Uncle Sam accused of being Two-faced about Prohibition
"INCOMPARABLY THE BIGGEST BOOTLEGGER in the world" is the United States Government, charges August A. Busch, President of the Anheuser-Busch Company; He offers in evidence the printed wine, whisky and beer list of a United States Shipping Board steamer named after George Washington, who, it is generally conceded, "never told a lie." This list contains, in addition to the usual once-familiar alcoholic beverages of pre-Prohibition days, one peculiarly intriguing item —"Old American Rye Moonshine."
Scarcely had Mr. Busch exploded this bomb when Representative Gallivan of Massachusetts, an anti-Prohibition Congressman, raised "a whirl of laughter" in the House by reading the wine list of another Shipping Board steamer, the President Pierce. A Shipping Board advertisement in the Paris edition of the New York Herald promises "choice wines and liqueurs" on its Government-owned lines; and the "wetness" of these boats is frankly admitted by the Shipping Board's Chairman, A. D. Lasker, who, however, contends that there is nothing illegal about the situation, because "our general counsel, and subsequently his two chief assistants, rendered the opinion that merchant ships beyond the three-mile limit were not within the meaning of the term as used in the Eighteenth Amendment, 'territory subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.'" In his reply to Mr. Busch's charge Chairman Lasker goes on to say:
"The last to break the laws of the Government should be the Government, but the Shipping Board holds that neither the Volstead Act nor the Eighteenth Amendment applies to American ships outside of the three-mile limit.
"So long as other maritime nations continue to serve liquors to American passengers, I am ashamed to state that my experience leads me to believe there is a sufficient number of Americans without proper pride in their own flag or ships who would divert their trade to foreign flags to the extent that the competition would be, from a profit-operating standpoint, very heavily against the American ship.
"I do not believe I speak inadvisedly when I state that so long as foreign ships can enter America serving liquor, the lack of that privilege might be the very determining factor in the life or death of the American merchant marine, and that so long as foreign ships are allowed the privilege of entering and departing from American ports serving liquor, that same privilege must be allowed our merchant ships."If the sale of liquor be prohibited on all boats entering or departing from American ports there is no voice in the Shipping Board that would be raised in protest.
"Both from the standpoint of legal right and from the standpoint of the life and security of our national merchant marine the Shipping Board has permitted, and will continue to permit, the serving of liquor on its ships so long as foreign-flag ships are allowed to enter and depart from our shores exercising the privilege."
Is the natural wetness of the ocean so potent that it overwhelms and obliterates the artificial aridity of American ships? Has the sea air a miraculous effect upon our supposedly defunct John Barleycorn? Does the amended Constitution follow the flag only as far as the three-mile limit? Is the Volstead Act unable to prove itself amphibious? Can the Government wink at the law in its own business, and expect others to observe it? Is a bartender's apron a more fitting garment for Uncle Sam at sea than it would be on land? Will trade and honor refuse to follow the American flag as long as the flag is unescorted by a bartender? Must the American landlubbers be saved from their depraved appetites at any cost to their liberty and pocketbook, while the American seagoers can go to the devil at a handsome profit for the Government? These are some of the questions asked by bewildered and amused editors throughout the United States. "The case of Prohibition vs. Uncle Sam, bootlegger, seems fairly conclusive," remarks the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which offers this summing-up of the situation:
"When John Doe turns to the illicit liquor traffic as a means of livelihood and gets caught at it, he goes to jail—that is, if he is. so unfortunate as to face an unsympathetic jury.
"When Uncle Sam turns to the same illicit traffic as a means of profit in keeping his merchant marine afloat, where shall he be prosecuted except at the bar of public opinion?
"When John Doe sneaks down a dark alley and hands over his week's wages for a quart of wood alcohol and fusel oil colored with caramel, he risks death or blindness from his surreptitious potations.
"But when Dives luxuriates in a sea voyage aboard one of Uncle Sam's palatial liners, rare wines of ancient vintage and liquors to tease his palate and addle his brain are his for the price—and Uncle Sam is his bootlegger and his bartender."
