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Agency of Fear

Opiates and Political Power in America

By Edward Jay Epstein

Chapter 2 - Nelson Rockefeller


The hysterical image of the vampire-addict that Captain Hobson propagated in the 1930s was brilliantly refined into a national political issue in the 1960s by Nelson Rockefeller, who, in projecting this nationwide "reign of terror," had at his disposal an unprecedented family fortune. The Rockefeller fortune was begun by Nelson's great grandfather William Avery Rockefeller, a nineteenth-century dealer in drugs who, like modern narcotics dealers, dressed in extravagant ilk costumes, used aliases, and never carried less than a thousand dollars in cash on his person. "Big Bill," as he was commonly called, hawked "herbal remedies" and other bottled medicines which, if they were like other patent medicines being sold in those days, contained opium as an active ingredient. Long before opium-the juice from the poppy-became the base of patent medicine in America, it was used in Asia as a remedy for dysentery and as a general pain-killer. Because it was a powerful analgesic, hucksters on the American frontier made quick fortunes selling their various "miracle" preparations.

In any case, Big Bill, who advertised himself as a "Cancer Specialist," was sufficiently successful in selling drugs to stake his son John Davison Rockefeller to the initial capital he needed to go into the oil business in Cleveland. Young Rockefeller found that oil was far more profitable than herbal medicine. He foresaw that concentration and combination rather than competition were the order of the future. Moreover, he realized that the leverage for gaining control over the burgeoning oil industry lay in the hands of the railroads. Since oil was more or less a uniform product, costing the same at the wellhead and fetching the same price at the market, any refiner who could ship his oil to market for even a few cents less a barrel than his competitors could eventually drive them out of business. With this insight Rockefeller played the railroads in Cleveland against each other until he was given a surreptitious discount, or "rebate," by the railroads, which provided him a decisive advantage over his competitors. By the turn of the century Rockefeller's company, Standard Oil Company, refined more than 90 percent of the oil in the United States and two-thirds of the oil in the world. Rockefeller's personal fortune was equal to some 2 percent of the GNP of the entire United States.

Rockefeller's only son, John Davison Rockefeller, Jr., used the fortune to launch a number of crusades of his own, including financing a large part of the movement to prohibit alcohol in the United States (an effort in which Captain Hobson was then playing a leading role). Although his crusade against alcohol ultimately failed, he was not discouraged from public enterprises. He built Rockefeller Center at the height of the Depression as a monument to the family's enterprise, and encouraged his second-eldest son, Nelson, to enter public life.

Nelson first learned the techniques of propagating and controlling information when he was appointed coordinator of inter-American affairs at the age of thirty-two by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and given the responsibility of running a $150-million propaganda agency in Latin America. To gain complete control over the media of Latin America, Rockefeller engineered a ruling from the United States Treasury which exempted from taxation the cost of advertisements placed by American corporations that were "cooperating" with Rockefeller in Latin America. This tax-exempt advertising eventually constituted more than 40 percent of all radio and television revenues in Latin America. By selectively directing this advertising toward newspapers and radio stations that accepted "guidance" from his office, he was effectively able to control the images that the newspapers and radio stations of Latin America projected about America during World War 11. By 1945 more than 75 percent of the news of the world that reached Latin America originated from Washington, where it was tightly controlled and shaped by Rockefeller's office. In developing this mode of psychological warfare, Rockefeller learned not only the vulnerabilities of the press but the techniques of manipulating news. By supplying a daily diet of some 30,000 words of "news"-including editorials, articles, news photographs, and "exclusive features"-to the media of Latin America, Rockefeller came to appreciate the reality that journalists acted mainly as messengers of dramatic and titillating stories, rather than as any sort of independent investigators. As long as Latin Americans were spoon-fed manufactured anecdotes and dramatic happenings that fell within the generally accepted definition of "news," they would not question the interest or politics that lay behind the disclosure of this information to them. This education in the management and manipulation of news was to prove invaluable to Nelson Rockefeller in his political career after World War II.

