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Chapter 12 Altruism and self-interest in America's narcotics diplomacy PDF Print E-mail
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Books - American Diplomacy and the narcotics traffic
Written by Paul Goldstein   

The international movement to suppress the misuse of dangerous drugs arose out of developments in the nineteenth century. Beginning as an effort to rid China of the opium menace, it soon evolved into a cam-paign to solve what had become an almost universal problem. The initial interest of the United States in the problem stemmed from the participation of its nationals in the China opium trade. These activities were carried on without the countenance of the American government and people, and when their attention was drawn to the situation by the Anglo-Chinese War in x 839, they reacted with almost unanimous denunciation of the trade. Even the American participants in the traffic did not attempt to defend it. On the contrary, they, along with other Americans in China, strongly urged that the trade be brought to a close. But as the traffic was primarily an Anglo-Chinese affair, the power of the United States to alter the situation was limited to insuring that Americans ceased their participation in it.

Steps toward this end were begun, though ineffectually, with the Wanghia Treaty of 1844 and culminated in the 88o's with a treaty and enforcement legislation which barred Americans from engaging further in the trade. These measures were taken in response to the complaints by American missionaries and diplomatic officials to the effect that opium consumption was debauching the Chinese people, and that as a result, China was being weakened both politically and eco-nomically not only to its own disadvantage but also to the detriment of foreign trade. Thus an appeal was made not only to the moral and humanitarian sense of Americans, but to their economic self-interest as well. These twin approaches were subsequently to become charac-teristic features of the American appeal to other governments to help China rid itself of the evil.

By the end of the nineteenth century the United States believed that it had cleared itself of all complicity in the Chinese opium traffic, and while continuing to express a humanitarian interest in China's prob-lem, it rejected the requests of missionaries and Chinese officials that it use its influence to persuade Great Britain to end the exportation of Indian opium to China. The United States maintained that this was essentially an Anglo-Chinese affair. But the subject could not be dis-missed so easily. During the course of the century humanitarian prob-lems had become increasingly matters of international concern and therefore subjects of diplomatic negotiations. In addition, the voices of missionaries and other reformers sounded ever louder in the councils of governments. The United States was particularly susceptible to such influence and responded to it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by becoming a party to international conventions on the liquor and white slave traffic and by taking unilateral action on such matters as the sale of opium and arms to so-called unprotected peoples in backward lands. Then, with the acquisition of the Philip-pine Islands, the United States acquired a concrete interest in the Far Eastern drug situation. Missionaries called the attention of the govern-ment to the opium problem in the islands, and in response to their suggestions, the United States, seeking to demonstrate the beneficence of its rule over dependent peoples, prohibited outright the traffic in and use of the drug except for medical and scientific purposes. It thus be-came the only Western power with Far Eastern possessions to so re-strict the use of the drug, a position which it held until near the end of World War II.

The significance of the Philippine opium situation extended far beyond the islands. Its great importance was in furnishing the United States with ample justification for interceding on behalf of China with the other powers having Oriental possessions. Thus, in rno6, again in response to missionary influence, the United States launched an inter-national campaign to help rid China of the opium menace. Although the movement soon broadened to include most of the world, China remained throughout a major factor in American considerations. And as a result of the great part played by missionaries and other reformers in the inauguration of the movement as well as in carrying it out, American participation in the campaign took on the aura of a moral crusade.

From the American viewpoint, the international movement to con-trol the traffic in narcotic drugs, as covered by this study, may be divided into three periods corresponding to some extent to the influence which various other aspects of American foreign policy had upon American participation in the movement. The first phase covered the decade preceding the outbreak of World War I and was charac-terized by concentration on the drug traffic in the Far East. During this period the American approach to that traffic fell within the com-pass of the Open Door Policy in regard to China, although that ap-proach was never officially stated as being a part of this policy. As is well known, the object of American policy with reference to China was the establishment and preservation of a strong, stable, and pros-perous nation which would be able to resist the encroachments of foreign powers and at the same time provide opportunities for mutual-ly profitable commercial relations with the West. As the opium habit was believed to be largely responsible for the political, social, and economic degeneration of China, its suppression was considered in-dispensable to China's revivification and to the development of her commercial potential. The Chinese shared this view, and an antiopium campaign was an important and the most successful part of the reform movement undertaken in China in the first decade of the twentieth century. By the end of the first phase of the international movement, China had made progress in suppressing opium production and con-sumption, though often through measures which some people regarded as inhilinane, and Great Britain had virtually ended exportation of the drug from India to China. In the Hague Opium Convention provisions were made for the powers to assume the obligation of helping China as well as each other to eliminate the drug problem. The most conspicuous feature of that instrument was the requirement that countries prevent the export of opium products to countries prohibiting their entry, a principle first put forward by the United States at the Shanghai Commission.

