Did America's First Drug Czar Secretly Supply Dope to Sen. Joe McCarthy?
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Beltway insiders guessed that the smack-addicted senator’s bullying threats and bombastic appeals to patriotism—not to mention the fact that he had died in office—pointed to the late Joseph McCarthy. Anslinger, however, refused to reveal the name to reporters. The story dropped out of circulation until 1972, when a landmark study on the effects of narcotics, issued by Consumer Reports, repeated it (still with no name attached) in a chapter on “eminent narcotic addicts.”
Even in the current age of celebrity snort-and-tell publicity, when nothing seems capable of shocking, the method in which McCarthy’s drugs were supplied is, well, shocking.
During the Army-McCarthy hearings, which riveted Americans to their small black-and-white television sets in 1954, McCarthy’s combustible mix of grandiosity and paranoia was on full self-destructive display. Every so often a senator on the subcommittee would remind viewers—among whom McCarthy’s favorability ratings were falling by the week—of the real reason for the proceedings: an investigation of charges that McCarthy had tried to blackmail the Army into giving special favors to a McCarthy aide who had been drafted. All spring, McCarthy played to the cameras in his deep-throated baritone, using the hearings to preach “communist infiltration” at all levels of government (including the Army), and appealing to what he called the “real jury—the 16 million television viewers out there.”
But then Army chief counsel Joseph Welch confronted McCarthy over his attempt to blacken the reputation of a young Welch associate, for purportedly joining a “Communist-front” lawyers organization. When McCarthy persisted, a visibly shaken Welch famously upbraided him with these words: “Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” The packed hall burst into applause.
By the time the gavel fell on the hearings, McCarthy could be seen desperately haranguing an empty chamber. Having finally gone too far, he was censured by a slim majority of his peers. Neither the career nor the man himself ever recovered; he died three years later. McCarthy’s last years were not pretty. He was in and out of the hospital with exhaustion, broken bones, failing organs. Apt to suddenly appear on crutches, or with his arm in a sling, he fluctuated noticeably in weight. His official cause of death, “noninfectious, seldom fatal, hepatitis, cause unknown," is not consistent with the acute alcoholic’s liver disease that is generally thought to have killed him.
McCarthy’s opiate addiction became public fodder only after Anslinger’s death. A 1978 article in, of all places, Ladies Home Journal named McCarthy as the senator in Anslinger’s autobiography. “Agents who worked under [Anslinger] claim that the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy was addicted to morphine and regularly obtained his narcotics through a druggist near the White House, authorized by Anslinger to fill the prescription,” Maxine Cheshire wrote.
Given Cheshire’s credentials as a respected Washington Post reporter, the report was treated not as gossip but as news, and widely disseminated. United Press International (UPI) put it starkly, “[McCarthy] was a morphine addict who had his drugs supplied by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for the sake of national security.”
In Flowers in the Blood: the Story of Opium, a 1981 investigation into the history of opium use, addiction and interdiction, Dean Latimer reported that the relationship between Anslinger and McCarthy was more complicated and hypocritical than Anslinger had ever let on. Just when the top drug-enforcer was supplying McCarthy with his government-approved pharmaceutical smack, the two worked hand in hand to pin the country’s burgeoning heroin trade on a Communist Chinese plot, even though the trafficking was clearly a mafia-controlled operation. Such a fiction would have conveniently served the federal government’s relaxed policy toward organized crime. (During his 40-year reign, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover never even acknowledged Cosa Nostra’s very existence.)