After serving briefly in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, Nelson Rockefeller decided in 1958 to run for elective office as governor of New York State. As the former coordinator of information in Latin America he had little difficulty in mobilizing support for himself in the media, and he succeeded in projecting an image of himself as a liberal, or, at least, as an enlightened Republican. Appealing to both the liberal constituency in New York City and the Republican constituency in the upstate areas, Rockefeller was easily elected governor. His more expansive ambition of being elected president, however, presented a much more difficult problem in image management. The highly sophisticated polls of public opinion that Rockefeller commissioned in the early 1960s (and George Gallup, of the Gallup Poll, had worked for him in Latin America) indicated that a Republican candidate could not win in a national election without attracting large numbers of the more liberal-leaning independent voters-and this would require maintaining a liberal-Republican image. Yet, Rockefeller was also aware that to win the Republican nomination and the support of the more conservative stalwarts of the Republican party required a hard-line and even anti-liberal image. As a result, the more Rockefeller tried to amass support in the media, and among independent voters.. by projecting a liberal image, the more he lost support among more conservative Republicans. Unable to resolve this dilemma of conflicting images, Rockefeller was decisively rejected by delegates at the 1964 Republican convention, who instead enthusiastically endorsed Senator Barry Goldwater, who went on to lose the general election by a disastrous proportion of the vote.

After his 1964 defeat, Rockefeller ingeniously developed an issue which seemed to resolve the political dilemma by appealing to both the hard-line element in the Republican party and the liberal-to-moderate element among the independent voters-the drug issue. By proposing measures for oppressing drug users that were more draconian than anything ever proposed by Senator Goldwater or by his most hard-line followers, Rockefeller hoped to placate the law-and-order Republicans by toughening his image. At the same time, analysis of public opinion showed that the more liberal independents and modern Republican voters would not object to measures that enhanced their personal safety. As Rockefeller subsequently pointed out, in 1973, in a speech to the New York State legislature, "Every poll of public concern documents that the number one growing concern of the American people is crime and drugs-coupled with an all-pervasive fear for the safety of their person and property." To exploit this well-researched "all-pervasive fear" and turn it into a national political issue, Rockefeller worked to establish in the popular imagination a connection between violent crimes and drugs. He argued that even if drugs did not in themselves induce violent behavior, the user, physiologically dependent on the drug, felt compelled to steal in order to pay for his habit. Rockefeller correctly foresaw that this more sophisticated "dependency theory" could be used to inspire another wave of fear in the public (as well as among intellectuals) that heroin addicts were jeopardizing the lives and property of citizens, and therefore drastic action was necessary.

* Of course, one could apply a similar "dependency theory" to other disabled groups-alcoholics, cripples, blind people, or even divorced women with two children-arguing that since their disability prevents them from easily obtaining employment. they need money to compensate for their disability, and they will be compelled to steal.

Masterfully employing the tactics of psychological warfare that he and his staff developed in Latin America during World War II, Rockefeller first began expanding the drug issue during his gubernatorial reelection campaign in 1966. Depicting heroin as an infectious disease that, like the common flu, could be spread to unwilling victims in both the ghetto and the suburbs, Rockefeller boldly declared that the epidemic of addiction in New York State had reached the proportions of a plague and was threatening the lives of innocent middle-class children. Demanding "an all-out war on drugs and addiction," he rushed a law through the legislature providing for the involuntary confinement of drug addicts for up to live years for "treatment," even if they were not convicted of any crime. Although the courts had consistently ruled that addiction itself is not a crime, this new procedure, known euphemistically as "civil commitment," permitted officials to lock up addicts in "rehabilitation centers," even if they were not convicted of a crime.

