Nixon, the War on Drugs, and the Politics of Hindsight

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Recent headlines report that a “Nixon official” (Vox) or a “Nixon aide” (Vice) or a “Nixon advisor” (Reason) has admitted that the War on Drugs had nothing to do with drug control, that it was not a benign-but-misguided social policy. The War on Drugs was instead conceived as a tactical policy intended to undermine the anti-war left and criminalize blackness. In other words: it’s true! What many have long suspected turns out to be true! The War on Drugs was, and remains, a war against enemies of the Republican party. 920x920The revelation comes via Dan Baum, writing for Harper’s:

At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask [the Nixon official] a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

If you don’t read beyond the headlines, you’ll miss the fact that this admission comes from no mere “official,” “aide,” or “advisor”: it comes from the mouth of John Ehrlichman, arguably the third-most powerful figure in the Nixon White House (following Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and, of course, Nixon). How powerful was Ehrlichman? Nixon was famously averse to the particularities of domestic policy; while he and Kissinger worked on Vietnam and China, he ceded much of the administration’s domestic agenda to Ehrlichman. Ehrlichman served, in a very real and practical sense, as a kind of prime minister for the foreign policy-obsessed Nixon. (I have argued elsewhere that much of the administration’s problems during Watergate arose from insufficient attention to the domestic scene. Kissinger, who contributed so much to domestic angst during the Nixon years, has admitted that he understood very little about domestic discontent with the administration in the run-up to Watergate.) In short, the headlines do not properly amplify the significance of these recent revelations. Ehrlichman was much more than an aide. Nixon’s staff called him and Haldeman “the Berlin Wall,” so tightly did they control access to the president. He wielded more power than a cabinet member. He was one of the most powerful men in a famously lean, mean administration.

German Lopez describes Ehrlichman’s statement for Vox:

This is an incredibly blunt, shocking response — one with troubling implications for the 45-year-old war on drugs. But it’s possible Ehrlichman wasn’t being honest, given that he reportedly felt bitter and betrayed by Nixon after he spent time in prison over the Watergate scandal. And Nixon’s drug czar, Jerome Jaffe, strongly pushed for treating drugs as a health issue, not solely a criminal matter as Ehrlichman suggested.

PH2009111204436Lopez’s cautious aside (Ehrlichman was bitter; Jaffe’s account of the policy differs) doesn’t go far enough, and most reporting on this story is too effusive. Ehrlichman has spent the decades following Watergate not merely as a bitter, betrayed former White House official. He has fashioned himself as something like the belated conscience of the administration, a professional confessor who has admitted all wrong-doing, accepted full complicity for his own role, and accused those who have proved less penitent of bad faith. He is not a mere Nixon critic or a mere disgruntled ex-employee. Nor is he a whistle-blower, like John Dean, a saint who turned to the light after a quick brush with darkness. Ehrlichman was eyeballs-deep in the crimes of the Nixon administration – his initials appear on the document linking authorization of the Watergate break-in to the White House. But he has somehow climbed out of the mire and earned a reputation of respectability in the mainstream media. Oliver Stone cast him as a good guy in Nixon; the recent Our Nixon portrayed him as a remarkably sympathetic figure. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Ehrlichman was more or less single-handedly responsible for the Watergate break-in.

I agree with the substance of Ehrlichman’s critique of the War on Drugs, which has proved to be little more than a war on the poor, both in the United States and abroad. And I believe this political function became the policy’s explicit function by the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who offered white youth the soft-peddled “Just Say No” campaign and black youth the blunt force of militarized policing tactics (all while exploiting the cocaine market to fund their foreign policy objectives from Central America to central Asia). But I also believe that Ehrlichman is a profoundly unreliable source for the notion that this explicit political function predates the 1980s.

First, Ehrlichman’s statements come at the end of a decades-long image-rehabilitation campaign, as I note above. We cannot help but suspect that Ehrlichman is interpreting the past through the lens of the present, when the outcomes of Nixon’s drug policy are apparent. And Ehrlichman has made his career affirming the suspicions of others about the Nixon administration; at times, he has done a great service by these affirmations. But he also has a habit (along with John Dean and others) of rehearsing our worst assumptions about Nixon’s nefariousness. He is a connoisseur of hindsight and its politics. This works with Watergate; it works less well with the War on Drugs. Given the actual scope and unwieldiness of the War on Drugs, Ehrlichman’s version of events verges on the wildly paranoid and conspiratorial. The only reason his version is receiving so much publicity, I think, is that it seems plausible: we are dealing, after all, with Nixon, the most paranoid and conspiracy-minded of presidents.

But, second, what we know about Nixon actually affirms a more nuanced version of events, one that accords with Jaffe rather than Ehrlichman. The War on Drugs was precisely the kind of big, tough, expansive, multi-faceted policy that Nixon favored throughout his presidency. Nixon’s famously protean image continued to evolve after his death, and as historian David Greenberg has noted, many now hail Nixon as “the last liberal,” the final New Deal president. And the War on Drugs is very much in keeping with a New Deal / Fair Deal / Great Society mindset. It’s a vast set of policies dependent on a complex network of federal agencies. It’s pure FDR or LBJ, just with a toughened Republican crust. In the hands of anti-government Republicans like Reagan, it became a tool of violent social intimidation. But under Nixon, it still had the veneer of progressiveness – including much of the implicit ugliness that has historically accompanied progressive policies. But that is precisely the point: the ugliness was implicit in the policy, not explicit in the policy’s aims, as Ehrlichman claims.

This is not to deny that Nixon’s “law and order” rhetoric was racist, or that many of his administration’s policies were rooted in racist assumptions about the relationship between crime, drugs, and minority populations. But the War on Drugs was not a backroom conspiracy a la a Plumbers operation. It was a massive policy with numerous authors, of which Nixon and Ehrlichman and Jaffe were just a few. The War on Drugs represented a profound social realignment, initiated and enacted by every apparatus of the U.S. government. It cannot be reduced to the paranoid aims of a single racist crackpot in the White House, racist crackpot though he might have been.

Was Nixon aware that the War on Drugs would further demonize hippies (he didn’t need much help doing that by 1968) and disenfranchise blacks? Probably. But these were almost certainly viewed as secondary benefits – welcome collateral damage – and not as the policy’s ultimate function. After all, we know that Nixon always favored more direct means of consolidating political power and attacking political enemies. Ehrlichman’s account of the War on Drugs is both too tidy and too complicated. Too tidy because it worked too well: few (if any?) federal policies achieve their explicit goals so successfully. Too complicated because the War on Drugs is an awfully roundabout way of getting at the anti-war left, and Nixon was not all that complicated. Such a nefarious policy would involve more channels than Nixon typically worked through, more wires than he typically manipulated. It just doesn’t sound like Nixon. When it came to the  dirty side of power politics, Nixon never favored a trickle-down approach.

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