“Tens of thousands of soldiers are going back as walking time bombs.” In 1971, the war in Vietnam was being reported on in a near constant fashion. As reports came back that more and more soldiers were using heroin while deployed, a new outlet for criticizing the war opened. Not only were the armed forces sending young men to fight and die in an unpopular war, those who survived would return as heroin addicts and, supposedly, turn to crime to fund their addiction. In addressing this issue, the Nixon administration laid the foundations for the “War on Drugs.” But following the release of a study conducted in the mid-70s, it was clear that the G.I.s were not coming home as addicts. This essay argues that the heroin “epidemic” was never as large of a problem as the Nixon administration and the public sphere considered it to be.
Ironically, the heroin of southeast Asia that created so many problems for America was encouraged to proliferate by America’s own post-World War II foreign policy. Containment, Brinksmanship, and Domino Theory are all familiar terms to any American public-school student. These policies and concepts, formed by the administrations that came after 1945, concerned themselves with the spread of communism and how to stop it. Stopping communism by any means necessary often entailed supporting sub-state actors and militias in civil conflicts against communists. Beginning in the 1950s, the CIA, working with the Chinese nationalist party, the Kuomintang, and regional powers in Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam, assisted anti-communist paramilitary organizations funded by the heroin and opium trade of these groups. After helping to create these markets, the United States would later provide new consumers in the form of G.I.s in Vietnam.
The heroin in southeast Asia was cheap and potent, raising concerns that once G.I.s returned home they would be pressed into crime to pay for more expensive heroin that was much less potent than what they found in Vietnam. A 1976 study states that this purified heroin, or “scag,” could be 15 to 30 times as pure as the heroin available in the United States and was cheap enough that a habit could be maintained for $8 to $10 a day. Fears of heroin addicted soldiers coming and turning to crime to fund their habit seemed well-founded.
Unlike marijuana and LSD, which found widespread use in the United States by the New Left counterculture movement, heroin use would not enter the American consciousness as a public health issue until the early 1970s. A Newsweek article from July 5th, 1971 titled “The Heroin Plague: What Can Be Done?” described the situation as follows,
“Heroin has exploded on us like an atom bomb. Ten years ago, even three years ago, heroin was a loser’s drug, an aberration afflicting the blacks and long-haired minorities. Now all this has changed. Nice Jewish boys are coming out of the woodwork as well as Mormon kids, Japanese Americans and all other exemplars of hard-working middle-class ideals.”
Despite its use amongst urban minorities, heroin use only became a crisis when soldiers from Vietnam were, supposedly, returning home addicted.
At first it appeared there were plenty of heroin user in Vietnam to support this fear. In May 1971, two congressmen, Robert Steele of Connecticut and Morgan Murphy of Illinois, visited the G.I.s in Vietnam. They reported that 15% of servicemen in Vietnam were actively addicted to heroin. This motivated President Richard Nixon to create the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention in June of the same year. Nixon appointed Jerome Jaffe to head the office. Jaffe enlisted the help of psychiatrist Lee Robins in understanding and tackling this problem. Robins confirmed high rates of addiction in 1971 as about 20% of soldiers self-identified as addicts.
Here lie the roots of Nixon’s War on Drugs. In creating the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention, Nixon was allocating massive amounts of money and resources to stopping the flow of drugs, namely heroin, into the U.S. The programs that came in the wake of the Special Action Office also devoted considerable resources to drug addiction treatment and prevention facilities. Nixon perceived heroin as a very real problem. The legacy of the War on Drugs typically focuses on the devastating long-term effects, especially on communities of color, but it must also be understood that Nixon was responding to a perceived threat to the public health and well-being of the nation.
While the War on Drugs was staged as a domestic initiative, mass media outlets covering Vietnam portrayed the conflict as an international war with drugs. The Washington Post published two articles in October of 1970 that alleged the Chinese were intentionally funneling opium into Vietnam to ruin American soldiers. The Washington Post was partially correct, the Chinese did have a hand in the opium trade in southeast Asia. However, this was routed through the Kuomintang, which had been expelled to Taiwan following their defeat by the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, not the communists as the newspaper alleged. In fact, in 1971, federal narcotics agents reported that there had not been a single seizure of narcotics from China since 1949.
Nixon and the media could agree on something, there was a serious drug problem in Vietnam, and it threatened to come home. Susan Stuart suggests that the Nixon administration used this as a diversion to draw attention away from domestic issues and create a problem that was sourced in Vietnam. She states, “Because it[The War on Drugs] involved troops in Vietnam, the Nixon Administration urged that failure in Vietnam was not the fault of policymakers but about the service men, despite the fact that drug use did not affect combat performance.” Nonetheless, the public largely believed the claims of Nixon and the newspapers and acknowledged that something had to be done.
