Dry Diplomacy: The United States, Great Britain, and Prohibition


Front Cover and Spine, Dry Diplomacy: The United States, Great Britain, and Prohibition by Lawrence Spinelli, 1989.

Front Cover and Spine, Dry Diplomacy: The United States, Great Britain, and Prohibition by Lawrence Spinelli, 1989. GGA Image ID # 2052a5f04d


From the Publisher

The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act of 1920 would transform American life, giving birth to the Roaring '20s with its bathtub gin, speakeasies, and booze-running gangsters.

Yet, as Lawrence Spinelli shows, the prohibition of the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol would have wider repercussions. In a world of international relations deeply unsettled after what was thought to be the War to End All Wars, the crusade for temperance on the American home front would disrupt the critical Anglo-American alliance.

Dry Diplomacy is the first complete treatment of the diplomatic ramifications of prohibition. Spinelli explores the widespread effects on international law, shipping, foreign policy, and trade.

In this context, American interests appeared pitted against Britain's as she sought to recover from the First World War by expanding trade, promoting domestic industries such as whiskey distilling, and reasserting shipping dominance in the sea lanes.

American interference with international shipping--to disrupt what Presidents Harding and Coolidge deemed British alcohol smuggling--would lead to a diplomatic crisis in the mid-1920s.

Drawing on international archives such as the Cunard Archives and the records of the U.S. Justice Department, Spinelli digs deep into an essential chapter of American "independent internationalism."


America in the Modern World

Studies in International History

Warren F Kimball

Series Editor

Professor of History, Rutgers University

America in the Modem World is a series of books that places the United States, as both a government and a society, within the context of an evolving global arena.

The series is based on the assumption that nations interact not only at the governmental level but at the social, economic, political, and cultural levels as well, and that these international relationships are conditioned by, and influence in turn, domestic forces within the individual societies.

This series has no set format. It includes both the traditional monograph and the more wide-ranging syntheses. While it will emphasize twentieth-century international history, it also will study topics that precede 1900.

Although it focuses on the role of the United States in international affairs, America in the Modern World contains works that view this nation as only one actor among many in a worldwide context.

By utilizing the widest possible range of contributions, this series will further our understanding of the forces that shaped the international system and the American role in it.

Volume 1

Lawrence Spinelli, Dry Diplomacy: The United States, Great Britain, and Prohibition

Volume 2

Richard V. Salisbury, Anti-Imperialism and International Competition in Central America, 1920-1929



The impact of American prohibition on Anglo-American diplomacy has received little attention from historians. Although there is a renewed scholarly interest in prohibition itself recent studies have focused on domestic aspects or the various efforts to evade the law.

Studies of interwar Anglo-American relations have concentrated on other issues of the period or briefly dismissed the prohibition problem. The only monograph that considers this topic is Robert L. Jones, The Eighteenth Amendment and Our Foreign Relations (1933).

While the Jones work must be acknowledged for recognizing the importance of the subject, its preparation before the end of the prohibition period, its very limited use of primary sources, and the absence of British documentation reflect serious inadequacies.

Considering this inattention, the effect of the prohibition issue on Anglo-American relations requires the in-depth examination with full documentation that the following study attempts to provide.

Beyond the closing of this scholarly gap, the story of the diplomatic ramifications of prohibition is significant because it is more than a singular tale of liquor and smuggling.

Prohibition was a continuing source of Anglo-American disagreement that raised questions of international law, aroused domestic political interests, and complicated larger issues of transatlantic diplomacy.

It endured until 1935, two years after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, and challenged four American presidents and four British prime ministers.

Prohibition reinforced a mutual suspicion and a feeling of distrust in both London and Washington, serving as a burden in the search for an Anglo-American accommodation in the in ter war period.

Although other disputes were settled, the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment provided an additional obstacle to transforming agreement into political harmony.

The story of liquor diplomacy also provides an insight into the nature of British and American foreign policymaking.

The liquor issue encouraged British foreign policymakers to recognize strategic compromise as a valuable method for bolstering Great Britain's position against the postwar reality of diminished resources.

