I wrote this script for Frontier Media’s YouTube channel The Front in 2022. I did not write the title or thumbnail. As of November 2022, the video has gained over 390k views.


As we’ve discussed in previous videos, the soldiers of many belligerent nations were getting on the drugs in the Second World War. So were world leaders; Hitler was the biggest druggo of them all. But what about the Vietnam War? Were American soldiers smoking bowls and shooting up in Southeast Asia?

The answer is yes, but what drugs were they doing, and how did it impact the war? Were drugs responsible for American atrocities such as the infamous Mỹ Lai massacre?

In this video, we intend to answer these questions as well as we can.

Drugs in Vietnam

Upon leaving Vietnam during the war, American President Richard Nixon’s liaison to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, one Egil Krogh, gave the following report:

“Mr. President, you don’t have a drug problem in Vietnam; you have a condition. Problems are things we can get right on and solve. Conditions we have to ameliorate as best we can. I don’t think we can solve this short of bringing everybody home.”

There can be no doubting it: American soldiers were getting on the drugs during the Vietnam War, some prescribed and supplied by the US military, some procured by the soldiers behind the military’s back.

Self-prescribed drugs

War has to be one of the most stressful, traumatic things that a human being can experience, except for hitting your toes with a skipping rope. It’s no wonder, then, that soldiers would want to use substances to combat the stresses of war—to benumb themselves, to sleep, to forget. In Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War, author Lukasz Kamienski wrote:

“The nature of the conflict in Vietnam and the conditions in which the American soldiers had to stay in and fight was psychologically devastating. When entering a euphoric mood and by numbing the psyche, intoxication allows one to view one’s situation with more optimism.”

Kamienski also discusses, in detail, the use of drugs to overcome the disillusionment of fighting, quote, a meaningless war, and as a means by which American GIs could regain a feeling of individuality and control. These motivations were likely exacerbated by the rise of counterculture back in America during the Vietnam War. Kamienski wrote, “Drugs were a truly human thing in a war that was increasingly dehumanizing combatants. They were a symbolic gesture of opposition against the war in Vietnam.”

It probably wouldn’t have helped that the average age of Americans fighting in Vietnam was 22. Even if these youths weren’t clued into the nuances of American counterculture, they may still have been enticed by the act of taking illicit substances simply for the thrill, as is almost to be expected of that demographic in western society. In a similar vein of thought, the notion of soldiers using drugs to flavour the day-to-day monotony of military camp life, stuck with the same sweaty bunch of dudes day in and day out, is by no means unfathomable. Human beings are pretty much predisposed to boredom. Drugs were, simply put, something to do. According to a war correspondent quoted in Kamienski’s work, “The most persistent enemy a U.S. soldier faces in South Vietnam these days is not the Communists—it seems to be boredom.”

So exactly what drugs did American soldiers prescribe themselves in Vietnam?

In Shooting Up, Kamienski refers to data from a 1974 report on intoxicants used by American servicemen in Vietnam. Of a sample of 451 Vietnam War veterans, 92% reported using alcohol, 69% marijuana, 38% opium, 34% heroin, 25% amphetamines, and 23% barbiturates, otherwise known as downers.

Notice that alcohol was, by far, the greatest perpetrator and, as alluded to by author Jeremy Kuzmaraov in his book The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs, the greatest problem. Just because it’s legal, that doesn’t mean it isn’t bad. According to American soldier Marc Levy:

“While there were rumors about soldiers [frakking] up because of drugs, the only cases I knew of were with alcohol; guys drunk or hung-over who couldn’t do their jobs or who made mistakes like stepping on a land mine.”

And to quote private Gonzalo Baltazar, “Everybody in Vietnam drank like fish, and every chance you got you drank yourself silly.”

Besides the sauce, though, marijuana was the most common drug going around. According to one US Marine colonel, “Marijuana was ridiculously cheap—a carton of ready-made cannabis cigarettes could be purchased [from the locals] for five dollars or exchanged for a package of American cigarettes.”

Often GIs smoked pipes and makeshift bongs, though, as papers were prone to becoming soggy in the tropical climate. While the US Army initially tolerated marijuana, it was added to its list of harmful and prohibited substances in January 1968 {On-screen text: The Marine Corps was always far stricter with drugs, court-martialling marines for possession of even minor amounts.}. After this, roughly 1,000 American soldiers were arrested for possession every week. The US military even flew sorties against local marijuana plantations, burning them to the ground and probably getting half the countryside stoned in the process.

