The War on Drugs was a US federal program that was started as a way to combat a ‘drug epidemic’ that, from the Sixties onward, was ravaging the country. The ‘War on Drugs’ was as much a real issue that affected the lives of millions of American families, as it was a socio-political framework for the US government to carry out a deliberately punitive and repressive criminal justice legislation.
As a federal program, War on Drugs was initiated on 16 June, 1971 when Richard M. Nixon called drug abuse the ‘single most deadly social problem in America today. This article will examine two speeches and reactions from the American citizens that came from Nixon’s White House microfiche collection that are available at the RIAS and that help to better contextualize and historicize the emergence of such a policy.
The first speech shows that within roughly a year since its inception, Nixon administration was already incredibly proud of the results of War on Drugs. In a radio speech broadcast from Camp David on 15 October, 1972, President Nixon told the American public that his promise to restore law, order, and justice in America was finally coming to fruition. Nixon blamed the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies for allowing crime to increase by 122 percent in the eight years between Eisenhower and his own election. As a result of a change of tactics, American law enforcement was now on the offensive in fighting crime, rather than a defensive approach. Nixon went on to emphasize how his administration, by increasing the budget for local police from $22 million a year under Johnson administration up to $1.5 billion, was contributing to combatting drug abuse effectively. At the same time, and at an international level, Nixon highlighted that the US was being active in 59 countries in order to stymie the global heroine and morphine trade. Nixon also appealed to the emotions of the American public, by telling a story about a letter he received. The letter was written by a ‘teenage boy from the Midwest’ whose brother had been experimenting with drugs and as a result went into the woods with a gun and took his own life. The teenage boy wrote: “You can beat that drug, Mr. Nixon; you can destroy it before it destroys any more lives.”
It is interesting to notice how this 1972 speech eerily touches on a lot of issues that we still see in law enforcement in the US today. Nixon described how he wanted to expand the prison system in an effort to prevent further spreading of drug consumption. He also underlined how packing the Supreme, District and Federal Courts with judges aligned on harsh stances on drug-related crime might have contributed to curb drug traffics in the country. Similarly, he stressed the importance of government’s role in restoring the most basic legal values of American society, mostly interpreted as law and order, and therefore supported an expansion of the scope and budget of law enforcement agencies.
A year later, in September 1973, President Nixon came back to the issue of drug abuse. This time, he gave the opening speech for a drug abuse conference at the White House. The documents available at the RIAS show that, in the president’s speaking notes, which were written by John Ehrlichman’s assistant, Geoff Shepard, it was stated that the goal of the conference was to discuss the implementation of ‘’aggressive outreach’’ programs. During his speech Nixon was instructed to touch on his ‘’determination to combat drug abuse through both law enforcement and treatment.” Such new “aggressive outreach” programs were designed to extend mandatory treatment programs not only to voluntary addicts, but also to “other drug abusers passing through the criminal justice system”. Someone arrested for a non-drug-related offense, indeed, could be released from prison without anyone knowing about the possibility of them having a drug-dependency. The administration wanted to avoid this, with the result that every criminal could also be considered automatically an addict. The massive increase in budget to fight drug abuse eventually allowed US authorities to combat all sort of criminal activities under the guise of substance abuse.
The response from the public was very interesting, in part because it contradicted Nixon’s tough approach. In a memorandum from Nixon’s speechwriter Ray Price to other Nixon administration officers such as Bob Haldeman, Herb Klein, Chuck Colson, and Bud Krogh, which revolved around the letters that the administration had received from American citizens about the drug program, Price wrote: “One thing they indicate quite clearly is that in addition to those eager for tougher enforcement, there are a lot of people who care desperately about getting better treatment and rehabilitation.” For example, Sanford D. Garelik, a chief inspector from the NYPD and the president of the New York City Council, wrote to the president that he believed the president’s strategy was not producing substantial impact. He believed that the criminal justice systems had been clogged up by narcotics arrests and for this reason he proposed to establish a special narcotics court. Other American citizens were blaming the administration for allowing, and actually favoring, wrongful detentions and racial targeting. Elizabeth Hinton, for instance, wrote about how the Nixon administration used a $160 million budget to coordinate an ‘anti-drug crime’ project in eight select cities with less than a million citizens but a majority low-income African American population. Rather than using the money to help Americans that were suffering from drug problems, law enforcement became the administration sole and rather self-fulfilling objective. This became a recurring trend in the years after Nixon, and the Reagan presidency became infamous for its harsh stance on drug-related crime which, in hindsight, only worsened the situation.
Alongside the sources shown in the article, the book Nixonland by Rick Perlstein was also used.