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20 October 2020

From the NS archive: The challenge to Prohibition

24 May 1930: After a dry decade, America wants a drink.

By New Statesman

After ten years of Prohibition in the United States the need to change the anti-drink laws was ever more apparent. According to the writer of the magazine’s editorial the issue was for the public the most important in politics. The electorate did not just want a drink, it seems, but was well aware that “Prohibition has extended and hardened the alliance between the agents of authority and the forces of organised crime, until the conditions in the cities of the United States have become unmanageable and indescribable” and wanted this link broken and order returned to the streets. President Hoover found himself in an impossible position: he must be seen to enforce order while knowing it was unenforceable. 


The tenth anniversary of the establishment of Prohibition in the United States was being celebrated when the first public inquiry into the working of the system and its results was just being opened. This was in January last, before a committee of the Senate in Washington. The hearings were reported in full, and the reports were read by the public with enormous interest. If there had before been any doubt – which there was not – that Prohibition exercises the American mind far more than any other contemporary subject, the doubt would have been dispelled by the evidence accumulated during this investigation.

It befell at a time made favourable by another and kindred event – the publication of a highly contentious report by the Commission upon crime and law enforcement, a body which, presided over by an eminent New York jurist, Mr GW Wickersham, had been appointed by President Hoover in fulfilment of a pledge given in his inaugural address. The conflict between Wets and Drys, of course, is unintermittent; but these inquiries were altogether out of the ordinary; and it happens that they have been followed by two further events of exceptional interest relating to Prohibition as a national policy and problem – a popular poll conducted by the Literary Digest, and an electoral announcement made last week by an American public man, Mr Dwight W Morrow, who, through his membership of the American delegation to the Naval Conference, has lately become well known in London.

The Literary Digest is a weekly of very large circulation which makes a practice of what in America are called straw ballots. They have been taken by this paper in several presidential campaigns, and the results have given a fair indication of public opinion. In the poll on Prohibition readers were asked to vote for the maintenance of the Dry Law, for modification or repeal. They responded to the extent of four millions from all parts of the country, and the majority was Wet by two and a half to one. The proportion is certainly of some significance; but a total poll of four million is trifling in a land which has over thirty million of adult citizens entitled to vote for the president. The Dry organisations were actively opposed to the Digest enterprise. They advised their adherents to ignore it, and they circulated statements to the effect that the vote was of no account, since, it was alleged, the Wets had adopted the old electioneering device of polling early and often. The press in general, however, took the view that the figures, small though they were, contained a warning for Mr Hoover, who, in the election of 1928, had secured the support of the Drys by his characterisation of the Eighteenth Amendment as a noble experiment.

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[See also: From the NS archive: The battle for the mythical middle]

If, however, the Literary Digest result is to be considered in relation to the President, it may well be asked what we are to make of Mr Morrow, now a candidate for the Republican nomination in the election of Senator from New Jersey, his home state. Mr Morrow occupies a position of unusual distinction in present-day America. He relinquished his partnership in the house of JP Morgan in order to serve as ambassador to Mexico, and the opinion is widely held that no American ambassador of the epoch has accomplished a task that can be set beside Mr Morrow’s achievement since the critical stage of the Calles regime. Why a man of his quality and interests should be desirous of a seat in the United States Senate, as it is to-day, Mr Morrow’s friends find it hard to understand; but so it is. His political ambition is undisguised; and, since he is very near to Mr Hoover, the fact that Mr Morrow has opened his campaign with an emphatic reprobation of the Dry Law is a matter of some moment. New Jersey is one of the wetter states. It had its elections on Prohibition when the politicians of other regions were straining every nerve to smother the popular issue. Now Mr Morrow is fully aware that his fine service in Mexico will carry no weight with his fellow citizens. He is equally aware that there is no campaign value whatever in his membership of the London Conference. Prohibition is for him as senatorial candidate almost the only question of importance.

As a regular Republican he was assumed to be officially a Dry; as a member of Mr Hoover’s inner circle, how could he be anything else? But Mr Morrow comes out frankly as a Wet. He demands the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, the abolition of Federal control, the restoration of the power of regulation to the separate States. In a word, he stands for a reversal of the policy with which Mr Hoover is identified; and in New Jersey at least that is good politics.