Robins, working under the Special Action office, published a study in 1974 titled “How Permanent Was Vietnam Drug Addiction?” Interviewing veterans who had just returned from Vietnam, the researchers were concerned that an influx of addicted veterans would put more strain on drug treatment facilities than they could handle. 34% of interviewees reported using heroin in Vietnam. 20% reported that while they were in Vietnam they were addicted to heroin. However, since coming back from Vietnam only 1% of interviewees reported being addicted to heroin. A 95% remission rate, which is the drop from 20% to 1%, was unprecedented for any addict populations in the country. Although those who did heroin in Vietnam were more prone to heavy use, this study suggests the “epidemic” of addicted veterans was solving itself. 
The study also presents data from a separate study done with Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act (NARA) patients to demonstrate the difference between remission rates of veterans and prisoners being treated for narcotic addiction. The study shows, “While more than two-thirds of the addicted Vietnam veterans had no use after their return, more than two-thirds of the NARA patients were readdicted six months after their release.” Returning veterans of the study, interviewed ten months after coming home, had four extra months to get readdicted compared to the NARA patients. 94% of veterans reported they knew where to buy narcotics once back in America. The study concludes that while the veterans could very well relapse into addiction in the future, the findings suggest we should reevaluate the effectiveness of forced treatment for addiction.
Something about Vietnam encouraged drug use but was not enough to keep veterans using back home. Jeremy Kuzmarov suggests that drug use, more generally, was a way to cope with combat anxieties and escape from war. He states, “Drugs often provided a powerful antidote to the hazards and stress of combat. They helped GIs to cope with their anxieties – away from the theater of battle and usually without damaging their physical capabilities.” He further states these findings are in line with many psychiatric studies concerning drug use in Vietnam. Kuzmarov is not talking about heroin use specifically, but certainly heroin was used as a method to escape from reality.
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta suggests that the low level of recidivism was due to a change in environment. When these veterans returned home, the dramatic change in scenery could break addictive tendencies. The addicts, Gupta argues, had come to associate Vietnam and heroin use, but when removed from this environment, the urge to use heroin decreased. Unlike the previously mentioned studies, Gupta provides no concrete data to support this claim. Instead he relies on the study conducted by Robin in 1974 and simply elaborates his claim into the results. Considering the extent of heroin usage in Vietnam and the dramatic decrease once soldiers returned to the United States, Gupta is most likely gesturing in the right direction with his inference. The extent to which this is the case is up for debate.
Stuart offers an assessment as to why the heroin in epidemic in Vietnam received so much attention despite it’s main claim, that addicted troops would return home still addicted, being disproven. Quoting Robins, she states, “‘[T]heir history of brief addiction followed by spontaneous recovery, both in Vietnam and afterwards, was not out of line with the American experience; only with American beliefs.’ Unfortunately, those American beliefs were entrenched, and the research results were assailed as being a Department of Defense whitewash. Once the fear of heroin addiction had proved to be a potent marketing tool for the War on Drugs, the American public was not going to be deterred by evidence to the contrary.” Even as evidence to contrary emerged, the American public was still firm in believing the heroin problem in Vietnam could come to America.
Robins published an article in 2010 reevaluating the significance of the study, focusing on the medical and psychological implications of heroin use. This article concludes similarly to NARA study, suggesting that the way we view treating heroin addicts may not be correctly addressing the problem. The article concedes that it is limited in focusing only on returning Vietnam veterans and puts forth that the “findings may have been influenced by these special circumstances, but we cannot be sure whether they have been because there is no equivalent study of heroin use in a general population that has provided enough regular heroin users for comparison.” The uniqueness of the situation perhaps stunted any attempts to apply the findings to addiction treatments in America at the time.
Being cited by Kuzmarov, Gupta, and Stuart and being deemed worthy of a modern reevaluation, Robins’ 1974 study carries much of the burden in pushing back against the heroin epidemic myth. Despite being the foundational study on the subject of heroin use in Vietnam and its potential threat to America, the results would not carry any serious implications until being reevaluated decades later.
Both the media and the Nixon administration had a vested interest in perpetuating the myth. For the media, it was a major source of criticism of the war and the administration and provided plenty of fodder to write about. The war threatened to utterly ruin a generation of young men, if not be killing or maiming them, then by creating addicts.
For Nixon and his administration, the epidemic was a serious issue but also one that could be turned on its head. In 1973 Nixon stated, “Three years ago, the global heroin epidemic was raging completely out of control and time was running out for an entire generation. But we launched a crusade to save our children and the nation, and now we’re moving from defense to offense and rolling up victory after victory.” Heroin usage rates increased as the decade carried on. But Nixon could play hero even as the evidence suggests otherwise.
