The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

The GI Heroin Epidemic

The sudden burst of heroin addiction among GIs in 1970 was the most important development in Southeast Asia's narcotics traffic since the region attained self-sufficiency in opium production in the late 1950s. By 1968-1969 the Golden Triangle region was harvesting close to one thousand tons of raw opium annually, exporting morphine base to European heroin laboratories, and shipping substantial quantities of narcotics to Hong Kong both for local consumption and reexport to the United States. Although large amounts of chunky, low-grade no. 3 heroin were being produced in Bangkok and, the Golden Triangle for the local market, there were no laboratories anywhere in Southeast Asia capable of producing the fine-grained, 80 to 99 percent pure, no. 4 heroin. However, in late 1969 and early 1970, Golden Triangle laboratories added the final, dangerous ether precipitation process and converted to production of no. 4 heroin. Many of the master chemists who supervised the conversion were Chinese brought in specially from Hong Kong. In a June 1971 report, the CIA said that conversion from no. 3 to no. 4 heroin production in the Golden Triangle "appears to be due to the sudden increase in demand by a large and relatively affluent market in South Vietnam." By mid April 1971 demand for no. 4 heroin both in Vietnam and the United States had increased so quickly that the wholesale price for a kilo jumped to $1,780 from $1,240 the previous September. (95)

Once large quantities of heroin became available to American GIs in Vietnam, heroin addiction spread like a plague. Previously nonexistent in South Vietnam, suddenly no. 4 heroin was everywhere: fourteen-year old girls were selling heroin at roadside stands on the main highway from Saigon to the U.S. army base at Long Binh; Saigon street peddlers stuffed plastic vials of 95 percent pure heroin into the pockets of GIs as they strolled through downtown Saigon; and "mama-sans," or Vietnamese barracks' maids, started carrying a few vials to work for sale to on-duty GIs. With this kind of aggressive sales campaign the results were predictable: in September 1970 army medical officers questioned 3,103 soldiers of the Americal Division and discovered that 11.9 percent had tried heroin since they came to Vietnam and 6.6 percent were still using it on a regular basis. (96) In November a U.S. engineering battalion in the Mekong Delta reported that 14 percent of its troops were on heroin. (97) By mid 1971 U.S. army medical officers were estimating that about 10 to 15 percent, or 25,000 to 37,000 of the lower-ranking enlisted men serving in Vietnam were heroin users. (98)

As base after base was overrun by these ant-armies of heroin pushers with their identical plastic vials, GIs and officers alike started asking themselves why this was happening. Who was behind this heroin plague? The North Vietnamese were frequently blamed, and wild rumors started floating around U.S. installations about huge heroin factories in Hanoi, truck convoys rumbling down the Ho Chi Minh Trail loaded with cases of plastic vials, and heroin-crazed North Vietnamese regulars making suicide charges up the slopes of Khe Sanh with syringes stuck in their arms. However, the U.S. army provost marshal laid such rumors to rest in a 1971 report, which said in part:

"The opium-growing areas of North Vietnam are concentrated in mountainous northern provinces bordering China. Cultivation is closely controlled by the government and none of the crop is believed to be channeled illicitly into international markets. Much of it is probably converted into morphine and used for medical purposes." (99)

Instead, the provost marshal accused high-ranking members of South Vietnam's government of being the top "zone" in a four-tiered heroinpushing pyramid:

"Zone 1, located at the top or apex of the pyramid, contains the financiers, or backers of the illicit drug traffic in all its forms. The people comprising this group may be high level, influential political figures, government leaders, or moneyed ethnic Chinese members of the criminal syndicates now flourishing in the Cholon sector of the City of Saigon. The members comprising this group are the powers behind the scenes who can manipulate, foster, protect, and promote the illicit traffic in drugs." (100)

But why are these powerful South Vietnamese officials-the very people who would lose the most if the heroin plague forced the U.S. army to pull out of South Vietnam completely-promoting and protecting the heroin traffic? The answer is $88 million. Conservatively estimated, each one of the twenty thousand or so GI addicts in Vietnam spends an average of twelve dollars a day on four vials of heroin. Added up over a year this comes out to $88 million, an irresistible amount of money in an impoverished, war-torn country.

