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University of Massachusetts Press
The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs

The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs

by Jeremy Kuzmarov


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The image of the drug-addicted American soldier—disheveled, glassy-eyed, his uniform adorned with slogans of antiwar dissent—has long been associated with the Vietnam War. More specifically, it has persisted as an explanation for the U.S. defeat, the symbol of a demoralized army incapable of carrying out its military mission.

Yet as Jeremy Kuzmarov documents in this deeply researched book, popular assumptions about drug use in Vietnam are based more on myth than fact. Not only was alcohol the intoxicant of choice for most GIs, but the prevalence of other drugs varied enormously. Although marijuana use among troops increased over the course of the war, for the most part it remained confined to rear areas, and the use of highly addictive drugs like heroin was never as widespread as many imagined.

Like other cultural myths that emerged from the war, the concept of an addicted army was first advanced by war hawks seeking a scapegoat for the failure of U.S. policies in Vietnam, in this case one that could be linked to "permissive" liberal social policies and the excesses of the counterculture. But conservatives were not alone. Ironically, Kuzmarov shows, elements of the antiwar movement also promoted the myth, largely because of a presumed alliance between Asian drug traffickers and the Central Intelligence Agency. While this claim was not without foundation, as new archival evidence confirms, the left exaggerated the scope of addiction for its own political purposes.

Exploiting bipartisan concern over the perceived "drug crisis," the Nixon administration in the early 1970s launched a bold new program of federal antidrug measures, especially in the international realm. Initially, the "War on Drugs" helped divert attention away from the failed quest for "peace with honor" in Southeast Asia. But once institutionalized, it continued to influence political discourse as well as U.S. drug policy in the decades that followed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558497054
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press
Publication date: 06/28/2009
Series: Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond Series
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history at Tulsa University.

Read an Excerpt

The Myth of the Addicted Army

Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs
By Jeremy Kuzmarov

University of Massachusetts Press

Copyright © 2009 Jeremy Kuzmarov
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55849-704-7

Chapter One

"the press has done a tremendous disservice" historical perspective

The clatter of machine guns was like a Stravinsky percussion interlude from Le Sacre du Printemps. There isn't a psychedelic discotheque that can match the beauty of flares and bombs at night.-John Steinbeck IV, 1968

The nature of the problem is not such that military readiness is considered to be endangered.-Admiral William P. Mack, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, 1970

In December 1970, comedian Bob Hope generated a wave of laughter from a crowd of American troops telling jokes about marijuana and the use of drugs in Vietnam. Sent to boost morale as part of the United Service Organization (USO), Hope proclaimed, "Is it true the officers are getting flight pay? I saw a Sergeant before the show standing on a corner with a lampshade on his head waiting to be turned on.... At one barracks, everyone was watching 12 o'clock high. And they didn't even have a TV set." He added, "I hear you guys are interested in gardening security. Our officer said a lot of you guys are growing your own grass." Hope drew the greatest cheers when he declared, "Instead of taking away marijuana from the soldiers-we ought to be giving it to the negotiators in Paris."

Although worthy of some good laughs, Hope's remarks- and the reaction that they elicited-held deep social significance. They promoted recognition that drug use had different connotations for soldiers than for senior commanding officers or contemporaries back home. In calling for American leaders to smoke marijuana before going to the negotiating table, Hope further tapped into a growing antiestablishment ethos and mistrust of government pervading the military, which helped to account in part for the relatively high drug usage rates. Only from the perspective of individual soldiers can one assess the genuine scope of drug abuse in Vietnam and disprove claims that the crisis was all-encompassing. Why did some soldiers turn to drugs and in what circumstances? These questions are perhaps most important with regard to the impact of drugs on the military's fighting performance-which was far less destructive than has been conventionally understood. Though not intended as social satire, Hope's comedic insights were, in hindsight, quite sharp in pointing not only to the paradox of governmental prohibition policies but also to the scandalous public emphasis on drugs. What Hope missed, however, was how deeply significant drug use was to the social setting of the Vietnam War-and to the injustice of American foreign policy more broadly, which he uncritically supported.

"Distorted Impression That Average Soldier Uses Drugs ..."

