Harry and the Reds: A Revisionist Examination of Washington’s Cooperation with Moscow on International Drug Control Policy, (1945 – 1962).

Tom Crouch

In my final year as an undergraduate at Swansea University (I graduated in July this year), I chose to write my dissertation on the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) between the years 1945 and 1962.  In so doing, and by utilising the online archives of the CND alongside other primary sources, the study aimed to revise and nuance the arguments of authors such as John C. McWilliams, William McAllister, Douglas Clark Kinder, Matthew Pembleton and Dave Bewley-Taylor.  It was Dave, my dissertation supervisor, who suggested that I write this blog.

My interest in the topic was first piqued after reading about Harry J. Anslinger, the Commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) between 1930 and 1962, in Chasing the Scream: The first and Last Days of the War on Drugsby Johann Hari.  Further reading about Anslinger uncovered significant anti-communist sentiment. However, a claim in a 2016 article by Mathew Pembleton suggested that there was in fact cooperation between the US and the USSR during the Cold War around anti-narcotic policy. Mindful of the tensions between the superpowers during this period, this intrigued me. I consequently emailed Professor Pembleton about the claim, and he kindly sent through some supporting primary evidence.  And so began my revisionist exploration of the topic.

My research revealed that the primary foundation for cooperation between the US and the USSR between 1946 and 1950 at the fledgling CND was the personal relationship between Anslinger and the Soviet representative, Professor V.V. Zakusov. This relationship existed principally because of the flexibility of Anslinger’s pragmatic world view; a view that managed to transcend wider geopolitical tensions of the time.  Such a perspective differs to that of several authors who have argued that Anslinger’s views were dominated by nationalist ideology. Instead, as primary documents reveal, Anslinger’s stance on a range of countries, including the right-wing Peru, was driven their usefulness (or otherwise) to his campaign for global drug prohibition.

Seen here, just before the start of one of the meetings of the seventh session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (21 April 1952), at United Nations Headquarters are (left to right) Mr. Henry J. Anslinger, delegate of the United States, Mr. John Henry Walker, representing the United Kingdom and Professor V.V. Zakusov, delegate of the U.S.S.R.  Source: United Nations Photos

The importance of individual agency should come as no surprise.  Indeed, during this time, but also before World War 2, there had existed a ‘heroic age’ of individuals, to use McAllister’s term. This involved personal relationships at the core of narco-diplomacy and my research argues that, while largely omitted from the current literature, the Zakusov-Anslinger relationship should be included under this heading. To be sure, despite heightened geopolitical tensions, significant cooperation existed between the US and the USSR due to their diplomat’s shared individual beliefs on international drug prohibition. Concrete cooperation came in the form of Soviet support of US proposals, and vice versa, as well as Soviet inclusions onto CND ad-hoc committees and working parties.

A significant characteristic of cooperation between 1946 and 1950 was that Soviet proposals supported by the US were largely without nationalist oriented ideological motivation. This allowed Anslinger to carefully manage tensions with the US State Department and meant that Zakusov and the Commissioner enjoyed a mutually reinforcing relationship. However, this situation changed with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its exclusion from the UN. At this point, Soviet interactions at the CND became one dimensional and rigid until around 1956.  Moscow’s constant protestations at the PRC’s omission was such that Zakusov’s individual agency and personal relationship with Anslinger disappeared; a dynamic that coincided with the end of the ‘heroic age.’

Another dominant argument within the wider literature on this topic challenged by my research concerns Anslinger’s treatment of the communist world as monolithic. Despite the oft given impression of the two nations as a unitary countervailing power after the Sino-Soviet alliance of 1950, Anslinger treated the PRC and the Soviet Union differently. Specific evidence for this can be seen in his briefing to several NGOs in 1957.  Here he called for the Iron Curtain to be moved past the Soviet Union to China. This was due, according to the Commissioner, to the lack of Chinese cooperation compared to the ‘complete cooperation’ on drug control from the USSR.

My research also shows that some cooperation between the US and USSR did re-emerge towards the end of the 1950s and this this might be explained by two factors. First, by the mid-to-late 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev had successfully broken from Joseph Stalin’s legacy of the ‘inevitability of global war’. The Premier aimed to utilise Soviet foreign policy to generate soft power by settling disputes with opponents, as Zubok and Pleshakov have noted.  It might be argued that such an approach infiltrated the realm of drug policy and the Soviet stance regarding relations with the US in the CND. Second, it is reasonable to suggest that Anslinger’s diminishing influence at the CND during this period also had a significant impact on the re-emergence of cooperation.  While partly due to his strong dislike for Khrushchev, his decline is best understood as a complex mix of factors including bureaucratic infighting, the increasing influence of the more industrialised, moderate states at the CND, and the increasing pressure on him from medical professionals.

All in all, the key conclusion of my work is that the relationships that defined the ‘heroic age’ of individuals in international narco-diplomacy should include that between Zakusov and Anslinger. This relationship transcended geopolitical tensions to ensure mutually reinforcing cooperation.  Indeed, it is simply incorrect to portray Anslinger as an ardent anti-communist.  Rather he judged his treatment of nations at the CND on their usefulness to his global prohibitionist mission.