History of Drugs in America
Summary & Analysis
War and Drugs
"War is h--l." That was the simple, sad verdict of one of America's most celebrated war heroes, General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose brutal tactics in subduing the South helped the Union win the Civil War. Sherman and his men—like their fellow soldiers in every American war before or since—understood from bitter first-hand experience that the realities of military life during wartime were horrific. The rhetoric of war emphasizes a set of abstractions—glory, honor, patriotism—but the lived experience of war, for its participants, offers a set of very real miseries—hunger, thirst, heat, cold, sickness, injury, stress, boredom, fear, death. Thus the full version of General Sherman's famous quote (delivered to the graduates of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879): "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all h--l."25
And for centuries American boys (and, more recently, girls) trapped in the h--l of war have found some measure of escape through drug use. Nearly every major American war has resulted in a major American drug problem.
The Civil War, Morphine, and the "Army Disease"
The Civil War (1861-65) was, by far, the costliest in American history in terms of loss of life. More than half a million Americans died in the conflict. Many hundreds of thousands more suffered horrific injuries and debilitating illnesses during their terms of service in the Union or Confederate Armies. The pain and suffering endured by soldiers on both sides was immense.
Doctors and surgeons attached to both armies sought to ease the misery of sick and wounded soldiers by prescribing millions of doses of a recently-discovered wonder drug: morphine. A derivative of opium and a chemical cousin to heroin, morphine is a powerful narcotic that could be used to relieve pain as well as to treat diarrhea and dysentery (which were common and deadly gastro-intestinal afflictions among the troops). Doctors in the Union Army alone issued more than 10 million doses of morphine during the war.
While morphine certainly did ease the immediate suffering of sick and wounded Civil War soldiers, the highly-addictive drug also created a generation of addicts among Civil War veterans. The sad figure of the morphine-addicted, disabled Civil War veteran could be encountered in just about any American town in the late nineteenth century. The problem got so bad that the most commonly used term for drug addiction was "The Army Disease." Accurate statistics for the period are hard to come by, but historians believe that as many as 200,000 to 500,000 Civil War veterans suffered from morphine addiction, in some cases for decades after the war ended in 1865.
Doughboys, Instant Coffee, and Cigarettes
The First World War (1914-19) brought new forms of misery to the men who fought in it. Advances in military technology—the machine gun, poison gas, the flying bomber—ran far ahead of advances in military tactics, which hadn't changed much from the days of Napoleon a century before. The result was a brutal stalemate along the entrenched Western Front, punctuated by futile attempts to storm enemy lines by frontal attack into machine gun fire. The human cost was unthinkable; on 1 July 1916, the British Army suffered 57,000 casualties in a single day at the Battle of the Somme, failing to capture any German territory in the process. Even for soldiers not engaged in such ill-fated offensives, life in the trenches of the "War to End All Wars" was awful. Even the war's impact on the English language gives a sense of how unpleasant it was; World War I gave us new words and phrases like trench foot and shell shock; front line and no man's land; gas mask and camouflage; to strafe, to barrage, to conk out; even blotto and bulls--t.
American soldiers endured trench foot, shell shock, and bulls--t in part by taking heavy rations of cigarettes and coffee. Coffee kept the men warm and gave them energy; cigarettes suppressed their hunger and calmed their jittery nerves. Perhaps most importantly, the familiar everyday rituals of boiling coffee or lighting cigarettes lent a sense of normalcy to the inhuman and terrifying landscape of the trenches. A journalist visiting the front lines in 1917 noted that coffee was "THE most popular drink of the camp," taken with every meal and frequently in between.26 Tobacco—more addictive than caffeine, of course—was even more important. General John J. Pershing, supreme commander of the American Expeditionary Force, once said, "You ask what we need to win this war, I answer tobacco, as much as bullets. Tobacco is as indispensable as the daily ration. We must have thousands of tons of it without delay."27
In the end, American "doughboys" (the slang term for WWI GIs) consumed prodigious quantities of both caffeine and nicotine. The army's Director of Munitions estimated after the war that virtually all American servicemen drank coffee, and 95% smoked tobacco. By the time the war ended in November 1918, the American Expeditionary Force was going through a staggering 37,000 pounds of coffee and 14 million cigarettes every day.28
Not only did the Great War create a new generation of young American men habituated to daily smoking and coffee-drinking, but it popularized modern new forms of ingesting both drugs. Traditionally, Americans had purchased both coffee and tobacco as unbranded, bulk products. They roasted and ground their green coffee beans at the grocery store before boiling the drink at home; they smoked their tobacco in loose-leaf form, in hand-packed pipes, or (if they smoked cigarettes at all) in hand-rolled cigarettes. These slow, traditional ways of preparing coffee and tobacco for consumption were impractical at the front, however. A man hunkered down at the edge of no man's land had no time to roast coffee or pack a pipe. So the army embraced new mass-produced and branded coffee and tobacco products that allowed the men to ingest both drugs immediately, with minimal preparation work. Thus did instant coffee and pre-rolled cigarettes become standard features of doughboy life. And the brands that dominated the front lines—George Washington's Instant Coffee, Camel and Lucky Strike cigarettes—became the brands that dominated the thriving civilian economy of the Roaring Twenties after the doughboys came home. World War I may not have made the world safe for democracy, as President Woodrow Wilson famously hoped, but the war certainly made the world safe for instant coffee and cigarettes, two drug products that would go on to dominate the American market for much of the twentieth century.
