What happened to America during our thirteen-year dry spell?
Prohibition, Then and Now
What do we remember about America’s thirteen-year war on alcohol at the end of the First World War? Hollywood reminds us of the glamor of both rum-runners and -drinkers, the psychopathic hubris of Al Capone, and the ingenuity and holy determination of the cops who chased them all.
We might remember the temperances ladies who called for the Eighteenth Amendment — many of them also suffragettes — threatening, “Lips that touch wine will never touch mine!,” and the jazz-hall music and roaring promiscuity that bit back at their “Noble Experiment.”
Finally, we might have a vague idea that Franklin Roosevelt, winning the White House amid Depression, brought beer back to the American people within weeks of his inauguration, ending what one reporter named the “fabulous farce!” of Prohibition.
But our guests Lisa McGirr and Khalil Gibran Muhammad want to remind us of what Prohibition left behind, including a new politics of Republican drys versus Democratic Wets; an empowered FBI, and a hyper-armed and vigilant police-and-prison establishment; an unprecedented population of white criminals who were pardoned and brought into the New Deal coalition — leaving blacks behind; and also a government ready and willing to regulate the little things of private leisure, from narcotics to sex when the need arose.
Fast forward forty years to the drug war, and Richard Nixon‘s warnings show an eerie similarity to the state’s leaders getting ready to take on alcohol. Nixon brought the logic of the Moynihan Report into the era of mass incarceration, and established a new criminal obsession with a deep racial bias. Jack Cole, former narcotics officer and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, takes us inside the moment and the mindset.
Harvard historian and author of The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.
director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.