In probing the root causes of the heroin plague, the mass media have generally found fault with the U.S. army: the senior NCOs and junior officers came down too hard on strong-smelling marijuana and drove the GIs to heroin, which is odorless, compact, and much harder to detect; the GIs were being forced to fight a war they did not believe in and turned to heroin to blot out intense boredom; and finally, the army itself was an antiquated institution from which the GIs wanted to "escape." Much of this is no doubt true, but the emphasis is misplaced. Officers and NCOs had been cracking down on marijuana for several years without the GIs turning to heroin. (101) By 1968 the emotional malaise of the Vietnam GI was already well developed; the race riot in Long Binh stockade and the My Lai massacre were only the most obvious signs of the problem. But there was no serious heroin use until the spring of 1970, when large quantities were being sold everywhere in Vietnam. And the simple fact is that there would have been no epidemic without this well-organized, comprehensive sales campaign. The real root of the problem does not lie with the GI victim or the army's marijuana crackdown, but with those Vietnamese officials who organized and protected the heroin traffic.

The experience of Maj. Gen. John Cushman in IV Corps, the Mekong Delta, demonstrates the extent of official involvement on the part of the Vietnamese army and utter futility of the U.S. army's " cleanup," "crackdown" approach to dealing with the GI heroin epidemic. When Major General Cushman took command of U.S. forces in the Delta in mid 1971 he was shocked by the seriousness of the heroin problem. U.S. army medical doctors estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the GIs in his command were regular heroin users. (102) Cushman made a desperate bid to stem the rising rate of addiction. Prepared with all the precision and secrecy of a top priority offensive, a massive crackdown on drug use began on June 22 at 5:30 A.M.: all troops were confined to base twenty-four hours a day, guard patrols were stiffened, everyone entering base was searched, and emergency medical clinics were opened. The price of a three-dollar vial of heroin shot up to forty dollars on base and three hundred addicts turned themselves in for treatment. However, within six days the MPs' enthusiasm for searches began to wane, and heroin once more became available. On July 4 confinement was terminated and passes for town were reissued. Within a week the price of heroin was down to four dollars, and over half of those who had turned themselves in were back on drugs. (103)

By late July General Cushman realized that he could never solve the problem until the Vietnamese police and army stopped protecting the pushers. Although he wrote the Vietnamese IV Corps commander, General Truong, threatening to withdraw his "personal support" from the war effort unless Vietnamese officers stopped pushing heroin, he realized it was a futile gesture. The problem was not General Truong. Cushman explained, "Truong has a spotless reputation. I haven't heard the slightest whisper of talk that he is anything other than a man of the highest integrity. I personally admire him and I feel the same about his generals." But he could not say the same for the Vietnamese colonels and majors. While Truong himself is not involved, he "is not a free agent" and lacks the authority to stop his third-level commanders from dealing in drugs. (104) Some Vietnamese sources have identified these colonels as men who are loyal to President Thieu's chief military adviser, General Dang Van Quang. (105)

The Cambodian invasion may have been another important factor in promoting the GI heroin epidemic. While this hypothesis can probably never be proven because of the clandestine, fragmented nature of the heroin traffic, it is an interesting coincidence that the invasion occurred in May 1970 and most journalistic accounts and official reports give "spring 1970" or "early 1970" (106) as the starting date for widespread heroin addiction. (Late 1969 is the date usually given for the beginning of small-scale heroin use among GIs.' (107)) The difficulties involved in smuggling between southern Laos and the Vietnamese Central Highlands limited the amount of narcotics that could be brought into Vietnam; the lack of roads and rivers made air transport an absolute necessity, but the rugged mountain terrain and the relative infrequency of flights between these two unpopulated areas required excessively intricate planning.

Since the mid 1950s the Cambodian neutralist ruler, Prince Sihanouk, had remained hostile to the various pro-American South Vietnamese regimes. Vietnamese military transports, naval vessels, or military convoys never entered Cambodia, and most of the gold and narcotics smuggling from Laos avoided this neutralist kingdom. However, less than three months after Sihanouk's ouster in March 1970, the Vietnamese army crashed across the border and VNAF's Fifth Air Division began daily flights to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Once Cambodia opened up, unlimited quantities of narcotics could be flown from southern Laos to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, on any one of the hundreds of commercial, military, or clandestine flights that crowded the airways every day. From there narcotics could easily be forwarded to Saigon by boat, truck, or aircraft. Since the spread of GI heroin addiction seems to have been limited only by the availability of drugs, the improved smuggling conditions that resulted from the Cambodian invasion must have played some role in promoting the GI heroin epidemic.