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THE AMERICAN DISCOVERY OF ALCOHOLISM, 1933-1939
Irony, luck, and social change
There was nothing foregone or ineluctable about the birth of the alcoholism paradigm in the post-Repeal period. Players in the alcohol arena were not mysteriously drawn from the temperance paradigm to the alcoholism paradigm and did not appear to harbor any sort of foreknowledge of the various sociocultural virtues and utilities that social scientists, in hindsight, might later attach to the new paradigm. Jolliffe proposed a new initiative devoted to alcoholism research, of course, but Jolliffe worked within a pre-existing tradition of alcoholism treatment, and so his proposal did not, and could not, constitute a major conceptual reorganization of the alcohol problems arena. If anything, until the RCPA hit on Bowman's Compromise in autumn 1939, the various groups and initiatives we have examined in the post-Repeal alcohol arena seem to have shied away from alcoholism. Colby, we saw, frankly and explicitly distanced his moderationist initiative from any involvement with alcoholics. Neither Waddell and Haag (1938) nor the SCNCA had greatly focused on alcoholism. The early RCPA more or less dismissed alcoholism (and traffic accidents) as two islands of accord in a sea of discord between Wets and Drys (see "Report," 1938). Bowman and his 1939 RCPA colleagues appear to have stumbled into a focus on alcoholism rather than having been drawn into it by fore-impressions of the broader sociocultural implications such a focus might ultimately have.
Neither, however, was the alcoholism problem embraced in 1939 because of a substantive scientific discovery or re-discovery. The move was made, as we have seen, by the RCPA in light of the need for resources and the need to maintain the appearance (and, it was hoped, the fact) of independence from potential bias. The new focus, RCPA leadership realized, would free them from the awkward fact that the results of more traditionally defined alcohol-focused research inevitably had rhetorical value for either Wets or Drys, thus raising the possibility of bias due to sources of financial support whenever either Wets or Drys financed such research. The absence of substantive scientific reasons for Bowman's Compromise, here, demonstrates that although RCPA scientists were not (consciously or otherwise) drawn toward the new focus and paradigm because of its sociocultural utilities, nevertheless sociocultural factors were very much at the heart of the paradigm shift.
We have seen that the post-Repeal sociocultural environment harbored a number of factors that animated attention in the alcohol domain--thus taking away the cultural option simply to let the issue slumber or die after 1933. Men like Colby and Moore--as well as Moulton, Jolliffe, and others--were partly drawn to the alcohol field for entrepreneurial reasons, spurred by the Great Depression to develop financial support for a cause that both seemed likely to merit their efforts and seemed likely to attract financial support from Rockefeller or other sources. Even the events in Virginia, which were not driven by the search for financial backing, were no less the result of animating forces lying latent in the passage of Repeal. There, as we saw, the cultural contradiction between Dry school pedagogy and this monopoly state's post-Repeal vending of alcohol created a symbolic dilemma demanding action. Such animating forces help explain why the alcoholism paradigm was born so soon after Repeal.
Wets sought to promote a moderationist ideal in the post-Repeal era--one which they and others hoped would reduce the country's burden of alcohol-related problems and stave off a new Dry prohibition campaign. Both Colby's and Waddell and Haag's initiatives (though they were not launched by Wet interests) can be regarded as expressions of that essentially Wet goal. Why--when so many Americans may have been sympathetic to the development of a new moderationism--did Colby's and Waddell and Haag's initiatives suffer the fates they did?
This "Damp" drive for moderation had the ironic consequence of forcing the alcohol debate on to a cultural plane upon which Wets would find themselves at a rhetorical disadvantage. A push for moderationism, we have seen, was regarded by Dry observers as an attempt to devilify alcohol. In the classic temperance perspective (Bacon, 1967) alcohol was evil--and therefore it was unthinkable to advocate alcohol's moderate use. Any such advocacy, in turn, implied that alcohol's evil was being implicitly attenuated. This dynamic tended to drive conflict over moderation into the symbolic plane. And on this plane, Wets (or Damps) still stood at a competitive disadvantage.
