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THE AMERICAN DISCOVERY OF ALCOHOLISM, 1933-1939
Between rounds: Wets and Drys in 1933
Repeal's official ratification occurred on the afternoon of 5 December 1933 shortly after a delegate named S.R. Turman in Salt Lake City cast the last required positive vote in the 36th and last-required state to approve, Utah. "Less than twenty minutes after Mr. Turman voted, the Acting Secretary of State in Washington signed and sealed the proclamation that ended Prohibition" (Keating, 1937, p. 20). Despite the event's seeming finality -- at last bringing to a close the nation's rocky fourteen-year social experiment -- neither Wet nor Dry leaders believed that Repeal would bring a conclusive end to their heated and long conflict over beverage alcohol.
Most ordinary citizens, however, did. The general population was bored and fed up with the seemingly endless alcohol debate. Indeed, if Hornell Hart's (1933) classic study of contemporary popular attitudes as reflected in magazine articles can guide us on this point, the country's interest in the Repeal battle peaked in 1929-1930 and was well on the wane by 1933 (see CHART 1, below). Americans, by and large, had more important public issues to attend to -- at home, the Great Depression had occasioned the most trying social crisis the country had experienced since the Civil War, and abroad, democratic values were increasingly threatened by fascism in Europe and communism in the Soviet Union. As Frederick Lewis Allen recalled, with Repeal's passage "what had been a lively issue till 1933...dropped almost completely out of the focus of general public attention" (Allen, 1968, p. 118).
As Kyvig (1979a) has pointed out, for Drys Repeal had been a devastating and lightning-quick loss. Wets, under the leadership of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), had accomplished what only recently had been widely regarded as an impossible political feat. No U.S. constitutional amendment had ever before been repealed (nor, incidentally, has any since). Moreover, the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) had been regarded by many -- particularly by Drys -- as having been very popular at the time of its own ratification not so long before. Fully 46 state legislatures2 had ratified the 18th -- the largest state majority for any amendment to that date. And although popular opinion had been mixed from the start and pro-prohibition sentiment had begun to show signs of real ebb in the late 1920s, most Americans suspected that anti-prohibition sentiment alone would never be either sufficiently strong nor adequately distributed across the country to pass a repealing amendment. The amendment process itself was arduous and slow. More importantly, the negative votes of only thirteen states would be required to block the attempt. Surely the great Dry political machine could always rally a combination of thirteen small, farm, or Southern states to prohibition's defense. A much-quoted remark made in September 1930 by a Texas Senator and co-author of the 18th Amendment, Morris Sheppard, well conveyed the prevailing sense of fixity: "There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment," Sheppard said, "as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail" (quoted in Kyvig, 1979, p. 2). Almost to the end, Americans had (perhaps unconsciously) attached an iron assumption of permanence to national constitutional prohibition. In fact Sheppard's humming-bird would complete the Mars trip in less than three-and-a-half years from the moment of his remark.3
Like the two boxers taking counsel after a very lopsided round, the Wets and the Drys cautioned themselves with different warnings. In the Wet corner, the fighter with the seemingly overwhelming advantage was cautioned against overconfidence and carelessness; in the Dry corner, the nearly-beaten fighter was told not to counter-attack right away but to hold on for the next round or two, stay out of range, and regather strength. In the excitement of the fight, neither corner was immediately aware that most of the crowd -- thinking the fight was over -- had gone home. What else was being discussed in these corners?
What was the mood and circumstance of Drys and Wets at Repeal's historical moment? Certainly the Dry camp was devastated, confused, and in disarray; Wets, not surprisingly, were elated -- but their elation was tempered by a forevision of the new responsibilities that would soon devolve on the country and on them. In a limited sense, Repeal had the effect of reversing the circumstances of the two camps. Wets, who had long enjoyed the rhetorical advantages of being the "Out" party -- and so had been free to capitalize on any and every problem associated with the nation's Prohibition experience -- were about to switch places with Drys and become the "Ins." As Ins, they would be subject to the constant scrutiny and criticism of Dry observers. With Repeal, Wets could anticipate that discourse in the alcohol arena would leave the prohibition issue and return, once again, to alcohol per se. Drys, on the other hand, who had maintained symbolic dominance (Gusfield, 1963) over Wets through prohibition's tenure, would now be shifted to a more marginal and anemic status in that same national symbolic economy.
