Between the 1960s and 2021, the United States fought two disastrous drug wars in distant lands and historian Alfred McCoy covered them both. The initial one was, of course, the Vietnam War, which, as he reminds us today, left staggering numbers of American soldiers hooked on heroin. In those years, McCoy quite literally tramped the "heroin trail" in Laos, "meeting gangsters and warlords in isolated places," while covering the grim role our leading intelligence agency played in drugging American troops, first for Harper's Magazine and then in his book (which the CIA tried to suppress), The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.
America's second disastrous drug war was, of course, the Afghan one that the U.S. is now, at least theoretically, leaving in its wake almost 20 years after its 2001 invasion. Meanwhile, the Taliban, which kept itself afloat all those years at least in part on money made from growing, refining, and marketing opium, now threatens to fell the U.S.-supported regime there. And McCoy covered that drug war (even if from a distance) for TomDispatch. From 2010 on, he's written vividly and repeatedly about how, as he put it in 2016, "Washington's single and singular accomplishment in all its years there has been to oversee the country's transformation into the planet's number one narco-state." How grimly true.
And for this, unfortunately, there's a long history. As he wrote in 2010 in the first of his TomDispatch pieces on the subject, the CIA's covert Afghan war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s "served as the catalyst that transformed the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands into the world's largest heroin-producing region." Oh, the irony of it all!
Today, McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and the upcoming To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, turns to the third drug war this country has been involved in since the Vietnam era. As it happens, this one has been taking place not thousands of miles away in distant war zones, but right here at home and it couldn't be grimmer. Tom
America's Drug Wars
Fifty Years of Reinforcing Racism
By Alfred McCoy
Fifty years ago, on June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon stood before the White House press corps, staffers at his side, to announce "a new, all-out offensive" against drug abuse, which he denounced as "America's public enemy number one." He called on Congress to contribute $350 million for a worldwide attack on "the sources of supply." The first battle in this new drug war would be fought in South Vietnam where, Nixon said, "a number of young Americans have become addicts as they serve abroad."
While the president was declaring his war on drugs, I was stepping off a trans-Pacific flight into the searing tropical heat of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, to report on the sources of supply for the drug abuse that was indeed sweeping through the ranks of American soldiers fighting this country's war in Vietnam.
As I would soon discover, the situation was far worse than anything Nixon could have conveyed in his sparse words. Heroin vials littered the floors of Army barracks. Units legendary for their heroism in World War II like the 82nd Airborne were now known as the "jumping junkies." A later survey found that more than a third of all GIs fighting the Vietnam War "commonly used" heroin. Desperate to defeat this invisible enemy, the White House was now about to throw millions of dollars at this overseas drug war, funding mass urinalysis screening for every homeward-bound GI and mandatory treatment for any who tested positive for drugs.
Even that formidable effort, however, couldn't defeat the murky politics of heroin, marked by a nexus of crime and official collusion that made mass drug abuse among GIs possible. After all, in the rugged mountains of nearby Laos, Air America, a company run by the CIA, was transporting opium harvested by tribal farmers who were also serving as soldiers in its secret army. The commander of the Royal Lao Army, a close ally, then operated the world's largest illicit lab, turning raw opium into refined heroin for the growing numbers of GI users in neighboring Vietnam. Senior South Vietnamese commanders colluded in the smuggling and distribution of such drugs to GIs in bars, in barracks, and at firebases. In both Laos and South Vietnam, American embassies ignored the corruption of their local allies that was helping to fuel the traffic.
Nixon's Drug War
As sordid as Saigon's heroin politics were, they would pale when compared to the cynical deals agreed to in Washington over the next 30 years that would turn the drug war of the Vietnam era into a political doomsday machine. Standing alongside the president on that day when America's drug war officially began was John Erlichman, White House counsel and Nixon confidante.
As he would later bluntly tell a reporter,
"The Nixon White House had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people" We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news."
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