The Wickersham Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement

George Wickersham, 1930

George Wickersham, 1930

I’ve been meaning to post a “Periodicals Note” about the July issue of Counterpunch, in which “Peter Lee” wrote about the report that a commission headed by one George Wickersham submitted to US President Herbert Hoover on 7 January 1931.  The Wickersham Commission had investigated charges that US law enforcement agencies were using torture to enforce the prohibition of alcohol that was then in effect across the United States.  The commission’s staff was led by a civil liberties lawyer named Zechariah Chafee, and Chafee turned up evidence that made the Wickersham report impossible to ignore.  Lee gives considerable detail from the report, and points out that all of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that CIA and military interrogators have been accused of using against captives in the “war on terror” were familiar to Prohibition agents in the 1920s.  Those methods disgusted the American public then, and the exposure of them did a good deal to spur the movement that ended Prohibition.  The difference in the outraged public reaction of 1930 and the muted public reaction to the exposure of the same methods in the last five years cannot be attributed to the difference between accused bootleggers and accused terrorists; Lee points out that torture is not in fact a very effective way of thwarting terrorists.  What has changed is us.  The headline above Lee’s piece is “When America Said No!”  His implication is that the American people have lost the moral compass that once enabled them to say no to torture.   

President Hoover pressured the Wickersham commission to change one thing about its report.  Seven of the eleven commisioners had wanted to recommend that Prohibition be ended.  The president insisted that no such recommendation be included.   As published, the report asserted that the commissioners were in favor of continuing Prohibition, and indeed called for building up a much bigger apparatus of federal law enforcement to make Prohibition work.  Since the rest of the report was unchanged, this conclusion seemed quite out of place.  The New York World parodied the amended report:

Prohibition is an awful flop.

We like it.

It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.

We like it.

It’s left a trail of graft and slime,

It’s filled our land with vice and crime,

It don’t prohibit worth a dime,

Nevertheless we’re for it. 

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