In the Congressional elections of the coming autumn Prohibition will be the leading issue in many States. This is a statement that must sound to English readers about as original as would be the assertion that Protection and lace are not remote from the Nottingham by-election. But as a matter of fact the campaign of 1930 is important, apart from Unemployment and the Tariff, because after the embittered debates in Congress the electorate is beginning to insist that candidates shall declare themselves plainly for either enforcement or repeal. America has had ten years of confusion and dishonesty, during which Congressmen and Senators have refused to admit the grossness of elected representatives professing to be Dry, and voting Dry, while being in all respects Wet. Since the Eighteenth Amendment, it is said, the House has emerged after every biennial election dryer than it was before; but the tide is now running the other way. The next elections must result in a large addition to the Wets in Congress, and the inference will be that the presidential election of 1932 can be made to turn on Prohibition.

[See also: From the NS archive: Return of the dictators?]

That is what the Wets are proclaiming, but it is still a long way from certain whether the decision will rest with them, although they are now thoroughly aggressive. The country is still divided, as markedly as ever, between Main Street and the great cities; between the fundamentalist, evangelical, semi-rural areas of the West and South on the one hand, and the huge polyglot communities of New York and Chicago, Boston and Cleveland, Detroit and St Louis, on the other. Hitherto the governing public opinion of the United States has been that of the farms and small towns. The election of 1928 provided the first emphatic evidence in political terms of the swiftly changing balance, and every election henceforward must provide more. When Mr Hoover comes up for re-election, if that should be his destiny two years hence, he will need to define his position, as he was not called upon to do in 1928. Prohibition cannot be put off with any further compliments as an experiment noble in purpose and valuable in social results.

When the question was up before the Senate Committee the public interest was centred mainly upon two sets of revelations. These were related, first to the attitude and activities of big business, and, secondly, to the appalling evidence of the connection between Prohibition and organised crime. Ten years ago the employers of America, large and small, were emphatically for the Dry Law. It was, indeed, commonly believed that the great industrialists put the amendment into the Constitution; that their money contributed to the Anti-Saloon League had more to do with the establishment of national Prohibition than the Churches and all other influences mobilised by the Drys. Big Business to-day is divided, as the Senate inquiry showed. Two or three of the most prominent industrialists of the eastern states, including a Du Pont and the titular head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, appeared to testify, and the director of the largest anti-Prohibition organisation in the country, giving evidence before the Senate Committee which examined the vast American business of Congressional lobbying, disclosed the interesting fact that the major portion of the money at his command was contributed by a small group of multi-millionaires. The American employers, of course, want a sober working community and a full complement of men on Monday morning. But they are no longer agreed, as once they were, that the Dry Law secured this great benefit to them.

When all has been said, however, about Prohibition as a national policy or aim, the American people are confronted with the terrifying reality of Prohibition and crime. Mr Hoover made the duty of law observance the central theme of his inaugural address. The most impressive of the many Commissions he has appointed had to do with law enforcement, and for the American public at this present stage the problem is almost entirely confined to a single abomination, namely, the universal terror of the gang and racketeer. The American citizen is inured to corruption in the public life of city and State. He does not expect his politicians to be honest. An uncorrupt municipality, or a police force maintaining a tolerable standard of decency, is outside the scope of his imagination. And, whether Wet or Dry, he is driven to admit that Prohibition has extended and hardened the alliance between the agents of authority and the forces of organised crime, until the conditions in the cities of the United States have become unmanageable and indescribable. Here, stated in the boldest terms, is the great American dilemma. The President calls for the enforcement of a law which is known to be unenforceable, because those classes of people who in every nation are relied upon as the basis upon which the laws and the social order rest are resolved that it shall not be respected. Mr Hoover must make a serious attempt, or what looks like a serious attempt, at enforcement, knowing that failure is inevitable and that there can be no possibility of hiding or disguising the result. And yet, even if the autumn elections should give a first indication of a decided shift of public opinion, the basic fact will not be altered. The Prohibition amendment cannot be taken out of the Federal Constitution.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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