Fighting the Good War, "Blind A--hole Drunk"
The Second World War has been more heavily mythologized than the First, and when Americans today think about World War II they are less likely to imagine the awful realities of combat than they are to invoke a set of highly sanitized ideals: the "Good War," the "Greatest Generation," "Their Finest Hour." But the men who fought the war—who endured kamikaze attacks and firebombings and blitzkrieg offenses—needed something stronger than patriotic ideals to survive the fight against global fascism. They needed booze.
World War II soldiers drank much more heavily than their World War I predecessors. By 1941, Prohibition had long since ended and little prohibitionist sentiment existed to restrict soldiers' access to alcohol. Beer was readily available on every army base, and every American officer received a standard ration of one bottle of hard liquor every two weeks. Alcohol became the American GI's preferred method of dulling fear and escaping horror. John Garcia, an American soldier who participated in the brutal fighting against entrenched Japanese troops on Okinawa, began drinking a fifth and a half of whiskey (that's almost a third of a gallon!) every day. "It was the only way I could kill," he said. "I'd get up each day and start drinking. How else could I fight the war?"29 James Jones—an American sergeant in World War II who would go on to win the 1951 National Book Award for his first novel, From Here to Eternity—vividly described the role of alcohol in waging the "Good War": "In my outfit," he wrote, "we got blind a--hole drunk every chance we got."30
Good statistics are difficult or impossible to come by, but it is certain that alcoholism accompanied many GIs home from the war. In fact, our very conception of "alcoholism" as a disease is a product of the aftermath of World War II, when a nationwide epidemic of alcohol abuse led doctors to reclassify problem drinking as a medical condition rather than an individual moral shortcoming.
Heroin and the Tragedy of Vietnam
The longest war in American history occurred in Vietnam (1959-75), where American soldiers spent all of the 1960s and half of the 1970s mired in a demoralizing and ultimately futile struggle to prop up an unpopular South Vietnamese government in hopes of preventing Communists from winning control of all Vietnam. The American troops charged with fighting a difficult counterinsurgency campaign in unforgiving jungle terrain were mostly draftees who didn't want to be there. Unsurprisingly—especially considering the explosion of drug use at home at the same time during the countercultural 1960s—many American soldiers in Vietnam turned to dope to help them get through their tours of duty.
Like their countercultural counterparts back home, American soldiers in Vietnam made marijuana their illicit drug of choice. Marijuana was widely and cheaply available in Indochina, and various sources estimate that anywhere from 20-50% of American servicemen were at least occasional users, despite efforts by the military to crack down on the drug. By 1969, Military Police were arresting more than a thousand soldiers a week for marijuana possession.
Less prevalent than pot, but more troubling, was heroin, which is much more addictive and personally destructive than marijuana. Investigations by Congress and the Nixon Administration in 1969 found that as many as 15-20% of American soldiers in Vietnam were regular heroin users. Representative Robert Steele, the Connecticut Republican who led the congressional investigation, declared that a "soldier going to Vietnam runs a far greater risk of becoming a heroin addict than a combat casualty."31 While Steele's rhetoric may have been somewhat overblown, subsequent investigations suggested that at least 40,000 Vietnam veterans came back from the conflict as heroin addicts.