Grape Juice Diplomacy and Other Amusing Stories

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is an amusing collection of stories best summarized by Mark Rutherford:

This book masquerades as a book full of great stories and wonderful personalities – some well known, some utterly new – told with effortless wit at a pace that makes you keep breaking promises to yourself: “I’ll read just ONE more chapter, before ….” {you fill in the blank: going to bed, making love on your wedding night, speaking before the UN General Assembly, surrendering to serve your term at Allentown).

But the mean thing about this book is that it also tells the whole story of prohibition, weaving together its emergence from various social, ethnic, political and religious roots, showing its connection to the great themes of the twentieth century, how prohibition was advanced by an alliance between what we would describe today as doctrinaire progressives, left-wing feminists and the religious right, and furnishing a social history of the West in the 19th, 20th and no doubt 21st centuries which more profoundly explains where we are and how we got here than many a more pretentious tome. It’s just marvelous and will keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finally made your speech, formalized your wedding, served your time.

Here’s a typical story from the book:

For his part, Bryan, who was loyally mindful of Wilson’s noncombatant stance in the liquor wars, generally soft-pedaled his anti-alcohol position once he joined the administration; in 1914 he even opposed the Hobson Amendment, considering it a futile distraction from more pressing issues. But when Bryan’s official duties ran up against his personal dedication to abstinence, a lifetime of teetotalism could not be suppressed. This became apparent barely 6 weeks into his tenure as Secretary of State. The occasion was Bryan’s first formal diplomatic function, a luncheon in the Presidential Suite of the Willard Hotel honoring James Bryce, who was about to return to London after six years as British ambassador to the United States. The guests, largely other ambassadors and their wives, had just taken their seats at the brightly decorated tables when Bryan rose to speak. His welcome contained a message that would have been no less surprising at a diplomatic event had it been delivered in pig latin: there would be no wine served at the luncheon. The deep ruby liquid in the glasses was grape juice.

Not since he’d strapped the Cross of Gold to his back in 1896 had Bryan given such ripe material to his detractors. His guests were politely accepting; the Russian ambassador, who told his luncheon companion that he “had not tasted water for years,” managed to survive the meal because he had been forewarned by Bryan and “had taken his claret before he came.” But the press shredded Bryan, and some northeastern Republicans began to disparage the Wilson-Bryan foreign policy as “grape juice diplomacy.” Although Bryan did get some support, it was likely to invite derision – for instance, George Bernard Shaw offered his approval of the alcohol-free policy and earnestly suggested that the Bryans introduce vegetarianism to the diplomatic circuit as well.

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