America’s “Mission Accomplished” Syndrome

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Mr. Williams teaches government, economics, and English at the Miami Valley Career Technology Center ( His latest book is 10 Great People, Places & Inventions and his article "King of the Bootleggers: The Rise and Fall of George Remus" appears in the current issue of Timeline magazine.

Recent events have highlighted a flaw in the American political system:  our tendency to declare “mission accomplished” after achieving what is merely the first step in a long process.  Passage of a law or amendment, victory in a war or election, the signing of a treaty or the launch of a new program is often seen as an end in itself.  Having completed Chapter One but assuming we have finished the book, we move on to the next controversy.  Meanwhile, the original problem continues to fester and only recaptures our attention if it flares into a major crisis.

To a degree, this flaw was built into our system by its Founders.  The Constitution divides power so thoroughly among the branches and the different levels of government that it is difficult to piece together a coalition to achieve major change, especially on issues where no single position commands a clear majority.  When the task of constructing such a coalition is seen as Herculean, its achievement is celebrated as though it marked the solution of the problem itself.  Then we often fail to follow through on solutions with the energy and wisdom it took to first reach consensus.  The work of administration, oversight, and, most crucial of all, adjusting our approach to deal with the realities of its application holds the attention of only a few.  These few tend to be lobbyists, bureaucrats, and other insiders who know that the real business of government continues long after the photo ops have ended.

This flaw is not new nor is it impossible to overcome.  One movement that sought to change American society by amending the Constitution was the effort to prohibit alcohol as a beverage.  The Anti-Saloon League worked through both major parties and pioneered many techniques used by modern-day interest groups.  The League divided constituencies and focused on states and districts where its efforts could make or break a candidate.  It sponsored local option laws that encouraged citizens to vote many cities, counties and 26 states “dry” by 1917.  Prohibition advocates capitalized on the overheated patriotism and xenophobia brought on by World War I to secure ratification of the 18th Amendment by early 1919.

The amendment itself was a set of vaguely worded principles upon which a coalition of interests could agree.  It outlawed “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors . . . for beverage purposes . . ,” but failed to define what “intoxicating liquors” were.  Consumption was not madeillegal.  Further, it implied that liquor could be distilled, transported, and sold for non-beverage purposes without defining those purposes either.  Although broad and bipartisan, the consensus behind the 18th Amendment was shallow and unfocused.  Americans wanted to solve the problems of alcohol abuse and the poorly regulated corner saloon.  However, there had been little discussion and even less agreement about how prohibiting the sale of alcohol would be enforced to achieve these goals.

Congress followed up with the notorious Volstead Act.  Drafted just months before Prohibition was due to go into effect, it passed with scant debate in Congress or the press.  It defined intoxicating liquor as any that contained at least one half of one percent alcohol, outlawing even the weakest beer and wine.  Congress chose to save money and protect property rights instead of tackling one problem head on.  The government would neither seize nor destroy the millions of gallons of spirits that sat in American warehouses.  Instead of compensating distillers, brewers, and vintners for the loss of their markets, it allowed a trickle to be sold legally for medicine or as sacrificial wine for religious ceremonies.  Little money was set aside to enforce prohibition at the federal level because state and local governments had been given “concurrent power” to enforce the 18th Amendment and were expected to pitch in.  Because the Anti-Saloon League distrusted federal employees protected by civil service laws, enforcement would be led by prohibition commissioners who were political appointees.  Overconfidence and narrow-minded planning plagued the Volstead Act.

While dry forces congratulated themselves on their victory, others worked to profit from their errors.  Organized crime gangs jumped at the opportunity, but law abiding citizens were tempted as well.  George Remus, a lawyer and former pharmacist, studied the Volstead Act and realized he could exploit it to achieve his wildest dreams of wealth.  He purchased the contents of distillery warehouses at bargain prices and sold the liquor to his own phony wholesale drug companies.  Once authorities figured out his shell game he was flush with the bootlegging profits needed to buy their silence.  By October 1920 he was shipping liquor at the rate of 18 railroad cars at a time and distributing bribes like a department store Santa handing out candy canes.  Soon the Attorney General of the United States was on his payroll.  Mabel Walker Willebrandt, an assistant Attorney General who faithfully enforced the law, wrote that Remus and others like him had tapped into what she dubbed “the Big Leak.”  Economists might say they had simply reconnected the demand of a thirsty public to its domestic supply.

Penalties were toughened, more agents were hired, and, in 1927, civil service protection was extended to prohibition commissioners.  Despite these changes, bootleggers remained a step ahead of the law.  Prohibition enforcement made drinking more expensive and dangerous, as well as more exciting and fashionable, but it did not achieve its goal.  In some parts of the country alcohol consumption declined, along with the rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related accidents, but Prohibition changed America in ways its supporters had not imagined.  It deprived federal, state and local governments of revenue, increased their expenditures, clogged the court system, handed a sector of the economy to organized crime, and fostered unprecedented disrespect and defiance of the law.

Ultimately, Prohibition failed due to a combination of factors.  The fragility of the coalition needed to pass legislation led to wording that was vague and fraught with loopholes.  Confident that embedding prohibition within the Constitution would produce a change in behavior, dry advocates underestimated the impact of a highly motivated minority determined to defy the new law.  Enforcement was woefully short of manpower, money, and effective strategies.  The success of bootleggers aided by the corruption of officials encouraged further defiance of the law.  No one, including the federal government, gets a second chance to make a first impression.

