A recent post was devoted to the topic of Prohibition. Distant and long ago as it seems, this topic appears to still be of considerable interest, and I would like to add some thoughts and perspectives provided by historian Paul Johnson in his ambitious and exceptional book “Modern Times”, which includes a chapter on the 1920s that Johnson entitled The Last Arcadia.
Johnson links American societal and political discourses on race and immigration to the notion that most early 20th-century Americans thought of their country as the last Arcadia, “an innocent and quasi-Utopian refuge from the cumulative follies and wickedness of the corrupt world beyond her ocean-girded shores.” There was heated debate about immigration, and many rejected the notion of a “melting pot”, subscribing instead to an ethnic pecking order that placed the Anglo-Saxon “race” supremely above all others, with Northern (but not Eastern or Southern) Europeans reluctantly included in that select group with only slightly lesser status. Thus Will Hays, as Warren Harding’s campaign manager, proudly summed up the candidate’s lineage as “the finest pioneer blood, Anglo-Saxon, German, Scotch-Irish and Dutch.”
Prohibition, with its moralistic and repressive overtones, was part of an attempt to keep or make Arcadia/America pure, in that it was clearly directed at the “notorious drinking habits” of immigrant working men. America’s entry into World War I gave a further, enormous impetus to a patriotic xenophobia, which was used to justify varieties of repression, racism and a drive against nonconformity. Not coincidentally, the “Red Scares” of the era focused on Eastern and Southern European immigrants who were easily caricatured as low-lifes or, worse, as anarchists.