Drugs and Vietnam

views updated


The use of drugs by the American military in Vietnam was not a recognizable problem during the early stages of the war. However, as the conflict dragged on, drug use among the troops became symptomatic of the larger problems facing the United States when it came to dealing with what would become America's longest and most unpopular war.

The army that arrived in Vietnam in 1965 may have been the best trained, the best armed, and the best supplied force the world had seen up to that point. In addition, its morale and dedication to achieving its objectives were both unquestionable. However, by 1968, that fine army had disappeared, and in its place was a force less interested in search-and-destroy than in search-and-evade, which focused on avoiding conflict rather than engagement. That evasion took the form of soldiers refusing to salute superiors, refusing to fight, and refusing to be the last soldier to die in a war that was no longer popular with the folks back home. Drugs played a significant role in assisting that evasion.

Drug use in Vietnam can be examined from two different angles: attitude and access. Many Americans arriving in Vietnam after 1968 had already been exposed to the use of drugs such as marijuana and heroin in the United States. Drug use, especially among younger Americans, was seen as an act of rebellion against their parents in particular and society in general, a skirmish in the larger clash between the generations. Drugs also helped draftees deal with the feeling that they had been sent to Vietnam because they lacked the skills, education, and money to avoid it. Drugs may have also numbed them to the fact that millions of Americans back home had given up on the war, and others were protesting their presence in Vietnam. President Nixon had begun to withdraw American forces in 1969, putting South Vietnamese soldiers in their place, a process called Vietnamization, while simultaneously negotiating a peace settlement with North Vietnam. Many Americans were trying to put the war out of their minds, and perhaps by association, the men still fighting it. So, attitudes about drug use and attitudes about the war, both at home and on the front lines, may have helped to explain why drug use in Vietnam became a problem.

Access was also a factor in explaining drug use. Some of the largest supplies of heroin came from northern Laos, northern Thailand and northeastern Burma, an area frequently referred to as the Golden Triangle. Pure heroin traveled into nearby South Vietnam and into the hands of American soldiers, who could purchase vials of the drug for a few dollars, well below what they would pay back home. A carton of pre-rolled, pre-packed marijuana cigarettes, each dipped in liquid opium, could be purchased in certain sections of Vietnam for $10. Sometimes, money was not even necessary. A box of laundry detergent could often be traded for drugs.

By 1969, drug use in Vietnam had become a major problem for the U.S. Army. A Defense Department survey conducted that year indicated that nearly 25 percent of U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam were using marijuana. A year later a similar survey reported 10 percent of the G.I.s had tried heroin, a figure that would climb to 15 percent by 1971. According to the Army, that meant that between 25,000 to 37,000 soldiers were regular heroin users.

The dwindling support for the war at home, a draft policy which seemed to make Vietnam a rich man's war but a poor man's fight, the gradual reduction in combat activity to facilitate Vietnamization and peace talks, and a more permissive attitude about drugs in the United States all contributed to the problem of drug use in the U.S. Army. In 1971, President Nixon accelerated the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, not only to keep combat casualties down but also to prevent drug use from causing the Army to self-destruct.


McCoy, Alfred W., with Read, Cathleen B., and Adams, Leonard P., II. The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Moss, George Donelson. Vietnam: An American Ordeal, 4th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

John Morello

See also:Antiwar Movement; Fiction and Memoirs, Vietnam; Films, Vietnam; Grunts; Music, Vietnam Era; Popular Culture and Cold War .