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To what extent was the failure of prohibition due to the involvement of organized crime?
In 1920 the 18th Amendment was passed by the American government, which banned the sale, production and consumption of alcohol. Prohibition was not only introduced as a result of WW1 and various temperance movements, but it was also passed as an attempt to reduce alcohol related crime and to improve health of the American people. Referred to as “the greatest social experiment” by modern historians, Prohibition was abolished in 1933 by President Roosevelt. There is evidence to suggest that multiple factors were significant in bringing about its abolition.
The Wall Street Crash in 1929 is an important reason which helped to end prohibition. In addition, enforcing this measure effectively proved extremely difficult in a country like America, due to its large population as well as complex geography. The support of prohibition also altered throughout the years, becoming less popular. However, the main reason for the failure of Prohibition was the increase in organized crime as it affected almost all sections of the population.
The reason why organized crime was the most significant reason for the failure of Prohibition is not only because it influenced political and economic conditions of the country, but also turned a large section of the population into criminals. The rising number of gangs was not just preoccupied with the sale of alcohol, but also other illegal trade in drugs, prostitution and firearms. Murphy argues that gangsterism in cities contributed largely to failure of Prohibition. The number of bars known as “speakeasies” in towns like Chicago and New York was much greater after the 18th Amendment has been introduced. Large gangs started to form in big cities providing American citizens with the opportunity to drink alcohol and therefore break the law. Jones in “History of America” argues that by 1929 New York had 32,000 speakeasies, which is double the original number it had before prohibition and suggests this contributed largely to government’s decision to abolish the 18th Amendment.
Smugglers of alcohol, known as “bootleggers” were contributing to the large amounts of illegal alcohol in the US. As a result of prohibition the number of arrests for drunken drivers, thefts, burglaries and assaults increased but also the federal prison population rose by 31%. Gangs became organized and were able to control the political makeup of the government through their supplies as well as voting support. Bill Thomson was known for allowing gangsters to function in the cities. In 1923 Thompson lost the election after being accused of losing $1 million of public funds despite the fact that Chicago officials attempted to enforce Prohibition more effectively, the gangs moved their headquarters and in 1927 Al Capone’s support helped Thomson to return to office.
Parrish is another modern historian that recognizes the strength of gangster mobs in towns and their influence on the public. However in his interpretation he suggests that it was the “ethnic Americans” that “became beneficiaries of the very laws”, which implies that organized crime only affected a part of the population. Gangsters were mainly popular in large cities like New York and Chicago, and although they did cause a lot of problems and concern, it was not the same in rural areas of America.
On the other hand, the evidence indicates that towards the end of the 20s the urban population was increasing drastically, and as Clements suggests more that half of the population was starting to live in cities. Hence, a bigger section of the population was being affected by organized crime. The rise in organized crime resulted in high corruption among politicians as well as local authorities. Large gangs were manipulating American society at all levels and the only way to stop it, was it ban Prohibition. Gangsterism heavily contributed to government’s decision to abolish Prohibition, but the situation was also influenced by other changes in the society during the time.
The Wall Street Crash in 1929 transformed the economic situation in the country and affected society’s attitude towards consumption of alcohol. The collapse of the stock market caused the ongoing depression, which changed people’s opinion of the extent of government’s involvement in private issues like alcohol consumption. In addition, reintroduction of the alcohol sale would facilitate creation of new businesses and improve the economy, which is what the population needed at the time. Although, M.Jones, recognizes that organized crime was important he argues that the depression caused by the economic crisis ended Prohibition.
He explains further that banning Prohibition would favour the industry and help economy as it” would provide employment for a million men”. The depression in the country was forcing many families to move into cities in order to find work; therefore the urban population was rising. By reopening legal alcohol industry, the government would have been able to increase the national income from tax, and invest it in order to help the situation, therefore government would have directly benefited from this, and so would private businesses.
