An Interview with Alfred McCoy
by David BarsamianConducted at University of Wisconsin-Madison, February 17,1990
Alfred W. McCoy is professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Educated at Columbia and Yale, he has spent the past twenty years writing about Southeast Asian history and politics.
This is interview with Alfred McCoy took place while McCoy was steeped in research for, and writing his second book, The Politics of Heroin; CIA Complicity In The Global Drug Trade. The interview is conversational and speculative, and as McCoy points out in the interview, one must be very precise & specific about what one writes in order to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, McCoy's speculations are dynamite and make this interview worth reading.
Barsamian: This is David Barsamian and my guest is Alfred McCoy, author of "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia" and "Drug Traffic: Narcotics and Organized Crime in Australia". Alfred McCoy is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In your book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, you demarcate very carefully that the United States was poised at the end of World War II, in 1945, to... I don't have your exact words ... to terminate the problem of drug addiction in the United States and it could have done so but for forces that I'd like you to discuss - was unable to do so.
McCoy: The problem with America's failed chance at essentially reducing if not eliminating drugs as a problem was a contradiction between the needs of domestic policy and the national security state. After World War II the United States became a global power and set up a number of agencies to exercise this global power, most importantly the executive agency known as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency when it was ultimately formed in 1948. The CIA, in order to conduct its campaign against communism, which was seen as an overweening evil that had to be stopped, was willing to ally with anybody and everybody that could provide during what was seen as a critical period, some strength, some support in the global struggle against communism.
In Europe and Asia the CIA allied themselves with major drug brokers and organized crime syndicates. In sum, what they did was to create a mainline flow of narcotics from the Middle East through Europe to the United States which dominated America's drug markets until the 1960s. At the same time, the CIA was forging alliances and protecting the traffickers in Europe, for reasons of intelligence. They also formed similar alliances in Asia - alliances which were actually deeper and had much more profound and lasting impact on the Asian drug trade.
As the European trade began to diminish in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the second stream, the flow of Asian drug traffic came into the United States and supplanted the old Turkey- Marseilles heroin connection. But, ultimately, when you look at the source of supply and the politics that provided drugs to America in the post-war era, you came down to this contradiction between the weak drug policy and same kind of vague commitment to doing something about drugs versus a very high profile, very important effort to contain communism globally. In this balance between an inarticulated, poorly formed narcotics policy and a very clear national goal of containing communism, narcotics policy was barely considered.
The CIA in this era was dealing with governments, intelligence chiefs, warlords, gangsters, traffickers of all sorts - good character was not considered of moment. The only thing that counted during the period from the late 1940s through the late 1960s was containing communism.
Barsamian: You trace the involvement of the Mafia - the U.S. Mafia - in the promotion of narcotics trafficking in the United States. How did the politics get involved with the Mafia?
McCoy: We have to step back a bit to the origin of the drug problem. Since the 1800s western societies - Europe, Australia, America - have had very extensive drug problems. Now, you can really divide the western world's century of mass drug abuse into two convenient periods. From the late 1800s to the present we can split it down the middle. From about the 1870s when you get big-time mass consumption of narcotics to the 1920s drugs were legal. The name "heroin" for example, was a trade name coined by the Bayer company. In 1898 they came up with a new product which seemed to be very good for respiratory ailments. They put it on the market and called it "heroin." That's where the term comes from. It's a trade name coined by one of the world's major pharmaceutical manufacturers.
The next year, 1899, they came up with another nifty new product that seemed to do the same thing for headaches that heroin did for respiratory ailments. They called the new product "aspirin." That one's worked out pretty well. So we got one winner and one loser during this same period of the global boom of pharmaceuticals.
It wasn't until the 1920s that there was a general consensus that law would be used to regulate personal behavior. So alcohol, gambling and narcotics were, during the 1920s, globally subject to regulation. So you have laws on the books in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States - not only the nations themselves but their several states and provinces - banning the use of narcotics.
Narcotics moved from being a personal choice - something you picked up at your local pharmacy, your local drug store - to being a criminal act. The process by which it becomes illegal varied in every country and, in some cases every state. By the time you get to about 1930, drugs were illegal around the globe.
So, suddenly, who's moving the drugs? Well, it's syndicates. The abolition or the prohibition of alcohol, partial prohibition of alcohol in some countries and full prohibition in this country, combined with the prohibition of narcotics, transferred an enormous sector of the legitimate economy to syndicates. So that's where you got the rise of organized crime.
