We have all heard of the “War on Drugs.” In the modern sense, this started on June 18, 1971 when President Nixon declared drug abuse Public Enemy Number One after receiving a report on the high incidence of drug addiction among troops serving in Vietnam. So far, the war has cost well over 1/2 $1 trillion dollars and ended the lives of tens of thousands of people. The stated goals are to prevent new addicts, rehabilitate those who were addicted, and stop the production and flow of drugs. Government support of the second goal is limited at best, and the success against the other goals depends on whom you ask, although it would be very difficult to declare the war a success.
So, we all know about the War on Drugs; has there ever been a “War For Drugs”; ie, a war for the express purpose creating new addicts, not rehabilitating the addicted, and increasing the production and flow of drugs? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.
I am not here discussing the fact the the Golden Triangle (see map) was created by fleeing Chinese Nationalist armies (supported by the United States) defeated in the Chinese Civil War, who set themselves up as petty warlords in neighboring countries and began massive drug operations. Nor the fact that Oliver North, unable to get enough funds for his war in Nicaragua just selling weapons to Iran, used government resources to smuggle cocaine in the United States. (If you know someone who got hooked or died from cocaine in the 1980s, feel free to send the Freedom Alliance a nasty gram. They distribute very little of the funds they collect to help the children of service members anyway, due to high “overhead costs” and salaries for the top members.) Nor is this about the fact that the Taliban had almost completely eliminated heroine production in Afghanistan (Golden Crescent), but after the invasion there was an almost near monopoly in its production by 2007. Those were all side effects (pun intended) of short-sighted policy decisions.
I am here discussing the First Opium War (1839-1842) and Second Opium War (1856-1860), fought mostly between Great Britain and China, although others participated.
In the 19th century, Great Britain was considered the greatest economic power on earth. What few people today know is that China was a close second. The desire for Chinese goods, mostly silk, porcelain, and tea in Western countries was inexhaustible. (This is the reason you call plates “china” today). Since the mid 1700s, merchants made vast fortunes shipping these goods home. However, China was an entirely self-sufficient country at this time, and foreign trade was looked down upon. China restricted foreign merchants to a few ports, and moreover, demanded that all payments be made in nothing but silver.
The size of the Chinese trade can be seen by the fact that, had the trade been done according to the rules, China would have owned all of the silver on earth in three years!!
This did not happen. Merchants had to find some way of getting silver back from China, to trade it to them again for goods. They settled on opium. Cotton plantations in India and other colonies were entirely converted to drug production. The drugs were smuggled into China and paid for in silver, which was then used to buy more tea and silk. Dry, rinse, repeat. (This trade is what turned the money pit colony of India into a massive money maker).
The Chinese government was none too happy about this illegal trade, and the increase of addicts in their country. Like every other country in the same situation, they tried to stop it. Chinese officials closed down much of the smuggle points and seized over 1000 tons of opium from British merchants and destroyed it.
The British government demanded that the merchants be fully compensated for the value of their lost merchandise. (Can you imagine the United States paying drug dealers for their lost goods?) When the Chinese refused, British warships bombarded cities and troops destroyed Chinese armies with superior technology. China was forced to sign the first of the “unequal treaties”, giving Britain more economic influence in China, and incidentally, paying for the destroyed drugs. France and the United States, while not direct participates in the war, were happy to see British success, and soon forced their own treaties on China.
The history of the 19th century is one of strong nations attacking weaker ones, forcing a treaty, then becoming unhappy with the treaty and doing it again. No imperial power was exempt from this, and Great Britain was, well, great at it.
In the Second War, Britain wanted the opium trade legalized, all of China opened to trade, no internal tariffs, and greater access to coolies.
We need to take a small diversion to discuss coolies. With the abolition of the official slave trade, there was still a massive need for low paid workers to run the great power economies (Sound familiar to anyone?). Workers, mostly from Asia but some from other locations, were tricked or kidnapped and forced to work all over the planet. These workers were rarely paid much, and usually this was only in company script, only redeemable at company stores. They were subjected to overwhelming physical, mental, sexual (mostly females), and racial abuse. (Again, does this somehow seem familiar?) Naturally, China wanted to stop this loss of her citizens.
Great Britain was involved in the Indian Rebellion (1857-1858), their second largest colonial revolt since the American Revolution. China itself was fighting the massive Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), led by Hong Xiuquan, a man who claimed that through visions he learned that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and founded the Tàipíng Tiānguó; literally: “Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven”. This conflict would lead to the deaths of 20 million people, and was a major reason for Chinese resentment toward Christian missionaries.
Officially, the war started over the capture of the ship Arrow, a Chinese pirate ship flying the British flag. The British attacked to “protect the honor of their country”, and once again defeated the Chinese badly. Members of Parliament protested over this new war to defend criminals, but were labeled as traitors in the press and voted out in new elections. (The parallels are really piling up).
France officially joined this war, knowing that England would win easily, using the pretext of a murdered missionary who was operating illegally in China and stirring up anti-government elements. American naval forces in the area helped as well, stating that “blood is thicker than water.” Russia did not fight, but helped the allies.
China agreed to new disastrous treaties in June 1858, but this was not enough for the allies. A joint Anglo-French army marched on Beijing, sweeping all opposition before them. The Imperial Summer Palaces were destroyed, but diplomats convinced them not to destroy the Forbidden City palace complex. What followed was an orgy of rape, murder, and looting not seen again until another allied army did it a second time in 1900, and the Japanese attack on Nanking in 1937. Priceless artifacts, some of them thousands of years old, were destroyed or stolen, and Chinese women were raped and gang raped while their husbands and children were butchered. Often, the women were killed afterwards.
China was again forced to sign treaties, giving the invaders everything they asked for. Later Chinese revolts were also put down with the same ease and massacres.
Thus followed the “Century of Humiliation”, and the Chinese have never forgotten it. They saw how they were treated by the Western democracies, and it influences policy today. Japan also used opium and murder to rule parts of China. The Chinese define their modern history from the start of the First Opium War, when they collectively “Just Said No” to drugs, and millions of them paid with their lives or a lifetime of addiction. They freed themselves on October 1, 1949.
Once again, China is an economic powerhouse, and the whole world has to take notice to what they do and say. The British Empire is gone, now just a tiny collection of states, but with a strong economy.
An incident happened in the 1980s that was missed by most observers. China made a lot of noise about taking Hong Kong back from Britain earlier than the official 1997 date, even by force if necessary. They required that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visit Beijing, and basically beg them not to. The Chinese were very polite, but it was to them the ultimate proof of their victory over Britain.
The map I attached is one of modern illegal drug trade around the world. Please notice where all of the arrows ultimately lead to; the United States and Europe. If we truly want to fight this, we need to help those addicted to these substances, and perhaps look to the Chinese as an example of how to truly fight a “war on drugs”.