The Pittsburgh Press (October 24, 1944)
Prohibition made a big issue; soldiers overseas send protest home
By Lorne Kennedy, NEA staff writer
Omaha, Nebraska –
Overshadowing all other Nov. 7 election issues in Nebraska is the question of whether the state will vote to restore prohibition or retain its present local-option liquor control.
The wet-dry question was forced on the ballot by an initiative petition with 50,393 names, obtained through the efforts of persistent prohibitionists, organized as the “Allied Dry Forces of Nebraska.” The organization is headed by Harold “Three-Gun” Wilson of Lincoln, a former federal prohibition administrator.
Not partisan issue
Heading the opposition to prohibition are most Nebraska newspapers, an organization known as “The Committee of Men and Women Against Prohibition” and another group known as the “Nebraska Servicemen’s Protective Committee.” The first group, carrying the main fight, is led by Keith Neville, a North Platte teetotaler who was Governor of Nebraska during part of the prohibition era.
The Servicemen’s Committee is headed by William Ritchie, Omaha lawyer and state Democratic campaign director.
Neither side has attempted to link the dry issue with partisan politics, although the Democratic State Convention adopted a plank opposing prohibition, Republicans held their state convention before the initiative petition, have made no effort since to take a stand.
Although anti-dry Nebraskans are frankly worried over the possibility that the prohibition lid might be slipped back on, they believe generally that by Election Day, enough resentment will be aroused to defeat the attempt.
They feel they have the most effective argument. Instead of meeting the issue head-on, most prohibition opponents have urged that it would be better to defeat the proposed dry law now and settle the issue again finally when 100,000 Nebraska servicemen are home again and can participate in the decision.
Opponents termed the 1944 dry vote as “a sly trick” to force the issue in the absence of fighting forces. They also capitalized on the fact that two million dollars yearly is contributed to the state old-age pension program from liquor and beer revenue and that breweries buy a million dollars’ worth of Nebraska grain annually.
Petition from France
Mr. Neville’s committee, spending heavily on advertising of nearly every form, charged the dry forces lacked true interest in state welfare when they submitted the question without providing a means of enforcing prohibition or supplying substitute finances for old age pensions between Nov. 7 and such time as the 1945 Legislature can enact legislation.
Most effective document produced against the dry cause was a full-page advertisement in state papers, reproducing a petition against prohibition which was prepared and signed by 312 soldiers of the famous 134th Infantry, formerly the Nebraska National Guard.
The petition was sent home from France by Col. Butler Miltonberger, regimental commander and former duck-hunting companion of former Governor Neville.
It was soiled from being circulated in the field just after the 134th succeeded in a bloody, costly breakthrough at Saint-Lô.
A facsimile of all signatures was printed along with the soldiers’ statement that:
We, the undersigned citizens of Nebraska, who are now serving in the Armed Forces in defense of our country, are dismayed to learn that those of us who survive this war may have to return to the kind of Nebraska that our fathers returned to in 1919. We feel that we are being disfranchised.
Mr. Wilson and his allied dry forces have made but little effort to answer the opposition arguments except to deny that the dry vote was intentionally timed to a period when soldier voting is difficult.
Drys rely on WCTU
They are relying mainly on the strength of WCTU chapters, church groups and strong anti-liquor sentiment in rural districts.
To the wets’ charges that “prohibition doesn’t prohibit” and that it would make Nebraska “a bootleggers’ paradise,” Mr. Wilson responded blandly that prohibition didn’t succeed before only because the will to enforce it was lacking.
Nebraska’s first experiment with prohibition began in 1917, when a state dry law was enacted 146,574 to 117,132, nearly three years before national prohibition. Nebraska had the distinction of being the 36th state to ratify the federal dry amendment, thereby putting it into effect.
State experience under prohibition was typical, with corn alcohol stills flourishing in rural sections and a rash of gang killings resulting. The climax came in 1933 when 53 persons, including a former Omaha political boss, district leaders and several policemen, were tried in a spectacular conspiracy case in Omaha Federal Court.
Strict law enforced
In 1934, Nebraskans voted 327,074 to 216,107 for repeal and it became effective May 24, 1935, following enactment by the Legislature of the State Liquor Control Act. Dry forces have at no time seriously criticized the administration of the State Liquor Act, which is directed by a three-member bipartisan control commission, with a reputation for being “tough” on licensees violating state law or commission rules.
Under the Control Act, beer sale is permitted throughout the state but liquor can neither be sold by the package or drink unless approved by residents of a town. Liquor sales in rural areas are forbidden.