“A Greater Problem for Us”: War and Temperance

It took over two months for Our Youth, the youth ministry periodical of the Swedish Baptist General Conference (it dropped the first adjective in 1945, so I’ll generally stick with BGC as the acronym for this blog), to acknowledge that a second World War had begun in Europe. And when that notice finally came in mid-November 1939, it took a surprising form:

War again dominates the headlines of American newspapers and is conversational subject No. 1. As usual, however, Americans are simply straining the gnat and swallowing the camel.

So wrote columnist Haddon E. Klingberg, fretting that there “is a greater problem for us than an European or even a World War. But we are so intent on studying the movements of men and events three thousand miles away that we fail to see what goes on about us….”

What problem could have been greater than the onset of WWII?

On my desk, is a paragraph which reads: “In the United States, there are today engaged in the manufacture and sale of beverage alcohol more women and girls than we had men in the world war.”

Women and men drinking in a bar in Louisiana, 1938

Women and men drinking beer in a Louisiana bar, 1938 – Wikimedia

It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished.

The New York Times, calling for the legalization of marijuana this past Sunday

The notion that the prohibition of alcohol was a colossal failure has become such a commonplace that it’s hard to understand just how powerful the temperance movement was in the early 20th century. “[T]he mightiest pressure group in the nation’s history”  is how Daniel Okrent describes the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in his popular history of Prohibition, Last Call. Led by the tireless, ruthless Wayne B. Wheeler. (“…imagine Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, but older and shorter, and carrying on his slight frame a suit, a waistcoat, and, his followers believed, the fate of the Republic,” suggests Okrent) the ASL enjoyed the support — and influenced the voting patterns — of millions of churchgoing Americans.

Okrent, Last CallThat includes most of the members of the Swedish Baptist General Conference of America. At the 1917 meeting of the BGC, delegates resolved to

urgently implore our churches and individual members to vigilantly stay in the fight and to co-operate with the Anti-Saloon League and work hand in hand with all sane temperance forces so as to maintain our captured trenches and make our positions secure and our ultimate goal—a saloon-less and temperate nation—a question of only a very short time.

The use of Western Front language underscores the hopes of temperance advocates in 1917: that World War I would hasten the prohibition of alcohol. They employed an array of arguments, none more effective than when they questioned the patriotism of the largely German-American brewers.

We have German enemies across the water. We have German enemies in this country too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.

John Strange, former lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, February 1918

Writing in The Christian Century later in 1918, Disciples of Christ minister Alva Taylor urged fellow temperance advocates to take advantage of the war and “organize the world for the final battle on Kaiser Alcohol; let us bury the two Kaisers in the same grave.” In that piece, he quoted widely publicized comments from Gen. John J. Pershing, the senior American military commander in Europe:

Banish the entire liquor industry from the United States; close every saloon, every brewery; suppress drinking by severe punishment to the drinker, and if necessary by death to the seller, or the maker, or both as traitors, and the nation will suddenly find itself amazed at its efficiency and startled at the increase of its labor supply. I shall not go slow on prohibition, for I know what is the greatest foe to my men, greater even than the bullets of the enemy.

Indeed, the government progressively eliminated (“for the duration” of the war, at least) the sale of alcohol to soldiers, the importation and then production of spirits, and the sale of liquor within five miles of naval bases. (This was not enough for the BGC, whose delegates complained that “our government did not find it expedient to prohibit the whole traffic in liquor during the progress of this war.”) Years before he became the last American president to support Prohibition, Herbert Hoover used the power of the new U.S. Food Administration to slash the amount of grain available to brewers by 30%. (The British government had earlier established a Central Control Board to regulate consumption and production of alcohol. Robert Duncan’s Pubs and Patriots: The Drink Crisis in Britain during World War I is the most recent study of the topic.)

William Jennings Bryan linking patriotism and prohibition in a New Year's 1918 editorial

“So much greater is their passion for dollars than their patriotism that [those engaged in the liquor traffic] would, if they could, make drunkards of the entire army, and leave us defenseless before a foreign foe.” William Jennings Bryan argues for the 18th Amendment in a Lincoln, Nebraska newspaper on New Year’s Day, 1918 – Chronicling America, Library of Congress

While Okrent allows that a wartime increase in liquor taxes “in effect made the purchase of alcoholic beverages in the early days of World War I a patriotic act” (p. 98), it’s clear that the war did much to boost the cause of the ASL (whose leader maneuvered to have Congress investigate German-American disloyalty) and its allies. (Okrent dismisses the argument — made by the “wets” of the time — that Prohibition came into effect because the two million soldiers deployed to France were unable to vote it down. No small number of them were “dry” and/or under the age of 21.)

In 1919, after the states had ratified the Eighteenth Amendment and as Congress prepared to debate the legislation that would implement the prohibition of the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” the Swedish Baptist General Conference resolved

to express its joy and satisfaction for the permanent elimination of the curse of drink, and to recommend to all our churches and people a continued loyal support of the Anti-Saloon League, the organization that has been the dominating factor toward the happy solution of this issue, and especially to the League’s endeavor to secure enforcement legislation sure and permanent, and to insure the strictest enforcement of the Eighteenth amendment. We warn our people to be on guard, lest in the last minute some fruits of the victory be lost. We therefore urge our people to co-operate with every agency and movement for the enforcement of prohibition.

1922 Swedish Prohibition poster

Swedish-American Baptists lamented that their homeland did not embrace temperance. This prohibition poster supported the losing side in a 1922 referendum – Royal Swedish Library

Strong opposition to “King [or Kaiser] Alcohol” also prevailed at the Swedish Baptists’ educational institutions. Bethel president G. Arvid Hagstrom was a staunch advocate of Prohibition. When a new restaurant opened just down the street from the campus, Bethel Academy principal A.J. Wingblade spied on the establishment and reported back to Hagstrom that it was a “speakeasy.” Bethel Seminary dean Carl Lagergren had edited a temperance newsletter back in Sweden. As repeal of the 18th Amendment was debated in 1932, Bethel hosted “dry” speakers like a local businessmen whose October 1932 chapel talk “knocked down prop after prop of the wet’s arguments.” (For more on the pro-temperance position within the BGC and Bethel — and its roots in the undeniably serious problems created by alcohol consumption in 19th century Sweden and America — see this October 2013 post at my personal blog.)

Nevertheless, the “wets” won the day, as the enforcement of Prohibition both reduced alcohol consumption and greatly boosted criminal activity. Only five states had ratified the Twenty-First Amendment when the BGC met in June 1933, but the “evident sentiment in favor” of repeal could not be ignored. Prohibition was dead by the time the denomination met again a year later, causing delegates to decry how their “young people are constantly tempted by the open sale and clever advertisement of liquor.”

Hence *Haddon Klingberg’s 1939 editorial in Our Youth. Though he’s among the key figures quoted by Taylor Ferda in his study of BGC opposition to American intervention in World War II, two months into the war Klingberg could see one potentially positive result of the war: “Though we shudder to think of unfurling the Stars and Stripes on another battle field, perhaps war would return us to sane deliberation of” the problem of alcohol. And then he quoted Pershing’s support for prohibition: “…for I know what is the greatest foe to my men, greater even than the bullets of the enemy.”

*Klingberg, incidentally, was the son of John Eric Klingberg, founder of one of the most important Swedish Baptist institutions: the Klingberg Children’s Home, which Haddon took over on his father’s death in 1946. Haddon Klingberg, Jr. became a long-serving psychology professor at North Park University in Chicago.

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