Drys vs. wets in Jazz-Age Gotham. Guess who wins.
The clear, focused text provides ample evidence of this first-time author’s wide research and deep familiarity with the relevant sources. Lerner (Assoc. Dean of Studies/Bard High School Early College) recognizes Prohibition’s central issue: the desire to define morality narrowly and to force that definition upon others. Teeming with immigrants and overflowing with booze, New York City seemed an unlikely battlefield, but William H. Anderson and his Anti-Saloon League came, saw and conquered. Anderson began his fierce and creative anti-alcohol campaign upon arrival in the city in 1914; by 1920, Prohibition was constitutional. The author does a good job of exploring and explaining Anderson’s strategies and of identifying the cultural and historical forces that enabled his initial successes, among them the identification of beer-drinking with Germans, America’s opponents in World War I. But, as Lerner notes, many counterforces weakened and then destroyed the dry movement. Alcohol had long been a part of sundry religious rituals, and the jobs of numerous New Yorkers were tied to the alcohol industry. Servers and bartenders were hurt by the ban on booze, of course, but so were truck drivers, bottle-makers, farmers and others. Lerner looks at how law enforcement and the judicial system reacted. He examines the conflicts between the federal agents and the local cops; he shows that many judges, opposed to the dry movement and overwhelmed by the vast numbers of new arrests clogging their courtrooms, simply dismissed cases or levied minimal fines. The drinking continued unabated, and a criminal class emerged to dominate the industry. Lerner ends with the 1928 and 1932 presidential campaigns of Al Smith and FDR, who both went wet. It’s disappointing that he declines to highlight contemporary parallels, since procrustean moralists remain among us, as does a “drug war.”
A fine history of a most troubling time.