“[This] fine history of Prohibition . . . could have a major impact on how we read American political history.”—James A. Morone, New York Times Book Review
Prohibition has long been portrayed as a “noble experiment” that failed, a newsreel story of glamorous gangsters, flappers, and speakeasies. Now at last Lisa McGirr dismantles this cherished myth to reveal a much more significant history. Prohibition was the seedbed for a pivotal expansion of the federal government, the genesis of our contemporary penal state. Her deeply researched, eye-opening account uncovers patterns of enforcement still familiar today: the war on alcohol was waged disproportionately in African American, immigrant, and poor white communities. Alongside Jim Crow and other discriminatory laws, Prohibition brought coercion into everyday life and even into private homes. Its targets coalesced into an electoral base of urban, working-class voters that propelled FDR to the White House.
This outstanding history also reveals a new genome for the activist American state, one that shows the DNA of the right as well as the left. It was Herbert Hoover who built the extensive penal apparatus used by the federal government to combat the crime spawned by Prohibition. The subsequent federal wars on crime, on drugs, and on terror all display the inheritances of the war on alcohol. McGirr shows the powerful American state to be a bipartisan creation, a legacy not only of the New Deal and the Great Society but also of Prohibition and its progeny.
The War on Alcohol is history at its best—original, authoritative, and illuminating of our past and its continuing presence today.
The Hollywood narrative of Prohibition as a time of gangsters spraying bullets from machine guns is blown wide open in McGirr's ambitious history of the 14-year period in early 20th-century America and its repercussions for social mores, public policy, and the criminal justice system. Using personal papers as well as records of state and federal commissions on enforcement, McGirr (Suburban Warriors), a professor of history at Harvard, delves into the details of the often uneasy alliances between Protestant temperance advocates, who fought for the Volstead Act and ratification of the 18th Amendment, and Klansmen, who helped enforce liquor laws on the local level. McGirr touches on oft-glamorized tales of bootlegging gangsters and speakeasies, instead choosing to focus on the stories of everyday victims of enforcement based on racial, religious, and class discrimination. This occurred in tandem with the racial integration of Southern bootleggers and speakeasy patrons. Both sobering and enlightening, McGirr's work gives Prohibition and its consequences a much-needed reexamination that provides insights relevant to today's War on Drugs. Photos.