Illegal drugs were readily available in Vietnam from the invasion of American combat troops in the early 1960s. Among them was a headache remedy known as Binoctal, which soldiers took alongside alcohol for a "quick high." Throughout most of the war the military actually distributed amphetamines or "pep pills" to soldiers serving on long-range reconnaissance missions to prevent them from falling asleep or to help them lose weight. Many soldiers claimed that the pills increased their irritability-including one who admitted to killing over 100 civilians in the Ia Drang Valley while coming off a high-though others recorded a more favorable effect. The most widely used intoxicant in Vietnam was marijuana of a high potency which grew wild in the countryside. GIs developed such nicknames as "Pleiku Pink," "Bleu de Hue," and "Cambodian Red," based on the province or locality in which it was grown. They got stoned overwhelmingly (upward of 90 percent) as a group activity, rather than in isolation. The Vietnamese themselves rarely smoked marijuana, preferring the chewing of betel nuts or the smoking of opium. Capitalizing on rising market demand, however, many farmers sold marijuana through local retailing merchants, often disguised as packs of Parker Lane and Kent cigarettes. These could be purchased for 400 Vietnamese piasters or $1.50-an unheard of price by American standards. "Marijuana in Vietnam is cheap, easy to find-and potent," remarked one medical psychiatrist, as quoted in U.S. News & World Report. "The drug is everywhere. All a person has to do to get the drug in any village hamlet or town is say the word Khan Sa."

In 1967, as a result of a growing wave of media attention, the Department of Defense (DOD) formed a special task force on narcotics and commissioned psychiatrist Roger A. Roffman to conduct a study at the Long Binh jail, where drugs were prevalent despite tightening security. He found that 63 percent of prisoners tried marijuana. In a follow-up survey, Roffman and Ely Sapol determined that 28.9 percent of GIs stationed in the Southern Corps experimented with marijuana at least once during their tour of duty in South Vietnam-comparable to user rates in the United States for men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one (28 percent of those surveyed had tried the drug back home.) They later testified before Congress as to how they had taken pains to ensure strict confidentiality with their subjects, who might have been otherwise reluctant to admit participating in an illegal activity. Both were deeply dismayed by the media's coverage, which inflated their data and issued "bombastic statements that 60, 70, 80 or even 90 percent of American troops" were addicts. "It is a distorted impression," Sapol remarked, "that the average soldier uses drugs."

From 1968 through the early 1970s, the Pentagon funded a new array of studies which corroborated Sapol's analysis. They determined on average that approximately 35 percent of GIs tried marijuana, with rates increasing over time because of declining morale and cultural shifts. Soldiers who had experimented with drugs in the United States were far more likely to utilize drugs in Vietnam. Dr. Morris "Duke" Stanton, who worked with GIs near the demilitarized zone, documented a huge increase in the percentage of pre-service drug use through the middle and late 1960s. In 1967 a mere 9 percent of the enlistees he sampled had tried marijuana prior to joining the military; none had tried heroin or morphine; and only 12 percent said that they had tried drugs in Vietnam. In spring 1970, by contrast, 46 percent stated that they had smoked marijuana prior to their enlistment, and 6 percent had tried heroin or morphine. 11 Military totals thus do not appear to have been out of line with broader societal trends.

In 1971, at the peak of the media "scare," the U.S. Army Research Office conducted a comprehensive survey of 36,000 GIs-including navy and air force personnel, who were excluded from most previous samples-which found that 29.9 percent had tried marijuana; 17.9 percent, stimulants such as "speed" and other barbiturates; and 11.7 percent, narcotic drugs. Of senior noncommissioned officers, only 3 percent admitted to using drugs in Vietnam, with 1 percent reporting habitual marijuana use. In all the surveys conducted, significantly, only a small percentage of respondents recorded "heavy" or "daily" drug use. One survey characteristically determined that nearly 50 percent of those who smoked marijuana in Vietnam did so fewer than ten times. Another concluded that less than 10 percent of soldiers used drugs more than two or three times, while less than 3 percent smoked not more than 200 times, or on a semi-daily basis. Major Edmund Casper, a psychiatrist based in Chu Lai, reported, "Many individuals found that marijuana was either unrewarding or unpleasant, and indicate no desire to repeat the experience. Chronic abuse was in the minority." Dr. Richard Wilbur, Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health and Environment), further commented, "There is no question that much of the usage in Vietnam is of a much more casual type than what we are accustomed to seeing here in this country." Typical, it appears, was the experience of Jerry Lembcke, who, while serving as a chaplain's assistant in 1968 and 1969 at Qui Truong, tried drugs once but never contemplated regular use. "I never thought marijuana was such a problem and I would have known about it because of my job," he said. "Some guys smoked it casually, but it wasn't so out in the open and didn't affect the military in any way. Like many others, I personally didn't enjoy my one experience [with marijuana] and never tried it again."

