Heroin: The hidden enemy in the Vietnam War

Soldiers in war
The Vietnam War, spanning from 1955 to 1975, remains one of the most contentious and traumatic chapters in modern history. It was a war marked by conflicting political ideologies, incomprehensible civilian casualties and profound societal upheaval. However, one tragedy often goes undiscussed in the broader narrative: heroin addiction. This potent drug wormed its way into the lives of soldiers on all sides, offering a fleeting escape from the relentless horrors they experienced daily. But with this temporary solace came the chains of heroin addiction, entangling and devastating countless lives and affecting both countries for decades afterwards.

This article seeks to shine a light on this overlooked facet of the Vietnam War, exploring the reasons behind heroin’s rise, its implications and the lessons that resonate even today.

Why did soldiers take heroin?

As the war dragged on with its relentless battles, ambushes and unpredictable guerrilla warfare, many soldiers found themselves in a near-constant state of anxiety and stress. Amid the truly awful conditions, they sought various coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma and fear they experienced daily. Heroin offered a temporary respite as its potent analgesic properties dulled physical and emotional pain. There are various factors that contributed to heroin becoming the drug of choice:

The availability of heroin

The proximity of Vietnam to the Golden Triangle, an area overlapping the mountains of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, made heroin easily accessible during the Vietnam War. This region had been one of the world’s leading opium producers for centuries, and by the late 1960s, a number of heroin refineries were developed within the area. During the war, heroin began flooding into Vietnam, with both American and Vietnamese soldiers taking it, often for the first time. Black market networks proliferated within and around military bases, and the desperate circumstances of war created a huge market of customers seeking an escape.

Marijuana penalties

Marijuana was also widespread in Vietnam, and the U.S. military had initially been relatively lenient towards its use among its ranks. However, after a 1968 article by the esteemed writer John Steinbeck detailed the GIs’ rampant marijuana use in the Washingtonian Magazine, there was a huge public outcry back home. This prompted a policy shift by the military, resulting in stringent penalties for marijuana use. As a consequence, many soldiers shifted to heroin, which was easier to conceal.

The potency of China White

China White was an exceptionally potent form of heroin produced in the Golden Triangle. At up to 95% pure, it was highly addictive but available all over Vietnam and bordering countries where the U.S. had bases and would send men for rest. Many soon became addicted to China White, and this worrying trend did not go unnoticed by the military officers on the ground, with one reportedly saying:

“If it would get them to give up the hard stuff, I would buy all the marijuana and hashish in the (Mekong) Delta as a present.”
Heroin image

The impact and consequences of heroin addiction

The spread of heroin addiction among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam challenged the military’s operational efficiency and brought about a myriad of health and social issues that, for some, extended well into peacetime. These included:

Operational readiness and combat effectiveness

Heroin’s sedative properties meant that soldiers under its influence experienced dulled reflexes and impaired judgement, and in the life-and-death operations of the Vietnam War, these impaired capacities posed grave risks. Soldiers misjudged situations, reacted inappropriately and put themselves and their comrades in danger.

Dependency and withdrawal

Soldiers addicted to heroin found themselves preoccupied with the drug, often prioritising their next dose over their military duties. Common heroin withdrawal symptoms, including intense pain, mood swings and gastrointestinal distress, further incapacitated soldiers, making them unfit for duty.

Mental health decline

Chronic heroin use triggered and exacerbated underlying mental health issues among soldiers on both sides. Depression, anxiety and feelings of alienation, all common among the soldiers, were amplified by the drug, leading to a vicious cycle of increased use to cope.

Physical health issues

The potent nature of China White meant that overdoses were always a risk, and many died as a result. Soldiers who injected the drug also faced the immediate risk of collapsed veins as well as infections like Hepatitis from sharing needles. Prolonged use of heroin also compromised their immune system, making the soldiers more susceptible to illnesses and slowing down recovery from wounds or infections.

Societal reintegration challenges

Returning Vietnam War veterans already faced societal judgement for their participation in a deeply controversial war, and addiction further marginalised these individuals. This was particularly tough as many were suffering not only from addiction but also other conditions like PTSD.

heroin trade

The heroin trade throughout the war

The Vietnam War created a vortex of economic, political and social factors that made it ripe for the proliferation of the heroin trade. Within this complex network, there were a few critical players and dynamics at work:

Local warlords in the Golden Triangle

As previously mentioned, the Golden Triangle region became a hotspot for heroin production during the war. Local warlords and insurgent groups, such as the Shan United Army in Myanmar, capitalised on the opium trade as a primary source of funding for their military endeavours and to maintain control over their territories.

