The more-or-less official motto of historians is the famous line from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A codicil to this might be: “Historians who cannot connect the past to the present are condemned to irrelevance.” Far too many histories fail to make clear how their readers could learn from the past, not just to understand it on its own terms, but to avoid repeating its mistakes. Harvard historian Lisa McGirr’s new book, “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State” emphatically connects the past to the present.
What it meant to live under the Volstead Act and government enforcement regimes differed based on what sort of American you were, and not just along a Wet-Dry axis. Rich or middle class or working class or poor, urban or small town or rural, white or black or Latino, male or female: Prohibition and its law enforcement effected everyone differently, in ways that had profound and lasting effects on American culture.
This change did not happen overnight: Anti-Catholic prejudice prevented 1928 Democratic Presidential candidate Al Smith for capitalizing on such a coalition sooner. But the subsequent four years of draconian federal encroachment on everyday life — and vigorous political organization and get-out-the-vote drives by Democrats — enabled Franklin Delano Roosevelt to lead the way to the New Deal by campaigning for repeal.
The relevance to 21st-century America, in the fifth decade of the “War on Drugs” declared by President Richard Nixon, is crystal clear by the time the “War on Alcohol” concludes. McGirr writes, “The U.S. war on alcohol built the foundations of the twentieth-century federal penal state. At the same time, the widened scope of federal power and the state administrative apparatus over a fourteen-year period oriented Americans ever more toward the nation-state for the resolution of social problems, while inspiring paradoxical disquiet over that very expansion of the government’s sphere of action.”
To cite yet another maxim about history, William Faulkner’s: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” McGirr eloquently demonstrates that while national Prohibition of alcohol died in 1933, it is not past; we are repeating its mistakes eight decades later. The contemporary American and international prohibition on drugs parallels the violent crime, extreme law enforcement and vast prisons born out of Prohibition.
Bill Savage teaches Chicago literature at Northwestern University.
‘The War on Alcohol’ By Lisa McGirr, W.W. Norton, 330 pages, $27.95