Reviews

 
 

Beerly Legal
by Samuel McCracken

 
 

Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City
by Michael A. Lerner (Harvard University Press, 360 Pages, $28.95)

In 1929, the mayor of Berlin visited Manhattan and was reported to have jocularly asked Mayor Jimmy Walker when Prohibition, legally in effect since 1920, would begin. On the evidence of eye or tongue, no tourist, from Berlin or Mars, could have thought Manhattan dry.

New York was the perfect storm for the nullification of what in 1928 Herbert Hoover called “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose,” giving rise to the enduring misquotation “the Noble Experiment.” Hoover, highly intelligent and literate, claimed for Prohibition a noble intention, but he must have known that such intentions were often recycled as paving.

Prohibition’s roots were in the small towns. Among these was Westerville, Ohio, the headquarters of the quaintly named Anti-Saloon League. Your reviewer, who spent his first seven years in Westerville, remembers being dandled in the late 1930s on the knee of Howard Hyde Russell, the League’s founder, a kindly old gentleman still much honored there even after the calamity of Repeal. But the League’s lobbying operation was neither kindly nor quaint; brutal is the word. The League secured the Eighteenth Amendment by supporting legislators who could stagger to the floor and vote dry, and by defeating total abstainers, who voted wet.

New York was no Westerville: As a great city it was an improbable site to implement the social vision of the Westervilles, and, as the kind of city it was, an impossible one.

Michael A. Lerner ’89CC, an associate dean at Bard High School Early College, has written a lightly learned and perceptive account of Prohibition in New York that centers on the particularities of the city while casting informative light on Prohibition in general. As he makes clear, the fight over dry laws was to a large extent a civil war between the totally assimilated, almost deracinated, descendants of pre-Revolutionary immigrants and post-Revolutionary immigrants and their descendants.

New York was peopled by ethnic minorities (in aggregate, the majority) for whom the substances banned under the Volstead Act, the legislation enforcing the amendment, were woven into the quotidian fabric. Whether the ban was on wine (for the Italians and Jews), beer (for the Germans and Central Europeans), or whiskey (for the Irish), it represented an unexpected pothole in the golden pavement. Few New Yorkers wanted the experiment to succeed.

Last, there was the fact that except between April 5, 1921, and June 1, 1923, New York, unlike other states, had no Prohibition law of its own. The onus of enforcement was on the feds and the agents of the Bureau of Prohibition, who even when not outsourced to the Keystone Studios, were not models of probity: Some went so far as to open establishments and sell confiscated liquor. Although the bureau tried to enlist New York’s finest in the cause, results were mixed. Tammany Hall was wet. Moreover, Prohibition midwifed alluring venues for demon rum unimagined in Westerville. The saloon acquired a formidable and more elegant competitor.

“The variety of New York’s Prohibition-era drinking spots was mind boggling,” writes Lerner, with the most prolific form being the speakeasy, “a catch-all phrase for illegal bars ranging from cellar dives peddling 25-cent beers or 50-cent glasses of ‘smoke,’ to fancy townhouses in midtown outfitted with multiple bars, dining areas, game rooms, and live entertainment. Speakeasies could easily be hidden in storefronts, office buildings, or apartment houses…. In fact, part of the appeal speakeasies held for New Yorkers seemed to be the unpredictable nature of their locations. …As one English observer noted, the culture of the Prohibition era ‘raised drunkenness in America from a vice to the dignity of a sport.’”

One wonders why Repeal took so long. Lerner reports that all the evidence, available almost from the start, indicated that Prohibition did not work and introduced serious unforeseen consequences, including much increased rates of murder and hospitalization for alcoholism. Lerner attributes the delay to a general belief among Prohibition’s supporters that it just needed a chance — perhaps a surge in enforcement — and a worry among the politically alert that Repeal was the third rail of politics. The latter were right. In 1926, the Anti-Saloon League easily retired James W. Wadsworth, Jr., senator from New York, a Republican fixture but a wet, and provided much of the muscle to defeat Al Smith in 1928. The League cared less about Al’s Catholicism than about his wetness, but his faith provided the more useful club.

