James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association, a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media, and a professor of communication studies at Whitworth University.

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War on Drugs: 40 years of futility

Posted by James McPherson on June 17, 2011

Forty years ago today, President Richard Nixon officially declared  a “war on drugs.” Though Nixon probably wasn’t seeking a war that would last even longer, cost even more and perhaps produce even more violent deaths than the Vietnam conflict still going on at the time, that’s what we ended up with.

This month an international commission concluded what many have known for years, that the “war on drugs” is a “massive failure” that has brought “devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”–and that it’s time to try something else.

Despite the pleas of even former cops who fought the drug war, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama–who seems to like wars as much as his presidential predecessors (with the same respect for Congressional approval and the War Powers Act)–naturally said, “Nah.”

Obama apparently will stop using the exact words, “war on drugs,” just as he gave up the “war on terror” term, but for all practical purposes the war will go on. With even more firepower on the front lines, thanks to a “catastrophic” weapons-tracking plan and American gun laws (which despite what your local gun dealer would have you believe have actually eased, not stiffened, since Obama took office).

In fact, as demonstrated by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 declaration of a “war on poverty,” perhaps the best way to guarantee that something will last forever is to declare war on it. You can imagine my dismay when when a decade ago George W. Bush declared a “war on terrror.” (Speaking of terror, perhaps someone once made the mistake of declaring war on vampires–and on insipid vampire movies–also guaranteeing them eternal life.)

By the way, speaking of the Vietnam War, Nixon declared war on drugs came just four days after the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers and two days after Nixon attempted to legally stop their publication. The Times and other publications proceeded to publish lengthy excerpts from the papers, which were finally officially released in their entirety–all 7,000 pages–this week, on the 40th anniversary of the date the Times began publishing them.

By the way, if you didn’t notice the anniversaries of the war on drugs or the  Pentagon Papers, don’t feel bad. Other than a bit of coverage of the Seven GOP dwarves, most of this weeks cable news coverage was about Anthony Weiner and Caylee Anthony, a case involving another dead white girl.

The Pentagon Papers case demonstrates why we still need newspapers such as the New York Times. As Times media writer David Carr notes in this excellent interview by Aaron Sorkin: “There’s a system and a rigor to what we do, and you can laugh at it as archaic and silly in the 24-7 news cycle, but I do think that it has significant value to have a pretty big organization that is a lot of times saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute . . . ‘ on the really big stories of the day.”

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2 Responses to “War on Drugs: 40 years of futility”

  1. […] blog indicates that, for somebody supposedly interested in objective journalism, he likes to call people names and babble about conspiracy […]

  2. […] Women's Voices. Women Vote « War on Drugs: 40 years of futility […]

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