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5: Epilogue

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Enforcement and diplomacy proved frustrating endeavors relative to the Eighteenth Amendment. Predicaments facing the U.S. government in connection with smuggling in southern waters, in many respects, eclipsed similar circumstances elsewhere in the country. Natives residing along coastal areas resisted prohibition legislation, and organized crime capitalized on this proclivity by plying local markets and employing local labor. The federal government, meanwhile, held the difficult task of policing 10,000 miles of coastline for a society that was in retreat on the alcohol issue. Foreign roles in the movement of alcoholic spirits into the United States, additionally, proved more determined than the public will to blunt the traffic.

     The Gulf of Mexico accounted for only about twenty-seven percent of the spirituous liquors seized nationally by customs officials during 1931 and 1932. Federal officials, however, really did not know the volume of alcoholic contraband moving into the United States from the Gulf of Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter. Attempting to track or reveal smuggled cargo volume statistically is difficult since the very nature of this activity, of course, runs counter to practices of good record keeping. This is especially true when one attempts to gauge some measure of the smuggling trade along the Gulf Coast, which Admiral Billard conceded during congressional hearings. Thus, all seizure statistics reported by federal officials in the Gulf of Mexico must be weighted to the level of manned resources available, which, as shown earlier, lagged behind different regions of the country.[1] Therefore, a statistical foundation on smuggling levels anywhere in the United States might be beyond the grasp of the historian.

     Clearly, the federal government slowed smuggling and bootlegging trafficking in the South, but to any significant level it failed to arrest the alcohol distillations and the coastal smuggling trade. Rumrunning boats from Latin American ports--hulls laden with contraband--found safety from the Coast Guard in the vast network of islands and coastal apertures throughout the Gulf Coast. Mexican, Central American, and Cuban locales--areas also highly Catholic and economically depressed--additionally proved willing vendors in answering demand. Indeed, the Gulf South had its own large, yet mostly undocumented, cast of rumrunners, bootleggers, mobsters, tipsters, gamblers, all operating in areas hospitable to wet proclivities.[2]

     It was evident that many of the larger--and slower--rumrunning ships in fact left Atlantic coastal areas in the wake of a beefed up federal presence. Moreover, as faster boats became available, the larger rumrunning ships lost their value on the Atlantic coastlines and moved south, away from the stronger Coast Guard positions. Many of these larger Gulf rum ships subsequently operated out of the smuggling-friendly ports of Belize and Honduras as well as in Nassau and Havana. In the meantime, federal personnel assigned to patrols in the Gulf of Mexico tailed these larger rumrunning vessels mostly in cutters. The Coast Guard actually featured around twenty destroyers in its 500-boat fleet, but curiously the agency sent destroyers into the Gulf of Mexico on only one or two instances.[3] Rumrunners, meanwhile, pressed every advantage, especially relative to the Anglo-American Treaty of 1924, which precipitated confrontations with the Coast Guard. In some cases, Coast Guard policing decisions unwittingly placed State Department officials in diplomatic quagmires.

     By the mid-twenties, it was apparent that the federal government could not contain liquor movement in those southern communities that wished to remain wet. Alluring profits coupled with prevalent Catholic backgrounds disregarded reform- and Protestant-minded calls for alcohol temperance or prohibition. The federal government did score several enforcement victories in New Orleans, which prompted police to issue statements that New Orleans liquor trafficking had been checked, but this too only proved illusory.[4]

     As in other parts of the country, smuggling levels along the Gulf Coast clearly demonstrated widespread public opposition and suggested the federal government indeed had moved beyond reason in attempting to define illegal behavior. Historian Richard Hofstadter posed the quandary of prohibition:

For Prohibition, in the twenties, was the skeleton
at the feast, a grim reminder of the moral frenzy
so many wished to forget, a ludicrous caricature
of the reforming impulse, of the Yankee-Protestant
notion that it is both possible and desirable to
moralize private life through public action.[5]

    Prohibition legislation resulted in the confusing federal goals, objectives and jurisdictional ambiguities of those federal agencies charged with enforcing the Volstead law.

    Meanwhile, the social, political and economic realities along many areas of the Gulf South proved vexing to enforcement and profitable to the sympathetic natives. In the midst of government disorientation, a vibrant, yet stealthy, cast of traffickers acted roles that attested to the argument that prohibition was an ill-chosen path. Unfortunately the very dynamics of smuggling portend that very few individual accounts remain extant. Extrapolating from the federal records, however, it is evident that the many individuals who assumed bootlegging, moonshining, and smuggling roles in the South indeed executed their roles so well that they are perhaps forever beyond the grasp of full definition and understanding.

[1]Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances, fiscal year ended June 30, 1932, 139; Congress, House, Subcommittee of the Committee of the Ways and Means, Enforcement of Customs, Narcotic and Prohibition Laws, 69th Cong., 2d. session, February 21, 1927, 444. Congressional Information Service (CIS) Microfiche.

[2]New Orleans Times Picayune, Sect. 2, April 22, 1923; Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R., (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 288; H.W. Rickey, "Prohibition Movement in the South," (Masters Thesis, Tulane University, 1924), 291; C.H. Gervais, The Rumrunners, A Prohibition Scrapbook, (Scarborough, Ontario: Firefly Books, 1980), 11.

[3]Malcom F. Willoughby, Rum War at Sea, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1964), 118.

[4]Times Picayune, June 14, 1925; New York Times, October 15, 1925.

[5]Hofstadter, 287.

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