Former President Richard Nixon’s reputed “War on Drugs” in the 1960s and 1970s was merely a political ploy to criminalize black Americans in the public’s mind, disrupt black communities and target and arrest black leaders, a former Nixon aide admitted in recently published interview
WASHINGTON – The 1960s “War on Drugs” was less about fighting drugs in urban America and more about creating a political tool to fight blacks and hippies, a top aide to then-President Richard Nixon admitted in a 22-year-old interview published recently in Harper’s Magazine.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published March 22.
“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin – and then criminalizing both heavily – we could disrupt those communities,” said Ehrlichman, who died in 1999.
“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news,” he added. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Ehrlichman’s comments – given to an author in 1994 – represent the first time the War on Drugs has been plainly characterized as a political assault designed to help Nixon win, and keep, the White House.
Civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton said Ehrlichman’s comments proved what black people have believed for decades – the government was targeting them.
“This is a frightening confirmation of what many of us have been saying for years. That this was a real attempt by government to demonize and criminalize a race of people,” said Sharpton, president of the National Action Network.
“And when we would raise the questions over that targeting, we were accused of all kind of things, from harboring criminality to being un-American and trying to politicize a legitimate concern.”
In her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration of black and brown men in America — starting in the 1960s and 70s — served as a way to blunt the advances of the civil rights movement while functioning as a system of racial control similar to how Jim Crow once operated.
Ehrlichman’s comments did not surface until recently when Baum remembered them while going back through old notes for the Harper’s story. His statements are a stark departure from Nixon’s public explanation for his first piece of legislation in the war on drugs, delivered to Congress in 1969, which framed it as a response to an increase in heroin addiction and the rising use of marijuana and hallucinogens by students.
Ehrlichman served 18 months in prison after being convicted of conspiracy and perjury for his role in the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon and sent many presidential aides to prison.
His recent comments surface during a marked shift in attitudes across the nation toward how to handle drug use – ranging from the legalization of marijuana in various states to White House candidates focusing heavily on treatment as an answer to New Hampshire’s heroin epidemic while they were campaigning across the state.
Baum said he had no reason to believe Ehrlichman was being dishonest and viewed his comments as “atonement” from a man long after his tumultuous run in the White House ended.
“I think Ehrlichman was waiting for someone to come and ask him. I think he felt bad about it. I think he had a lot to feel bad about, same with Egil Krogh, who was another Watergate guy.” Baum told CNN.
Baum interviewed Ehrlichman and others for his 1996 book “Smoke and Mirrors,” but said he left out the Ehrlichman comment from the book because it did not fit the narrative style focused on putting the readers in the middle of the backroom discussions themselves, without input from the author.
Baum equated Ehrlichman’s admission with traumatic war stories that often take decades for veterans to talk about and said it clearly took time for Ehrlichman and other Nixon aides he interviewed to candidly explain the war on drugs.
“These guys, they knew they’d done bad things and they were glad finally when it was no longer going to cost them anything to be able to talk about it, to atone for it.” Baum said. “Nobody goes in to public
service, I don’t think, on either side of the political aisle, to be repressive, to be evil. They go in because they care about the country.”
Attempts to reach Ehrlichman’s family for comment were not immediately successful.
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