While the phrases "treatment" and "rehabilitation center" were shrewdly designed to imply a medical model dealing with drug addiction, and thus appealed to Rockefeller's liberal constituency, there was in 1966 no program of medical treatment for addiction in New York State. There was not even a concept or an operational definition of what addiction was or how it could be treated. If, for example, addiction were defined as being the physical dependence on a drug, then coffee and tobacco would fall in the same category as heroin under the "civil commitment" law. On the other hand, if addiction were defined as being a permanent metabolic change in the nervous system-one that was irreversible-then the various programs of detoxification, or gradual withdrawal from heroin, being used in "rehabilitation centers" would not treat the disease any more than withdrawing patients from insulin would treat diabetes. Indeed, at the time of the passage of the 1966 law, doctors could not even agree whether addiction was produced by the chemical agent heroin or by the environmental depravity in which the addict lived. Rockefeller shrewdly perceived, however, that he did not have to concern himself with these medical problems and confusions. Demanding the imprisonment of some 25,000 addicts in New York (the number he was giving in those days) without time-consuming trials, Rockefeller realized that he could bait his liberal opponents in the election-Frank D. O'Connor, the Democratic candidate and a former prosecutor, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., the Liberal party candidate-into opposing this new and hastily conceived law. When in the heat of the campaign O'Connor did in fact criticize Rockefeller's rehabilitation program as "an election-year stunt" and "medically unsound," Rockefeller was finally in a position fully to exploit the drug issue. In speech after speech he asserted, as he did in a rally in Brooklyn on November 1, 1966:

Frank O'Connor's election would mean narcotic addicts would continue to be free to roam the street- to mug, snatch purses, to steal, even to murder, or to spread the deadly infection that afflicts them possibly to your own son or daughter. Half the crime in New York City is committed by narcotic addicts. My program-the program that Frank O'Connor pledges to scrap-will get addicts off the street for Lip to three years of treatment, aftercare, and rehabilitation....

(Rockefeller never gave a source for his assertion that half the crime in New York was caused by drug addicts; nor did he give sources for most of the other statistics he used.)

Fully resurrecting the vampire imagery of an earlier time, Rockefeller brilliantly exploited the fear that New York citizens would lose their lives and children to murderous addicts. Since Rockefeller lost few votes among the addicts he was threatening to quarantine in prison, he easily won reelection. As a Democratic leader explained on CBS television, O'Connor underestimated the fear of people about rampant crime: "Parents are scared that their kids might get hooked and turn into addicts themselves; people want the addicts off the streets, they don't care how you get them off."

Through the instrument of this generalized fear, Rockefeller was able not only to harden his law-and-order image to meet the political requisites of his own party (and to win elections) but also to project a new nationwide menace which he alone among the nation's politicians had the "experience" to solve. His newly created Narcotics Addiction Control Commission (NACC), which supposedly supervised the involuntary rehabilitation of addicts under the 1966 law, had on its staff many more public-relations specialists than medical specialists. Turning to the modus operandi that Rockefeller developed in Latin America, the commission published its own nationally circulated newspaper, Attack, as well as newsletters, pamphlets, and background briefings for journalists interested in writing on the new reign of terror." This new agency was thus able systematically to coordinate and cultivate a highly dramatic image of the heroin addict as a drug slave who ineluctably is compelled to steal and ravage by his heroin habit-a disease which can be "treated" only by quarantining the addict. If Rockefeller had not succeeded in establishing a quasimedical vocabulary for heroin addiction, this proposal might have been recognized as a repressive form of pretrial detention for suspected criminals.

The size of the addict population in New York proved to be conveniently flexible over the years 1966-1973. When it was necessary to demonstrate the need for greater police measures or more judges,* Rockefeller and his staff expanded the number of putative addicts from 25,000 in 1966 to 150,000 in 1972 to 200,000 in 1973. For other audiences, and especially when Rockefeller wanted to show the efficacy of his program, the army of addicts was conveniently contracted in public speeches to under 100,000. (if the addict population had really increased from 25,000 to 200,000 between 1966 and 1973, as can be inferred from Rockefeller's various claims, this 800-percent increase would hardly demonstrate success in his extraordinary war against addicts.) Rockefeller suggested in one of his tracts against heroin that "addiction appears to spread exponentially." The image of an uncontrollable epidemic of heroin addiction being responsible for most crime in America appealed not only to police officials around the country, who could use this fear to justify the need for more men and money, but also to doctors and hospital administrators who were eager to expand their treatment facilities and rehabilitation staffs. Thus, little resistance was offered to the dubious medical claims put forth by Rockefeller's public-relations men. By December, 1971, the alleged army of addicts in New York had been hyped to such proportions that Rockefeller could seriously write in the New York Law Journal:

How can we defeat drug abuse before it destroys America? I believe the answer lies in summoning the total commitment America has always demonstrated in times of national crisis.... Drug addiction represents a threat akin to war in its capacity to kill, enslave and imperil the nation's future: akin to cancer in spreading a deadly disease among us and equal to any other challenge we face in deserving all the brain power, man power, and resources necessary to overcome it.

