'What a Magnificent Body of Men Never to Take Another Drink': The U.S. Army and Prohibition

Story Stream
recent articles

On July 19, 1919, General John J. Pershing led the American contingent in London’s parade to celebrate the Allied victory in World War I. Behind him rode an officer bearing a large, silk, four-starred flag, followed by his chief of staff, his British liaison, and his three aides, the newest of which was Colonel George C. Marshall. Then, eight abreast at ten-yard intervals, rode thirty American generals, followed by the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) band, “Pershing’s Own,” leading the “Composite Regiment”, a select group of Regular Army officers and men – all six-feet or taller – chosen from the best U.S. troops in Europe. With at least ninety American and regimental flags in their ranks, the blaze of color was breathtaking as they marched across Westminster Bridge, through the Admiralty Arch, and up the Mall past the king and queen waiting at Queen Victoria’s Memorial. They conveyed a strong impression with their precision and sheer physical power, and Pershing called them “the finest body of troops I have ever seen in my life.” Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, agreed, but ruefully lamented: “What a magnificent body of men never to take another drink.”

Six months prior on January 16, 1919 – one hundred years ago today – Nebraska’s lower house had voted 98-0 to ratify the 18th Amendment, the thirty-sixth state legislature to do so, thereby providing the two-thirds majority required to make Prohibition the law of the land in America. Six months after the London victory parade, the manufacture, sale, or transportation of “intoxicating liquors” would be illegal throughout the United States and its territories. Soldiers serving in the AEF were acutely aware of the changed country to which they would be returning. Three days after the amendment’s ratification, Harry S. Truman, a captain in 129th Field Artillery still in France, presciently wrote to his fiancé: “It looks to me like the moonshine business is going to be pretty good in the land of the Liberty Loans and Green Trading Stamps.”

One would imagine that Prohibition was a significant shock to the Army, whose history was soaked with alcohol. During the Revolutionary War, soldiers were issued four ounces of whiskey as part of their daily rations. George Washington himself had declared “the benefits arising from moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies, and are not to be disputed.” Although Civil War camps were officially dry, taverns and sutlers selling illegal whiskey to soldiers thrived.

Despite its profound effects on American society – and the modern romanticization of the era as one of speakeasies, flappers, and pinstriped gangsters – Prohibition had surprisingly little resonance within the U.S. Army.

There are two primary reasons for this. First, the Army had been living under various forms of prohibition long before the 18th Amendment’s ratification. In 1832, during the Black Hawk War, Illinois militiamen consumed their entire two-week issue of whiskey by the campaign’s second day. When Black Hawk attempted to surrender that day, the drunken militia instead attacked, and in the ensuing “Battle of Stillman’s Run” Black Hawk and his roughly fifty warriors routed the 275 militiamen. Consequently, Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War Lewis Cass eliminated the whiskey ration.

As the temperance movement gained increasing influence, in 1890, Congress banned “intoxicating beverages” to enlisted men at military posts located in states, territories, or counties with local prohibition laws. The Army considered beer and light wines to be non-intoxicating, however, and allowed their sale and consumption at the post commander’s discretion. Congress subsequently expanded Army prohibition with the so-called Canteen Act of 1901, which forbade "the sale of, or dealing in, beer, wine or any intoxicating liquors by any person in any post exchange or canteen or army transport or upon any premises used for military purposes by the United States." When America entered World War I, Congress extended alcoholic prohibition beyond the Army's post boundaries. The Selective Service Act of May 1917 prohibited intoxicating beverages "in or near military camps" – which the War Department implemented by establishing a prohibition zone five miles wide around each post – and made it illegal to sell to any serviceman in uniform. (The Army once again skirted the bill’s intent by permitting beverages with less than 1.4 percent alcohol-by-volume). Thus, the 18th Amendment had little legal impact on the US. Army.

More importantly, perhaps, was the fact that like millions of their civilian counterparts, most officers and enlisted men simply chose to ignore the Volstead Act’s enforcement of Prohibition. When General Pershing became Army Chief of Staff, each day after leaving the War Department he enjoyed staying up late with his aides, drinking, talking about his youth, and joking. Once when he and George Marshall were traveling on a train together and enjoying a bottle of Scotch, Pershing suggested they offer some to Senator George Moses in the next car. Pouring a little into a glass, they proceeded to where Pershing thought Moses was sleeping in a Pullman. “Senator Moses,” whispered Pershing as he scratched a berth’s closed green curtain. When there was no answer, Pershing raised the curtain, only to discover not Senator Moses, but an angry woman who cried: “What do you want?” Pershing dropped the curtain and bolted down the aisle like a frightened schoolboy, pushing Marshall ahead of him and spilling the scotch. “I had a hard time keeping out of his way,” Marshall said, “because he was running up my back. But we got to the stateroom and got the door shut. Then he just sat down and laughed until he cried.” Finally, wiping his eyes, Pershing noticed a little Scotch remained in the glass and mischievously suggested Marshall return and try it again. Not on your life, Marshall replied. “Get another aide.”

