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How successful was Prohibition?

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                                          How successful was prohibition ?            

                                                                                                                                                 (30 marks)

Prohibition, considering the goals it set out to achieve , was largely unsuccessful. However initially it did manage to decrease alcohol consumption , created new jobs  needed to enforce prohibition and found in 1934 Alcoholics Anonymous a ,voluntary effort program that  succeeded in helping alcoholics. On January 16th, 1920, prohibition was introduced nationally by the 18th amendment which banned the sale, transportation and manufacture of intoxicating liquor with the general purpose of reducing alcohol consumption. It was considered, by mainly protestant groups, that alcohol was the source of social problems, thus by banning it their goals was to reduce crime, corruption, reduce tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses , and improve health  and hygiene in America. By the end of the 1920s, with booming illegal trade in alcohol, it was evident that the ‘’noble experiment’’ had largely failed to achieve it goals.    

Making alcohol illegal naturally lead to a deficiency in supply and a rise in its price which made it available only to a limited section of society and caused an initial decrease in consumption. However the sudden shift meant that demand still existed –old stock Americans and newly arrived immigrants refused to abandon drinking. As alcohol became a luxury item increasing its appeal and demand to young people. Non-drinkers were also targeted as a means of improving sales due to the obvious profits to be made. This meant that by 1922 consumption began to rise steadily reaching the amount of 1.2 gallons of alcohol per capita 1923, a huge leap compared to the 0.8 gallons consumed in 1919 before prohibition.

Driven by the opportunity to satisfy demand and make a profit a network of illegal bootleggers and speakeasies emerged. A research conducted uncovered twice as many speak easies in Rochester, New York, as saloons closed by Prohibition. In this sense prohibition could have increased demand by increasing the availability of alcohol. Due to the hidden and small nature of speakeasies, authorities lost the legal control over the locations of drinking establishments with which previously they had been able to keep record thanks to local ordinances , taxes and licensing laws and regulations. Prohibition not only eliminated these political tools but wiped a whole industry over night forcing it underground and out of the control of authorities. Hence Prohibition failed to achieve its main goal of preventing the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol.

 The ready availability of alcohol meant that buying it was easier. Prohibitionist wanted to eliminate poverty, by preventing people from  buying alcohol .Ironically spending on alcohol increased as demand for alcohol spread to other groups other than the traditional drinkers. In addition spending on substitutes for alcohol increased, including drugs such as marijuana, hashish, and narcotics. These products had potentially more harmful effects ,resulting in addiction and health problems. Obtaining these often brought users into contact with dangerous criminal elements and in cases it would bring them to commit crimes in order to procure them. Thus prohibition neither reduced poverty nor improved health, on the contrary it left many jobless pushing them towards crime and it did nothing to improve productivity or reduce absenteeism.

In fact the ‘’noble experiment’’ transformed the vast majority of the population into criminals, while destroying legal jobs and creating a black-market environment that breed violence. Alcohol was now more expensive but people continued to buy it , pushing many to commit  thefts and burglaries which increased by 9 %. A study of 30 major U.S cities revealed the number of crimes increased b 24 % between 1920 and 1921. Naturally as consumption increased, arrests for drunkenness and drunk driving also increased by 41% and 81 % respectively. Homicides and incidents of assault and battery increased by 13 %.Prisons were soon flooded to capacity, convicts reached 26,589 by 1932 compared to only 4,000 before prohibition. This created a strain on the legal system, crippled it could not function to enforce the law. This proved not only that the tax burden of prisons and poorhouses increased but also that it failed to reduce crime.

In effect, prohibition led to the organisation of crime. The easy profit and the increased demand for liquor provided an incentive for criminal groups to organise themselves around structure themselves so as to increase supply efficiency and better handle demand. The infamous Al Capone ,a mob boss, is estimated to have made $70 million worth of business. As the illegal businesses expanded, gangs began to encroach on each other’s territory pushing other groups to resort to violence to defend their sale territories, brand names and labour contracts. This resulted in gang violence or ‘turf wars’ , with Capone building an army of 700 gangsters that committed over 300 in Chicago, of which the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 is the most famous. The wealth and power accumulated by gangs allowed them to control politicians, like the Mayor of Chicago ‘Big Bill’ Thompson , so that they could function unmolested in the city. Thus prohibition did not solve the proposed problem but created a new intractable one, with the added failure of increasing corruption.

As the difficulty to effect prohibition increased so did the force necessary to enforce it. The influence and size of government agencies increased as more personnel was employed , between 1920 and 1930 the hiring rate at the Customs Service increased by 45 % and that of the Coast Guard by 188%.This and the establishing of the Bureau Of Prohibition , benefitted many by creating new jobs. On the other hand , the spending and resources dedicated to the enforcement of Prohibition greatly increased . The annual budget of the Bureau of Prohibition went from 4.4 million to 13.4 million during the 1920s.This had to be done without he valuable tax revenue from legal drinking establishments, it resulted in a deficit as more had to be done with less. The fact was the government could not commit sufficient resources to enforce Prohibition.