Two prominent New York Republicans early discerned the failure of the experiment and supported Repeal. One was Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, who made a drinkable and legal tipple by mixing nonalcoholic beer with malt tonic. He conducted tastings for the press in his congressional office and on a sidewalk in his East Harlem district.

His colleague was none other than Nicholas Murray Butler, who concluded that Prohibition was not merely a perverse failure but likely to drag the GOP down with it — a prescient judgement. President Butler’s campaign to make Repeal a bipartisan issue crowned his career as a public intellectual.

The defeat of Al Smith in 1928 led many to believe that Repeal, or even moderate change, was impossible. As late as 1930, William Howard Taft gloomily opined that the Eighteenth Amendment was safe for all time.
Yet crime and alcoholism continued to mount. Hoover appointed a commission to study the matter. Its five-volume report documented the failure but recommended staying the course.

And then the locomotive of history, in the form of the Depression, hit Prohibition and the party that still favored it. The 1932 Democratic convention adopted a straightforward Repeal plank, and Franklin D. Roosevelt perceived that the third rail had been turned off. 

The end was quick. The second major bill of the New Deal amended the Volstead Act to allow the sale of beer and wine. By the end of 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment had been ratified by the requisite number of state conventions. (Lerner erroneously says that the amendment was “speeding through state legislatures”: The constitutional option of ratification by convention was chosen to spare state legislators, who might worry that the third rail was still live.)

Writing about Prohibition at its start in Babbitt (1922), Sinclair Lewis treated it as an extinct folkway needing glossing. Lerner explains this extinction:

“New Yorkers who opposed Prohibition rejected the idea that the state had a right to dictate the private conduct of its citizens. … [T]he dry crusade … was an affront to their values and their identities as Americans. … [They] defied the Volstead Act as a way of saying that the diverse culture and cosmopolitanism of the modern city was their American ideal. … New Yorkers helped steer the nation … towards both a more tolerant view of American society and a more practical understanding of the relationship between the government and its citizens.”

Told authoritatively and lucidly, this is the story of the city that just said No.


 
 

Children of the Marshlands
by Emily Brennan

 
 

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
by Karen Russell '06SOA (Knopf, 246 Pages, $22)

At no other time are you as much a product of your environment as you are in childhood, and adolescence is when you first emerge from it — in a case of adapt or perish. Writer Karen Russell’s own upbringing in the Florida Everglades is inspiration for her debut collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which fantastically depicts young characters so particular to the region they seem to have crawled out of a primordial swamp. There is 12-year-old Ava who takes watch of her family’s gator theme park and her older sister’s sexual awakening. At a sleep-away camp for disordered dreamers, young Elijah spends his muggy summer foretelling disasters that he was unaware have already happened, such as Mount Vesuvius and the Bubonic Plague. And in the title story, Claudette and her lupine-reared schoolmates learn the finer points of human posture and manners from Sister Maria de la Guardia. Russell vividly depicts the swamp’s penumbral atmosphere and the adventures it inspires.

As a collection of first-person narratives, St. Lucy’s Home is necessarily about adolescent storytelling, how teenagers see and explain their world. Coming-of-age tales often depict adolescence as a kind of postcolonial country, where its citizens grapple to emerge from parental authority and insularity. Most preteens are unsure what to make of their newly granted independence: Do they follow their parents’ modeling and beliefs or do they make their own? In “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” Ava’s decision is further complicated by her mother’s death, which at once cuts the umbilical cord and adds the burden of having to help run the family business. Ava ends up taking the middle path: following the lead of her older teen sister. Because she can’t fully shake her family’s demands, Ava does more furtive observing than mimicking of her sister’s grasping sexuality: “Her boyfriends possess her in a different way. They steal over her, silking into her ears and mouth and lungs, stealthy and pervasive, like sickness or swallowed water. I watch her metamorphosis in guilty, greedy increments.” Russell has a gift for arresting similes, adeptly depicting Ava’s simultaneous fascination and repulsion. Ava speaks with an adult eloquence, but the reader believes it because Ava’s conflicted reaction seems so appropriate for her age.