On the other hand, the government could have successfully found other solutions to the depression in America without banning Prohibition if it wasn’t already failing by 1929. The corruption created by the rise in organized crime made it difficult for authorities to impose any laws effectively, hence the first step was to reduce influence of large mafias, and this could have only been achieved through repealing Prohibition. Therefore, although Wall Street Crash caused a change in American society on an economic and social level, the increase of organized crime was far more important for government’s decision to pass the 20th Amendment.
The opposition to the 18th Amendment was rising throughout the years, and in addition the original supporters started to become divided. The concept of individual freedom started to be regarded with more importance and particular groups demanded repeal of the 18th Amendment. The migrating population, caused partially by the Wall Street Crash, moved into cities like New York or Chicago, was less more likely to favour individual freedom and likely to support “dry” politicians.
The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment started to become more popular among the affluent part of population. It was supported by wealthy business men who used their influence to get their political supporters in the congress. The introduction of Prohibition created social divide of the American population. The ideals and beliefs of the rural people were very different to city dwellers. A Farmer and V Sanders points further that Prohibition caused more than a social and even religious conflict, emphasizing that Prohibition was not having positive effects on the American society and failing to fulfill its initial aims.
However, in 1928 it was clear that still the majority of the population were satisfied with the course of Prohibition. In 1928 Al Smith was a democratic presidential candidate who proposed to abolish Prohibition, however his ideas were too revolutionary for many rural voters and he lost the election. This demonstrates that even if opposition to Prohibition was rising, it was still not strong enough to end it completely. The organized crime made alcohol widely accessible and with the complex situation caused by the Wall Street Crash government was forced into action by these two forces rather being persuaded by various opposition groups.
The organization of the ban also proved very ineffective and was strongly linked to the failure of the measure. The estimated budged reached $2 million was not a sufficient sum control operation on such a grand-scale. At most there were only 3000 Treasury Agents, whose job was to enforce the law. They were paid low wages shut down illegal industries. This resulted in bribes and general corruption of the system. Parrish supports the idea that the failure of Prohibition was due to the corruption of the prohibition agents.
Clements also emphasizes the view that the lack of federal as well as local input contributed to the failure of the measure. The budget could have been more effective, if other factors did not interrupt the process. If more agents with higher wages were employed they would have been less likely tempted by bribes and more likely prevent illegal transportation. However it is difficult to what extent they would have been successful, because ways of obtaining alcohol were not very difficult to find. Apart from home made substances, it could also be obtained in speakeasies and saloons, hence emphasizing the importance of gangsters in the failure of Prohibition
The flawed regulations and impartibility of the law was another reason why it failed. Enforcing a ban of alcohol on a country with 18,700 miles of coastline and land boarder proved impossible. Dough and Susan Willoughby propose that the law was unrealistic and overambitious, which was the main reason for its failure. The geography of the country made it very difficult for the law to be imposed. Clements proposes that only 5% of smugglers have been intercepted by authorities, emphasizing how difficult it was to enforce the ban. Despite the fact that alcohol was official banned, government still permitted its production for medical purposes.
Parrish recognizes that there were too many errors in the construction of the law, which led to its failure. He suggests that prohibition was doomed because alcohol was easy to construct from legal substances like “near- bear” and the government was unable to prevent individuals carrying out that process. Sanders proposes that geography of America enabled gangsters to take advantage of its long borders and smuggle alcohol across. However the measure would have had a larger chance of survival, if the gangs throughout America had not been as organized. Their careful arrangement and planning meant that even if America was a smaller country, it would be still possible to smuggle alcohol into the country, emphasizing that organized crime was hence a more important reason in the failure of Prohibition than the fault in its construction.
Overall, historical evidence presents various reasons for the failure of Prohibition. Although some historians like Parrish and Johnson may argue that the government was responsible for not enforcing it effectively enough, it was the strong rise in organized crime which caused the failure of the measure. As argued by Murphy prohibition could not succeed because the involvement of gangs in major cities was too strong too control and not enough illegally smuggled alcohol was intercepted, to make the system work. In addition oragnised crime caused other problems in the country, like bribery and corruption. Although, Wall Street Crash made the situation more difficult for the government to manage, it would have been easier if it wasn’t for the organized crime.