On Exhibit: The American Debate about Alcohol Consumption During World War II

Today’s post comes from Emily Niekrasz, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

In March 2015 the National Archives opened “Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History,” a new exhibit that explores the complex love-hate relationship between America and alcohol.

The exhibit’s curator, Bruce Bustard, has written, “These two different views of alcoholic beverages run throughout American history. Sometimes they have existed in relative peace; at other times they have been at war.”

Some of the documents not only represent the war of opposing views regarding Prohibition, but they also highlight the debate over alcohol consumption within an even larger conflict—World War II.

On December 5, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the repeal of the 18th Amendment, ending the prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States. Although the American government concluded its legal war on alcohol, the American people remained divided.  This friction—documented in the exhibit—continued throughout World War II.

"Alcohol—Hitler’s Best Friend, America’s Worst Enemy." Petition to Congress, 1943. (National Archives Identifier 16764619)
“Alcohol—Hitler’s Best Friend, America’s Worst Enemy.” Petition to Congress, 1943. (National Archives Identifier 16764619)

One such document is a 1943 petition to Congress for the return to Prohibition, titled “Alcohol—Hitler’s Best Friend, America’s Worst Enemy.” By associating alcohol with Hitler—at the height of World War II—it is evident that the 19 petitioners, both men and women, considered alcohol an evil.

Within the opening of their appeal, the authors claimed that alcohol and women were to blame for the downfall of France. They also argued that Japanese saloonkeepers provided free liquor for servicemen at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The signers went on to quote Gen. John J. Pershing, who believed that the United States Government should ban liquor from the nation, close saloons, punish drinkers, and “if necessary, death to the seller.”

On the other hand, in another document, “Morale is a lot of little things,” the wartime context aided those in favor of consumption, particularly the brewing industry.

In the 1944 advertisement, the Brewing Industry Foundation took the voice of a fictional World War II soldier, away at war, who wrote a letter home.

“Morale is a lot of Little Things,” 1944. Courtesy of the J. Walter Thompson Archives at the Duke University Library.
“Morale is a lot of little things,” 1944. Courtesy of the J. Walter Thompson Archives at the Duke University Library.

In this letter, the soldier missed a lot of “little things,” including: his hammock, his orchard, his pet sleeping beneath him, the sounds of the brook where his children are playing, and his beer.

The soldier wrote, “It happens that to many of us these important little things include the right to enjoy a refreshing glass of beer. Cool, sparkling, friendly.”

This advertisement connected beer to a wholesome image, in which beer was consumed in moderation, and suggested that the very least the nation could do for the loyal soldier returning home was to have the “little things” waiting—including a refreshing, “friendly” beer. Instead of equating alcohol with foreign saloonkeepers, this advertisement linked beer consumption with patriotism.

Want to learn more about the relationship between the American people and alcohol consumption during wartime? Visit “Spirited Republic” on display through January 10, 2016, in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.



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