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There was consumption of alcohol during and after prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States and was widely supported by the American public when it went into effect in 1920.
The temperance movement had popularized the belief that alcohol was the major cause of most personal and social problems and prohibition was seen as the solution to the nation's poverty, crime, violence, and other ills. Upon ratification of the amendment, the famous evangelist Billy Sunday said that "The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs." Since alcohol was to be banned and since it was seen as the cause of most, if not all, crime, some communities sold their jails.
The nation was highly optimistic and the leading prohibitionist in Congress confidently asserted that "There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”
But after prohibition was implemented alcohol continued to be consumed. Within a week after it went into effect, small portable stills were on sale throughout the country. California's grape growers increased their acreage about 700 percent during the first five years of the prohibition. Grapes were commonly compressed into dry blocks and sold as "bricks or blocks of Rhine Wine," "blocks of port," and so on. The mayor of New York City even sent instructions on winemaking to his constituents.
Organized smuggling of alcohol from Canada and elsewhere quickly developed. "Rum rows" existed off the coasts of large cities where ships lined up just beyond the three mile limit to off-load their cargoes onto speed boats. Murder and hijacking were common in this dangerous but lucrative business.
There was also the notorious and ever-present organized bootlegging. The country's scourge led to massive and widespread corruption of politicians and law enforcement agencies and helped finance powerful crime organizations. In addition to the murders of law enforcement officers there was an ever more common cause of death and disability caused by the bootleggers' illegal products. Many stills used lead coils or lead soldering, which gave off acetate of lead, a dangerous poison. Some bootleggers used recipes that included iodine, creosote, or even embalming fluid.
The widespread corruption of public officials became a national scandal. In addition, it became very difficult to convict those who violated prohibition because public support for the law and its enforcement eroded dramatically. For example, of prohibition-related 7,000 arrests in New York between 1921 and 1923, only 27 resulted in convictions.
Prohibition proved to be counterproductive in that it promoted the heavy and rapid consumption of alcohol in secretive, nonsocially regulated and controlled ways. "People did not take the trouble to go to a speakeasy, present the password, and pay high prices for very poor quality alcohol simply to have a beer. When people went to speakeasies, they went to get drunk.
As the problems caused by prohibition increased and spread to small towns throughout the country, there developed a movement to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. Women had been at the forefront of the temperance movement in an effort to protect their families. With the spreading violence, emerging patterns of binge drinking, disrespect for the law, and other serious problems, women led the repeal movement to protect their families.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong abstainer who had contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, announced his support for repeal because of the widespread problems caused by prohibition. Many others who had supported prohibition now called for its repeal.
Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms included planks for the repeal of prohibition. The popular vote for repeal was 74 percent in favor and 26 percent in opposition. So by a three to one vote, the American people rejected prohibition; only two states opposed repeal. A hummingbird had indeed flown to Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail
Franklin D. Roosevelt would soon look back to what he called "The damnable affliction of Prohibition." But not all were happy. The Anti-Saloon League declared "War ... NO PEACE PACT-NO ARMISTICE" and warned that temperance forces would soon be ready to launch the "offensive against the liquor traffic."
While the president and most of the country considered prohibition a failure, clearly many temperance activists did not. Prohibition had been a major legacy of World War I and, with war in Europe, temperance leaders again hoped to take advantage of the national emergency that would occur if the United States were drawn into that conflagration. One asserted that "the full force of dry pressure would once again be brought to bear on Congress" if we entered the war in order "to get as much prohibition as .. . Possible." Stressing that World War I had been the impetus for prohibition, a pro-temperance journal predicted promising times ahead.
After the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, temperance leaders tried to have all alcohol prohibited on all military bases. One dry (prohibition)leader said, "I would rather have a sober son in a concentration camp in Germany than in a service camp in America if that son should become the victim of the drink habit." However, the Secretary of War insisted that "temperance cannot be attained by prohibition," and supported the sale of alcoholic beverages on military bases. He believed that this policy had "caused a degree of temperance among Army personnel which is not approachable in civil communities now" by encouraging soldiers "to remain on the reservation (their home) and enjoy refreshment under conditions conducive of temperance." Similarly, Army Major Merrill Moore called for policies to encourage moderation among soldiers who chose to drink and asserted: "Not alcohol, but the intemperate use of alcohol, is the problem in the Army as well as in civilian life." The Office of War Information argued that bootleggers could not be regulated whereas legal dispensers could .
Furthermore, the availability of beverage alcohol was seen by military authorities as good for morale and the war effort. Brewers were required to allocate 15 percent of total annual production of beer for use by the armed forces; local draft boards were authorized to grant deferments to brewery works who were highly skilled and irreplaceable; the Teamsters labor union was ordered to end a strike against Minneapolis breweries because beer manufacturing was considered an industry essential to the war effort; and near the end of the war, the army made plans to operate recaptured French breweries to ensure adequate supplies for the troops.
Dry leaders insisted that Congress prohibit the production of alcohol beverages for at least the length of the war, arguing that intoxication caused the disaster at Pearl Harbor, wasted precious raw materials, reduced efficiency through excessive absenteeism, and would lead to loose lips among those with military secrets.
Shortly after World War II, a national opinion survey found that "About one-third of the people of the United States favor national prohibition." Upon repeal of national prohibition, 18 states continued prohibition at the state level. The last state finally dropped it in 1966. Almost two-thirds of all states adopted some form of local option which enabled residents in political subdivisions to vote for or against local prohibition. Therefore, despite the repeal of prohibition at the national level, 38 percent of the nation's population lived in areas with state or local prohibition.
A number of temperance activists and some writers today assert that prohibition didn’t fail because, they argue, it was never really implemented or given a fair trial. They say that the number of enforcement officers was much too low and that the nation wasn’t firmly committed to making it work. It may very well have been the case that many people wanted others to abstain while they wanted to continue consuming alcohol.
More recently some writers argue that prohibition had positive health consequences. They frequently cite research on liver cirrhosis deaths published in 1932, near the end of prohibition. Cirrhosis is sometimes used as an indicator of heavy alcohol consumption, although there are also other causes of the disease. The data are sufficiently ambiguous that they lend themselves to varying interpretations.
It appears that, contrary to common belief, consumption of alcohol declined during prohibition. It’s also clear that there were major changes in who drank, when they drank, where they drank, why they drank, and how much they drank when they consumed.