There is something "at once comic and disturbing" in the situation now so dramatically brought before the public, notes the Albany Knickerbocker Press, which urges the American people "not to countenance a condition which stamps them, publicly and officially, as hypocritical." The Chicago Evening Post finds it "disconcerting, not to say painful, to hear Uncle Sam, with the blue ribbon of the Eighteenth Amendment tied in his buttonhole, accused by a former brewer of being the greatest of all bootleggers." "This Government can't be dry on land and wet on the ocean," avers the Kansas City Star, which suggests, however, that while the matter is being formally decided by the courts the Shipping Board might apply its profits from the sale of alcoholic beverages "to the expenses of Prohibition enforcement on land and thus help the taxpayers out to that extent." "What could be a more shameful spectacle than a Government that breaks its own laws?" asks the New York Times. "Prohibition is good or bad, according to one's point of view," remarks the New York Globe, "but there should be no difference of opinion about the moral obliquity of a Government which in one of its branches encourages and profits by a traffic which another branch is striving to repress as an intolerable evil." "Mr. Lasker," comments the New York Evening Post, "seems to feel about his ships the way Bethmann-Holweg felt about the violation of Belgium. Necessity knows no law." But this daily "doubts whether the American people feel that way about ships." The Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, comes to Mr. Lasker's defense:
"The Shipping Board's attitude on the matter has been founded on the legal advice of its counsel. Until the courts rule otherwise, that is ethically and morally proper. A federal judge in Texas did rule otherwise last month. Probably his decision will be appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Then we will have a definite determination of whether or not the Shipping Board can sell liquor outside the three-mile limit."
"The Shipping Board is on the wrong tack," declares the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, which holds that, if the merchant marine can not succeed without the sale of liquor, "the merchant marine rather than Prohibition should be sacrificed." "If the argument which is used to defend the nullification of the Eighteenth Amendment is a good argument," argues the Baltimore Evening Sun, "why should it not apply to all other clauses in the Constitution and to the laws of the Congress as well? Why should not the masters of the American lines institute human slavery when they pass beyond the three-mile limit?" "Neither the Prohibitionists nor the antis will let the sale of booze aboard American ships go on," predicts the Wichita Eagle. "The moral aspect of the case is the worst imaginable," notes the Springfield Republican, "for no government can seek financial excuses for violating its own laws without pillorying itself as the rankest of hypocrites whenever it throws its citizens into jail for the same offense." William E. Johnson, known to fame as "Pussyfoot," recently took passage for Europe on a British ship, explaining to the reporters that—
" It is safer to ride on British or French ships that are loyal to the laws and institutions of their country than on bootleg scows loyal to the institutions of no country, not even of their own. I don't see how self-respecting Americans can ride on these American alleged ships, anyhow. ...
"The Shipping Board folks declare they can't run their ships at a profit unless they sell liquor. They do sell liquor and yet they are running behind $50,000,000 a year."
The Denver Times warns us that "the thirsty and the bibulous are striving desperately to discover every weak point and loophole in the Prohibition Amendment"; and in the Franklin (Pa.) News-Herald, which as the Venango Herald for fifteen years supported the Prohibition Party, we read:
"The thing that disgusts us most is the assumption of the Shipping Board that American passengers will not travel on good lines of ships that furnish good service, unless they can have booze. We've seen enough of American travel at sea to know that that is all nonsense. It's possible the Shipping Board can not run our ships at a profit without booze-selling. But the trouble is not in booze, or in the absence of booze, but in a bungling, incompetent management.
"It may be the Volstead Act needs to be amended to make it clear that our ships come under our Constitution; but something more than that is needed. The boozy Shipping Board needs to be kicked out, to follow the generals who used to insist that we couldn't have an army without provision for soaking the soldiers in beer, and the admirals who used to howl that the navy would go all to smash without lots of grog."