In 1932 the United States pulled back from the prohibition on alcohol It was gradual, it was slow, but the syndicates got out of the alcohol trade. But we've never pulled back from the prohibition of narcotics. It's remained illegal. That prohibition has become permanent. So, during the 1930s. the syndicates began moving into narcotics. They were of secondary importance initially to alcohol, but once alcohol became legal after 1932, narcotics became correspondingly more important.
During World War II things changed. All global commerce was disrupted. Military controls and war zones intervened with the normal trafficking routes. The drug trade was totally disrupted in the United States. In Asia it continued. The Japanese military intelligence dominated the manufacture and distribution of heroin from China. They used it very explicitly as a weapon against the Chinese resistance. They flooded China with heroin, financed all of their intelligence operations and special operations from the drug trade.
But in the United States and Europe, the drug traffic was disrupted. It largely disappeared. Survival had to do with, in part, some short-term tactical alliances with the Mafia. In 1943 the United States invaded Sicily as one of its two major invasions of Europe, a major event in the history of World War II, secondary to D-Day. That leap from North Africa and fighting up the boot of Italy, bloody horrible campaign that it was, was something that really concerned American military planners at the time. They apparently - the U.S. Navy in particular - forged a short-term political alliance with Lucky Luciano who'd been convicted for operating a brothel that employed something like a thousand prostitutes in New York City; he was in Dannemara State Prison in New York. The Navy cut a deal with him and he used his contacts with the Sicilian Mafia to get Mafia support because the Mafia politically dominated western Sicily which was the area where U.S. forces landed.
Mussolini, for reasons just purely of state, couldn't abide the Mafia. They didn't do what he wanted. He tried to break them. Under the U.S. military occupation of Sicily, the Mafia revived. There were some American Mafiosi deported to Sicily after the war. They provided links back to the United States with their confreres in organized crime. Moreover, as the United States' campaign against communism got underway, particularly in the Mediterranean basin - in Italy and southern France - the United States formed tactical alliances with Corsican syndicates and with the Mafia too. It served as a counterweight to communist dock worker influence in places like Marseilles particularly.
The net result is that as a result of wartime policy and postwar anti-communist policy, you got a revival of organized crime operating initially under some kind of U.S. military-government protection and ultimately under CIA protection.
As the trafficking routes got re-established through the Middle East and Europe, ultimately to the United States, a revived, restored Mafia in Sicily, Corsican syndicates in Southern France, were major participants in this traffic.
Half a world away, in Asia, you get a similar phenomenon. We can talk about that if you want.
Barsamian: In fact, the re colonization of Indochina by the French at the end of World War II in 1946 led to what you call the first Indochina war, and the establishment of a major international narcotics trade which the French intelligence was very much involved with. Is that true?
McCoy: Yes, but again I think we have to stand back and look at this in somewhat broader perspective. It's one of the liabilities of being a history professor - I can't understand 1990 unless I know about 1890. It's just the way I see things. Things have historical roots and if you deal with present superficialities you won't have a clue as to what's going on.
You have to understand, first of all, that the extensive opium trade in Indochina - mass consumption, particularly in the cities - was as a result of European colonial policy. Nowhere else in the world - and most of the tropical latitudes of the globe were colonized - Asia, Africa and Latin America at one time, entirely colonized.
It's only in Southeast Asia that the colonial governments paid for their very dynamic development, massive infrastructural projects, irrigation that transformed the landscape, massive road networks, rail networks, very dynamic colonial development - all of this was paid for by direct taxes upon Indochinese consumers. Taxes on alcohol, salt and particularly opium. In British Malaya, 40% of colonial taxes came from opium. In Thailand it was running about 15%. (Thailand was an independent state but they followed the colonial model.) In French Indochina it ranged about 15% from the period of the 1870s up through the 1950s when, as a result of UN pressure, all of these governments abolished the opium trade. Thailand was the second last to do it. Thailand didn't abolish its state opium monopoly - rather like an alcoholic beverage control that a lot of states have. They didn't abolish this until 1957 and Laos didn't abolish theirs until 1961.
So you had, then, mass opium consumption in Southeast Asia as a result of this colonial policy of making the colony pay with opium. That was the policy.
Now, most of the opium was not produced in Southeast Asia. It came from abroad - either Southern China or, particularly, India. The thing that changes significantly after World War II is not the emergence of Southeast Asia as a major area of opiate consumption - it had been so for a century or even more. What is significant is the emergence of the mountain areas of Southeast Asia as major areas of global opium production. Indeed, by the early 1960s, the largest single source of opium anywhere in the world was the so-called "Golden Triangle" region of Southeast Asia.
