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How World War I Brought about Prohibition
By Thomas Richardson
The global impact of the Great War reverberated throughout world history. In the United States, the outbreak of the war brought about a significant event impacting every citizen. The conflict didn’t just influence how the United States recognized its place internationally, but how it behaved socially.
It was in this wartime environment that the 18th Amendment was ratified and Prohibition began. The war itself wasn’t the only contributing factor to the amendment’s passage, but instead it was the culmination of decades of work carried out by temperance and progressive groups.
Decades prior to President Wilson’s declaration of war, temperance groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League lobbied constantly for the limitation and, eventually, prohibition of alcohol. Alcohol, they believed, was a moral scourge upon families, leaving them impoverished and destitute, and saloon practices fostered public corruption.
They pointed not only to big breweries and distilleries but to groups like the German-American Alliance and the United States Brewers Association, calling them manufacturers of systemic abuse and arguing that the evils of alcohol destroyed families and communities.
The wets, opponents of prohibition, however, staved off for years any alcohol restriction through their lobbying and commercial interests. Wet leaders like Adolphus Busch embarked on massive public relations campaigns showing the essential role the alcohol industry played in the American economy. Federal tax revenue depended heavily on alcohol sales, but that all changed drastically in 1913 following passage of the 16th Amendment implementing an income tax. No longer was the government reliant on alcohol excise taxes, which gave the progressive advocates much needed support for the complete ban on alcohol.
The final blow for the wet camp came in 1916 with the escalation of hostilities between the U.S. and Germany. Unrestricted submarine warfare, which was taking its toll on U.S. shipping, began polarizing public opinion against Germany. The Committee on Public Information embarked on a propaganda campaigned aimed at demonizing Germans, which in turn made German-Americans a suspicious target, and in particular, the brewing industry.
Critical food supplies were needed to feed large European armies and the Anti-Saloon League interpreted the production of beer as a waste of precious resources. For the Anti-Saloon League and the drys, this was the perfect moment to enact prohibition legislation. Congress had already passed the Wartime Prohibition Act in 1918 restricting grain supplies to breweries, but now total prohibition enshrined as a constitutional amendment became a reality.
On Jan. 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified making the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of alcohol illegal.
In mid-1919, as U.S. soldiers began returning from France, they faced a sobering reality; after 1920, they would no longer be able to get a drink, not legally at least.
Thomas Richardson works for the National Archives and Records Administration. In graduate school, he taught U.S. history and world geography. He also worked on the World War II veterans’ oral history project at the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Thomas volunteers with the Midwestern History Association helping with their social media outreach as a contributing editor. He lives in St. Louis and spends much of his time with the Scottish St. Andrew Society.
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