Even in the anti-Dry climate of opinion of post-Repeal America, alcohol's symbolic definition offered few positive facets upon which an ethos of moderationism could be constructed (Bacon, 1967). Most adult Americans in the 1930s had been exposed to the legacy of Mary Hunt's anti-alcohol pedagogy, launched in the 1870s and 1880s, in their own childhoods and public school experience. The battle over Repeal, moreover, was not fought between those who thought alcohol was bad and those who thought it good--but, instead, between those who thought alcohol was bad and those who thought Prohibition was worse. Even Wets, then, harbored an ambivalent moral image of alcohol. A small and ragged Dry force properly positioned on the symbolic issue could hold off a larger but symbolically ill-equipped force promoting moderationism and its moral corollary, devilification. Drys, who with Repeal had lost the battle against alcohol's legal/commercial legitimacy, felt they would not also lose the battle against alcohol's symbolic legitimacy. Waddell and Haag compounded this strategic weakness by finding themselves in a conflict over public education and schoolchildren, even less favorable symbolic venues for making moderationism's case. One can detect that even the actors themselves sensed the weakness of their symbolic positions--both in Colby's timid and ill-defined conception of moderation and in Waddell and Haag's parched standard for it. In short, Damp advocates sensed that "Damp" was going to have to be an awfully "Dry Damp" to have a chance to survive in this symbolic arena. Ironically, then, the Wet case for moderation forced the alcohol issue onto cultural turf that was still substantially under Dry cultural hegemony.
Even in apparent victory, however, the Dry hold on this symbolic territory could be weakened. The events in Virginia, for example, violated American sensibilities regarding freedom of information, fair play, and the rights of a largely indifferent majority to prevail over a vigorous (even virtuous) minority in defining the state's disposition toward alcohol and alcohol education. In its excesses, Waddell and Haag's defeat in Virginia was much like a small-scale Scopes trial for the nascent scientific community just then gaining an interest and influence in the alcohol territory. The report-burning would later help prompt American scientific leaders to field an alcohol force so large and prestigious that no Dry resistance could easily suppress the results of its endeavors.
If Levine (1978) is correct (and I believe that he is) in suggesting that the alcoholism paradigm fit the post-Repeal cultural circumstance because it domesticated or devilified alcohol, thus providing symbolic certification for alcohol's production and consumption in post-Repeal American society, then the curious feature of this history is that the issue of devilification was hotly contested in this period and was not one in which Wets interests could be said to gaining cultural ground. Alcohol's post-Repeal journey toward devilification and symbolic legitimacy underwent anything but a smooth normative ascent in this period (cf. Gusfield, 1967).
SCNCA Drys sought in 1937 to reopen the country's examination of alcohol by advocating a program of education based on new, objective, scientific research. The SCNCA, in effect, called for a new cultural trial of beverage alcohol. By the time of the SCNCA's founding three-and-a-half years had elapsed since Repeal, allowing sufficient post-Repeal alcohol-related troubles to accumulate. Faith in the evil of alcohol and in the truth-seeking character of even nontemperance or mainstream science as well as ferment in the country's educational system served to create a seemingly favorable circumstances for re-opening a Dry assault. As we have seen, the SCNCA's initiative involved the gambit of ceding that past scientific-temperance pedagogy was outdated and should be updated by the mainstream scientific community. In the SCNCA's original plan, a Dry agenda would define those research questions, assuring that the enterprise would have the proper pedagogic result.
Ironically--and much like the Wet moderationist initiative--the SCNCA's drive ultimately would take Dry intentions into cultural territory where they operated at a disadvantage. Their reliance on mainstream science forced the initiative into a secular cultural arena, exposing it to risks of which Drys may have had little foreknowledge or comprehension. Dry science advocates tended to operate within an antiquated image of science itself--in which an "absolute truth" about alcohol (that is, its evil) would ultimately emerge from any properly conducted scientific research. In fact--and as events in Virginia also illustrated--control over problem-definition was the all-important key to determining the directions scientific research and its policy implications would ultimately take.
As it happened, no sooner had the SCNCA affiliated with the AAAS than the scientists began a takeover of the group. The SCNCA had come in contact with the AAAS at a critical juncture, just as new AAAS leadership was advancing the Science and Society movement. AAAS leadership was on the prowl for new domains to conquer in which to render visible public service and expand scientific employment. An important Science and Society movement presumption held that scientific rationality could somehow rescue social-problem territories from the pitfalls of their formerly nonscientific, morally, or politically-based cultural handling. Not dread of alcohol, but faith in science underlay this initiative.
The encounter between the Dry-leaning SCNCA and the AAAS scientific community had the ironic effect of transforming the alcohol issue from a main focus into an exemplar--this, itself, was perhaps a considerable stroke for the cultural taming or domestication of the alcohol issue. A crucial inversion in means and ends took place--in the SCNCA's vision, science was to be the instrumentality to Dry-defined ends; in the RCPA/AAAS's vision, alcohol became the instrumentality to ends defined by the Science and Society movement.
