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  • From Counter-Insurgency to Narco-Insurgency: Vietnam and the International War on Drugs
  • Jeremy Kuzmarov (bio)

If we have found we cannot be the world's policeman, can we hope to become the world's narc?

—H. D. S. Greenway, Life Magazine, October 19721

In the January 1968 issue of the Washingtonian magazine, the son of the great American novelist John Steinbeck made his professional journalistic debut with the publication of a controversial article, “The Importance of Being Stoned in Vietnam.” John Steinbeck IV, who served as a roving correspondent for the Pacific Stars and Stripes, wrote that marijuana of a potent quality was grown naturally in Vietnam, sold by farmers at a fraction of the cost than in the United States, and could be obtained “more easily than a package of Lucky Strikes cigarettes.” He estimated that up to 75 percent of soldiers in Vietnam got high regularly. “The average soldier sees that for all intents and purposes, the entire country is stoned,” Steinbeck observed. “To enforce a prohibition against smoking the plant [in Vietnam] would be like trying to prohibit the inhalation of smog in Los Angeles.”2

Although his words were evocative, Steinbeck exaggerated the scope of drug abuse in Vietnam for political purposes. He had been arrested on marijuana charges upon return to his native California and wanted to point out the hypocrisy of government policies targeting those who had fought for their country in Vietnam.3 Military psychiatrists working closest to the situation later determined that between 30 percent and 35 percent of American [End Page 344] gis likely used marijuana—largely on an experimental basis and to escape the harrowing social conditions of the war.4 The media nevertheless largely bought into Steinbeck’s inflated figures and became flooded with articles pointing to the ravaging effects of drug use in combat, even though predominantly this was rare.5 They often used sensationalistic rhetoric, including reference to “epidemics” and “plagues,” as well as Orientalist stereotypes depicting drugs as a foreign corrupting agent, resulting in a rise in public support for an escalation of federal drug-control measures—particularly in the international realm.6 In May 1971, Newsweek columnist Stewart Alsop went so far as to proclaim that drug use during the war was worse than the My-Lai massacre, which Senator Thomas J. Dodd (D-Conn.) had previously tried to blame on marijuana.7

Public hysteria over drug abuse in Vietnam—and its pronounced political consequence—has generally been ignored in the academic literature on the War on Drugs, which has focused more on domestic political developments and the pathologies of the Nixon White House.8 Writing from a predominantly liberal disposition, many analysts reason that the drug war emerged as a product of the Conservative backlash toward the hippie counterculture and the sociocultural tensions of the 1960s.9 Others contend that conservatives manipulated public opinion on the drug issue through inflated statistics in order to push forward a social agenda focused on expanding law enforcement at the expense of social welfare programs.10 These arguments are compelling and demonstrate how the War on Drugs has been adopted to serve important political ends while ushering in what deputy drug czar, John Walters (1989–93), characterized as a “conservative cultural revolution.” 11 They nevertheless neglect the broader global context and impact of the crisis in Vietnam in exacerbating popular anxieties over drugs and in shaping a shift in governmental priorities.

On June 17, 1971, in the face of mounting domestic protest and the release of a congressional report claiming—exaggeratingly as it turned out—that 10 percent to 15 percent of gis were addicted to high-grade heroin supplied by cia allies, Nixon officially declared a War on Drugs. He called drug abuse “public enemy number one in America.”12 Escalating the budget for domestic treatment and enforcement, Nixon stepped up efforts to train foreign police in the so-called Golden Triangle (encompassing northern Thailand, Laos, and South Vietnam) and implemented aerial spraying and crop substitution campaigns more extensive in scope than in Mexico. Nixon further enacted a highly controversial urinalysis program in the military accompanied by a rehabilitation regiment for those caught with positive...


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