Heroin was certainly an issue in
Vietnam. But that the results of the primary government study into the issue of
heroin addicted troops coming home as heroin addicts were ignored, suggests the
problem carried more rhetorical value as a threat than was true. As the media
and the Nixon administration made claims to this threat, the public was captivated
and believed the problem to be larger than it was. It has taken decades for scholarship
to identify this myth even as the evidence to disprove it comes from the mid-70s.
All this coupled with the pervasiveness of the fear American soldiers would return
as addicts can leads us to a few inferences. One, heroin, due to its low level
of popularity, was unknown or uncertain to much of the public. It was a mysterious
narcotic without much public knowledge about it. Two, those with access to the
information that the epidemic would most likely not take over at home either
were ignorant of the information or willfully ignored it. And finally, heroin
use and addiction, then just as much as now, require more research to truly
understand the best mode of treatment.
“Excerpts From President’s Message on Drug Abuse Control.” The New York Times. June 18, 1971. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/06/18/archives/excerpts-from-presidents-message-on-drug-abuse-control.html
Robins, Lee, Davis, Darlene, and David Nurco. “How Permanent was Vietnam Drug Addiction?” American Journal of Public Health Vol. 64 (1974): 38-43. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.64.12_Suppl.38
Shuster, Alvin M. “G.I. Heroin Addiction Epidemic in Vietnam.” The New York Times. May 16, 1971. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/05/16/archives/gi-heroin-addiction-epidemic-in-vietnam-gi-heroin-addiction-is.html
Stanton. “Drugs, Vietnam, and the Vietnam Veteran: an Overview.” American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Vol. 3 (1976): 557-70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1032764
Bergen-Cico, Dessa. War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance Abuse. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2012.
Gupta, Sanjay. “Vietnam, heroin, and the lesson of disrupting any addiction.” CNN Health. December 22, 2015. https://www.cnn.com/2015/12/21/health/vietnam-heroin-disrupting-addiction/index.html
Kuzmarov, Jeremy. The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.
Robins, Lee, Helzer, John, Hesselbrock, Michie, and Eric Wish. “Vietnam Veterans Three Years after Vietnam: How Our Study Changed Our View of Heroin.” The American Jounal on Addictions. Vol. 19 Issue 3. April 15, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1521-0391.2010.00046.x
Spiegel, Alix. “What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits.” NPR. January 2, 2012. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/01/02/144431794/what-vietnam-taught-us-about-breaking-bad-habits
Stuart, Susan. All
Roads Lead From Vietnam to Your Home Town: How Veterans Have Become Casualties
of the War on Drugs. 6 Alb. Gov’t L. Rev. 486. 2013.
 Alvin M. Shuster, “G.I. Heroin Addiction Epidemic in Vietnam,” The New York Times, May 16, 1971, https://www.nytimes.com/1971/05/16/archives/gi-heroin-addiction-epidemic-in-vietnam-gi-heroin-addiction-is.html
 Dessa Bergen-Cico, War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance Abuse (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), 79.
 M. Duncan Stanton, “Drugs, Vietnam, and the Vietnam Veteran: An Overview,” American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse vol. 3, no. 4 (1976): 561, accessed November 10, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1032764
 Jeremy Kuzamarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), 44.
 Alix Spiegel, “What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits,” NPR, January 2, 2012, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/01/02/144431794/what-vietnam-taught-us-about-breaking-bad-habits
 “Excerpts From President’s Message on Drug Abuse Control,” The New York Times, June 18, 1971, https://www.nytimes.com/1971/06/18/archives/excerpts-from-presidents-message-on-drug-abuse-control.html
 Kuzmarov, Myth of the Addicted Army, 40-41.
 Susan Stuart, All Roads Lead from Vietnam to Your Home Town: How Veterans Have Become Casualties of the War on Drugs, 6 Alb. Gov’t L. Rev. 486 (2013), 493-94.
 Lee Robins, Darlene Davis, and David Nurco, “How Permanent was Vietnam Drug Addiction?” American Journal of Public Health, vol 64, (1974): 39, accessed November 10, 2019, https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.64.12_Suppl.38
 Ibid, 41.
 Ibid, 43
 Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army, 22.
 Sanjay Gupta, “Vietnam, heroin, and the lesson of disrupting any addiction,” CNN Health, December 22, 2015, https://www.cnn.com/2015/12/21/health/vietnam-heroin-disrupting-addiction/index.html
 Stuart, All Roads Lead From Vietnam, 495.
 Lee Robins, John Helzer, Michie Hesselbrock, and Eric Wish, “Vietnam Veterans Three Years after Vietnam: How Our Study Changed Our View of Heroin,” The American Journal on Addictions, vol. 19, issue 3, April 15, 2010, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1521-0391.2010.00046.x
 Kuzmarov, Myth of the Addicted Army, 119.