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The Vietnam War and the Drug War


Maybe you have never thought about the similarities between the Vietnam War and the Drug War. You may believe that although the former really was a war, the latter is only called a war. But the recently published memoirs of Robert S. McNamara, defense secretary for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, call to mind many parallels.

At the start, few people imagined either war would last so long. Leaders assured citizens that overwhelming force would cause the enemy to capitulate. The authorities did not doubt the righteousness of the cause or their ability to prevail.

Successive escalations ensued. In Vietnam, troop strengths and bomb tonnages increased again and again. Yet North Vietnamese supplies for the fighters in the South continued to flow along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Likewise, repeatedly augmented efforts to prevent the entry of drugs into the United States have had scant effect. According to Commissioner of Customs George J. Weise, “We see no signs that smuggling is decreasing.”

Hardliners continued to express confidence that the tide of battle could be turned if we persisted and committed more resources. President Lyndon B. Johnson accepted curbs of his beloved War on Poverty in order to step up the war in Asia.

Similarly, the costs of the Drug War keep rising. President Clinton recently requested a record $14.6 billion, and state and local governments spend billions more. Yet Senator Dianne Feinstein predicts, “It’s going to take a lot more money, inspectors, equipment, and review” to seal the border.

In both wars, many prisoners were taken. Police now make more than a million drug arrests annually. The Drug War accounts for 60 percent of all federal prisoners and 30 percent of all state prisoners. But the enemy’s ranks are always replenished. The Viet Cong kept recruiting new soldiers and civilian supporters. Likewise the drug dealers. A recently sentenced drug dealer in Seattle remarked: “I was gone a good 30 seconds before someone else took my place.”

Drug demand remains high. The New York Times reports “little change among the nearly 3 million heavy users who consume up to 80 percent of the drugs smuggled into the United States and are thought to be responsible for most of the drug-related crime.”

Wars cause casualties. In Vietnam, 58,000 Americans died. No one knows how many lives the Drug War has claimed, but the number may be in the tens of thousands. Suppression of drug supplies by the authorities raises the prices of drugs, enticing people to become suppliers on the black market. Unable to resolve disputes legally and keen to retain their turf, dealers resort to violence. Police officers and the suspects they kill add to the toll. Innocent bystanders get killed, too, and as in Vietnam, many of them are children.

Both wars witnessed psychological as well as violent tactics. In Vietnam the pacification program sought to “win the hearts and minds” of the peasants and persuade them not to support the enemy. Similarly, the wife of a commander-in-chief popularized the motto “Just say no,” and the DARE program teaches children to resist drugs and to inform on their own parents.

Truth is always the first casualty. In Vietnam, military commanders inflated the body counts and reported fictitious light at the end of the tunnel. In the Drug War, the authorities, striving to stigmatize all drug use, have made little or no attempt to distinguish relatively harmless substances such as marijuana from more dangerous ones, such as heroin and crack cocaine. In each war, the public reacted to official mendacity by becoming more cynical about their leaders.

Both wars rent the fabric of American social and political life, because each represented a policy that large segments of the public actively opposed. Antiwar protests grew and became more insistent. In May 1967, McNamara warned President Johnson in a memo:

There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.

The Drug War is an ugly sight, too, and opposition is growing, especially among judges, who see its futility up close. It still awaits its equivalent of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who will declare “peace with honor” and bring the troops home. By abandoning this costly, quixotic crusade, the authorities could spend more time protecting life and property and relieve us of an obnoxious invasion of our natural rights, which include the right to decide how we use — or abuse — our own bodies.

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    Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy. Higgs is the author of eight books, the most recent of which are "Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy" (2006) and "Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government" (2007). Of his five edited or co-edited books, the most recent are "Re-Thinking Green: Alternatives to Environmental Bureaucracy" (with Carl Close, 2005) and "The Challenge of Liberty: Classical Liberalism Today" (with Carl Close, 2006). A contributor to many scholarly volumes, he is also the author of more than 100 articles and reviews in the professional journals of economics, demography, history, and public policy. Higgs is also an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and Thomas F. Gleed professor of business at Seattle University.