The Baleful Influence of Gambling

The president's brother came to be considered one of the nation's most effective attorneys general. His interest in organized crime, dating to his Senate staff work during the 1950s, led him to crusade against illegal gambling, which was known to finance criminal enterprises.
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No one knows exactly how much money is involved in gambling in the United States. What we do know is that the American people are spending more on gambling than on medical care or education; that, in so doing, they are putting up the money for the corruption of public officials and the vicious activities of the dope peddlers, loan sharks, bootleggers, white-slave traders, and slick confidence men.

Investigation this past year by the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, the Narcotics Bureau, the Post Office Department, and all other federal investigative units has disclosed without any shadow of a doubt that corruption and racketeering, financed largely by gambling, are weakening the vitality and strength of this nation.

But, as I sit down today to write this article, a business executive with an industrial firm on the Eastern Seaboard is telephoning a bookmaker to place a $50 bet on a horse race; a factory worker in a Midwestern town is standing at a lunch counter filling out a basketball parlay card on which he will wager $2; a housewife in a West Coast suburb is handing a dime to a policy writer who operates a newsstand as a front near the supermarket where she shops.

These people, and millions like them who follow similar routines every day, see nothing wrong in what they are doing …

But they are taking a chance which the nation and its economy cannot afford. They are pouring dimes and dollars day by day into a vast stream of cash which finances most illegal underworld activities …

Last May, I appeared before a subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary and testified in support of anticrime legislation then pending before the Congress. Relying on rock-bottom estimates of the Department of Justice, I estimated—probably conservatively—that illegal gambling in the United States does a gross volume of $7 billion annually. That is more than the American people spend each year on bread …

While we do have great problems in estimating the total amount gambled illegally, we can get some idea from significant records made available by the Internal Revenue Service through raids.

For example, the records of an Indiana bookmaker indicate that for a three-day period he received a total of $1,156,000 in wagers. A check of the gross receipts of a large department store in the same city indicated its gross for the same three days as $31,863. A Chicago bookie’s records showed he took in $6,400,000 in total wagers for one year, while a chain grocery store in Chicago showed total gross receipts of only $293,000 …

Just as legitimate businessmen invest their profits in other businesses, so do the capitalists of crime use their gambling profits to invest in other criminal businesses. High on the list is narcotics …

This administration is making a major effort to bring organized crime and racketeering under control …

One of our new laws makes it a federal crime for any person to move in interstate travel to promote or participate in a racketeering enterprise. Some of the nation’s most notorious racketeers have been insulated from prosecution by living in one section of the country and having illegal gambling interests in another …

Two other new laws make it a felony to transmit bets and wagers between states by wire or telephone or to transport wagering paraphernalia to another state. Wagering paraphernalia, as defined by Congress, includes tickets, slips, or paper used in bookmaking, sports pools, or the numbers racket.

The new laws, which the president signed on September 13, had an immediate effect on the gambling community. The nation’s leading race wire services, including Athletic Publications of Minneapolis, Minnesota—the so-called Minneapolis line, which furnished point spread and other sports handicap information—and the Nola News of New Orleans closed down …

The laws themselves, of course, while enabling the federal government to do a better job, will not make the final difference. That must come from the extra effort now being made by all the federal law-enforcement agencies and many local police officials, and from the support which this effort gets from the American people themselves.

The dishonesty of the gambling operations, the degradation of the narcotics and white-slave traffic are bad enough, but what really concerns me is the great wealth of the racketeers and the power that goes with it—the power to corrupt police and public officials, and in some instances, gain political control of an area.

The fundamental strength of our democracy, which is based on respect for the law, is at stake. Individual citizens, by working to elect honest public officials and raise policemen’s pay, can make a major difference in this matter. But in the last analysis it depends on the business executive, the factory worker, and the housewife who have been financing big-time crime with their $2 bets and their 10-cent wagers. If they would stop patronizing the illegal bookie, the numbers runner, and the sports-pool operator, they could take the profit out of gambling and bring organized crime down to size quicker than all the combined efforts of the federal and local law-enforcement agencies.

Read the full article in the Atlantic archives.

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