The second phase of the antiopium movement covered the decade of the 192o's. During this period the United States gave priority to its own internal drug situation. As a result of the investigations in the preceding period, the United States, like other Western nations, had discovered that the drug traffic was not confined to the Far East, but was a growing menace in the West. During the second phase, therefore, the United States perfected its domestic legislation, the foundation of which had already been laid in the preceding period. The international efforts of the United States during this period were severely com-plicated, however, by the overriding political issue of the degree to which the United States should cooperate with the League of Nations. Effective collaboration with that organization ended in disillusionment with the Geneva Conferences in 1924-1925. For the remainder of the decade, the United States, confused as to what steps to take, adopted a passive role. Its coolness toward the League on the drug question was based not only on political considerations but reflected the long-held American view that most of the member states of the organization which were directly interested in the drug traffic did not really desire to see that traffic restricted because of the financial and other economic benefits which they derived from it. As most of these nations were represented on the Opium Advisory Committee, the United States viewed the League's drug policy as reflecting the interests of the so-called opium bloc.

Despite the unhappy results, the American participation in the de-liberations of the League on the narcotics problem cannot be regarded as totally unproductive. By explicitly restating the American position, the American representatives helped to clarify the nature of the nar-cotics problem and the measures necessary to deal with it. In so doing they gave an impetus to effective action to solve the problem. The American position consisted of three main principles.

(1) The United States regarded the use of opium and other narcotic substances for other than strictly medical and scientific purposes as a moral and social evil.

(2) As a corollary, the United States concluded that the only legiti-mate transactions in these drugs, from production to consumption, were those designed to meet medical and scientific needs.

(3) The United States maintained that the basic solution to the drug problem lay in limiting the production of raw materials to the quantities necessary to fill the world's legitimate requirements.

Although the United States failed to get the international community to put these principles into effect during the I92o's, the vigorous insist-ence on their adoption set the stage for serious international efforts in the 193o's in this regard.

The third phase of the international movement falls conveniently within the decade of the 193o's. During this period the three aspects of the drug problem—smoking, smuggling, and surplus production—which had been considered but inadequately dealt with in the Geneva Opium Conferences were tackled anew in separate deliberations. The United States modified its attitude toward the League, and by col-laborating more closely with that body, was able to regain its place of leadership in the international campaign. The most important achieve-ment during this period was the limitation of the manufacture of nar-cotic drugs to medical and scientific requirements. Less satisfactory, from the American viewpoint, were the measures adopted to deal with illicit traffic. The conference on opium smoking failed, as had previous conferences, to attack effectively the traffic in and use of this type of opium, but out of this failure came the impetus for a concerted effort to deal with the drug problem at what the United States regarded as its source, that is, by limiting production of raw materials. Much progress on a draft convention along this line had been made by the League and the interested states by the time the whole international move-ment was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II.

Having initiated the international movement, the United States supplied throughout its guiding spirit. Only briefly, when it discovered that its leadership role and its animosity toward the League of Nations were incompatible, did the United States relinquish its position of pre-eminence. On this occasion, individual Americans, either in their pri-vate capacities or with some official connection with the League, stepped into the breach. Their action was indicative of the considerable influefice which Americans lacking official status with the govern-ment exercised throughout the course of the international campaign. The reforming zeal which many of them brought to the movement came even to characterize, to some extent, the official American ap-proach. This was largely responsible for the holier-than-thou attitude often displayed by American representatives in the international dis-cussions, which was so irritating to the other powers. This attitude also stemmed from the failure of the United States to give sympathetic consideration to a dilemma which many of the governments of other states had to face. Many of these states had to take into account the mat-ter of conflicting interests, and the moral approach was not sufficient to pacify the various political, social, and economic groups which had a vested interest in the drug traffic. The United States was not plagued by a similar difficulty. Respectable elements in America were virtually all in accord on the problem. This enabled the American government to speak with a firm voice and to pursue a consistent policy without fear of antagonizing important segments of its population.