In the United States, the enforcement of prohibition underscored the fact that American isolationism was more rhetoric than reality, as the liquor issue sparked a bitter clash between the unilateral and collective elements of an independent internationalism.

On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, domestic political pressures provided a major constraint and frame of reference for foreign policymakers in the interwar years.

Finally, recognizing the diplomatic ramifications of prohibition is important because it suggests the need for a more complex explanation of the relationship between the United States and Great Britain in the 1920s.

The post-World War I period was not simply the passing of dominance from Great Britain to the United States. It was highlighted by both the British determination to preserve a continuity in status and the difficulties that confronted the United States in fully exploiting the opportunities provided by its new strength.

While American officials remained hobbled by domestic concerns and bureaucratic infighting, their British counterparts were prepared to exchange symbolic victory for the protection of economic interests.

The history of Anglo-American liquor diplomacy is largely one of British success in retaining the advantage behind the illusion of compromise and concession.

For all of these reasons, I hope this study will contribute to a reassessment of the prohibition issue and its necessary inclusion in any discussion of Anglo- American relations in the interwar period.



  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • CHAPTER ONE The British Connection: Liquor Smuggling and the Bahamas, 1919-1921
  • CHAPTER TWO American Uncertainty: The Harding Administration and Prohibition Enforcement, 1921-1923
  • CHAPTER THREE "Puritanism Run Mad": Shipping and Prohibition, 1919-1923
  • CHAPTER FOUR Limited Options: The American Treaty Proposal, May-July 1923
  • CHAPTER FIVE A New Perspective: Negotiating the Anglo- American Liquor Treaty, July 1923-May 1924
  • CHAPTER SIX An Unresolved Problem: Post-Treaty Entanglements, 1924-1926
  • CHAPTER SEVEN Making the Treaty Work: The London Conference, 1926-1928
  • CHAPTER EIGHT A Surprising Finale: Canada, Hoover, and the Burdens of Repeal, 1929-1940
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


And you never venture within the three-mile limit Captain? : No, sir ...

And you never venture within the three-mile limit Captain? : No, sir ... Cartoon Created by Artist John C. Conacher (1876-1947) and Published by Life Publishing Company, 1923. Library of Congress LCCN 2016680136. GGA Image ID # 205354f5be


Brief Extract for Dry Diplomacy

This was not simply a matter of legal abstractions. Whatever compromises the British were prepared to accept in their commercial rivalry with the United States, shipping remained an important factor in the restoration of their prewar supremacy. In the United States, nationalists regarded a revitalized merchant marine as a reflection of America's power. The possibility that shipping and prohibition enforcement were incompatible radically redefined the prohibition issue and injected an economic dimension into Anglo-American liquor diplomacy.

The potential impact of national prohibition on shipping was not immediately apparent. Although the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed the transportation of liquor into U.S. territory, the geographic limits of this restriction were not defined by the vague language of the amendment. The Volstead Act prevented the import and export of distilled spirits without a permit, yet it was uncertain whether this included only duty-payable goods manifested for delivery in the United States or any liquor brought into American territory. Congress specifically exempted the Panama Canal from the prohibition laws, suggesting that there was an implied congressional intent not to interfere with foreign shipping, and the Treasury Department's regulations offered no clarification.2

The issue was not raised until one month after the implementation of the Volstead Act. The Chamber of Shipping of the United Kingdom requested the Foreign Office to obtain the procedures for passenger and cargo vessels bringing liquor into the United States. The Chamber was concerned because British cargo ships carrying distilled spirits to other destinations frequently refueled in American ports. Also, British law required minimum liquor sea stores for crew members and for medicinal purposes on all vessels. State Department officials informed Ambassador Geddes that all liquor on British ships placed in customs seal within the three-mile limit could enter U.S. territory. These guidelines, while inconvenient, did not impede commerce, and the British shippers willingly complied.3

