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The wets vs the drys – America’s Prohibition experiment

Prohibition peephole.
Prohibition peephole.
Tribune Archive photo

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In the modern era of liquor on billboards and beer commercials dominating the Super Bowl, it may seem strange that at the turn of the last century alcohol was outlawed completely in the United States.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick address this “Noble Experiment” in their new documentary Prohibition. Growing out of the temperance movement championed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carry Nation and others, a national effort from the Anti-Saloon League was realized with the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919.

Originally meant to act as a way of legislating human behavior and increasing common decency in America, prohibition eventually ushered in one of the most tumultuous and corrupt periods in the nation’s history. A tense conflict arose between “wets,” who supported the use of alcohol, and “drys,” who were fans of its prohibition. Due to the criminal element now associated with the manufacture and partaking of alcohol, neighborhood gangs grew into national organizations, government officials often fell prey to bribes, and individual citizens had to grapple with the hypocrisy and corruption pervading society.


Why exactly did Prohibition fail? What lessons can we take from that time period? Is it ever possible to control human behavior through legislation? Would you like a drink?


Ken Burns, Documentary Filmmaker for PBS