Bowman's Compromise, as we saw in Chapter VIII, solved the RCPA's financial woes by ostensibly ethically justifying the use of Wet support for the group's now alcoholism-focused research program. Much as Room (1978--see Chapter I) suggested in his analysis of a slightly later set of events at Yale, the RCPA's decision represented a "narrowing" of the RCPA's research alcohol-problems research agenda. Yet this "narrowing" was also, in another perspective, a "widening" of alcoholism's new place in the now redefined alcohol-problems domain. Alcoholism tacitly became the domain's master problem and organizing concept.
How does Bowman's Compromise mesh with Levine's hypothesis that the alcoholism paradigm fit the post-Repeal circumstance because it domesticated or devilified alcohol, thus providing symbolic certification for alcohol's production and consumption in post-Repeal American society? We have seen that scientists making the decision to narrow their efforts to alcoholism alone did not take this course of action in order to adjust alcohol's moral definition (i.e., devilify alcohol) but instead in order to adjust the moral circumstances surrounding alcohol-related research. But were scientists' efforts to manipulate the moral valences on alcohol research linked in some way to the wider society's "need" for alcohol's devilification?
A tenuous but discernible link between alcoholism research's moral valence and alcohol's moral valence in the wider society can be traced by examining the interests of those offering funds for the RCPA's research program, the Wets. The documentary evidence is not complete on this point, but it appears that Wet interests were drawn to the RCPA initially not because the group offered alcoholism research (recall that alcoholism was a minor part of the October 1938 announcement) but because the RCPA offered a mainstream or nontemperance scientific evaluation of alcohol. Such an evaluation may have offered three payoffs for Wets. First, they could attempt to garner the credit and appreciation showered on any person or institution who supports a good cause. Second, they could hope to encourage the development of a neutral or nontemperance body of knowledge about alcohol (perhaps negative in some respects but bound to be less negative than temperance science). And, third, they could count on the underlying secularity of nontemperance science to disincline it to condemning alcohol out of hand (much as Waddell and Haag  had been reluctant to say, simply, that alcohol was bad or evil, period). In fact, the stigma on the beverage industry militated against the first objective. Thus, at the moment Bowman and the RCPA were embracing alcoholism, the devilification of alcohol they were perceived tacitly to offer to Wet supporters was essentially that contained in the broader implications of the second and third points.
I am inclined to think that luck was on the Wets' side in this small progression of interactions with the RCPA. Wets offered support with the broad and general hope of devilifying alcohol. RCPA scientists, in turn, narrowed their research agenda to a singular focus on alcoholism, in order to insulate themselves from charges of bias. Alcoholism, in turn, had the unexpected bonus for Wets of devilifying alcohol by placing the locus of alcohol-related problem in the man and not in the bottle. Even so, it would take time for this realization to dawn, and (even then) not all seeming implications of the alcoholism focus were initially appealing to Wets. To take a good example of this, some Wets disliked that the new paradigm drew attention to the words "alcoholic" and "alcoholism"--words built around the root word "alcohol." Wet interests preferred that the term "problem drinker" be used--in this way further distancing alcohol, their product, from the problem definition (see Rubin, 1979). This was a definitional preference that RCPA leadership tried to oblige in later years (see Hirsh, 1949).
The story of social construction we have examined is both simpler and more complex than the one schematically suggested by Levine, Blocker, Beauchamp, Gusfield, and Room in Chapter I. The story is simpler in that the discovery event appears to have involved a relatively simple moral equation (i.e., "alcoholism is neither an inherently Dry-favoring nor a Wet-favoring research topic") rather than a multifaceted set of sociocultural requirements suggested in those analyses. Ironically, the various sociocultural "fits" between the alcoholism paradigm and the "needs" of post-Repeal "society" examined in Chapter I were probably latent and coincidental in Bowman's compromise, and perhaps will better help explain alcoholism's subsequent ascendancy rather than its discovery or invention--no doubt the question Levine, Blocker, Beauchamp, Gusfield, and Room were more inclined to address in any case.
