I challenge anyone who does not believe that well written, well researched, history can be every bit as fascinating as the best novels to read Last Call and still hold that position. With a panorama of remarkable characters set against the backdrop of a social issue that makes the current abortion debate seem somewhat milquetoast Daniel Okrent has served up a smashingly good read that both illuminates our national past and present.
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
By Daniel Okrent
Prohibition was not something that arose overnight. The battle that led to the enactment of the eighteenth amendment took place over at least a half a century. On the surface it seemed a marvelous social experiment. Imagine a place where there was no alcoholism, no drunkenness with its attendant evils of crime, poverty and abuse. This was the drive behind Prohibition. When it was finally enacted it seemed that the dream had come true. A golden age was dawning. In fact, the dream had simply become a nightmare. The light at the end of the tunnel was a train.
There are several powerful lessons to be reaped from this look at our past. One of the most striking, and curiously encouraging, was the realization that both sides of this issue were totally willing to lie, cheat, and steal in order to advance their cause. The reason I found this somewhat “encouraging” is because I was of the opinion that we had grown worse in our national character in this regard over the
last few decades. It seems that we have in fact always been this bad. You might expect this from the “wets” who represented the vested interest of the liquor industry, but it seems that the fanaticism of the “drys” led them to believe that almost anything was justified in pursuit of their envisioned utopia. (This should have been a red flag regarding the results they ultimately achieved.)
Another lesson that stands out is that when it comes to social engineering the results of our meddling are rarely what we expect. The same applies to the economy of things. When Prohibition was passed some of the vineyards in the Napa Valley rushed to uproot their grapes and plant other crops. Of what value
would grapes be with wine virtually illegal? Ah, but there is a huge gap between virtually illegal and completely illegal. People were still allowed to produce their own wine for home consumption but you can’t make wine at home without grapes. Grapes that sold for under $10 per ton some ten years earlier peaked at over $300 per ton during Prohibition. A lot of grapes had to be replanted. Likewise, the
expected fall in criminal activity following the enactment of Prohibition seriously failed to materialize. Just the opposite occurred. With the advent of Prohibition there was suddenly serious money to be made in criminal activity. Every increase in enforcement activity forced organized crime to become more organized. It could strongly be argued that National Crime Syndicates owe their start directly to Prohibition.
Most people would point to Viet Nam as the first war the USA ever lost. Militarily speaking that is likely true. But Prohibition was where we lost our dream, or at least where the dark behind the dream could no longer be hidden. We created a great land of freedom and opportunity and even though other cultures paid the price for our “opportunity” we could ignore them since their stories weren’t really told. We had the slavery issue, but we fought a great heroic war that brought “freedom” to the slaves and even though it would take another hundred years for them to share in our opportunities we could overlook that and sing the praises of our Civil War heroes. Then we finally enacted Prohibition and nothing could stop
our glorious social momentum; nothing except a train wreck. And while Okrent gives a quite balanced appraisal to the players and motives on both sides of Prohibition, even he has to concede that the light at the end of the tunnel… was indeed a train.
Ronnie Meek is is a guy who likes to share good reads with other people and warn them about boring or bad stuff. His personal blog is It’s In There Somewhere where he is currently blogging through the New Testament.
This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.