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Last Call

By Daniel Okrent

Last Call

You can view this book's Amazon detail page here.


Started reading:
13th January 2011
Finished reading:
2nd June 2011


Rating: Unrated

Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is not an easy read. However, it is well worth the effort and the reader will be rewarded with a new perspective on an era of American history that shaped many of today’s institutions. The diifculty with Last Call is not with Okrent’s style or writing expertise but rather the breadth of the prohibition subject and his thorough treatment. The implementation of national prohibition, its enforcement and then repeal touched the entire nation (and international relations) cutting across economic segments for almost 14 years. It is still the only constitutional amendment (18th) to be repealed (21st).
Last Call is an enlightening account of how a small fringe organization (ASL, Anti-Saloon League) led by a savvy political operative (Wayne Wheeler) orchestrated a masterful prohibition strategy. The ASL strategy of targeting key congressional districts with vulnerable incumbents, alone, would not have swung the country. However, in politics timing is everything, Wayne Wheeler and the ASL happened on the scene at the right time to capitalize on historic changes sweeping the country.
For example, Wheeler expertly aligned the ASL with growing women’s suffrage movement. The 19th amendment was passed a year after prohibition. Further, the ASL was aided in the early campaigns against the large brewers (Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Schlitz) by anti-German (and later anti-immigarant) sentiments from WWI. Finally, the nation’s demographics were changing. Rural population was in dramatic decline as the cities grew at an unprecedented rate driven greatly by immigration. In summary, the confluence of all these forces makes for quite a compelling story.
Of course, the story only gets more interesting once prohibition takes affect in early 1919. For the next decade, battles between “wets” and “drys” were waged on the streets and US borders across the country. Again, it was a confluence of events that brought an end to prohibition. In 1927 the ASL lost its commanding force when Wayne Wheeler died. Of course, prohibition was the law by constitution amendment and no amendment had ever been repealed. But, gradually there was a recognition that prohibition was doing more harm than good. Large crime organizations were created and financed by the massive illegal trade. Millions of ordinary citizens were becoming criminals for simply wanting an easily obtained drink. The final death knell for prohibition was the stock market crash and economic depression. Prohibition and the 16th amendment had revolutionized government finances. Gone were excise taxes on alcohol to be replaced by income taxes. But, with the depression income tax revenue dropped precipitously and the Government needed all the revenue sources it could find. To put the financial implications in perspective, in 1929 “Canadian revenue liquor export tax revenues accounted for 20 percent of all Canadian revenue collections, both federal and provisional.” This represented twice as much as Canadian income taxes. Of course these revenues were coming from the pockets of American consumers in the purchase price of the illegally imported (but legally exported from Canada) alcohol.
Last Call is necessary reading for anyone that wishes to be knowledagble on the 20th century history of the US and the major forces that have shaped our country.