The historical picture is more complex in that Bowman's Compromise was itself bounded and defined by a rich heritage of sociocultural legacies derived from both inside and outside the alcohol arena and from both recent and relatively distant events in time. We have seen, for example, that the Great Depression had numerous important influences on the origins of the modern alcoholism movement: in its role in prompting Repeal in the first place; in its prompting of the AYC's wide-ranging review of American public education, which provided the original institutional home for Moore's SCNCA; in its social premising of Moore's activism; in its stimulation of the employment and entrepreneurial energies of Colby and Moore and other RCPA scientists; in its prompting of the Science and Society movement within the AAAS; and so on. We have seen how the post-Repeal alcohol arena was considerably influenced by the image and prospect of Rockefeller support, even though such support never actually materialized. Rockefeller's preferences in this regard--which both encouraged scientific approaches to controversial social issues and defended the Rockefeller establishment from charges of self-interested social engineering--can be said to have had an important influence on the molding of alcohol proposals in the period. If the Rockefeller establishment's perspectives on alcohol research derived from the events surrounding the Ludlow Massacre, it may even be said that the form the modern alcoholism movement took in the post-Repeal period was partly shaped by events as distant in time and seemingly unrelated in substance as that 1914 massacre in Colorado. We have also seen how the post-Repeal alcohol arena was deeply affected by an "impermanence assumption" that quietly took the place of Prohibition's assumption of fixity with the unexpected, dramatic, and rapid passage of Repeal. Finally, we have seen how alcohol education in public schools provided a new, symbolic plane for the alcohol issue in post-Repeal America and how action on that plane fed into the new paradigm's genesis.
Yet, for all this complexity it is also clear that a measure of understanding has been won, too. The modern alcoholism movement did not simply spontaneously generate in the American alcohol arena left vacant by the collapse of national prohibition in 1933. Drys and Wets continued their conflict from 1933 to 1939. Something that saw itself as a third force--modern mainstream science--also joined the struggle. What began as the SCNCA's essentially Dry-leaning initiative to invoke mainstream science to vouchsafe a new (and, it was hoped, Dry-leaning) alcohol pedagogy ultimately became expropriated by the scientific community. The new alcoholism-centered problem definition offered potential benefits to both Wets and Drys, both in the long and short runs. And though the accord between Drys and Wets would be short-lived for some (see Rubin, 1979), it nevertheless lasted just long enough for scientific authority to establish its hold on this problem territory and for the new paradigm's central idea to begin to redirect the thinking of players in the alcohol-problems world.
Discussion of the long-run utilities of the alcoholism problem focus and paradigm will take us into a subject matter outside the scope of this study. Yet it is useful to comment briefly on some long-run factors. Wet interests might embrace the devilification implication in the new paradigm. They might appreciate the alcoholism paradigm because it charted an explicit and defensible cultural boundary between normal or social drinking and abnormal or alcoholic drinking--something neither Colby nor Waddell and Haag had dared do. As noted previously, the "symptoms of alcoholism" are seen as evidence of an underlying illness condition (see Jellinek, 1952) by the modern movement but can also serve to define a system of secular normative limits on normal drinking. The alcoholism paradigm also provided new and nonreligious authority for these limits, an authority drawn entirely from scientific and medical realms. Finally, the new movement provided for the enforcement of these norms--in due course, through the development of a system of alcoholism treatment institutions. Ironically, all these utilities made possible Colby's original cultural goal--namely, that of imposing a consensual moderationism on drinking in post-Repeal American society.
For scientists, in particular, the shift to alcoholism would harbor one additional utility that Bowman did not discuss in his appeal for the new focus--namely, it provided them with an alcohol-related problem to solve. Before Bowman's Compromise, the RCPA had focused on the rather bland goal of offering science as a medium for protecting the society's alcohol-related information system. After Bowman's Compromise, scientists could test their efforts against a true scientific puzzle demanding not merely their objectivity and disinterestedness but also their ability to solve a major scientific and medical problem.
Many Drys, of course, might have seen little to laud in all this. But the new focus and paradigm offered long-term benefits to Dry interests as well: (1) it could serve to renew and continue societal debate in the alcohol territory; (2) it could provide a focus on alcohol's addictive potentials, which in due course might undercut alcohol's post-Repeal legitimacy; (3) it could focus attention on some of alcohol's most devastated victims (in the Dry perspective). Perhaps the alcoholism paradigm's most important utility for Drys was also its subtlest. By focusing societal attentions on alcoholism, Drys could join in the new societal campaign against that foe without being obliged necessarily to grant approval to moderate drinking or devilify beverage alcohol. For many Drys, a societal campaign against alcoholism could still fit seamlessly and well into a gestalt that condemned alcohol absolutely--much as heroin addiction is part of the case for heroin's condemnation. Indeed, in Dry hands, the disease conception of alcoholism offered proof that alcohol's perniciousness lay not merely in Dry moral and religious preferences but instead in the bedrock of nature, as revealed through modern science. In short, the alcoholism paradigm provided that an aspect of alcohol remained evil in the post-Repeal alcoholism arena. Morover, if alcoholism as a social problem grew in importance in the post-Repeal era, no doubt some Drys imagined that the day would come when the their paradigm would again compete for serious societal interest.