The pivotal distinction between use and abuse is relevant in weighing the impact of the so-called heroin crisis in Vietnam. Throughout much of the 1960s, the use of heroin and raw opium was rare. According to a military report, in fifty-two raids of known opium dens conducted by the Vietnamese police throughout the decade, only twelve Americans were arrested. One GI commented that during his first tour in 1967, "heroin simply wasn't on the scene at the time-neither for that matter was marijuana." By November 1970, however, the opening of transportation routes from the Golden Triangle through Cambodia, plummeting morale rates, and a crackdown on marijuana by the DOD had facilitated the spread of a highly purified form of heroin that was smoked. Known as "scag," it first began appearing in police reports in 1969 after being widely introduced in Vietnam by Thai soldiers trained by American Special Forces and the CIA. Various studies estimated that 7 to 35 percent of lower-grade enlisted "grunts," a majority of them draftees, experimented with scag, which was openly sold in Vietnamese marketplaces for a fraction of what it cost in the United States. The highest proportion found "strung out" was 20 percent in some units. Many soldiers were apparently fooled into thinking that scag was harmless because of the method of ingestion.

Some also thought that they were using cocaine because the name for both drugs in Vietnamese is the same. Military autopsy reports show that from April 1970 to January 1973, drugs factored into the death of 112 GIs, including at least 56 from heroin overdose and 14 from barbiturates. Hospital admission rates for drug abuse also doubled in these years. According to medical transcripts at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 70 percent of patients were white and, compared with racial minorities growing up in tough inner-city communities, naive about the potential hazard of hard drug use.

In June 1971 the DOD instituted a mandatory urinalysis test for departing soldiers. Under the direction of Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe, 3.6 percent were found to have heroin in their urine, and 5.5 percent were thought to have previously used the drug. Only 1 percent of 13,190 U.S. Air Force personnel tested positive, and 0.3 percent of the 5,754 from the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps By May 1972 the average for the entire armed forces was reduced to 1.5 percent, though this figure remains the source of controversy because of laboratory inconsistencies. Several GIs insisted that they tested positive without ever having used heroin; others claimed to have passed the test while stoned or to have cheated in different ways, including ingesting mass amounts of alcohol to dilute their sample. According to journalist Richard Ashley, a "black market for clean urine" even developed among soldiers who desperately wanted to avoid prolonging their tour of duty in Vietnam, which was the punishment for a dirty sample.

Despite the inaccuracies, which even Jaffe admitted to (telling reporters somewhat sarcastically that servicemen had tried to substitute everything from "beer to their grandmother's urine"), the low figures confirmed that public fears of an "epidemic" were overblown. They also indicated that in spite of the high purity of the heroin-which experts estimated to be 96 percent-the majority of GIs who smoked "scag" were neither incapacitated nor addicted and could stop smoking at any time in order to avoid detection. In a recent interview, Dr. Jaffe commented, "The test was a way for us to determine how extensive the scope of addiction was, which we did not really know going in. [It] proved the rates were lower than reported in the media and that soldiers who used heroin once or twice, contrary to myths about being enslaved, could stop at will. The deterrent quality of the test was further successful in limiting use."

