Updated: Aug 29
Editors Note: This post is from Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan.
In May 1976, more than fifty people—celebrities and professionals from various fields—announced at a carefully staged press conference that they had recovered from alcoholism. The event had been organized by the National Council on Alcoholism (today the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) as part of its annual conference. In 1944, Margaret “Marty” Mann had disclosed her own drinking problem and founded the NCA to persuade Americans to regard alcoholism as a public health matter. On that May day more than thirty years later, actors, politicians, journalists, sports figures, physicians, lawyers, pilots, clergymen, even an astronaut and an “Indian chief” (Sylvester Tinker of the Osage Nation) participated in “Operation Understanding.” Arrayed in alphabetical order on risers in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., each person stood, announced his or her name, and then added, “I am an alcoholic.” Consistent with the mission of the NCA, the event planners hoped to reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism, demonstrate that alcoholics come from all backgrounds, and encourage those who struggled with their drinking to seek help.
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Newspaper articles about the event were complimentary, often devoting column inches to a simple recitation of the names of the participants and their professional achievements—which was the point, after all. Even in the 1970s, the NCA believed it necessary to counter the stereotype of alcoholics as Skid Row bums. Some of the individuals were well-known personalities from show business and sports, while others were accomplished professionals from other fields. In this sense, the event included both alcoholic celebrities—people who were already famous when they revealed their alcoholism—and celebrity alcoholics—those who became known because of their disclosure. I have used this typology elsewhere to compare the actress and singer Lillian Roth with Marty Mann.
Some of those who participated in Operation Understanding remain well known today, such as actor Dick Van Dyke and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, while others are less so. TV personality Garry Moore was frequently quoted in press coverage surrounding the event, as in the Los Angeles Times on May 9, 1976, where he emphasized the emotional significance of coming forward: “For a long time a lot of us stayed in the closet,” he explained. “This is a great day, a great step forward.” At the time, Moore was familiar as the popular host of such game shows as “I’ve Got a Secret” and “To Tell the Truth” as well as his own variety show. That he and others who stepped forward do not have the same name recognition today makes it harder to appreciate the magnitude and consequences of this event.
Operation Understanding also served a didactic purpose and press coverage served to educate readers about alcoholism. Eschewing the term “reformed,” which made alcoholism sound like a moral failing, the participants called themselves “recovered” alcoholics. “What they meant,” explained the Washington Post, “was that they have all been victims of alcoholism, but recovered their health through unwavering abstinence from alcoholic drink.” Participants insisted that “controlled” or limited drinking does not work for alcoholics, and they debated among themselves whether advertisements for beverage alcohol should be restricted. While most of those involved insisted that they felt relieved and happy in disclosing their alcoholism, actress Mercedes McCambridge countered that it was a painful process. Many expressed the hope that their example would help others break through denial and seek help for excessive drinking, and they emphasized the scale of the problem with the estimate that ten million Americans suffered from alcoholism.
Although a few women took part, including McCambridge, journalist Adela Rogers St. John and actress Jan Clayton, who played the mother on the television show “Lassie,” the vast majority were men. When it was Marty Mann’s turn to stand, the other participants gave her a standing ovation. Mann was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that alcoholic women faced twice as much stigma as their male counterparts. Almost all of those involved were white, although Sylvester Tinker spoke about the ways in which alcohol had contributed to the historical exploitation of Native American groups. For the most part, however, participants emphasized their shared identity as alcoholics: while most of them had not been acquainted prior to the event, they insisted that they found an immediate camaraderie and kinship. Even the alphabetical seating arrangement reinforced the idea that their achievements and characteristics in the outside world were less important than the disease and recovery they had in common.
As an historian, I am fascinated by how important stories and narrative are in the discourses of addiction and recovery. Those who participated in Operation Understanding used a rhetorical device borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous—“I am an alcoholic”—although the fellowship was not mentioned by name at the press conference. In this way, they became authors of their own stories and also contributed to a communal narrative. Operation Understanding also helps us think about periodization in the recent history of addiction. Its importance was lauded at the time and its significance as a turning point has been recognized in retrospect, planting the seeds for a much wider movement of recovery advocacy. Operation Understanding demonstrates more clearly than many other historical developments how individual stories have cumulative effects in making and measuring historical change.