Yet when Ava tries to recapitulate the scene’s gravity, with a facility beyond her years, it jolts the reader’s suspension of disbelief. “And I get that peculiar knot of fear and wonder and anger, the husk that holds my childhood.”  Ava’s perspective is too distant and self-aware, clearly more Russell’s voice than the character’s. This occurs in other stories in the collection, and while it’s difficult to fully ignore, it doesn’t prohibit the reader from appreciating Russell’s insights and exuberant writing.

At 25, Russell is evoking fantastical worlds, in which the day-to-day challenges of childhood are imaginatively explored. One hopes that in the next world she conjures, she’ll let her characters do all the talking.


 
 

The Odd Couple
by Jussi M. Hanhimäki

 
 

Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power
by Robert Dallek '64GSAS (HarperCollins, 740 Pages, $32.50)

“History,” Henry Kissinger told Richard Nixon on the eve of the president’s resignation in August 1974, “will treat you more kindly than your contemporaries have.” He has been proven correct. When Nixon died in 1994, his achievements, particularly in foreign policy, dominated the historical assessments of the only U.S. president to have resigned.

The opposite has been the case with Kissinger. Journalists fawned over him when he was in office. In 1973, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the imperfect end to the Vietnam War, even as Nixon was squirming in the purgatory of Watergate. But over time, “Kissinger the war criminal” came to replace the image of a globe-trotting super-diplomat.

Robert Dallek, the best-selling author of a sympathetic biography of John F. Kennedy, uses the Nixon-Kissinger collaboration to retell the story of the opening to China, the end of the Vietnam War, the unfolding of Soviet-American détente, and the Middle East peace process of the 1970s. But is there anything new to learn from a replay of the machinations inside the Nixon White House, when both men have been subjected to intense scrutiny by biographers Stephen Ambrose, Herbert Parmet, Anthony Summers, Seymour Hersh, and Walter Isaacson, among others? As Dallek himself acknowledges at the outset: “We know almost all of what they did during their five and a half years in the White House.”

But Dallek wants to “cast fresh light” on “who they were and how they collaborated in their use and abuse of power.” This fresh light comes in part from volumes of newly released documents and recordings, including transcripts of Kissinger’s telephone conversations that were made available in 2003.

Nixon, for example, is quoted as early as the winter of 1969–70 as accepting that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Yet, he refused to acknowledge this in public, because “[w]e simply cannot tell the mothers of our casualties in Vietnam that it was all to no purpose.”

What emerges is a disturbing portrait of how personal ambition and a desire for public praise were as important in driving foreign policy as any grand geopolitical analysis. And the policies themselves were often marked by a failure to pay much heed to local and regional circumstances.

Take the opening to China. At one level, it is a story of a visionary president and his brilliant adviser finding a way to break the two-decades-long deadlock in Sino-American relations. With Kissinger’s two trips to Beijing in 1971 and Nixon’s dramatic weeklong sojourn in February 1972, the world was changed, most would maintain, for the better. True statesmanship, no doubt.

But in their quest to secure the opening, Kissinger and Nixon made plenty of mistakes. Most spectacularly, they took the side of Pakistan in that country’s 1970-71 war with India, which resulted in the creation of an independent Bangladesh and a huge public relations defeat for the administration. Viewing this war as a mere extension of Cold War politics, Kissinger and Nixon saw a power struggle between Soviet-supported India and a Chinese-backed Pakistan, a country that had been helpful as a channel between Washington and Beijing. That the crisis was in large part the result of the Pakistani government’s repressive policies in East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) was lost as Kissinger told Nixon that “we can’t let a friend of ours and China get screwed in a conflict with a friend of Russia’s.”

Of course, Pakistan did get screwed, losing the eastern half of its territory. Some half a million Bengalis were killed. Moreover, the Chinese saw the Americans as ineffective, and relations with the Soviet Union and India were ill served.