Dr. Jaffe still feels that the number of addicts in Vietnam was actually lower than the data presented because many casual users were "caught in the net"-particularly after a system of random testing was developed. Many clinical specialists responsible for administering the rehabilitation process agree. On the whole, as both understood, the percentage of American soldiers who could be characterized as drug addicts during the war was a minority-even during the peak of the heroin influx in the early 1970s. Although a relatively high number of Americans experimented with drugs, many fewer used them on a regular basis, especially during the decisive phases of fighting. In short, at no point was the military incapacitated by drugs, despite media and governmental proclamations to the contrary.

"Problem Best Described as Minor"

The Impact of Drugs on Military Combat

Evidence that the crisis in Vietnam was publicly overblown comes from top-ranked generals who had the most reason to fear the spread of a drug "epidemic." Born of a generation that came of age drinking whiskey, rum, and other hard alcohol, most believed that drug use was a sign of "individual character weakness" and that GIs who partook were unfit for duty and should be thrown out of the service. Lewis Walt, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps from 1968 to 1971, referred to drugs in Vietnam as "a contagious disease nearly as deadly as the bubonic plague.... The only explanation is that our enemy wants to hook as many GIs as possible." In spite of such views, unit commanders unanimously concluded in October 1968 that neither marijuana nor any hard drug had to that point "degraded the military's combat effectiveness."

The headquarters of General William C. Westmoreland had previously issued a private report, based on interviews with high-ranking officers, which stated, "All agree there has been no discernible impact on morale, health, welfare efficiency or combat effectiveness that can be attributed to drugs. The total scope of the problem is best described as minor." The report continued, "The impact regarding public image is much greater and more serious. This is reflected in the current rash of press reports alluding to the widespread use of marijuana by our troops in Vietnam, which is not borne out by statistics or the best judgment of our senior commanders." Although it is true, as antiwar critics charged, that Westmoreland and his staff were dishonest in trying to minimize the scope of addiction, having mounted a public campaign to denounce sensational press reports as "Communist propaganda to discredit the troops," these comments vividly demonstrate that internal military estimates were less alarming than those of the media and public at large. They also show that the military's primary concern over drugs during the decisive phases of the war was more in the realm of public relations than in duty performance.

Tellingly, in a 1976 article summarizing the findings of military psychiatrists, Morris Stanton concluded that there was "no hard evidence" that military capability was "seriously affected by drugs." One key reason, he explained, was that marijuana was not habit-forming, and a majority of GIs who got high did so almost exclusively while on rest and recuperation leave (R&R), on rear support bases, or during lulls in combat. One quantitative study found that less than 10 percent of men admitted to the use of marijuana on duty at some time; others placed the total between 6 and 12 percent. Within the air force, the peak figure was only 2.6 percent. Having interviewed over 500 military personnel, psychiatrist W. B. Postel found that "the usual habit was to smoke the drug after a battle to calm down. Only one person indicated that he smoked while fighting." Frank Bartimo, assistant general counsel for the DOD, similarly concluded, "We have very little, about no, drug abuse among troops going into the field. Guys who use it say they never do it when they're going into combat." A Senate subcommittee staff report added that "the incidents where marijuana is used in combat situations are rare and isolated.... There is no evidence that any mission or operation has been jeopardized."


Excerpted from The Myth of the Addicted Army by Jeremy Kuzmarov Copyright © 2009 by Jeremy Kuzmarov. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

William O. Walker

"What is so compelling about Jeremy Kuzmarov's book is his careful depiction of how 'the myth of the addicted army' was used for a variety of political and cultural purposes. He convincingly shows that Nixon adopted the drug policy he did in order to advance his own political fortunes, and that Nixon's drug war set the terms of the discussion in several ways. It obscured the real lack of evidence for a drug epidemic among GIs and set off an irrational response to drug use that has been a staple of American politics and popular culture ever since."--(William O. Walker, author of Drug Control in the Americas)

Jerry Lembcke

"The Myth of the Addicted Army will contend for best-book awards in history, sociology, and many fields of policy studies. It is chock full of original research utilizing government documents and interviews with policy makers to show how the war in Vietnam incubated the myth of widespread drug addiction among U.S. troops that became, in turn, the back story to the homefront War on Drugs."--(Jerry Lembcke, author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam)

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