The continued flow of liquor into the United States, whatever the restrictions, outraged the Anti-Saloon League, and Wayne Wheeler began a dry crusade to end this privilege. Wheeler claimed that the Eighteenth Amendment was framed to keep all distilled spirits out of the United States, and he used his political clout to force the Justice Department to reconsider this question.4 During the final weeks of the Wilson administration, Acting Attorney General Frank Niebeker unexpectedly announced that carrying in-transit liquor into U.S. territory was a violation of the prohibition laws. In the absence of any expressed congressional sanction for these sealed cargoes, Niebeker concluded, they were illegal.5

Foreign Office officials and British shippers were angered by Niebeker's failure to hold a public hearing on this issue. Under the limits of his ruling, a British vessel carrying distilled spirits from Liverpool to Havana could no longer make a stopover in an American port. Liquor was usually only one of many types of cargoes transported in a single voyage, and the restrictions would create considerable economic burdens if shippers were forced to alter their established trade routes.6 When the Harding administration took office in March 1921, Ambassador Geddes urged Secretary of State Hughes to reopen the transshipment question. At Hughes's request, Attorney General Daugherty agreed to hold formal hearings, and the Treasury Department rescinded the transshipment regulations until there was a new ruling.7

Considering the pressure from the Anti-Saloon League, the hearing was primarily an exercise in courtesy. Daugherty politely listened to the legal representatives of Cunard's Anchor Line and of the Canadian distiller Hiram Walker argue that Congress did not intend to prevent transshipments and warn of possible retaliation.8 But on June 2 he announced that Niebeker's ruling was valid and the Eighteenth Amendment outlawed transshipment of liquor through U.S. territory. Treasury officials promptly reissued regulations forbidding this practice.9

Daugherty's decision was first enforced in August when customs officials in New York attempted to confiscate whiskey transferred between two Anchor Line ships that were docked in port. The Anchor Line was granted a temporary injunction against the seizure until the U.S. District Court ruled on the legality of this action. After the Hiram Walker Company filed a companion suit, Treasury officials revoked enforcement instructions to prevent additional legal challenges.10 Although the court upheld Daugherty's ruling in October and removed the injunction, the attorneys for the Anchor Line and Hiram Walker immediately appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court." Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon extended the suspension of transshipment restrictions pending a final ruling on the appeal. Wheeler condemned Mellon's action and complained that "I cannot understand his position in this case.. .the law is clear."12 For the present, the Harding administration was not responsible for clarifying the law.

Excerpt from Dry Diplomacy, Chapter Three: Puritanism Run Mad:" Shipping and Prohibition 1921-1923, pp. 32-33.


About the Author

Lawrence Spinelli received a Ph.D. in history from New York University. After working for several years within academia, including teaching positions at Drew University and American University, he now serves as press secretary for the office of Congressman Peter W. Rodino, Jr., and the House Judiciary Committee. This is Mr. Spinelli's first book.


Steamship Lines Referenced in Dry Diplomacy

  1. Anchor Line
  2. Cunard Company
  3. United States Lines


Passenger Steamships Referenced in Dry Diplomacy

  1. Berengaria
  2. George Washington
  3. Leviathan
  4. Saxonia
  5. Vaterland


Library of Congress Catalog Listing

  • Personal name: Spinelli, Lawrence, 1952-
  • Main title: Dry diplomacy : the United States, Great Britain, and prohibition / Lawrence Spinelli.
  • Published/Created: Wilmington, Del. : Scholarly Resources, 1989.
  • Description: xviii, 181 p. ; 24 cm.
  • ISBN: 0842022988 (alk. paper)
  • LC classification: E784 .S68 1989
  • LC Subjects: Prohibition. United States--Foreign relations--1913-1921. United States--Foreign relations--1921-1923. United States--Foreign relations--1923-1929. United States--Foreign relations--1929-1933. Great Britain--Foreign relations--1910-1936.
  • Notes: Includes index.
  • Bibliography: p. 161-171.
  • Series: America in the modern world ; v. 1
  • LCCN: 88011610
  • Dewey class no.: 327.73
  • Geographic area code: n-us--- e-uk---
  • Type of material: Book


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