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Burns and Novick’s Prohibition: Lantzer on Episode Three

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editors’ note: Prohibition, the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, concluded last night.  We’re very pleased to bring Points readers a review of the third episode from historian Jason Lantzer (more on Jason here at the Guest Bloggers page).  Readers may also wish to check out David Fahey on Episode One and Episode Two, and Frankie Bailey on Episode Two.

By the time viewers reach episode three of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition, they have been transported from the early nineteenth century when temperance was but a dream for a nation awash in drink, to the mid-1920s when Prohibition was in place.  The theme is “a nation of hypocrites,” detailing how the United States wrestled with the “noble experiment” and ultimately decided to put it to an end.  And befitting a conclusion, the episode draws many parallels with the Age of Prohibition and our present one.  Whether that is enough for viewers is another question entirely.

Prohibition Repeal Headline

As with any Burns miniseries, the viewer gets the full treatment.  Hollywood actors provide the voices for the narration.  Historians and experts are utilized to great effect.  Period photographs and music dominate the screen.  It is well packaged and delivered, and a pleasure to watch.  But that does not mean there is not room to offer a critique.  For starters, the episode feels rushed.  Perhaps it was simply a desire for more on the part of this reviewer, and yet it seemed as though there was, and is, plenty of material to have crafted a fourth episode by expanding on the material covered at the end of episode two and the start of episode three, as well as developing repeal itself.

And that is something that should have been given more attention.  Here is what we have been building towards, and yet the complexity of ending the Eighteenth Amendment is short changed, because to wets at the time (who wished it to be so) and to us today (who live in a post-Prohibition world) it seems inevitable. And yet, wets and the Roosevelt administration invested a good deal of political time, talent, and treasure to making sure repeal happened.  Focusing on a state level battle might have been instructive.  For example, in Indiana, wets left little to chance.  Governor Paul McNutt worked with the Roosevelt administration to both plan the repeal vote (timed to dampen dry rural voters), and build support for the measure, both as a cure for the Depression (a fact that Burns and Novick do touch on) and via the threat of higher taxes if the Eighteenth Amendment is not repealed.

Digging a bit deeper might also have produced more conversation on the complex role of religion and para-church organizations (such as the ASL and the WCTU).  Not all drys were evangelical Protestants.  There were Catholics who supported the dry cause and those relationships were cultivated.  Discussing the role of dry Catholics, and indeed their struggle within both their church and (often) immigrant communities would have provided more nuance.  More also could have been made out of the aging leadership of groups like the ASL; indeed perhaps this is why drys were so reluctant to compromise, or unable to affectively counter the wets in the end.  It might also have raised important questions about what evangelical Protestantism was, is, and would soon become, as well as the role of denominations in politics.

Another area that could have been explored more was that of the international dry crusade.  Indeed, there was virtually no mention of Prohibition’s international context throughout the series, including the World League Against Alcoholism.  The rise and fall of the international dry crusade would have offered some crucial context and perspective to what was occurring in the United States both before and during repeal.

World League Against Alcoholism

Not all the blanks filled in

A further critique is that the final episode focuses too much on New York and Chicago.  This is a trap that befalls many commentators.  In part, it is only natural.  The sources and stories from these metropolitan areas are so rich and riveting.  And yet, neither New York nor Chicago is all that representative of the nation at the time.  To many urban dwellers, as the episode correctly points out, Prohibition was a vast mistake (indeed, this is largely the theme of Daniel Okrent’s companion book).  But to many Americans, both in the cities and in the countryside, the dry cause made perfect sense.  Their voice is largely lost in the third episode.

So, does Prohibition succeed?  As someone who has spent time researching and writing about the dry cause, anything that draws attention to the topic, especially something on the national stage of a Ken Burns feature for PBS is a good thing.  While far from comprehensive, and like any documentary series (or book for that matter) having its flaws, ultimately it is a nice place to being a discussion about both the past and the present.

Ken Burns Prohibition: It's a Good Thing

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