Observance of Prohibition in the breech was also common amongst junior officers. While commanding tank battalions and living next door to one another in renovated barracks at Camp Meade, Maryland, Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton avidly partook in the new American pastime of making their own bootleg alcohol. Eisenhower distilled gin in an unused bathtub, while Patton brewed beer, storing it in a shed outside his kitchen. One summer evening there was a sudden noise outside the Pattons’ barracks that sounded like a machine gun, followed by a series of soft booms. As their cook began screaming, Patton instinctively dove for cover. When they realized it was merely the beer bottles exploding from the heat, he rose, sheepishly explaining how much it had sounded like hostile fire. His wife Beatrice “laughed and laughed and called him ‘her hero’ and he got very red.” Omar Bradley commanded an infantry battalion in the 27th Infantry Regiment in the 1920s and took advantage of the Hawaii Division’s leisurely pace of duty to play golf several times a week. At the end of one round, the 33-year-old teetotaler drank his first glass of whiskey, which he liked enough to make “a habit of having a bourbon and water or two (but never more) before dinner” for the rest of his life.

This is not to say that all officers defied Prohibition, or that it was never enforced within the service. In an institution as socially conservative as the interwar Army, many officers were teetotalers for religious reasons. Alexander “Sandy” Patch – who would go on to successful corps and army commands in the Pacific and France during World War II – joined the Prince Georges County police in raiding speakeasies near Fort Washington, Maryland, where he commanded an infantry battalion. Patch had actually engineered the raids himself, believing the bootleggers were demoralizing his soldiers by selling them liquor. Patton’s daughter Ruth Ellen recalls her father’s commanding officer in Hawaii in the 1920s ordering Patton to bore through a wall to a neighboring Major’s house to see if the neighbor was serving liquor at his New Year’s party. (Patton refused, saying he would resign his commission first). Albert Wedemeyer, who as a major on the General Staff in September 1941 would draft the “Victory Plan” outlining America’s grand strategy for the impending global conflict, was once fined and restricted to post for six months as a junior officer for drunkenness. Yet, such cases were the exception. As long as soldiers were ready for duty the next day and did not drink on duty, the chain of command generally condoned soldiers’ drinking. Between 1926-1932 the entire Army averaged only eighty-nine convictions for drunkenness per year.

The risk of court-martial was sufficient, however, to make an assignment overseas more desirable. During the 1920s and 1930s, an average of 27 percent of the Army was deployed abroad at any given time, serving in “Colonial Army” outposts in Panama, Hawaii, the Philippines, and China. The latter two were especially popular for those seeking to escape Prohibition. The Philippines, despite being a U.S. territory, were exempt from Prohibition, and eighty percent of the officers on the foreign service roster selected it as their first or second preference. Manila’s Army and Navy Club was famous throughout the Orient and the Army, combining “the qualities of a hotel, casino, library, and assembly hall” while serving as the center of Manila’s social life. Membership was $5-per-month, and a scotch and soda only cost thirty cents.

Similarly, in Tientsin, China, many of the 15th Infantry’s privates had been regimental sergeant majors during World War I, and its ranking noncommissioned officers were former captains and majors who had accepted the reduction in rank to remain on active duty until they qualified for retirement. “In the interwar army when promotions were glacially slow,” one study of U.S forces in China notes, “for men to give up their rank seems to be an excellent indicator that the China Station was perceived as good duty.” Indeed, one veteran of the regiment recalled that immediately outside the American barracks in Tientsin the “signs saying ‘Bar’ seemed to stretch into infinity.” Marshall, who served as the regiment’s executive officer from 1924-1927, noted in a letter to Pershing that: “Today is ‘pay day’ and we are up against the problem of cheap liquor and cheaper women.”

Ultimately, Prohibition failed to curb American’s thirst for alcoholic beverages, and it became obvious that criminals, not communities, were benefitting from its enforcement. Between April and December 1933, thirty-six states ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition.

For the Army, Prohibition’s demise was as undramatic as its enactment fifteen years prior. Whereas Kevin Costner’s Elliott Ness in The Untouchables may have celebrated with a drink, the Army continued to abide by the 1901 Canteen Act and the World War I standard of 1.4 percent alcohol-by-volume on military posts. It was not until midway through World War II that the Army raised its intoxication standard to 3.2 percent alcohol, the level set by Congress a decade earlier. These measures continued in force until 1953, when it was determined that the Canteen Act of 1901 had been repealed, in effect, by 1951 amendments to the Universal Military Training and Selective Service Act. Thus, although Army troops in combat zones are still prohibited from consuming alcohol, all others are allowed to emulate George Patton’s toast at the West Point Dinner in ostensibly dry Kansas City, April 5, 1924:

Good water is the greatest gift to set before a King,

But who am I, that I should have the best of everything?

Let monarchs gather round the pump and pass the dipper free!

Gin, whiskey, wine and even beer are good enough for me.

Benjamin Runkle is a Senior Policy Fellow with Artis Research International and an Adjunct Lecturer with Johns Hopkins University’s Global Security Program. He is the author of Generals in the Making: The Tragedies and Triumphs of America’s WWII Commanders Between the Wars, 1919-1941, to be published this fall by Stackpole Books.

Show comments Hide Comments