Moreover, many countries were genuinely skeptical, on both humanitarian and practical grounds, of the efficacy of the prohibition approach to the drug problem; and there was no convincing evidence from the experience of areas in which the system was in effect to allay this doubt. In the Philippines, opium smuggling remained a problem. China's prohibition of opium smoking was followed by a huge illicit traffic in manufactured drugs. And even in the United States, various claims, official and unofficial, of a reduction in narcotic drug consumption following the introduction of prohibition could not be conclusively substantiated. On the contrary, many persons have con-tended that from the initiation of the policy of prohibition to the end of the period covered by this study, the consumption of opiates, fed by a growing illicit traffic, not only failed to decline but was exacerbated by the addict's resort to criminal behavior in his efforts to acquire money to purchase the high-priced illicit product.1 America's prohibi-tion policy was also embarrassed by the failure of her experiment in liquor prohibition, a fact which the foreign press was fond of pointing out.2

Though often a source of exasperation to the other powers, the American attitude was beneficial to the movement as a whole. By directing the glare of publicity and moral condemnation on nations which were slow to cooperate in the efforts to suppress the misuse of dangerous drugs, the United States was successful in persuading many of them to take more vigorous action. In the case of certain nations, however, notably China and Japan, where either political instability or official and public indifference prevailed, such actions were of little effect. This is why the Far Eastern drug situation had become, once again during the 193o's the most crucial element in the whole drug-control problem.

The drug-control movement illustrates the fact that even in diplo-matic negotiations on primarily humanitarian matters, political con-siderations are seldom absent. Prominent in the approach of the United States toward the drug problem were its political attitudes and ob-jectives in regard to China, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the League of Nations. Only in the case of the League did the American views have a detrimental effect, and then only temporarily. Yet, despite the politi-cal and economic factors involved, as well as the difficulty involved in controlling such highly desired and easily concealable products as narcotic drugs, considerable progress had been made on the interna-tional level by the end of the 193o's in dealing with the drug problem. Several multilateral treaties were in operation and another was in the draft stage which were based largely on principles advocated by the United States. A highly complex control machinery had been fashioned to deal with manufacture and with the international traffic. This con-trol machinery had already been considered as a possible model on which the regulation of other matters of international import, such as the trade in and manufacture of arms, might be based. These interna-tional measures were supplemented by strict systems of national control in many countries.

On the other hand, after three decades of national and international effort, the abuse of narcotic drugs was still a pressing problem, and especially so in the United States, to which the illicit traffic naturally gravitated because of the demand and the high prices obtainable for the drugs. One of the reasons for this situation was the fact that owing to the,lack of cooperation of certain nations or insufficient time to put into force the control measures called for, the full effects of the inter-national conventions had not been felt. In addition, glaring loopholes in the system of control remained, due to the lack of control over the production of raw materials and the absence of effective provisions for the suppression of opium smoking. Furthermore, despite the emphasis on the limitation of the supplies available, the real solution to the drug problem—the elimination of the demand for drugs for illicit purposes through preventive measures and the care and treatment of addicts—had yet to be given adequate consideration by the international community. The remedy for all of these deficiencies had to await the conclusion of the Second World War when, under the auspices of the United Nations, the fourth phase of the drug control movement began.

1. See, for example, "Opium," The Outlook, CVIII (Dec. 23, 1914), 896-897; and a draft memorandum in the Far Eastern Division of the State Department entitled, Expe-rience in the United States with the Plan of Selling Drugs to Addicts at Low Prices, July 25, io35, SDR 5ooC.1197/886. For an extended refutation of the claim of the United States Bureau of Narcotics that there has been a substantial decrease in drug addiction since 1914, see Lindesmith, op. cit., pp. io4-114.

2. See above, p. 2°4.


Our valuable member Paul Goldstein has been with us since Monday, 20 February 2012.

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