Dorothy Thompson – The age of Prohibition (9-30-41)

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (September 30, 1941)


The age of Prohibition

When the last 20 years are recorded in American history, they might well be called “The Epoch of Prohibition.” For it is characteristic of them that we have sought to prosper and progress by not doing things instead of doing them.

A well-organized minority in the United States decided at the close of the last war to keep Americans sober by forbidding them to drink any beverages containing more than 3% of alcohol. We were to achieve temperance by a most intemperate measure. We were to keep Americans virtuous by treating them as though they were not adult.

Obviously, there had been great abuses in the liquor traffic, and the saloon was tied up with politics in a most unsavory way. To have regulated traffic in liquor, and enforced restrictions upon it, would have been reasonable but difficult. So we just expropriated the business and outlawed spirits, wines, beer – except at the near variety of which it was said:

Anybody who calls this near-beer has no sense of distance.

The result was not temperance, but the most drunken age America has ever known. Instead of whiskey we got rotgut, and instead of divorcing politics from the liquor business, we got rampant gangsterism and a corruption unique in American life.

All this is a familiar story, but prohibitionism – the attempt to deal with a problem by prohibiting the problem – has not been confined to the matter of alcoholic beverages. We have had an age of prohibition in regard to peace and world affairs.

At about the same time that we prohibited Americans from drinking sauterne, Scotch and rye, we also prohibited them from using their economic and political power to establish a lasting peace in this world. The argument that kept us out of the World Court and the League of Nations was that Europe was full of nasty nations with ancient hatreds, that they were always making war, and that they were so slick that no American could stand in their company without losing his shirt.

The isolationist argument is a typical prohibition argument. It is the do-nothing argument, the argument of safety by denial. Under the theory that we were unable to cope with world problems, we decided to avoid them. The result, in the second place, was as disastrous as in the first. We have another world war on our hands. Just as immoderate and illegal drunkenness was the result of unwillingness to make a reasonable and constructive approach to the abuse of strong drink, so totalitarian war is the result of unwillingness to make a constructive and united approach to the problem of peace with justice.

In the field of economics, the same “easy way,” which is the way of prohibition, has kept us for 20 years from using to the fullest our great productive capacities. To do so would require constructive thought and basic reform. But constructive thought and basic reform are hard. Therefore, let us – so ran the argument – meet the problems by avoiding a radical analysis of them.

We wanted to prevent a slump after the last war. So, under a series of Republican administrations, we undertook a huge spending and investment program, of private money, pumped into capital goods not only in this country, but all over the world. Under the Roosevelt administration, we continued this program, but pumped public money into consuming power in this country. There was a problem of overproduction. But instead of really looking for new markets abroad, and finding ways in which these new markets could be developed to the advantage of other nations and not their ruin, we prohibited production by plowing under.

That is again the prohibition mentality. The world was starving for the products of our fields and factories, but no one could think how our production could be made profitable, in the largest and most permanent sense of the word, to contribute to the rise of the standard of living throughout the earth. So, we stopped producing.

The result of the spending policy of the Republican administrations was to encourage wholesale borrowing from already deeply-indebted European nations, make the liquidation of the war debts increasingly impossible, and eventually help to plunge Europe into that financial panic and unemployment out of which we got Hitler.

The result of the policies of the first, second, and third New Deals was to break down working morale, and leave us, in a critical moment, short of actual materials and skilled workers.

Prohibitionism is not the American way, and if it had been, this nation would not have grown in a hundred and sixty-odd years from a handful of colonies to an empire stretching across a continent.

We didn’t make America by trying to avoid anything dangerous or anything hard. We made it on faith, work, and a willingness to tackle any problem, in full confidence that the American genius could find the answer. We didn’t think all the world was smarter than we were, but that it was considerably dumber. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in Paris did not think that American diplomacy was of necessity inferior to that of Europe – and it wasn’t.

And, incidentally, we didn’t make America by avoiding war. We made it by raising the emblem of the rattlesnake and the cry:

Don’t step on me.

And we didn’t think democracy was just for home consumption. We proclaimed liberty throughout the earth.

We believed in America and in ourselves, and what we started we saw through. And the world respected us, not because we were rich and had an immense industrial plant and more money in the banks than anybody else and more silk stockings and motor cars and radios and ice-boxes and bathrooms than anyone else, but because we were a nation of men, scrappy, hard-working – the hardest-working people on earth – friendly to our friends, and dangerous to our enemies.

And so we shall be again.