No decade of the recent American past is more distorted by popular culture than the 1950s. Commonly depicted as a time of complacent tranquility and rigid conformity, American life was instead unsettled and often contentious. Much of the turmoil was linked to the rise of a youth culture of unprecedented scope and importance – one that catered to the “teenager,” a term invented in the 1950s to capture a stage of late adolescence between the dependency of childhood and the responsibility of adult life. The dynamics of the emerging youth culture often reinforced messages of conformity, but just as often they did not, and the emotions and expressiveness unleashed by rock ‘n’ roll music or adolescent pop movies could not always be monitored or checked by authority. During the same time, the modern black freedom movement engaged in struggles that echoed elements of the power dialectic of youth culture. Mobilizing well-accepted notions of American life, civil rights leaders argued on behalf of enfranchisement or consumption opportunities for African Americans, even ones as seemingly banal as enjoying a drink at a soda fountain. Thus, while the dominant cultural script of American values survived the decade intact, its narration and particular applications changed – at times, radically so.
Not to be overlooked in a more careful assessment of the 1950s are the many tensions and transformations that were present within white middle-class America. While disaffected outsiders challenged dominant social norms, these norms also imposed hardships and entailed power negotiations among even those who subscribed to them. The familiar appearance of 1950s harmony projected in celebrated images of female domesticity masked, and to some extent helped mollify, concerns about the large numbers of married women entering the workforce. Similarly deceptive is the story of the “organization man,” or male breadwinner, commonly supposed to have led a charmed life in the decade, but who in fact was tasked with new emotional responsibilities at home and professional obligations at work. Historian Alan Petigny refers to these subtle contests during the 1950s as a “subversive consensus”: an outward projection of conformity, but one that relied upon a reworked hierarchy of roles or understanding.
The ethnic stereotypes and dim prospects for post–World War II democratic reconstruction of Germany voiced by Bureau of Narcotics officials, while notable, were trivial compared to the Bureau’s assessment of East Asia. Throughout the postwar years, Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger and his men projected their “good guys, bad guys” view of narcotics trade through the Asian prism, illuminating the essential character of nations for Americans to better apprehend, or so they believed. Anslinger seized on opportunities to nominate illicit narcotics trade as one more repugnant dimension to America’s already hated enemies – first the Japanese empire, then Communist China. His purported knowledge of adversaries engaged in disreputable acts made his enforcement portfolio relevant to some of the most urgent issues of the day. By successfully insinuating himself into Asian politics, Anslinger presided over an awkward and occasionally hostile marriage between his Republican, religious missionary worldviews and an emerging democratic internationalism premised on trade and multilateral agreements and institutions. However imperfect, the resulting hybrid of expanding global presence combined with a crusading impulse shaped much of the United States’ experience of the world in the postwar era.
In this way, Anslinger was both an architect and an emblem of American global engagement throughout the 1950s. Not surprisingly, his global vision resembled his domestic views, including his tendency to view illicit narcotics traffic not as an activity to detect and interdict, but as a proclivity, even a moral failing, to impute to unsavory types and denounce in strident terms. As before, this led to miscalculations, none more serious than Anslinger’s incorrect though impassioned belief in the volume of and interest in narcotic smuggling by Communist China. When Bureau agents discovered ethnic (Han) Chinese suspected of illicit trafficking in Europe, they used this identity to sketch an unbroken chain back to the mainland; unfortunately for the agents who made these racial calculations, these entrepreneurs were part of a global Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) diaspora fleeing Communist China. In this and many other ways, it is impossible to understand Anslinger’s historic blunders without acknowledging the racialized and highly reductivist views he and most Americans held regarding East Asia.
As the federal government restructured its illicit drug regime in a staggered fashion throughout the 1960s, the cities that lawmakers invoked as the intended beneficiaries of their efforts underwent spectacular change. In large cities across America, the demographics of residential life were altered as the result of Puerto Rican immigration and African American migration – and, just as significant, white middle-class exodus to the suburbs. By the middle of the 1950s, as the housing market stabilized after a tumultuous postwar era, a steady stream of roughly one million people per year moved to suburban homes, leaving city life behind. These massive movements of people reshaped the modern landscape of American life, including its political geography. Whereas the country had once been divided along sectional lines – the south, the west, and the north – now its most durable political boundaries were residential: urban, suburban, and rural.