This motif of reversal even extended to Wet attitudes toward alcohol. With Repeal, Wets acquired a measure of moral or social responsibility for the promotion of temperance (in the moderationist sense of that term) in the society. This would imply moderately pro-control policy stances as the country shifted gears and began to examine post-Repeal alcohol-related concerns -- i.e., issues involved in the legal management of alcohol's production, distribution, sales, licensure, taxation, and so on.4 Thoughtful Wets were well aware that a tacit compact had been made with the wider society. Wets had promised that re-legalized alcohol could be and would be reintroduced into the society both with no great increase in alcohol-related problems and with tangible net benefits in other areas, such as in the control of crime and the resuscitation of the depression-crippled economy. Wets had explicitly promised, for example, that Repeal would end bootlegging, rumrunning, speakeasies, and gangsterism, and restore respect for law. The re-development of a licit alcohol industry would bring new jobs and generate much-needed tax revenue. It would be folly, many Wets believed, to ignore these promises now that Repeal was in hand. Moreover, Wets who recalled the great Dry campaign drive that had led to national prohibition's installation in 1920 felt strongly that they had been much too lax and inattentive to that Dry movement's development. Therefore, many post-Repeal Wets were now determined to monitor Dry political initiatives closely, intelligently defend Wet policy stances to the public, and take active part in whatever new directions in alcohol controls or conceptualization the society might embark upon. (These aspirations for heightened social consciousness and high attentiveness to Dry activities would actually occasion some hypersensitivity in the Wet camp after Repeal. The months and years that followed found Wets on occasion greatly overestimating Dry strength and magnifying the peril Drys posed them.)
A number of Wet interests and organizations assumed these burdens virtually immediately after Repeal's passage. The most powerful pro-Repeal organization, the AAPA, renamed itself Repeal Associates and -- among its other post-Repeal activities -- began publishing a periodical named Repeal Review aimed primarily at monitoring the activities of Drys. (A part of the old AAPA split off and formed the Liberty League, an anti-New Deal voluntary organization patterned on the AAPA [see Kyvig, 1979b].) In the post-Repeal era the representation of Wet interests passed primarily to the alcoholic beverage industry itself -- e.g., the beverage-category associations, industry congresses, spokespersons of individual brewers, vintners, distillers, distributors, importers, and so on. Wets might also find structure and protection in the new Federal Alcohol Control Administration established by Franklin D. Roosevelt under the National Recovery Administration and headed by the former Repeal advocate Joseph H. Choate (see Kyvig, 1979a, pp. 189-190). Such groups, at least in part, sought to guard Repeal's fort against the new round of attacks that Drys would surely mount in the coming months and years.
Drys, not surprisingly, were demoralized and disorganized at Repeal. The once-powerful Anti-Saloon League (ASL) -- perhaps the organization most responsible for the passage of the 18th Amendment (Kerr, 1984) -- collapsed in 1933. Despite great efforts on the ASL's part to launch a final-hour defense against pro-Repeal forces -- one mustering a seemingly impressive Board of Temperance Strategy comprised of representatives of 33 Dry organizations and aiming to consolidate and coordinate massive Dry resistance (see Kerr, 1984; Cherrington, n.d. ) -- the rapid collapse of pro-prohibition popular sentiment, scandal in the ASL's financial management and vanishing financial backing, as well as poor leadership finally brought the ASL to its end (see Kerr, 1984; Blocker, 1989; Sinclair, 1962; Kyvig, 1979a). The co-occurrence of the passage of Repeal, the ASL's ignominious demise, and the seeming disappearance of popular sympathy for the Dry cause had a variety of impacts on Dry organizations and Dry thought. Mostly, these impacts were negative. Drys felt variously rejected, ridiculed, disappointed, powerless, outraged, isolated, unjustly done by, misunderstood, misrepresented, ignored, humbled, unheard, betrayed, bankrupted, and exhausted.