The Civil Rights struggle of the 1950’s and 1960’s provides a powerful example of how to overcome the flaw in question.  However, most histories of this era repeat the pattern of mistaking early victories for desired results.  The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional could have languished had it not been enforced by the executive branch.  Facing down the united opposition of state officials and the white majority, in 1957 President Eisenhower used federal troops to protect African American students entering Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Eisenhower would have found it difficult to not extend this support because a mass movement of African American citizens had already seized the moral high ground with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an effort that secured yet another Supreme Court decision condemning segregation.

The story of the heroic era of the civil rights movement usually ends with the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  The reality is that the struggle was not yet over, and those in the movement knew it.  Similar legislation had passed a century before during Reconstruction and had died while still on the books for lack of the broad support needed to change American society.  The speeches, marches, sit ins, boycotts, and freedom rides had energized a generation of activists determined to breathe life into the new legislation and bring change to their own communities.  Real victory came thanks to countless battles against entrenched opposition fought in local, state, and federal courtrooms, school boards, corporations, privately owned companies and public and private institutions throughout America.  The new civil rights laws were not trophies but tools that lost their edge if not used.  The movement changed attitudes and behaviors not just laws. 

Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. forged coalitions not merely to pass legislation but to carry it out as well.  Outlawing discrimination based on sex, religion, and national origin as well as on race and color, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not simply reward allies but invited them to broaden the movement and maintain its momentum for change.  Using the template of public protest established by African Americans, women, Native Americans, Latinos, and an array of religious and social minorities added their shoulders to the effort to break through the barriers that divided American society.  These movements, which flourished after 1964, demonstrated that mass citizen involvement was needed to realize new rights as well as to create them.  Despite all the celebrated “firsts”, progress on civil rights has not been free of setbacks, contention or error, but few Americans would argue that the mission was accomplished by 1965 and that we as a people would be better off if we could turn back the clock to then.

No victory is secure unless American citizens stay involved to ensure that our public officials follow through, with both energy and wisdom.  The business of government is far too important to be left to the “experts.” 


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Maarja Krusten - 8/5/2008

Interesting account of prohibition, an area I’ve never looked at closely.

I don’t recall ever seeing a history book about the civil rights era that “repeat[s] the pattern of mistaking early victories for desired results.” I’m not an expert in that subject but the books I’ve read about it don’t take such an approach.

I’m not sure who the we is that Mr. Williams refers to in the opening paragraph. Is it legislators, executive branch officials tasked with implementing laws and regulations, other stakeholders, or the public generally?

There are areas in which a “mission accomplished” approach may cause problems if it leads stakeholders to ignore what is happening. For example, having once been an employee of the National Archives, I cannot say the Nixon records statute – the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) --worked according to legislative intent. As I’ve described in my articles on HNN, the “full truth” about Watergate was not released “at the earliest reasonable date” as required but only some 20 years after the events had unfolded. By then, Nixon no longer was alive. As far as I can tell, that the National Archives did not release the information sooner has not caused any scholars to raise their eyebrows. You can go back over four or five years worth of HNN essays or postings about that issue and see the lack of engagement by scholars.

Carefully crafted regulatory procedures for considering Nixon’s claims against release of materials the government had marked for opening were used only once, in 1987. In fact, by 1992, the Department of Justice claimed in pleadings that Nixon had a “consultative” and “collaborative” relationship with the National Archives. This, too, did not appear to be an area of concern for historians in general.

In a lawsuit brought against the National Archives in 1992 by Professor Stanley Kutler, Public Citizen provided its views on the relationship:

"While the Archives characterizes the relationship between Mr. Nixon and the Archives as a 'consultative relationship,' under the Archives' regulations, former President Nixon does not serve as a consultant to assist the agency in its processing of the Nixon materials. Rather, he is a potential challenger of the Archives' processing decisions. . . It is hard to imagine someone who is more of a past and potential adversary of the Archives. . . it is in the context of such litigation threats that Mr. Nixon is attempting to influence archival decisions, as is borne out by the Mortenson Declaration, which confirms that Mr. Nixon uses litigation threats as bargaining chips to convince the Archives to change its archival processing."

I’ve quoted the passage above in a number of comments on HNN over the years. Not a single scholar has reacted to it.

As I’ve come to understand that the National Archives works through such issues alone, with little or no engagement by its customers, I’ve changed my views of regulatory and statutory requirements. For years, I’ve tried to encourage scholars to take a close look at what it is that makes implementation of Presidential records statutes so hard for the creators of records and for those tasked with opening them. I’ve seen no debates on the subject on HNN and in others historians' forums.

Mr. Williams concludes that “No victory is secure unless American citizens stay involved to ensure that our public officials follow through, with both energy and wisdom. The business of government is far too important to be left to the ‘experts.’” But what if former experts such as I ask for engagement but find little among stakeholders?

Perhaps the silence on Presidential records reflects a view among scholars that the “mission was accomplished” in 1974 and 1978 when legislators passed PRMPA and the Presidential records statute. If so, then I need to consider the impact of such an assumption – and I have.

While scholars are not engaged it the issues, former Presidents and the National Archives will continue to be so. (In matters of litigation, you have to consider the Archives alongside the Department of Justice, which speaks for it in court.) Of the three parties – the creators of records, those tasked with opening them, and researchers -- one (scholars) largely is inactive and passive in these matters. That being the case, I’ve come to believe that it might be best to abandon the early release provisions embodied in the post-Watergate records laws. Trying to enforce the PRMPA brought a great deal of turmoil to the National Archives. If there is little concern as to whether public officials can make the statutory and regulatory provisions work, perhaps it’s best to make it easier on former Presidents and on the National Archives and just seal White House records for some 30 years after a President leaves office.