With the army cracking down on the pot, though, many GIs turned to less sniff-out-able drugs, namely opioids and especially the H. According to a 1974 study funded by the US Departments of Defense and Labor, the National Institutes of Health, and the Veterans Administration, “Of all who tried any narcotic in Vietnam, 79 percent used heroin, as did 74 percent of those who took any narcotic since Vietnam.” Some of this product was trafficked into Vietnam via Cambodia, but by 1971, as many as 21 heroin labs were operating inside Vietnam, producing cheap, high-quality junk. The Yanks ate it, racked it, smoked it in joints and ciggies, and shot it straight into their veins. In that same year, it was estimated that 10% to 15% of GIs were addicted to the stuff, equating to as many as 37,000 Americans.

Army-prescribed drugs

We’ve discussed self-prescribed drugs, but what about drugs prescribed by the US military?

Exhausted, PTSD-ridden soldiers are a liability on the battlefield. They don’t perform their duties as well, and they’re more likely to make mistakes that cost lives and lose wars. It kind of makes sense, then, that militaries experiment with drugs that might enhance their soldiers’ performance.

As in World War II, amphetamines were the big ones for the Americans in Vietnam. This time, however, the military issued its personnel a stimulant known as Dexedrine, which was about twice as strong as the amphetamine they used in the Second World War. Between 1966 and 1969, the US military ate some 225 million stimulant tablets in Vietnam. Veterans of the war associated Dexedrine with heightened senses and alertness, increased aggression, and feelings of bravado and invulnerability—at least while they were coming up or straight-up fried. The comedown was a different story.

In Shooting Up, Kamienski refers to soldiers becoming so irritated that they felt like, quote, “shooting ‘children in the streets.'” Kamienski also states that amphetamines were to blame for some incidents of friendly fire and violence against civilians, quoting a story about a commando nicknamed Bill, who, addicted to amphetamine, “was so jumpy after twenty-six sleepless, drugged hours on duty that, when startled by a noise, he machine-gunned an accompanying boat, killing and maiming a number of his colleagues.” Additionally to Dexedrine, the soldiers embarking on longer expeditions were often injected with steroids.

Getting jacked up wasn’t always what the doctor ordered, though. Witnessing and perpetuating the horrors of war, GIs were prone to combat stress and mental breakdowns. In answer to this, the military dosed its troops with sedatives and neuroleptics, notably the antipsychotic Thorazine {On-screen text: The aforementioned barbiturates are a class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics.}. It seems it had some sort of an effect too, with the rate of mental breakdowns of American soldiers in the Vietnam War as low as 1%, compared to World War II, which was 10%, and the Korean War, which was 4%. As Kamienski discusses, however, this was merely putting a band-aid on the problem. One study states that just over 15% of soldiers who saw combat in Vietnam suffered from PTSD upon their return to America. The more generous estimates ballpark a figure of 1.5 million people.

In her book Flashback, author Penny Coleman wrote, “What happened in Vietnam is the moral equivalent of giving a soldier a local anesthetic for a gunshot wound and then sending him back into combat.”

What these men could have used was proper psychiatric care, but according to an article in Military Medicine {On-screen text: The article is titled A Strange Perspective: Naval Psychiatry in the Vietnam War Around 1968, Part II.}, a navy psychiatrist based at Phu Bai alluded to the logistical realities of this:

“If everyone who had experienced this typically acute disorder [combat stress syndrome] had been evacuated, we would not have had an army over there. It was part of the price of doing business in a war.”

Drugs and atrocities

And that brings us to drugs and drug-induced atrocities. Following his example of the commando nicknamed Bill, Kamienski wrote, “Amphetamine was to blame for some incidents of friendly fire and unjustified violence against the civilian population. The degree to which it was to blame, however, is virtually impossible to quantify. The aforementioned Kuzmaraov strived to deconstruct the myth of the addicted army in his book of the same name {On-screen text: The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs}, and Kamienski concurred with him, stating, “Contrary to the popular view, drug use did not, overall, seriously interfere with combat performance.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that drug-induced atrocities weren’t significant.

In other words, how many are “some” incidents of friendly fire and unjustified violence against civilians? What does “some” mean?

It definitely wasn’t as clear-cut as US Senator Thomas J. frakking Dodd suggested. In a hearing in 1970, Dodd declared that the Mỹ Lai massacre, in which American troops slaughtered as many as 500 innocent Vietnamese civilians, was provoked by marijuana. In his words:

“The marijuana user feels that he’s being persecuted and given the proper conditions he can retaliate in a furious and vengeful manner. The implications of this occurrence such as the Mỹ Lai incident are obvious.”

Hmmm. We’re not sure about that one, mate.


We’d love to know what you think, though. How much of an impact do you think drugs had on the Vietnam War? Do you think drugs were to blame for atrocities such as the Mỹ Lai massacre? Can you think of any specific stories about drug use in Vietnam or, more specifically, drug-induced atrocities in Vietnam? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.