Yet the new situation also harbored subtle but important benefits and opportunities for Drys. Unlike Wets, for whom Repeal might partly symbolize the accession of new moral responsibilities, Drys could experience the event as the start of a welcome period of greater flexibility, freedom, and innovation. For example, defeat (as it so often may) provided ready opportunity for the creation of new leadership. Repeal had thoroughly discredited much of the movement's traditional leadership corps. Dry complacency after prohibition's passage was seen as having allowed leadership to ossify. "The present defenders and supporters of prohibition are, with only the rarest exceptions, men and women whose leadership was achieved or whose convictions were formed prior to 1919," wrote one critic ("The New Liquor," 1933).This leadership stands today without influence in the general community, a pathetic and heroic 'old guard,' issuing brave and optimistic words of command which go unheeded save by the loyal soldiers who fought under their banner in the old campaign ("The New Liquor," 1933, p. 1296).Drys contemplated where and how new leaders might be found, recruited, and developed (see, for example, "The New Approach," 1933). Of course, Drys were not sure to where new leaders should now lead the movement. Much of the internal discussion of the question of new goals and tactics was conducted within a framework of alternative perspectives and theories on why prohibition had, in fact, been rejected or had "failed" (this, a word that many, but not all, Drys rejected in connection with prohibition's evaluation). The Christian Century -- a longtime supporter of the Dry cause and an influential, mainstream, interdenominational, and ecumenic Protestant magazine -- published a number of editorial analyses of prohibition's demise in its 1933 and 1934 volumes. These provide, I believe, a reasonably good reflection of the wide range of ideas being considered by thoughtful (if perhaps a shade liberal) contemporary Drys on this subject.
The best-known perspectives on prohibition's rejection (then and now) focused, first, on the public's dread of the lawlessness of the liquor-trafficking industry that had grown up in the country's midst, occasioned by prohibition (the rumrunner/outlaw theory) and, second, on the public's belief that re-legalizing the liquor trade would help the country's depressed economy (the economic-boost theory) and raise much needed governmental revenues from alcohol sales (the tax theory). Many Drys criticized the rumrunner/outlaw theory on grounds that the federal government's investment in the enforcement of prohibition had always been badly underfunded and half-hearted (the too-few-police theory). Some Drys also found fault with the tax theory, suspecting that the AAPA's membership roster of wealthy American business leaders had thrown their resources behind the Wet cause in the hope that new alcohol tax revenues would displace and relieve them of taxes on business (the business-tax-relief theory) -- and therefore the AAPA had selfishly hastened prohibition's demise. Yet, even the staunchest Dry in 1933 would concede that the widespread continuing public demand for beverage alcohol during Prohibition had to bear high responsibility for prohibition's ultimate fall (the people-still-want-it theory).