Continuing, he rhetorically asked, "Are the sons and daughters of a generation that survived a great depression and rebuilt a prosperous nation, that defeated Nazism and Fascism and preserved the free world, to be vanquished by a powder, needles, and pills?"

* One by-product of this putative "reign of terror" was that Rockefeller was able to gain authority in 1973 to appoint one hundred "narcotic judges" in New York State, and since judgeships are one of the most prized rewards of New York State politics, Rockefeller also gained a measure of influence for himself.

In the next few years Rockefeller used statistical legerdemain with unprecedented skill to convert heroin into a multibillion-dollar issue.

Since the police generally assumed that many addicts were criminals who had shoplifted, burglarized abandoned buildings, "boosted" merchandise from parked trucks, forged welfare checks, and committed other forms of petty larceny, Rockefeller and his staff decided that by simply multiplying the total number of estimated addicts by what they assumed each addict's habit cost him to maintain, they could ascertain, as one of his advisors put it, an impressive "billion-dollar figure." For example, if they assumed, as they did in 1970, that there were 100,000 addicts in New York and that each addict had a habit of $30 a day, they could calculate that the "army of addicts" was compelled to steal $1,095,000,000 worth of goods to pay for their combined habit. The estimated numbers were quite elastic, if not totally arbitrary, for political purposes. By playing with the estimate they could arrive at any figure they believed was necessary to impress the populace with the danger of addicts.

There was, however, a stumbling block to the billion-dollar estimates. The total amount of reported theft that was not recovered in New York City in the Rockefeller years was never more than $100 million a year, and only a fraction of this could be considered stolen by addicts (since the largest segment, automobiles, was stolen by teenage joy-riders, and eventually recovered). Governor Rockefeller thus commissioned the Hudson Institute, a "think tank" with close connections to the Rockefeller family and institutions, to reanalyze the amount of theft which possibly could be attributed to addicts. After studying the problem, Hudson Institute reported back to Rockefeller in 1970: "No matter how we generate estimates of total value of property stolen in New York City, we cannot find any way of getting these estimates above five hundred million dollars a year-and only a part of this could be conceivably attributed to addicts." The governor, schooled in the art of controlling information, found it unnecessary to accept such a statistical defeat. He simply persisted in multiplying the maximum possible amount of theft in New York City by ten and arrived at a figure of $5 billion, which he attributed entirely to heroin addicts. Rockefeller's long experience in psychological warfare had taught him that large, authoritative-sounding numbers-like $5 billion a year-could be effectively employed in political rhetoric. Thus, in testifying before the United States Senate in 1975 that addict crime was costing the citizens of New York State "up to five billion dollars," Rockefeller could be fully confident that no senator would bother to chip away at his hyperbole.

In May, 1970, Rockefeller's staff, apparently excited by the wave of national publicity their heroin imagery was gaining for the governor, presented plans to declare a "drug emergency" and asked President Nixon and Mayor John Lindsay to set up "emergency camps" to quarantine all of New York City's addicts. In commenting on the plan, Rayburne Hesse, a member of Rockefeller's NACC, wrote in a private memorandum, "The press would love the action, the editorialists would denounce the vigilante tactics ... civil libertarians would be aghast. . ." and for these reasons went on to recommend the plan. The point, -however, was not to round up addicts but simply to fuel the national concern. Thus, although the plan was disseminated to the press and aroused much publicity, it was never put into effect.

