Lisa McGirr Discusses ‘The War on Alcohol’ and the Legacy of Prohibition

Historians in the News
tags: Prohibition



America has been awash in Prohibition-era nostalgia of late, with speakeasy-style bars, artisanal moonshine and “bootlegger balls” proliferating from New York to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Los Angeles, where revelers in period dress will pack that city’s 1930s Union Station to ring in the New Year.

But in her new book, “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State” (W. W. Norton), the historian Lisa McGirr tells anything but a nostalgic story. The 18th Amendment, she argues, didn’t just give rise to vibrant night life and colorful, Hollywood-ready characters, like Isidor Einstein, New York’s celebrated “Prohibition Agent No. 1.” More enduringly, and tragically, it also radically expanded the federal government’s role in law enforcement, with consequences that can be seen in the crowded prisons of today.

In The New York Times Book Review, James A. Morone writes that the book “could have a major impact on how we read American political history.” In a recent email interview, Ms. McGirr, a professor at Harvard, discussed Prohibition’s political legacy, the surprising enforcement role of the Ku Klux Klan and the character from her story she’d most like to have a drink with. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. The popular image of Prohibition is one of flappers, speakeasies and gangsters. What’s wrong with that picture?

A. Prohibition has been largely mined for its sensationalist entertainment value. Many chronicles have emphasized Prohibition’s vast inadequacies, and in some ways it was laughable. The government came nowhere near to eradicating the liquor traffic. But the very attempt had enormous and lasting consequences. ...




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