Lesser theories abounded. One, the too-easy-at-the-start theory,5 held that the presence of unusually favorable pro-prohibition social circumstances at Prohibition's passage (particularly the public's patriotic commitment to symbolic sacrifice in the name of the Great War) ultimately eroded prohibition's social foundations as more ordinary social circumstances returned to the American scene. Some theories focused on failures of the Dry movement: the ossified-leadership theory (already noted), the Dry failure adequately to educate Americans regarding alcohol's evils (pro-education theory), the damaging penchant of some Dry pedagogues to exaggerate and misrepresent alcohol in Dry "educational" enterprises (the Dry-exaggeration theory), the out-dated rhetorical style of some Dry advocacy (the fire-and-brimstone theory). Several theorists emphasized that prohibition's moral aesthetics spoke from a by-gone era (old-fashioned theory). As one commentator saw it, prohibition's passage had "caught the ebb tide of Victorian ideals" but, at Repeal, had been "left stranded on the mudflats of moral confusion and the contempt for discipline and restraint which distinguish the entire post-war period" ("The Defeat," 1933, p. 976). Closely related were observations to the effect that Americans no longer granted legitimacy to legislatively imposed limits on their conduct (you-can't-legislate-morality theory). This theory would leave a lasting and curious mark on American conceptions of the relation between law and morality both inside, and far more importantly, outside the alcohol cultural arena (Duster, 1970), and it would nudge new Dry thinking away from old legislative targets. It was often noted that the moral tone or mood of the country had shifted dramatically since prohibition's introduction (new-fashions-in- conduct theory). As one theorist observed, "[t]he very word 'prohibition' has been made repugnant to an overwhelming majority of our citizenship" ("The New Liquor," 1933, p. 1295). "For better or for worse," wrote another,the world has lost its faith in iron-clad rules and universal standards with reference to all matters that have to do with personality....It is not surprising that men should resent the prohibition of liquor when they resent the prohibition of anything ("Who," 1933, p. 1431).Other theories pointed at the prohibition-defeating responsibility of various wet-sympathizing groups (the they-had-powerful-allies theory): the newspapers, the Catholic church, the Democratic party, and the brewers ("Who," 1933). Still other theories suggested that several of prohibition's successes had actually seriously undermined its survival chances. Prohibition's successful shielding of a young generation of Americans from the saloon and public drunkenness, for example, had had the unintended consequence of producing young people who sensed no need for prohibition (the young-never-saw theory). Ernest Thomas (1934) reported that a survey of 8,000 students found that "50 to 85 per cent...have had no recent experience of seeing persons under the influence of alcohol" (p. 315). Another theorist (lost-evil theory) lamented that youth's lack of exposure to alcohol's evils had distorted their attitudes toward drinking, breeding an air of freedom, nonchalance, and casualness that would have caused "the elders and deacons and church folk generally of twenty years ago to be struck with horror" ("The Defeat," 1933, p. 975). Even the fact that national prohibition had been installed in the U.S. constitution was faulted (constitution-theory) because constitutional prohibition sequestered the issue from everyday affairs, thus discouraging continuing public education and the development of pro-abstinence sentiment ("The Defeat," 1933, p. 975). Many lamented that temperance pedagogy in public schools -- as we will have occasion to examine more closely in Chapter V -- had also largely fallen into desuetude (no-school-education theory).
There were more. Not every theory had obvious implications for how Drys ought now to craft a revised and improved strategy -- the they-had-powerful-allies theory, to take just a single example of this, could not directly imply new Dry tactics without considerable reflection on the question.6 Many theories did have direct reformist implications, and several of these (notably pro-education theory, the Dry-exaggeration theory, fire-and-brimstone theory, old-fashioned theory, you-can't-legislate-morality theory, and new-fashions-in-conduct theory) articulated new and valuable touchstones for the reinterpretation and representation of Dry purposes in the forthcoming period.
A fixed star in Dry philosophy was that Repeal's reintroduction of legal alcohol would before long occasion a growing stock of problems in the society. This sad but certain prospect harbored the secondary implication that Drys should bide their time for awhile, let the post-Repeal history unfold, and carefully observe and chronicle the changing scene. The Dry debacle had cost the movement the public's confidence. Therefore, the waiting time could also be put to good use in thoroughly studying the new patterns of alcohol problems in the post-Repeal context and in equally thoroughly planning the new Dry program ("The Churches," 1934). "The one thing now to be safeguarded," wrote a Dry editorialist, "is that when the churches next act on this problem, they act wisely" ("The Churches," 1934, p. 177).
Two activities and orientations were highly touted in Dry discussions in the internal debate of 1933: First, education must be emphasized. There could be no successful course toward an abstinent society save through changing attitudes and knowledge -- i.e., by addressing squarely the people-still-want-it theory. As it happens, the topic of education in the wider society and outside the alcohol-topic arena was all the rage in 1933 (see Hart, 1933), perhaps lending this new Dry emphasis on education a touch of derived fashionability. A new, post-Repeal premium on education enhanced the movement standing of Dry leaders who had argued for greater educational effort all along -- such as Harry Warner, Cora Francis Stoddard, and Ernest Cherrington. Second, education would have to be authoritatively premised on scientific research. One source of Dry emphasis on research may have stemmed from the successes so recently enjoyed by the AAPA's research department in its fight for Repeal (see Kyvig, 1979, p. 105 et seq.). Scientific authority, Drys sensed, had become the only test of truth (Cannon, 1982) in America's current popular epistemology.
Ironically, one strategic resource Drys inherited from the Repeal debacle derived directly from the drama and rapidity of their defeat. Repeal's sudden victory over Drys and their long-held assumption of permanence produced shock waves that affected the country's fundamental assumptions about social change in the alcohol field. Ironically, instead of reading their sudden and catastrophic defeat as an expression of great and even insuperable popular antipathy toward their cause, Drys read the event as a sign that American attitudes and policy preferences were highly fickle and changeable as regards alcohol. From the mud of defeat bloomed the lotus of opportunity. Drys, as well as Wets and other Americans with an interest in the topic, would wake up the morning after Repeal with a new premise about change. In place of the permanence assumption that had undergirded the 18th amendment's reign was now an equally solid impermanence assumption for the 21st (Repeal) amendment's reign. The switch would have a profound effect on subsequent history, for the assumption of impermanence greatly enhanced the Drys' capacity to stir insecurity and concern both in the Wets and other Americans.
But the impermanence assumption had a downside, too. The assumption of instability gave rise to widespread concern that the country's alcohol-policy future would endlessly cycle between periods of Dry and Wet legislation, each transition prompted by the excesses and social problems experienced in the previous period. Cyclicity might cheer some Drys -- for, over the short run at least, it would return them to power. But thoughtful observers -- Dry or Wet -- could not look upon the implied prospect without a sense of anguish and frustration. Examples of cycles of repeating prohibition and repeal were readily apparent in the alcohol-legislative histories of the states. Would the nation now repeat the same pattern? Was the nation truly "obliged" to re-live, now in the opposite direction, the exhausting battle that had just been fought over Repeal? Was there no side-door exit from this historical cycling?
Fear of cyclicity in alcohol policy was no idle speculation, armchair metaphysics, or mere academic rumination. The country was in the grip of a Great Depression that symbolized the peril any people exposed themselves to when their society moved through transformations over which they had little control and even less understanding. The two great contemporary political challenges and threats from abroad -- fascism and communism -- both derived from political theories that emphasized the workings of ineluctable social laws or forces in the unfolding of historical change (Popper, 1975). In this aspect, the country's alcohol problem offered a metaphor and case study in modern democratic society's (then) desperate search for the intellectual and political means to regain control over societal-level processes and change. Fosdick and Scott's (1933) classic and influential study of liquor control alternatives for post-Repeal America anchored the enterpise in precisely this preoccupation and dread:Liquor legislation in America presents a bewildering picture of shifting public sentiment and vacillating policies. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to another; reaction from a particular experiment repeatedly has carried succeeding legislation far in the opposite direction. Laws have been hastily and immaturely conceived, and new experiments have been cramped by minute legislative restrictions and handed over to the tender mercies of the spoils system, making success under any circumstances impossible....In four different periods in her history Iowa had some form of state-wide prohibition, alternating with license systems of one type or another (Fosdick and Scott, 1933, pp. 1-2).For Fosdick and Scott (1933), then, the problem of unguided social change and senseless cyclicity justified new conceptualizations of alcohol in American society. Such new efforts, however, would flow neither from Wet nor Dry premises but from the search for rational, control-enhancing alternatives. Fosdick and Scott (1933) called for the development of a third force in the alcohol field, one that would fundamentally reshape the alcohol arena, though they were unsure from where such a force might come.