But if the China trip did have a strong upside, the conclusion of the Vietnam War is a different story. The January 1973 settlement that ended America’s direct involvement in the war was in large part a result of Nixon and Kissinger’s willingness to sacrifice Washington’s long-standing South Vietnamese allies. The Paris Peace Accords that Kissinger had negotiated left 200,000 North Vietnamese troops on South Vietnam’s territory, after an enormous bombing campaign failed to subdue Hanoi. Thus, the real target of Nixon and Kissinger’s wrath during the run up to the peace settlement was South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu, whom they regularly castigated as “a complete SOB.”

In fact, throughout the negotiations with his North Vietnamese, Chinese, and Soviet counterparts, Kissinger repeatedly indicated that the United States had little long-term interest in an independent South Vietnam. After he had initialed the agreement, he counseled Nixon against publicizing the deal as a “lasting peace or a guaranteed peace.” He further predicted that “this thing is almost certain to blow up sooner or later.” Two years later, at the end of April 1975, Vietnam, which had not seen a day of full peace after the peace agreement that earned Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize, was unified after a massive North Vietnamese offensive made possible by generous Soviet and Chinese military assistance. What Nixon and Kissinger wanted — and got — was “a decent interval” between the American exit and South Vietnam’s collapse. “The entire policy was a disaster,” Dallek concludes.

Dallek is at his best in exploring the personal relationship between Nixon and Kissinger. The grocer’s son from California, who made a career as one of the most successful and tragic American politicians of the 20th century, and the Jewish immigrant from Germany, who became the only person to simultaneously hold the offices of national security advisor and secretary of state were, indeed, an unlikely combination. As Dallek points out, Nixon hated academics (particularly from Harvard) and often railed against the “Jewish press” in front of Kissinger.

What allied them during their years in office together was their hunger for power, since both saw in each other the means of gaining it. The result, in Dallek’s words, shows “Nixon deceiving himself, the Congress, the courts, the press, and the public; Kissinger endorsing or acquiescing in many presidential acts of deception and engaging in many of his own.” It also shows Kissinger pandering to Nixon, ignoring his anti-Semitic remarks, and stroking the president’s vulnerable ego to secure his own influence in the administration.

The two men resented each other as well. Nixon wanted to fire Kissinger — in part because he was jealous of his superior relationship with the press — early in his second term. “Watergate made it impossible,” Dallek writes, because Nixon needed “to use Henry and foreign policy to counter threats of impeachment.” By cooperating, Kissinger assured himself of becoming secretary of state, a post he would hang on to after Nixon’s departure in August 1974.

After Nixon flew off on the helicopter from the White House lawn, the two men seldom saw each other. “We never knew each other personally,” Kissinger told an interviewer, with apparent sincerity, in 2003.

Although Dallek calls them “partners in power” and spends much time assessing their “shared traits” (love of secrecy, unparalleled ambition, need for approval, and flexible approach to the truth), Nixon comes across as the greater villain, the man whose obsessions and insecurities were at the root of his administration’s collapse.

Dallek agrees that Kissinger deserved the Nobel Peace Prize — not for ending the Vietnam War, but for his efforts in bringing about a truce in the Middle East after the 1973 October War. These efforts were, Dallek writes, the “greatest achievements of his tenure as national security adviser and secretary of state.”

Yet Kissinger’s involvement in the peace process was also driven by self-interest. Shuttling between the various Middle East capitals was a welcome relief from a Washington consumed by Watergate and provided respite from Nixon’s incessant demands that his underling make it clear to the American public that, without him in office, the world would return to the dangers of the early Cold War. On the policy side, Kissinger’s Middle East program was motivated by a desire to eject the Soviets from the region and to assure America’s role as the major external player there. In this he succeeded. But it was, as subsequent decades have shown, a mixed blessing.

Nixon and Kissinger does not meet the high standard set by Dallek’s previous works on JFK or Lyndon Johnson. While Dallek meets the difficult challenge of breathing new life into an old story, he fails in advancing any significant new argument about the odd couple. Nevertheless, the book is a pleasure to read. Through Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger come to life in a way that few other works have been able to accomplish.

Jussi M. Hanhimäki is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies (Geneva, Switzerland) and the author of  The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press, 2004).