ditch defense. Looking back, it's clear the drys won this final battle, and their creative use of the war was a critical, if not the key, to their winning strategy.

The temperance folks were masters both at manipulating anxieties Americans had about getting involved in a foreign war and associating German brewery owners with Germany's heavy-handed military and that "Beast of Berlin," Kaiser Wilhelm II. Also, the war presented calls for managing resources, especially food. [See our article by Keith Muchowski on the crisis with grains HERE.] Wartime restrictions implemented in the Food and Fuel Control Act (August 1917)  would condition the American public for a permanent cut-off of the supply of Demon Rum. 

Through some incredibly skillful framing of the discussion, by the time the 18th Amendment had been proposed in Congress (December 1917) prohibition was labeled "100% Americanism" by its promoters. And a critical mass of the great American public bought it. The Great War amazingly gave the drys the opportunity to offer Prohibition as a matter of patriotism, sacrifice for nation, and a way to stand united against militarism, decadence, and moral corruption.

Sources: Wikipedia, HistoryExtra, the National World War One Museum


  1. One of the more questionable Amendments ever created. Ever do glad it was repealed. What would we do without some moral corruption!

  2. Something I find interesting, and it might ruffle a few feathers, yet nonetheless, there are major similarities between Prohibition and the firearms debate here in the US now. The current gun-ban people today are using the same methods the "Drys" were using back then. We all know what Prohibition did to the US and that booze went underground. I caused a lot of destruction, violance and gang warfare. It did not put a stop to booze. If a gun-ban were to happen, and the 2nd Amendment do away with, do they honestly think the outcome will be any different than the outcome of Prohibition?

  3. The problem with Larry's comment is few are calling for the total ban on guns. the call is to reduce offensive weapons such as high capacity magazine, semi-automatic rifles, background checks and keeping weapons out of the hands of known unstable people. We banned automatic machine guns in the 30's and there has been no blow back. Reduction in mass killing weapons and not in personal protection or sporting weapons is the aim.

    1. The left's battle cry mantra is "A Common Sense Approach", which sounds good and easily pushed by the mass media and accepted as making sense by the average bloke. But the true objective is scrapping of the 2nd Amendement stripping citizens of their right of self defense and effective opposition to a would be tyrannical government. I would be for enforcing laws that aim to keep firearms out of the hands of psychos and various miscreants.

  4. Anonymous has no understanding of the end goals of the anti 2nd amendment forces. They want to remove guns from public hands and have published this goal on many occasions. The current "reasonable" laws here in Virginia are questionable depending on the definitions in the law. This is only the opening step in their campaign.

  5. I don't know why it has me as "unknown' since it says I'm commenting as wayne.smith.