As influential contributors to national policy, intelligence professionals inevitably face strong political and bureaucratic pressures to shape their assessments to fit official or factional policy. In the modern era, such pressures have contributed to costly, even disastrous, escalations of the Vietnam War, the arms race, and, most notoriously, Washington’s conflict with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.2
Intelligence on the international narcotics menace has been particularly subject to such pressures ever since U.S. leaders vowed to wage “war” on the illicit drug trade more than a half century ago.3 In recent years, influential interest groups and policy makers have leveled epithets like “narco-terrorism” and “narco-communism” against targets such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Panama, Syria, the Taliban, and Venezuela to justify harsh policies ranging from economic sanctions to armed invasion, while ignoring or downplaying evidence implicating U.S. allies (the Nicaraguan Contras, the Afghan mujahedeen and Karzai administration, the Colombian military, and so forth).4 Given the stakes, critical scrutiny of such claims, and rigorous attention to de-politicizing intelligence on international narcotics matters, may be as vital to preventing foreign policy disasters as is ensuring sound intelligence on more traditional matters of national security.
To shed historical light on the dangers of turning international drug enforcement into a political weapon, this paper re-examines a classic case of alleged manipulation of narcotics intelligence: the vilification of Communist China by U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger at the height of the Cold War. His inflammatory rhetoric denouncing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as an evil purveyor of narcotics went largely unchallenged in the Western media during the 1950s and early 1960s, when Anslinger acted as America’s leading drug enforcement official and its official representative to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). As we shall see, his charges strongly reinforced Washington’s case for diplomatic isolation of China, including its exclusion from the United Nations.
In 1971, as relations between Washington and Beijing began to thaw, the official U.S. line on China’s responsibility for drug trafficking abruptly reversed. At about the same time, a young scholar named Alfred McCoy published an authoritative volume on the modern history of the international heroin trade, contesting Anslinger’s claims and pinning blame for much of the traffic on U.S. military allies in Southeast Asia.5 Since then a number of historians have endorsed McCoy’s conclusions and characterized Anslinger’s conduct as the work of a master bureaucrat (or ideologue) bent on augmenting his agency’s prestige and power by inflating Cold War stereotypes of the PRC.6
This paper reexamines and extends their work by asking the question made famous by Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker during the Watergate hearings: What did he know, and when did he know it? As Kevin F. Ryan has observed, “it is unclear how much the FBN actually knew about [China’s involvement in] the international narcotics trade (and how much was simply convenient rhetoric) . . .”7 McCoy and most subsequent historians have relied on ex post rejections of Anslinger’s claims by U.S. and foreign law enforcement officials in the aftermath of the opening to China. But can we be sure Anslinger had no evidence to support his charges? If so, did Anslinger simply invent his claims, or did other interested parties feed him misleading or false information? And, equally important, what did Anslinger know but choose to ignore about drug trafficking by American allies, including those covertly backed by the Central Intelligence Agency?
New evidence, including recently declassified files of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Central Intelligence Agency, along with overlooked public materials from that period, sheds important new light on the state of Anslinger’s knowledge and probable motives. The records, unavailable to or unused by previous historians, provide strong new confirmation of Anslinger’s manipulation of intelligence to serve both his agency’s bureaucratic interests and a militantly anti-Communist foreign policy agenda at the expense of genuine narcotics enforcement. They leave open the possibility that Chinese traffickers continued to smuggle opiates out of the mainland into the 1950s, but do not challenge what is widely accepted today about the communist government’s attempt to suppress cultivation and trafficking.
Harry Anslinger’s Cold War READ MORE