Indeed Prohibition became a major cause and focus for corruption unintentionally distancing it self from its goals and making it almost impossible to enforce. The Bureau of Prohibition was particularly susceptible to corrupting influences and had to reorganise itself to reduce it. Between 1920 and 1930 , about 10% of Prohibition agents were fined for corruption . Federal agents were not paid enough, an average of $2500 , when bootleggers , moonshiners, crime bosses and speakeasies owners paid them double to look the other way. One Federal agent was said to have made $7 million selling illegal licenses and pardons to bootleggers.  Thus  Prohibition did not defeat corruption but was a breeding ground for it.  

There were serious limitations to the enforcement of prohibition, the geographical size of the U.S made it difficult to track down bootleggers, identify speakeasies and prevent the smuggling of alcohol. Furthermore the demographic size meant that the 2,500 Treasury agents hired were insufficient.  The law also contained gaps which bootleggers  took advantage of, such as the fact that chemists could still sell alcohol on doctor’s prescriptions .Prohibition’s limited success can be attributed to the unprecedented nature of the law which posed problems and difficulties that authorities were unprepared to tackle.  

 The evidence shows that Prohibition far from solving social problems, it exacerbated them. It achieved few of the goals it set out to meet, and on the way became a platform for organised crime and corruption . The  Assistant Secretary Of the Treasury stated ‘’...conspiracies are nation wide in extent, in great numbers , organised well financed, and cleverly conducted’’ which demonstrates the reasons why prohibition was so difficult to enforce. However it give birth to successful voluntary efforts such as Alcoholic Anonymous and created new jobs , but most importantly it served as a valuable experience. However the damaging effects of prohibition far exceeded the expected benefits of reduced consumption which never materialized anyway. Perhaps the strongest indicator of its failure is the fact that it has been the only constitutional amendment to have been repealed.  

This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our AS and A Level History of the USA, 1840-1968 section.


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Response to the question

The student answers the question in the opening sentence and immediately summarises the reasons for and against the view that Prohibition was a success, which shows straight away they understand exactly what they have been asked. This means that one ...

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Response to the question

The student answers the question in the opening sentence and immediately summarises the reasons for and against the view that Prohibition was a success, which shows straight away they understand exactly what they have been asked. This means that one or two mistakes further on are more likely to be ignored because the student has already demonstrated their knowledge. The student is not general or empty at any point in the essay (they avoid using statements like "This led to many changes.") which shows that they know and understand enough to write a detailed essay. However, the essay is one-sided as it mostly gives reasons why Prohibition was a failure: while this is probably true, you have to write a substantial amount about both sides of the argument, because it shows you are thinking about and understanding Prohibition deeply enough to know there is more than one possible explanation for historical events. You must also do this to get above half marks in many mark schemes. A good way to achieve this is to structure the essay in the format: introduction > reasons for > reasons against > conclusion. This way, you will definitely get both sides in, and then you just have to focus on choosing the relevant evidence. It is good to say "The Assistant Secretary of the Treasury stated..." as it shows an awareness of what other people have thought, but it would be even better to name the person you are quoting because this shows you have read around the subject.

Level of analysis

The student uses an appropriate range of evidence that at times shows a very deep understanding of the subject. In the second paragraph, the comparison between the numbers of gallons in various years is good because it tells the examiner that the student knows what makes one figure a big leap in consumption and what makes another figure a small leap. The essay avoids mentioning lots of details about what happened in each event/person - for example, a worse version of the essay would have used two or three sentences talking about unnecessary details such as Al Capone's life story, when in fact the examiners are looking for why Al Capone did what he did and the effects it had, which is what this essay discusses. The conclusion is excellent as it balances the reasons for and against the view, even though the reasons for the view aren't considered in as much detail in the essay as a whole (see section 1). A particularly good aspect of the conclusion is the last sentence - "Perhaps the strongest indicator of its failure is the fact that it has been the only constitutional amendment to have been repealed." - because it places one reason above all the others, showing that the student is able to assess the pros and cons of the reasons and judge which is the most important. By pointing out that it was the "only" one repealed, they say why. It could be made even better by saying "the only one ever to be repealed", as "ever" would show an awareness of the significance of the event in the broader context of American history - examiners like to see specific knowledge placed in a broad context.

Quality of writing

This student is particularly good at using vocabulary in a subtle way to demonstrate their understanding. By using the word "naturally" in "Making alcohol illegal naturally lead to a deficiency in supply", they are suggesting they understand why there was a deficiency: the student is right not to explain exactly why it was natural because it isn't an economics essay, and a history student is not expected to know detailed information on why supply can become deficient. But if the sentence didn't have "naturally", it would sound like the student was retelling how it happened, and examiners are looking for students to say why things happened, so try to occasionally drop in words like "naturally", "clearly" and "obviously" that show you fully understand what you are discussing. Spelling, grammar and punctuation are generally quite good but could be improved in places: in "creating a black-market environment that breed violence." "breed" should be "bred". Getting perfect spelling is not necessarily a must to get good marks, but it makes the essay easier to read: if he or she doesn't have to spend time trying to work out what you are saying, the examiner can spend more time looking at the examples you've learnt or the argument you've created, so always check your work to make sure it makes sense. The style of writing is excellent: there is no informality, which is good because the student is writing about a serious historical debate.

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Reviewed by lordharvey 13/04/2012

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