U.S. Army & Prohibition
How The Army Was Impacted

    On 16 January 1919 Nebraska’s lower house voted to ratify the 18th Amendment, the 36th state 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 U.S. and its territories. Soldiers serving in the AEF were acutely aware of the changed country 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 (merchants who accompanied an army in order to sell provisions to the soldiers) selling illegal whiskey to soldiers thrived. Despite its profound effects on American society – and the modern romanticizing of the era as one of speakeasies, flappers, and pinstriped gangsters – Prohibition had surprisingly little resonance within the U.S. Army.

    The Army had been living under various forms of prohibition long before the 18th Amendment. In the 1832 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, 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 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 the U.S. entered WW I, 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

    – 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.

    Most officers and enlisted men simply chose to ignore the Volstead Act. When General Pershing became Army Chief of Staff, he enjoyed staying up late with his aides, drinking, talking about his youth, and joking.

    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 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 evening there was a sudden noise outside the Patton’s 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 “called him ‘her hero’ and he got very red.” Omar Bradley commanded an infantry battalion in the 27th Infantry Regiment in the 1920s 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 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 WW II – joined the Prince Georges County police in raiding speakeasies near Fort Washington, Maryland, where he commanded an infantry battalion. 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). 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

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Last Modified: 03/17/2019 – 1516 hours PST");