For the first time, the identity of “city” by that reckoning became linked to a sizeable presence of racial minorities; Washington, DC, registered the most dramatic of all the demographic shifts and was declared majority African American by 1963 (54 percent). That same year, African Americans made up more than a quarter of the population in New Orleans, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, with Chicago not far behind. During this same time, in these cities and others, urban police departments expanded aggressive drug enforcement from vice squads to general patrol officers, though these were tactics applied primarily to poor, minority neighborhoods most affected by the demographic changes underway. And, although law enforcement embraced a professional ethos, aggressive use of force in these neighborhoods was commonplace – and so too was corruption, especially in narcotics work. Strained relations with police resulted in tense community life defined by racial hostility. In Washington, DC, a young activist named Marion Barry forged his reputation in the community by denouncing police brutality and the autocratic control of the city by its appointed commissioners. In the District and elsewhere, throughout the latter half of the 1960s and especially in 1968, volatile police encounters occasionally escalated into riots. In the worst of these, entire neighborhoods burned.
Modern drugs and the war against them have produced a number of alternate states. Countless people, be they broken or bored, frail or fearless, sought refuge in the altered reality produced by drugs. Those who denounced such behavior often endorsed a set of interventions that contradicted other cherished beliefs. Conservatives who normally embraced a minimal state presence nonetheless supported aggressive state actions of interdiction and punishment; isolationists critical of U.S. international engagement came to believe that only extraterritorial action abroad would diminish the supply of drugs at home. Similarly, urban liberals and left-wing intelligentsia who worked to install confidence in the operations of the state began, in the 1980s, to express a skeptical view of the state-sponsored efforts of the “drug war.” Like the drug users they claimed to steward, crusaders of either stripe experienced a temporary disconnect when it came to drugs. Significantly, the drug war has produced an “alternate state” in the most literal sense: a statutory structure, law enforcement regime, and international project that stood astride the normal functioning of the state, ostensibly to help strengthen and legitimize its function, but ultimately demonstrating that state’s manifest weakness and vulnerability. Whether the drug war was notional, deployed mainly as a rhetorical device, or fully realized, featuring military assaults and, in the case of Manuel Noriega in Panama, toppling a regime, it is a war that has been lost.
Its futility does nothing to undermine its significance as a project of the state. Indeed, there are a number of ways in which the federal government’s prosecution of the modern drug war provides a lens through which to view the recent past. First, the state’s prosecution of the modern drug war joins with some aspects of African American history, and especially so given the newly restored focus on race discrimination and segregation above the Mason-Dixon line. What is more, while older work on the black freedom movement typically adopted a chronology that culminated in the historic legislation of the Great Society, newer scholarship maps the fight for equality onto urban history – either directly, or by sketching the white backlash that animated suburban development – and brings the story well into the 1970s.
Throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, the U.S. government adopted a punishment and prohibitive approach to deal with illicit drug consumption. In so doing, lawmakers demonstrated considerable faith in the formal mechanics of governing, as they cobbled together dramatic legislative overhauls, reorganized and added new layers to the federal government, and issued impressive public vows to stem the tide of illicit drug traffic and use. At the same time and in other areas of American life, public confidence in the instruments and institutions of state power declined precipitously, so much so that observers dubbed the country’s frustration a “crisis of liberalism,” a widespread disillusionment with key tenets supporting the governing coalition that held power for decades by espousing government manipulation of the economy through interest rates and taxes, social policy benefits for special communities, and Cold War containment policies abroad.
By far the most painful reckoning for the country in this unfolding “crisis” was the U.S. government’s intervention in South Vietnam, originally undertaken to forestall communist assumption of power that would likely follow reunification with the North. This decade-long military deployment, launched at the height of Camelot idealism and initially presented as a noble cause, soon became a dispiriting stalemate and, finally, an ignominious and costly defeat. No other saga captured the predicament of state power so completely as the agonizing revelations prompted by U.S. intervention in Vietnam: the government had lied to its people, embraced quixotic and convenient beliefs, sent soldiers to die in a war waged with conflicting tactics and without strategic purpose, and caused the suffering and death of tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Unmasked in its brutality and humiliated by withdrawal and defeat, American power stood revealed as fragile and suspect.
When witness Judge Jonah Goldstein appeared before the Boggs Subcommittee in 1956, he admonished the very legislators who had been instrumental in crafting a punishment regime for illicit narcotic use: “Common sense and experience,” he told the congressmen, “dictate that habits cannot be controlled or cured by criminal law.” Doubtless Goldstein drew on knowledge he gained while serving on New York’s Court of General Sessions, but, as the congressional members knew well, Goldstein’s view was also one that was gaining traction in a variety of professional circles. A short time later, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Bar Association (ABA) would issue reports critical of the criminal punishment approach in dealing with illicit drug use. For the medical society in particular this was a striking departure, as the new stance on illicit drugs recanted previous claims, and the positions that the AMA now saw fit to renounce had once been essential in sparing professional medical authority from the review and contempt of U.S. Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger.