Of course, neither Drys nor Wets nor other Americans could actually foresee what the future would hold. As Blocker observed, "[t]he reaction against national prohibition did not set any clear direction for subsequent reform efforts, offering more an indication of what was unacceptable" (Blocker, 1984, pp. xvii-xviii). Some Drys cautioned that the society would go through a period of trial-and-error with regard to alcohol before prohibition might be re-introduced into the political scene.[Contemporary public opinion] talks of approaching the liquor problem from new angles, and the probability is that, with the dissolution of federal authority, we are in for a wide range of novel methods of handling the question, each state following its own idea. At any rate, the idea of prohibition will stand at the bottom of the list until these 'new' ideas have been given a chance ("The New Liquor," 1933, p. 1296).Some left open the possibility that new ideas would make for genuinely new programs and political constellations. As one Dry editorialist put it: "There will be a realignment of citizens, probably on some other principle than a simple wet-dry, black-white division" ("The Defeat," 1933, p. 974). Wets viewed the future with cautious optimism, hoping that a greater investment on their part in the development of moderation in popular drinking practices, the prudent regulation of the beverage industry, the careful monitoring of Dry activities, and the shaping of U.S. alcohol policy would keep this topic from ever re-emerging on the national political agenda. In the other camp, calls for patience, toned-down rhetoric, renewed educational efforts, and a binding commitment to scientific truth may be said to have broadly characterized Dry dispositions in the period immediately following Repeal's passage.
1 CHART 1 has been adapted from six columns of Table 21 appearing in Hart (1933, p. 425). Hart's Table 21 reported interest in the "prohibition and liquor problem" area by means of a ratio of magazine article output in the country. Hart's ratio expressed a rate calculated by (a) dividing the number of listings in the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature falling within the alcohol orbit by (b) the total number of articles for the same time period, and, finally, (c) multiplying by the result by 1,000. Hart's original table provided a grand total of alcohol-related article rates and separate rates for nine alcohol-related subtopics--(1) "alcoholism, drunkenness," (2) "liquor problems," (3) "liquor traffic," (4) "saloons," (5) "temperance," (6) "license system, local option, etc.," (7) "Anti-Saloon League, W.C.T.U., etc.," (8) "prohibition (all phases)," and (9) "bootlegging, moonshining, etc." My chart presents the grand total, the "prohibition (all phases)" sub-total, and a sub-total summing the rates of all other subtopics. Split in this way, the chart shows not only that interest peaked in 1929-1930 but also that this peaking reflected articles concerning the prohibition topic; the aggregated article-rates of all other sub-topics were lower and did not reveal a similar rise and fall over prohibition's course.
2 Connecticut and Rhode Island never ratified (Sinclair, 1962, p. 164).
3 Many Wets, particularly in prohibition's first five years, would have shared Sheppard's view. Consequently some early initiatives by Wets aimed merely for "modification" of prohibition rather than the "unattainable" goal of outright repeal (see Gebhart, 1932). Modificationists sought the legalization of light alcoholic beverages by defining them as "nonintoxicating." The pre-Repeal modification struggle had the interesting side-effect of focusing Dry opposition on the perniciousness of even small quantities of alcohol and low alcohol-content beverages. This rhetorical focus persisted into the post-Repeal period, and tended to turn Drys away from efforts to establish a new, moderationist national consensus. Declining popular support for prohibition after 1930 stalled the modificationist drive by turning Wets' attentions solely to the demand for outright Repeal. Nevertheless, low alcohol-content ("3.2") beer was, in fact, legally reintroduced into the country on 7 April 1933, eight months before Repeal was fully ratified.
4 Pro-control advocacy by alcoholic beverage industry Wets might reflect economic motives (for example, the maintenance of higher prices) as well as the moderationist motives mentioned here.
5 The theory-names are my inventions.
6 Such theories could serve a variety of conceptual, emotional, and organizational purposes. For example, the they-had-powerful-allies theory provides a semi-conspiratorial explanatory gloss for prohibition's fall that may be interpreted as part of a larger, tacit argument claiming that "ordinary men and women operating under ordinary circumstances would have embraced prohibition and seen it succeed if it had not been for such extraordinary circumstances as those cited in this theory" (in this case, Wets' powerful allies). Identifying enemies and fellow- travellers, of course, could re-focus Dry frustrations and animosity on outsiders, thus enhancing within-group solidarity.
To Chapter III