“The paradox of Prohibition was that it required intrusive enforcement from a government equipped to deliver only sporadic interventions…”

The paradox of Prohibition was that it required intrusive enforcement from a government equipped to deliver only sporadic interventions; the results could be both ineffective and brutal. The Prohibition Unit, a new agency within the U.S. Treasury, was given only three thousand employees, which was a small number relative to the size of the country but a big one relative to the size of the federal government—at the time, the agency that became the Federal Bureau of Investigation had only six hundred employees. Federal Prohibition agents sometimes increased their ranks by deputizing volunteers, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, who found the battle to enforce Prohibition consistent with their broader mission to purify the nation. In 1923, in Williamson County, Illinois, hundreds of enforcers, many of them Klansmen, began a series of violent raids on distilleries, bars, and private homes, in which several hundred people were arrested and more than a dozen were killed.

Three Republican Presidents—Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Hoover—held office during Prohibition, and all of them were willing, if not eager, to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment. (During the 1928 Presidential campaign, Hoover issued an exquisitely equivocal pronouncement: “Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose. It must be worked out constructively.”) As bootleggers and smugglers took control of the alcohol industry, crime increased, or seemed to—breathless news reports about brazen gangsters left an exaggerated impression of the uptick in violence. McGirr notes that Hoover was the first President to mention crime in his Inaugural Address, which helped establish the idea, now commonplace, that law enforcement was a matter of urgent federal concern. The response was the construction of a bigger, more sophisticated, more intrusive federal criminal-justice system. J. Edgar Hoover got the money and the impunity to build his F.B.I.; the government established a national archive of criminals’ fingerprints; overwhelmed prosecutors learned to use plea bargaining to avoid trials; the Supreme Court ruled that government agents didn’t need a warrant to conduct wiretaps. McGirr views these and other developments as reactions to the “extreme stress” caused by Prohibition, a big task that made the federal government suddenly seem small.

Kelefa Sanneh, “Drunk With Power” The New Yorker (21 & 28 December 2015), 108.