Such authority now flourished well beyond the reach of Anslinger’s reproach, and the medical profession relied on its popular esteem in striking new ground. Doctors also seemed to be influenced by more mundane forms of social engagement as well: new ideas regarding “addiction” came from several corners in the late 1950s, and these contemporary views reinforced the revised medical consensus on illicit drug use. While doctors and others recast public perceptions of the “addict,” legal professionals took stock of the now-unwieldy set of criminal punishments in place for illicit narcotic use. At the same time that the medical community held out the possibilities for a new way of dealing with addiction, important legal circles were at work discrediting the old one.
In 2010, California voters considered – and rejected – a ballot proposition to legalize the cultivation and consumption of marijuana. Most voters wrestled with this decision while bearing in mind other illicit drugs, wondering whether legalizing marijuana would affect the moral and legal case for outlawing substances considered more potent and destructive. Could a pragmatic concession on one drug set an unwelcome precedent for the entire scheme of prohibition of illicit drugs?
Yet it is illicit drug prohibition itself that is the historical aberration, a labored and in many ways radical construction of some of the most formative decades in modern American history. Most assume that it is the result of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs”; in fact, his announcement only gave a name to changes that had taken place during the preceding two decades. Between World War II and 1973, the United States transitioned from a regulatory illicit drug regime to a prohibitive and punitive one. This book tells the story of that shift.
For once, Harry Anslinger was satisfied. The bold and often irascible commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics, known for his moralistic denunciations of drug use and enthusiastic promises of success in his campaign to eradicate the “demon of narcotics,” must have grown weary of reports that contradicted his most assured public declarations. As confidently as Anslinger predicted certain victory, his own narcotics agents filed incident reports that chronicled a messy battle against illicit narcotic use; indeed, reading between the lines or judging by the heft of the correspondence alone, the campaign against illicit use of narcotics seemed not only uncertain, but much in doubt.
All that changed after the Japanese invasion of eastern China in 1937. Formerly dispirited narcotics agents turned triumphant as they fired off messages to their superiors, recording the sudden and exorbitant rise in the price of illicit narcotics and the “weak” or highly diluted content of drugs sold on the street. One district supervisor sent word in the fall of 1937 of the “high cost of bootleg narcotics,” which he attributed to “strict enforcement of narcotic laws.” Other agents seemed likewise overcome by their own serendipity and success, though in fact this amounted to a gruesome catalog of behavior. The district supervisor in Seattle, Washington, observed that addicts who consumed highly adulterated drugs “subjected their bodies to unusual abuse.” One barbiturate acid commonly “cut” into heroin sold on the black market deteriorated and ultimately destroyed the veins of its user, and those who consumed it in regular amounts resorted to “introduction through the head and particularly the forehead’s small veins.” Narcotics agents in New York sent the Washington office a story of one woman who, “being unable to obtain narcotics, jumped from the fifth floor room in the Lexington apartments … landing 75 feet below on a pile of broken bricks in the alley.” Because the Bureau kept records on all addicts known to them, it was not for poetic reasons that the narcotics agent added that the distraught woman “lived about four hours and died in the Mercy Hospital.” Other heroin users resorted to consuming gallons of paregoric sedative – usually dispensed in small bottles to quiet colicky babies – in order to get the two grains of opium present in each ounce.
There is no issue where government policy diverges from American popular opinion – let alone popular American practice – as drastically as it does in the handling of illicit drugs. This book was written to embolden the people’s consensus and narrow the divide between the government and its citizens by presenting a history that casts doubt on the supporting tenets and presumed purposes of the so-called drug war.
It does so by offering an account of the federal government’s original approach to illicit drugs, a scheme of taxes and tariffs, and tracing its demise. This story reveals that the shift from a regulatory regime toward a punitive and prohibitive one was not dictated by a surge in illicit drug use, crimes associated with drug use, or changes in drug potency or price, although it is most definitely the case that the availability of drugs rose dramatically in the years following World War II. Nor was this move in favor of prohibition brought about by changes to the constitutional powers accorded to the federal government, even though it is perfectly true that changes in judicial readings of the commerce clause during the New Deal and World War II made possible the sweeping legislation of the 1960s and 70s that provide the legislative basis for today’s drug war.
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