Rockefeller's crusade against addicts reached its zenith in 1973, when the governor declared that a reign of terror existed with "whole neighborhoods ... as effectively destroyed by addicts as by an invading army." The elements of fear in his heroin story had already been articulated and established by the various publications and briefings of his narcotics commission. Again in the century, addicts had taken the place of medieval vampires-infecting innocent children with their disease, murdering citizens at large, causing all crime and disorder. Rockefeller thus had little difficulty in 1973 in pressing through the legislature laws which totally bypassed the discretion of both the court and the prosecutors, and made it mandatory that anyone convicted of selling or possessing more than a fraction of an ounce of heroin (or even amphetamines or LSD) would be imprisoned for life. This new "Attila the Hun Law," as It was called in the state legislature, extended the mandatory life sentence to sixteen year-old children, who heretofore had been protected by the youthful offender law. For information leading to the arrest of drug possessors or sellers, thousand-dollar bounties would be paid. And in another legal innovation the bill provided a mandatory-life-imprisonment sentence for the novel crime of ingesting a "hard" drug before committing any number of prescribed crimes including criminal mischief, sodomy, burglary, assault, and arson. Under this new law a person would be presumed to be guilty of ingestion if he took any of these drugs within twenty-four hours of committing any of these crimes. Since addicts by definition continually took these drugs, they could be rounded up and mandatorily sentenced to concentration camps for life for committing any of a number of petty crimes, for which judges previously would have hesitated before putting them in prison at all. As Rockefeller shrewdly anticipated, the passage of such extraordinary laws (which were only slightly modified by the state legislature) created an instant furor in the nation's press. Rockefeller thus strengthened his reputation among the hard-line element of the Republican party without losing much support elsewhere, since few people in America were concerned with the fate of drug addicts. Rockefeller later justified the law by explaining in his Senate testimony that "about 135,000 addicts were robbing, mugging, murdering, day in and day out for their money to fix their habit....." Though this depiction of a huge army of addicts carrying out daily mayhem against the citizens of New York no doubt further excited popular fears, it hardly fit the police statistics at Rockefeller's disposal. If 135,000 addicts maintained their "day-in, day-out" schedule, they would have had to commit something on the order of 49,275,000 robberies, muggings, and murders a year, which would mean that the average resident of New York would be robbed, mugged, and murdered approximately seven times a year. In fact, there were only about 110,000 such crimes reported in New York City in 1973, or only 1/445th the number of crimes that Rockefeller claimed were being committed solely by addicts. Even here, as Rockefeller was well aware, virtually all analyses showed that the addicts were responsible for only a minute fraction of the violent crimes he attributed to them in his constant rhetoric. Most murders and manslaughters were the result of intrafamily disputes, not addiction. Most muggings were the work of juveniles, not hardened addicts. Indeed, the Hudson Institute concluded, in the aforementioned study commissioned by Rockefeller, that less than 2 percent of addicts in New York financed their habit by either robbery or muggings (and they also concluded that there was only a fraction of the number of hardened addicts that Rockefeller claimed there were). Moreover, in 1972, another analysis by the New York City police department concluded, "Both the volume and seriousness of addict crime are exaggerated." Only 4.4 percent of those arrested in the city for felonies against person-which include murders, muggings, and robberies-were confirmed drug users (and only a small percentage of these could possibly be classified as addicts). Addicts generally refrain from such crimes against persons, according to most views of addict behavior, because it involves too high a risk of being caught, imprisoned, and withdrawn from their drug. Petty crimes against property, however, such as burglarizing abandoned houses, involve much fewer risks and potentially much higher profits. The proposals for putting addicts in concentration camps for life, thus, if actually carried would have an infinitesimal effect on decreasing violent crimes against persons. The "Attila the Hun Law" was never enforced with any great enthusiasm against addicts-or even against pushers. The purpose was to provide Rockefeller with a law-and-order image that would satisfy even the most retrograde member of the Republican party. And Rockefeller played the politics of fear so adroitly in the national media that President Nixon borrowed from him many rhetorical images and the statistical hyperbole linking heroin and crime in the public's mind. In his brilliant coordination of information and misinformation about addicts, Rockefeller succeeded in making the heroin vampire a national issue and himself vice-president, even if in the next two years the laws themselves proved unworkable.



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