Even severer is the denunciation of the Shipping Board's action by The Manufacturer's Record, of Baltimore, which accuses that government agency of having "sold the honor of this country to the liquor traffic and endangered the safety of all laws." Mr. Lasker's plea, it says, "is first an apotheosis of expediency, and secondly a reliance on technicality to justify a most obvious breach of ordinary national morality." The gentlemen of the Shipping Board, it charges, "have deliberately undertaken to veto a moral verdict of the nation, most solemnly recorded." "Better no merchant marine than a government doing with its left hand the things its right hand is forbidden to do," declares this organ of the manufacturing interests, which warns us that: "If the great officers of this Government, pitiably quibbling and equivocating, are to lend the prestige of their high position and the substance of their high authority to equiva- lent nullification, then is lawlessness our heritage and its fruits our bitter tomorrow."
Another section of editorial opinion, however, interprets the Shipping Board revelation as proof that Prohibition is a failure. "If the Government itself violates the present law and Constitution, it is an admission that they are undesirable and unenforceable," says the Fargo (N. D.) Forum. The Volstead Act, remarks the Baltimore News, "involves so many absurdities that we are in favor of its modification into something that will be workable." "A law that is capable of such developments as this is not a moral safeguard but a moral degradation," declares the Springfield Union. "The Government admits that the Prohibition law can not be impartially and adequately enforced," maintains the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. "It is time the Prohibition- ists, whose sincerity we will not question, took stock of their enterprise and counted the consequences of undertaking the right thing in the wrong way," says the New Haven Journal- Courier. "The United States Government is unquestionably the biggest bootlegger in the world," says the New York World;
"it has been made so by a cowardly and hypocritical Congress dominated by the Anti-Saloon League." The St. Louis Post- Dispatch sees in the situation "the fruits of Prohibition folly and fanaticism—bitter fruits, full of the acid juice of dishonor, dishonesty and shame." "Prohibition is wrong in principle and can never be right in practise," avers this St. Louis paper. "The 'dry' or 'wet' policy of American vessels on the high seas is a minor question beside the major issue of a 'dry' or 'wet' United States," remarks the Omaha Bee, which adds: "That is the big question, and that is what all the fuss is about." Discussing this broader aspect of the problem, the Newark Evening News writes:
"The issue has got to be squarely faced. If Prohibition is a question of morals, it is better to have no bars and no ships. If it is a moral question of the Government enforcing its laws, then there should be no sales.
"If Prohibition is a matter of expediency, then some compromise is possible on the sea; in fact, new Treasury regulations are thought to provide the desired loophole. But if compromise is defensible on sea, it is equally defensible on dry land.
"That is the real problem, which everybody has been trying to dodge. It brings up the whole issue. By so doing it raises both the moral and the expedient question. Morals, as we see it, are a matter of men and not things. Alcohol can kill and so can a jack-knife. It is the question of use by supposedly intelligent, responsible beings that makes the difference. There is nothing more immoral about a bottle of whisky than there is about a stick of dynamite. But they are both dangerous in wrong hands, and need control.
"Prohibition was a natural product in the West, largely a racial problem in the South, and hatched before its time in the East. Here it was on its way at least to the extent of a very rigid temperance, and would have come naturally and effectively if organized propagandists had let it alone. It is not wholly improbable that within a reasonable time Prohibition will be as reasonably effective and supported here as the law against counterfeiting, for instance.
"At all events, we would have saved the Constitution on its high plane as a frame-work of government and an inviolable charter of fundamental rights. What we are going to do with the situation as made and provided when the old march to temperance has been interrupted by the effort to force Prohibition is the question as it now stands."
1920's PROHIBITION RESOURCES
Keeping Prohibition out of Party Platforms - 1927
Article discussing problems of Political Parties in relation to Prohibition
Repeal of Prohibition - 1933
Survey of current state of Prohibition Repeal Votes
World Prohibition - 1923
Most of the World was considering Prohibition in 1923
Prohibition Killings - 1927
Killings by Federal Agents Enforcing Prohibition
Prohibition in Belgium - 1927
A European Approach to Prohibition
Speakeasies in Detroit - 1929
10 - 20,000 Speakeasies created strong competition and lowered profitability
Prohibition Category Page at 1920sEra.com
Increased deaths caused by drinking bootleg beverages