How did this come about? It comes about two ways. Most importantly, we have to look at North Burma. That's the bulk of the Golden Triangle. In fact, most of that imaginary geographical construct penned by some unknown journalist wag or geographer - nobody knows where this idea came from calling this sort of triangular-shaped highland zone where opium is grown in Southeast Asia "the Golden Triangle" - most of that triangle is in Burma, northeastern Burma in particular.
So, where did opium come from? Well, if you look at the British colonial records, because the British colonized Burma, you find opium production up until 1945 in northeastern Burma was almost insignificant. There was very little grown. Most of the opium consumption in northeastern Burma came from India. Burma, after all, was a province of India under the British, so they just brought it in and sold it legally. Now, where the opium came from was a major CIA operation. One of the biggest - the only one I know of its scale that is yet to be exposed by journalists or muckrakers of any sort. This was the attempt to overthrow the People's Republic of China.
In 1949 the Red Army, Mao's Red Army, drove south and they drove the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek in two directions: one down to Taiwan to the East and secondly, into this redoubt, this highland plateau which is the Hunan province in southwestern China. The warlord of Hunan surprisingly surrendered, betrayed Chiang Kai-Shek, and surrendered to the communists. Chiang Kai-Shek's plan of having his old World War II redoubt which was the bastion of his resistance against the Japanese. This was Chiang Kai-Shek's old mountain bastion. He thought he could hold it and maybe use it for counter-attack. Well, the warlord of Hunan betrayed him for reasons nobody quite understands, turned it over to the communists, and Chiang's forces were suddenly without a redoubt. They fled across the border into the mountains of northeastern Burma, where the CIA set up a massive support operation, including an air link that was of the nature of the hump - the flight from India across the hump of the Himalayas into the Hunan province of southern China during World War II. They also rearranged the politics of Thailand. the CIA became involved in the factional politics among the military leadership in Thailand. They allied themselves with the commandant of the Thai national police, a particularly corrupt man named General Pao. General Pao went into the opium business with the nationalist Chinese forces in Laos.
What you had was the CIA sustaining nationalist Chinese forces in Northeastern Burma on the China border, supporting - we have records I think of two invasions of southern China by this force which left, in a couple of battles, dead white men on the field of battle. One can only suspect that they were CIA operatives or contract mercenaries working for the Agency, We don't know. No identification.
But anyway, these invasions failed. So why didn't they withdraw? Well, the CIA had the idea - and you can find these in formal National Security Council documents - the CIA and the Pentagon had the idea that there was going to be a massive Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia at some point. This was what the Vietnam war was all about: building up the South Vietnamese Army, to integrate, to become an Allied force within the U.S. conventional combat forces, to resist this projected Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia. The falling dominoes were not just going to fall from within, they were going to be pushed from without by an invading China.
So they kept the Nationalist Chinese forces up along this long difficult Burma border as a kind of trip-wire to detect a Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia and to run intelligence operations. They went into China, kidnapped Chinese officials, tapped phone lines, and bought newspapers - and they were maintained in northeastern Burma from 1949 until 1961 when a joint Communist Chinese-Burmese Army operation drove them into northern Thailand which is where they are today. But they still maintained their posts, even though they couldn't keep their base camps in Burma. That group, the Nationalist Chinese forces in northeastern Burma, transferred northeastern Burma from a region of very little opium production into the largest single producer of opium anywhere in the world today.
How did they do it? They did it through the classic colonial policy that we saw under Leopold of the Belgians in the Congo Free State. Under Leopold every peasant had to grow rubber and if you didn't deliver rubber, your children's limbs were amputated. I can show you a very famous photograph in a book published by Macmillan University Press, The Colonial Empires by Professor B.K. Hildhouse(?) and there's a picture of an African man sitting on his porch looking at the feet of his daughter which had been amputated because he didn't deliver the rubber. It was such a brutal, horrific administration that the European colonial powers held a conference, took the Congo away from Leopold, and gave it to the Belgian parliament to administer. It was one of the great scandals of the 19th century, one of the horrors of colonialism. That great novel, Heart of Darkness, that became Apocalypse Now - that's written about the brutality of the Belgians in the Congo Free State.
There are many legacies in the European imagination of how horrible this was. Well, that's exactly what the Nationalist Chinese forces did to the Hill tribes of northeastern Burma. I've interviewed American Baptists missionaries who told me that ordinary peasants - hill tribesmen - who did not deliver their opium quota, suffered the loss of limbs. Fingers would be cut and hands were taken from you and your family.
So people produced.
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