The War on Alcohol [Lisa McGirr]

Start Date: 2 August 2022

Finish Date: 8 August 2022

Source: Amazon US Kindle Edition

Goodreads Summary:

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.


  • I came to know about this book from a Flash Forward bonus episode; back before Flash Forward had gone down the toilet.
  • It’s a great companion read to Drunk by Edward Slingerland (one of my favourite books of 2021 reading but which I haven’t logged) and The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum (which was about the creation of the Coroner’s Office in New York City; but because of when the office was created, ended up being a lot about prohibition and how much the coroner hated it).
  • I got annoyed at how poorly edited this was – perhaps a sign that this was an academic book with no plans of wide distribution.
  • While the blurb makes much of the perception of Probhibition being a slight anomaly with no lasting consequences, I never had that perception myself. For me, what this book boils down to is “The powerful US federal government didn’t begin with Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal, as anti-Democratic Party libertarians would have it, but much earlier, with Prohibition and the Republican Party.”
  • All through the read, I never really made a connection with Indian prohibitions, which is probably down to a combination of:
    • USA worldview taking over everything
    • Covid brain
    • This book being so focused on US federal government power (since India was always a Central-first government, it’s not like we had the fall from innocence that this book laments)
  • One connection which I did make was to do with this passage which has stayed in my mind ever since I came across it while searching for a different PGW quote:

Yet, despite being capable of this very shrewd assessment of Dahlia, he continues to refer to her as his ‘good and deserving aunt’, as opposed to Agatha, who gets damned in the strongest terms, with Bertie suggesting that she is a werewolf who eats her young. Yet what does Agatha ever do to Bertie? All she wants is for him to make a good marriage, get a respectable job and take his family responsibilities with the seriousness that she takes them. Whereas at Dahlia’s hands Bertie suffers all forms of degradation and anxiety, and she requires him to do things which risk his going to jail. Indeed, one of his sojourns with Dahlia ends with him spending a night in the cells.

The Novel Life of PG Wodehouse by Roderick Easedale

I earlier used to joke that the reason is because Bertie Wooster is a terrorist who targets Edwardian respectability, but after reading The War on Alcohol, I now have an even better fitting theory- the entire Wooster saga is a metaphor for Prohibition. Prohibition was brought about by crusaders for respectability. When they got luckier than they expected and ended up with a total ban on alcohol instead of just a ban on saloons, the immigrant, black, and other working class communities that just wanted a drink ended up going to the bootleggers, who brought violence, crime and chaos along with them.

In this metaphor, Bertie Wooster is the immigrant neighbourhood, Aunt Agatha is the anti-saloon league, and Aunt Dahlia is Al Capone. Bertie’s aunts are the baptist and the bootlegger.

Right, back to notes:

  • Chapter 1 quotes Texas Senator Morrish Sheppard, who introduced the Eighteenth Amendment’s proto-resolution saying “I am fighting the liquor traffic. I am against the saloon, I am not in any sense aiming to prevent the personal use of drink.” After reading Drunk, in which Slingerland makes a very convincing case that social saloon drinking is beneficial and makes up for the problems of drinking in general, which are amplified by drinking alone, this feels so backward.
  • Another point where I went “This just directly contradicts Slingerland’s recommendations” was learning that saloons had led to shifting American alcohol consumption away from distilled spirits to beer, so that the saloons were accomplishing the temperance movement’s goals anyway.
  • Then there’s this quote:

Rural areas enjoyed better representation in Congress and in state legislatures than more populous and drink-soaked urban centers. Under demographic and political assault, with the threat of reapportionment looming in 1920, the federal strategy was a radical and ambitious means of imposing alcohol prohibition on populations that would not seek it for themselves. The political landscape would never again be as propitious.

American politics seems to have been a century long and still ongoing struggle for cities to shake off the malign influence of the common clay of the new West.

Until the establishment of the income tax, federal revenue dependded upon regressive consumer taxes and the protective tariff, both disliked in the south. The income tax was intended to build a more equitable system by requiring men of great fortune, associated with the arrogance of wealth and financial power of eastern Wall Street bankers, to pay a fair share of the tax burden. It initially targeted only the uppermost income brackets, leaving untouched the incomes of the vast majority of households. Antiliquor crusaders argued that the passage of such a tax was an important precondition for the success of the war on alcohol. Providing an alternative source of federal revenue would ease dependence on the alcohol tax.

Strange bedfellows. And something similar to India right now.

  • Since the major breweries were owned by German origin Americans, Prohibitionists were able to latch on to the liquor trade as supporting the enemy during WW1 and frame temperance and prohibition as the ultimate patriotic act.

Then, we get this extremely arrogant quote:

The hostility of the heavily immigrant working class to the law was reciprocated wholeheartedly by their largely Protestant betters. “If it is true that foreign-born workers are rebellious against this country because of Prohibition,” said the Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals, “they should remember that the country is not being run for their benefit.”

As an anti-Prohibitionist writer incisively remarked, “There is just one thing that the ‘reformers’ overlooked. They forget, if they ever knew it, that the ‘hunt,’ the ‘pursuit of the unattainable,’ is the most fascinating game in the world.” The risky adventure of illicit social drinking became a source of social status in urban youth culture and on college campuses.

New York urban sophisticates who stepped out to Small’s Paradise, La Fey, or the Red Moon might don new styles of flapper dress – skimpy, low cut dresses ending above the knees – a symbol of their rejection of the strict sexual mores associated with the prohibitionists.

Amazing. They targeted alcohol consumption and not only made it more popular but ended up making premarital sex cool too.

  • Besides this, something which I didn’t highlight but which comes up through the book – the Ku Klux Klan was able to have its twentieth century revival (the one which was eventually combatted with the Superman radio show) thanks to Prohibition. They marketed themselves as vigilantes combatting bootlegging, and used it as an opportunity to beat up Catholics, immigrants, and black people. Another achievement for ban culture.
  • Also, another running theme of the later part – and again, much in common with India as also the War on Drugs – and such a major theme that no one passage particularly stood out to highlight – was that Prohibition enforcement ended up jailing small still operators and distributors, while mob bosses went free.
  • The last bit reminds me yet again of the Raghuram Rajan / Luigi Zingales bit in Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists about how a tax is always preferable to a ban.

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