The makers of historical documentaries seldom seek to challenge the received opinions of their audiences. Even the most talented filmmakers tend to exalt the already exalted and shovel dirt on the thankfully deceased. One can, one should be moved by a production like Freedom Riders, which PBS aired this summer on the fiftieth anniversary of that dramatic, violent episode in the civil rights saga. But Freedom Riders comforts more than it educates and fails to ask such tough questions as why the notion of black and white people sitting together in a bus station could ever have provoked such rage.
So there is something fresh, even rather brave, about “A Nation of Drunkards,” the opening ninety-minute episode of Prohibition, the three-part film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which premieres on public television on October 2. For most Americans—and, I would bet, nearly anyone who chooses to spend a Sunday evening watching a documentary on PBS—the century-long movement that first limited and then banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol appears either hopelessly quaint or quaintly sinister. To explain why and how the prohibitionists were able to amend the Constitution requires an empathy for Christian moralism that does not come easily to secular liberals—a cohort to which the filmmakers (and, I imagine, most New Republic readers) happily belong. Burns and Novick dramatize this moralism well. But that is not the only virtue of their film; whether intentionally or not, the documentary also suggests a way to think about the fortunes of the right-to-life movement, the prohibitionists of our own time.
BURNS AND NOVICK’S signal achievement is to portray the “dry army” as a humane as well as evangelical endeavor. In the late nineteenth century, dedicated reformers like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony endorsed temperance laws because they saw no other way to end the scourge of heavy drinking in America. They were responding to ubiquitous saloons and liquor shops, which offered working men a deceptive way to relieve their hardships by drinking away their pay. Alcoholics and the gamblers and prostitutes who catered to them turned many a poor neighborhood into a danger zone for wives, children, and other non-drinkers. Selling booze was a highly profitable business, and urban politicians made sure to get their share. The muckraker Lincoln Steffens passed on the tale of a St. Louis wit who “nearly emptied one house of the municipal assembly by tipping a boy to rush in and call out: ‘Mister, your saloon is on fire.’”
The dry cause helped inspire a mass feminist movement: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which recruited close to 180,000 members in the late nineteenth century with appeals to protect home and country from the sinful liquor “traffic.” The WCTU had a broader agenda too, which included equal pay for equal work, prison reform, and public shelters for ex-prostitutes. Someday, predicted Frances Willard, the WCTU’s charismatic leader, “we might come up to the level where we can hear the cry of the world and help to hush it into peace, as a mother soothes the baby on her breast.” The Anti-Saloon League, an organization led by male ministers, forged the single-issue campaign, which started by banning liquor sales in localities and states and ended up with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. But female activists, in and out of the WCTU, were always critical to whatever victories the movement won. Most suffragists were also backers of prohibition and it is no accident that the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified just one year after the Eighteenth. “The slums will soon be only a memory,” exulted the evangelist Billy Sunday. “Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.” Hardly anyone imagined it would prove a ruinous failure.
Unfortunately, to document its downfall, Burns and Novick rely on clichéd images and a narrative of inevitability. The last two-thirds of the film—“A Nation of Scofflaws” and “A Nation of Hypocrites”—are riddled with snapshots of drinkers whooping it up at speakeasies, of government agents smashing barrels of beer and whiskey, and of bloody victims of gangland violence. Al Capone, in all his pudgy-faced ruthlessness, becomes the star of the show. By the time Herbert Hoover gets quoted calling prohibition “the noble experiment” during his 1928 campaign, I was definitely ready for a drink. That Hoover won the election in a landslide, in part because of his stand, is left unexplained.
In retrospect, it is easy to conclude, as this film does, that prohibition was utterly unenforceable and that repeal was inevitable. But possession of marijuana has been illegal in the U.S. since 1937, and the millions of people who violate the law every day have done little to spur a change. What really brought down the dry army was the shift from a movement of idealists to a hapless government bureaucracy that lashed out at the swelling urban electorate of Catholics, Jews, and upper-class cosmopolites for not behaving like rural Protestants. As Harvard historian Lisa McGirr explains in a forthcoming study, ethnic workers reacted to the “unprecedented coercion of the state” by becoming “increasingly keen to access state power for themselves.” They succeeded with the election of FDR, who vowed in 1932 to speed repeal of the noxious “experiment.”
The right-to-life movement has not existed for a century, as did the dry army, but four decades after Roe v. Wade, its influence is formidable. Nearly every Republican office-holder and many a Democrat opposes abortion, and few physicians in red states will serve a woman who wants one. In many ways, the prohibition movement was the precursor to the anti-abortion battle. Right-to-lifers also view themselves as crusaders for both Christ and the family, most are avid church-goers and get backing from the pulpit, and they have the numbers and resources to keep battling into the distant future. Like the Anti-Saloon League, they have also followed a careful, state-by-state strategy of cutting off opportunities for engaging in what they view as sinful behavior.
As the history of prohibition instructs, the surest way to defeat the right-to-life movement would be to make abortion illegal. Not solely because it would give the movement what it wants, but also because a firm majority of Americans still support the right to choose in all or most circumstances—just as a majority back in the 1920s probably thought it was all right to buy a drink (the polling business did not yet exist). A reversal of Roe (much less a “pro-life” amendment) would quickly make heroes and heroines out of health workers who violated the law—much as this film, and most histories of the period, glamorize tipsy flappers and gangsters wielding submachine guns. The long history of prohibition unmistakably demonstrates that a divided public will quickly turn hostile when protestors with decent motives elect officials who carry out indecent assaults on individual freedom. In America, a movement of moralists is never so vulnerable as when it succeeds.
Michael Kazin’s latest book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent.