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The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia is a major, nonfiction book on heroin trafficking—specifically in Southeast Asia from before World War II up to (and including) the Vietnam War. Published in 1972, the book was the product of eighteen months of research and at least one trip to Laos by Alfred W. McCoy[1] who was the principal author and who wrote Politics of Heroin while seeking a PhD in Southeast Asian history at Yale University. Cathleen B. Read, co-author and graduate student, also spent time there during the war.



Its most groundbreaking feature was its documentation of CIA complicity and aid to the Southeast Asian opium/heroin trade; along with McCoy's Congressional testimony, its initially controversial thesis has gained a degree of mainstream acceptance. The central idea is that at the time, the vast majority of heroin produced was produced in the Golden Triangle, from which:

"It is transported in the planes, vehicles, and other conveyances supplied by the United States. The profit from the trade has been going into the pockets of some of our best friends in Southeast Asia. The charge concludes with the statement that the traffic is being carried on with the indifference if not the closed-eye compliance of some American officials and there is no likelihood of its being shut down in the foreseeable future."[2]

Air America in particular was used for this transport. Further, the heroin supply was partly responsible for the parlous state of US Army morale in Vietnam: "By mid 1971 Army medical officers were estimating that about 10 to 15 per cent... of the lower ranking enlisted men serving in Vietnam were heroin users."[3]

Having interviewed Maurice Belleux, former head of the French SDECE intelligence agency, Mc Coy also uncovered parts of the French Connection scheme, as the French military agency had financed all of its covert operations, during the First Indochina War, from its control of the Indochina drug trade [4].


Unusually, the CIA reacted strongly to the book: "...high-ranking officials of the C.I.A have signed letters for publication to a newspaper and magazine, granted a rare on-the-record interview at the agency's headquarters in McLean, Va." (the letters were to the Washington Star and were signed by William E. Colby and Paul C. Velte Jr.[5])[6]; the letter to Harper & Row (the book's publishers) on 5 July by C.I.A. general counsel Lawrence R. Houston asked that they be given the galleys so that they could criticize errors and unproven accusations[7] ("we believe we could demonstrate to you that a considerable number of Mr. McCoy's claims about this agency's alleged involvement are totally false and without foundation, a number are distorted beyond recognition and none is based on convincing evidence."[6]) and take whatever legal action they felt necessary before the book's publication.

McCoy's initial extreme hostility to providing a copy to the C.I.A. was eventually overcome, and the promised list of criticisms and correction was sent. Harper & Row felt that the material the CIA offered was extremely weak, that the book was reasonably well sourced (McCoy conducted "more than 250 interviews, some of them with past and present officials of the C.I.A. He said that top-level South Vietnamese officials, including President Nguyen Van Thieu and Premier Tran Van Khiem, were specifically involved."; a vice-president and general counsel of Harper & Row said "We don't have any doubts about the book at all. We've had it reviewed by others and we're persuaded that the work is amply documented and scholarly."[6][8]) and not only published it, but published it two weeks before its scheduled release date. The third & expanded edition was published in 2003, more pointedly entitled The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (ISBN 1-55652-483-8); the book has also been translated into nine languages[9]


  • "We have to continue to fight the evil of Communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains the only money is opium." General Tuan Shi-wen, commander of the Chinese Nationalist Fifth Army (based in the Golden Triangle), as quoted by McCoy.
  • "The picture of corruption that he draws, of cruel and naked jockeying for power, of bloodletting and cynical maneuvering with underworld peddlers, is so strongly documented that it might make even the stanchest defender of the war in Southeast Asia wonder if it is worth it." Thomas Lask, "Bonanza in 'Golden Triangle'".

See also


  1. ^ Hersh 1972; also bookjacket description of the 2003 edition.
  2. ^ Lask 192
  3. ^ McCoy 1972, as quoted in Lask 1972.
  4. ^ Alfred Mc Coy, 9 November 1991 interview, by Paul DeRienzo
  5. ^ "a Washington-based official with Air America, a charter airline that flies missions for the C.I.A. in Southeast Asia." Hersh 1972
  6. ^ a b c Hersh 1972
  7. ^ "C.I.A officials said they had reason to believe that Mr. McCoy's book contained many unwarranted, unproven and fallacious accusations. They acknowledged that the public stance in opposition to such allegations was a departure from the usual 'low profile' of the agency..." Hersh 1972.
  8. ^ Lask 1972 also describes it as "a serious, sober, headline-shunning study with 63 pages of supporting notes, referring to a large number of personal interviews, newspaper accounts, previously pbulsihed books, Congressional committee hearings, Government reports and United Nations documents. It is so filled with information that it will take a great deal more than mere dislike of its contents to demolish it."
  9. ^ "But after three English editions and translation into nine foreign languages, this study is now regarded as the “classic” work on the global drug traffic (Revised Edition, New York, 2003)." [1]


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