How did organized crime fit into the social, cultural and political milieu of the United States of the 1920s? Was there a clash of values into which it fit?
Organized crime would have materialized in the United States had the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution not been adopted on January 17, 1920. There already existed fertile areas of illicit activities from which to profit, including prostitution, labor racketeering, extortion, and, eventually, drugs. The fact that the prohibition on the “manufacture, sale or transportation” of alcoholic beverages was passed, however, provided organized crime the opportunity and the impetus it needed to truly “organize” and amass a degree of economic power in the United States that would take 70 years for law enforcement to reverse.
American values during the 1920s had transformed considerably since the end of World War I. While rural America remained socially and politically conservative, the growth of cities and the explosion in manufacturing capacity that followed the war propelled the country into a radically different direction. In contrast to the conservatism prevalent in rural communities, many large cities became increasingly liberal. Political power, evident in the succession of Republican presidential administrations during the 1920s, remained firmly entrenched in those conservative rural areas, but the values espoused in the White House and on the farm became more and more removed from the values represented in the more liberal urban areas of the country. Nowhere was the contrast in values more conducive to the rise of organized crime than in the debates over the consumption of alcohol. That the 18th Amendment was adopted, which involves considerable effort on the part of the supporters of any constitutional amendment, was testament to the political influence of rural conservatives. That the 18th Amendment would be thoroughly undermined in cities across the country, however, was testament to the rejection on the part of much of the public of the conservative values that underlay the amendment’s passage.
Prior to the dawn of the era of prohibition, “organized crime” was highly fragmented and riven with violent divisions among various ethnic groups, especially among Italian, Irish and Jewish criminals – all of whose mere existence among immigrant communities in the United States stood in stark contrast to the conservative anti-immigrant sentiments that flourished among Protestant communities. The money flowing into the coffers of criminal organizations, most prominently the Outfit in Chicago (personified by the rise and fall of Al Capone) and the emergence of the so-called “Five Families” in New York, enabled these groups to grow and to branch out into more and more economic activities, for example, the garment and trucking industries in New York and labor unions in the Midwest. Organized crime in America prospered amid deadly battles in the streets of major cities over the revenue to be made undermining prohibition. The demand for alcohol in the United States was sufficient to make its supply extremely lucrative – lucrative enough to kill for.
The clash of values that characterized the United States during the 1920s had a number of unfortunate results, including the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the growth of anti-immigrant sentiments, and the rise in levels of political corruption. One of the most enduring legacies of that period, however, was the growth of organized crime.