On June 6, 1932, John D. Rockefeller Jr. did something remarkable. He abandoned his long support for Prohibition in what the New York Times called “the most dramatic single event bearing on the liquor question since the adoption of Prohibition.”
The son of Standard Oil Co.’s founder announced his change of position in a letter to Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler, who had called for a repeal of the nation’s alcohol ban. Rockefeller argued that Prohibition had increased drinking, substituted the speakeasy for the saloon, stimulated a spirit of lawbreaking and increased crime to “an unprecedented degree.”
Rockefeller, a third-generation teetotaler, had been one of the Anti-Saloon League’s most prominent supporters, donating $350,000 to the organization during the 1920s. Yet he said he had “slowly and reluctantly” become convinced the repeal of Prohibition would help “restore public respect for law.” With federal enforcement of Prohibition a widely acknowledged failure, he argued, regulation of alcohol should be returned to the states.
”Wets” hailed Rockefeller’s support. “Wet leaders from all walks of life, men and women representing business, labor, finance, society, the professions, the schools and the churches expressed satisfaction that such a notable recruit as Mr. Rockefeller had joined the wet ranks,” the New York Times wrote.
Thousands sent Rockefeller congratulatory telegrams, so many that extra telegraphers had to be employed to handle the “avalanche of messages,” Time magazine reported.
“Drys,” meanwhile, were shocked and resentful. Methodist Bishop James Cannon, “the South’s arch Dry,” said he thought Rockefeller’s position was “not surprising to those who know the influences which surround him, living as he does where literally Satan’s seat is,” in New York.
Others accused him of making dishonest statements, pointing to government data showing liquor production had declined by two-thirds since the early 1920s.
Wets mocked such statistics, claiming they were cooked up by anxious federal enforcers. Then U.S. Prohibition Commissioner Amos Woodcock released an embarrassing figure: 3,844. That was the number of speakeasies and liquor outlets that a street-by-street investigation had found in just the borough of Manhattan. New York really was the “devil’s seat,” hosting a vast, unlawful, multi-million-dollar booze empire.
Rockefeller had urged both parties to put a “resubmission” plank in their 1932 platforms, a step toward moving repeal resolutions through Congress and into legislatures. Drys were certain that more than 13 states would reject a repeal amendment, thus blocking a constitutional change. In the meantime, they threatened to vote out backsliders and traitors to the cause.
"Rockefeller’s letter was as a kind of signal to release the pent-up emotions of a great multitude of Americans," the Times editorialized. "They had seen their representatives in Congress long acting under a kind of political intimidation or even terrorism. That period is obviously approaching an end.”
But Prohibition wouldn’t end without a fight, and the upcoming conventions would be just the place to stage one.
(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the History of Industry and Technology at the University of Rutgers at Camden and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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