“The Civil War is the biggest of all of these schisms,” Burns says in a telephone interview with CityBeat. He co-directed and co-produced Prohibition with Lynn Novick, adding it to his long list of archivist PBS documentaries that includes The Civil War, Baseball and The War.
“But in terms of the culture wars that have periodically beset us, this is a major one,” Burns continues. “It was a century in the brewing, and then there were the horrific unintended consequences of the nearly 14 years of its application. It was a single-issue campaign that metastasized through the lack of a civil discourse.”
Alcohol had always been part of American culture. But Prohibition sought to end that when it formally started in the U.S. with passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919. It banned the manufacturing, sale, consumption and possession of almost all alcohol. It lasted until repealed in 1933 through the 21st Amendment. Its duration overlapped with the Roaring Twenties, a period marked by wanton consumerism and sexy flapper girls, and also bootleggers and speakeasies in every city who turned law-abiding citizens, and their political leaders, into willful and willing partners in crime. The period also brought the rise of brutal gangsters who made a killing — often literally — off the illicit booze business. Prohibition finally collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression.
One of the most flamboyant of those gangsters was George Remus, a lawyer who moved from Chicago to Cincinnati to capitalize on a loophole in Prohibition law. He bought stockpiles of booze, allegedly for (still-legal) medicinal purposes, and then “hijacked” his company’s own shipments.
According to Burns, Remus is such a fascinating figure that this season’s Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s largely fact-based dramatic series about Prohibition, also will feature him as a character.
“While we were working on it, I’d say, ‘This guy needs a feature film about him,’” Burns says. “He was so innovative, so cuckoo, and his story has such a wonderful arc. He was a massively effective multi-millionaire giving Gatsby-esque parties in Cincinnati in his mansion with his beautiful second wife, and then came her betrayal, falling in love with (federal) agent. You couldn’t make this up.”
Today, Prohibition is viewed as a right-wing crusade led by bluenoses and prudes, Christian fundamentalists and anti-immigrant rural and Southern nativists who hated the industrializing big cities full of newcomers, especially Catholics from Germany and Ireland, who loved beer.
Those were motivating conservative impulses behind the push for Prohibition, Burns discovered. (The Ku Klux Klan supported it.) But there were also just-as-powerful progressive forces behind it. Alcoholism was a terrible problem in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, especially among men who frequented saloons.
“In some way the impulse for emancipation and the impulse for temperance grew out of the same mindset of a country that thought it could perfect itself,” Burns says. “There was a sense, however naïve and for whatever reasons that each particular group might have coalesced around the positive benefits of Prohibition, that this was a cure-all, a panacea, for the ills of society.
“You have progressives with a real earnest sense that alcoholism is a social problem and destroys lives,” Burns continues. “They thought this would be a way to help immigrants, to help people out of the slums, to cure social ills affecting men at every strata. And then there was that fervent Christian-driven sense of ‘We can do without — this was the devil’s potion.’ They didn’t consider the unintended consequences of creating organized crime, which did not exist and wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t banned alcohol.”
Another revelation of Prohibition is that it did work, in a way. Many Americans were willing to try it.
“Alcohol consumption did go down,” Burns says. “Incidents of cirrhosis of the liver did go down. Alcohol-related accidents did go down. Americans didn’t get back up to pre-(Prohibition) drinking levels until the 1970s.”
But the cost was that America became a nation of hypocrites, its public officials bought off by organized crime. They, like many of their constituents, thought Prohibition was for the other guy — not them.
“It wasn’t just (big) cities,” Burns says. “The hypocrisy was equal in the small towns, where the mayor was for (Prohibition), the minister for it, the district attorney for it, the county sheriff for it, but they were all there at the speakeasy in the town.”
That hypocrisy, plus the building belief that legalized but controlled alcohol would be a revenue source in a time of need, finally led to a successful repeal effort. But there was a bigger factor aiding repeal.
“The Depression rendered the whole argument moot,” Burns says. “It was so pernicious. Animals in zoos were shot in some cities and the meat distributed to the poor.”
Faced with problems like that, increasingly few had the will to keep up the Prohibition enforcement battles.
Ken Burns' latest documentary, PROHIBITION, runs nightly 8 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday on local PBS stations.