Prohibition (2011– )
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A Nation of Hypocrites 

With gangsters terrorizing the public and profiting from the sale of alcohol, many citizens believed Prohibition was unsuccessful, which led to its repeal.


Ken Burns, Lynn Novick


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Episode cast overview, first billed only:
Peter Coyote ... Himself - Narrator (voice)
Pete Hamill ... Himself - Writer
Jonathan Eig Jonathan Eig ... Himself - Writer
Michael Lerner Michael Lerner ... Himself - Historian
Catherine Gilbert Murdock Catherine Gilbert Murdock ... Herself - Historian
Ruth Proskauer Smith Ruth Proskauer Smith ... Herself - Resident of New York
Joshua Zeitz Joshua Zeitz ... Himself - Historian
Margot Loines Wilkie Margot Loines Wilkie ... Herself - Resident of Massachusetts
Jack Clarke Jack Clarke ... Himself - Resident of Chicago
John Paul Stevens ... Himself - Resident of Chicago (as Justice John Paul Stevens)
Daniel Okrent ... Himself - Writer
William Leuchtenburg William Leuchtenburg ... Himself - Historian (as William E. Leuchtenburg)
Noah Feldman Noah Feldman ... Himself - Legal Scholar
Jack Roche Jack Roche ... Himself - Resident of Chicago
Pauline Sabin Smith Willis Pauline Sabin Smith Willis ... Herself - Granddaughter of Pauline Sabin


By the mid-1920s, a great many people had become convinced that prohibition was a serious mistake. Alfred E. Smith, the Governor of New York, was unsuccessful in getting the Democratic nomination for President in 1924 but succeeded in 1928. Smith was adamant that as President, he would repeal the 18th Amendment. He was not successful in seeking the Presidency though the fact that he was a Roman Catholic likely had more to do with his defeat. While alcohol consumption continued to rise, nothing demonstrated the failure of prohibition as did the rise of organized crime and the man who became the poster boy for crime and bootlegging, Al Capone. Soon, Pauline Sabin organized a national movement to restore the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, beer was being sold and in less than a year, the 19th Amendment was repealed. Written by garykmcd

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Release Date:

4 October 2011 (USA) See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Florentine Films, WETA See more »
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Did You Know?


The episode won an Emmy Award Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming. See more »


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She's Funny That Way
Music by Neil Moret
Lyrics by Richard A. Whiting
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User Reviews

A Nation of Hypocrites
28 January 2017 | by bkoganbingSee all my reviews

The final part of the Ken Burns series on Prohibition is aptly entitled A Nation Of Hypocrites. The hypocrisy right up to the highest levels of power in the land was breathtaking.

There is a reference in the film to the Wickersham Report and that was the report issued by a Committee convened by President Herbert Hoover on the problems of enforcement of the Volstead Act. That by the way was the standard method by which Hoover addressed problems, he appointed commissions to study it. The Wickersham Committee documented in great detail the onerous and impossible difficulties of enforcing a law the majority didn't want then concluded we have to try harder and Prohibition should be continued.

One result of Prohibition still with us today is the syndication and organization of crime in the USA. Organized crime grew out of the various local criminal elements and the rivalries therein to control the illegal booze traffic. Liquor is legal but criminals to this day find other outlets for their activities. Al Capone in Chicago was the most widely known, but every metropolitan area had their criminal gangs looking to control the illegal traffic.

The Depression may have been the biggest single factor in bringing about the end of Prohibition. Gangsters may be colorful tabloid fodder in good times, in bad times when people are jobless and wondering when the next meal was coming, flaunting wealth was not a good idea. People might not be able to afford much, but a nickel beer was welcome.

Also the fact that illegal liquor was sometimes laced with wood alcohol and other unhealthy substance was a national tragedy. Maybe people couldn't handle their liquor before, but you were not going to go blind, get paralyzed or die with only one drink.

It was a colorful era, but a nightmare as well, foisted upon us by people who always seem to know what's best for the world. In the final chapter Ken Burns documents its welcome end.

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