Complicity within the military

Shockingly, there are claims that elements within the military and intelligence agencies might have been complicit in the drug trade. Reports have suggested that U.S. planes, including the CIA-operated Air America, would return from delivering supplies to anti-communist forces in Laos carrying opium and heroin. While these allegations have been the subject of much debate, what is clear is that the sheer scale of the drug trade in Vietnam would have required some level of systemic collusion or, at the very least, willful blindness.

Corrupt officials and traffickers

Corrupt officials in the South Vietnamese government and police force played a major role in facilitating the heroin trade. With the war destabilising the region, government officials, desperate to supplement their incomes or amass wealth, often ignored or actively participated in the trade. Traffickers, many of whom had ties to the highest echelons of the South Vietnamese society, capitalised on these relationships.

U.S. domestic policies

Back home in the U.S., the demand for heroin surged during the Vietnam era. The return of addicted servicemen, combined with the counterculture movement and social upheavals of the 1960s, created a significant market for heroin dealers. This domestic demand further incentivised the production and distribution of heroin from Southeast Asia.

Efforts to combat heroin addiction

Recognising the urgency of the situation, in 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse as “public enemy number one” and increased federal funding to combat addiction. The Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention was created, and Dr. Jerome Jaffe, often considered the “father of methadone treatment,” was appointed to lead it.

Under Jaffe’s guidance, the approach to drug addiction underwent a significant paradigm shift. While previous efforts were more punitive, Jaffe introduced a more medical and therapeutic approach, similar to that organisations like UKAT follow today. Methadone maintenance became a key strategy, serving as a way to wean heroin users off the drug and as a harm reduction measure. This approach was not without its critics but marked a departure from treating addiction purely as a criminal issue.

Operation Golden Flow

One of the most audacious efforts to combat heroin use among returning servicemen was “Operation Golden Flow.” The operation mandated that all personnel must pass a drug test before they were allowed to return home from Vietnam. The primary aim was to ensure that soldiers who were addicted to heroin were identified and treated before reintegration into civilian life.

Lee Robins’ study

The U.S. government commissioned Dr. Lee Robins, a sociologist and psychiatrist, to study heroin addiction among Vietnam veterans. Contrary to popular belief that addiction was a life-long sentence, Robins found that the majority of servicemen who used heroin in Vietnam did not continue its use upon returning home. This underscored the role of environment and context in addiction, suggesting that the conditions in Vietnam were critical factors in the high rates of heroin use.

The impact on Vietnamese society

The profound impact of heroin addiction on Vietnamese society during the Vietnam War is undeniable. Heroin was rampant in the bars, restaurants and cafes that the American soldiers frequented and the various Vietnamese forces likely had as easy access to the drug as the Americans.

Yet capturing the full extent remains challenging. Post-War Vietnam was characterised by a dearth of reliable data, chaotic record-keeping amidst wartime upheavals and government control over information dissemination, especially concerning sensitive subjects like drug addiction.

However, Vietnam’s current drug addiction response has been under enormous scrutiny due to enforced withdrawal detox. International organisations claim that residents inside the compulsory heroin detox camps are often made to undergo forced labour, suffer physical abuse, inadequate medical care and a lack of evidence-based treatment.

There has also been dissent from residents themselves with regular riots and escapes. After one riot in 2016, the Vietnamese government admitted that as many as 95% of those discharged from compulsory drug detention centres relapsed within two years. This is reflected in the official government figures from 2018, the last figures released due to COVID-19, when there were 152,000 registered heroin users in Vietnam (about 1 in 600 people), with many more likely unregistered.

Despite this, the laws enforcing compulsory rehab were updated in January 2022, stating that:

“Drug addicts aged 18 years or older will be consigned to compulsory drug rehab establishments if they fail to register for, refuse to receive, or deliberately discontinue, voluntary drug addiction treatment; are detected to have illegally used drugs during the period of voluntary addiction treatment; or relapse into drug addiction.”

Clearly, while almost fifty years may have passed since the war’s end, the battle with heroin addiction in Vietnam is still raging on.

Final thoughts

Reflecting on the haunting legacy of heroin addiction stemming from the Vietnam War, it becomes evident that traumatic experiences and societal upheavals can sow the seeds of widespread substance dependence. Once the American soldiers returned home, once they could at least try and put the horrors behind them, many remained heroin-free for the rest of their lives.

At the same time, the juxtaposition of the punitive, enforced rehab measures in Vietnam with the more rehabilitative and empathetic approaches taken by the post-war US and modern recovery facilities like UKAT underscores a crucial insight: true recovery is fostered not by coercion but by understanding, care and evidence-based interventions.

If you are struggling with heroin addiction, contact UKAT today. Our heroin detox and heroin rehab programmes have helped hundreds of people overcome heroin addiction and rebuild their lives.

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