The drug wars: World War II and Vietnam

Mafia gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano conspired with US intelligence services to crack down on dock unions.

World War II was fought to resist fascist aggression; the Vietnam War was an imperial war of aggression fought chiefly by France and the US, alongside allies that included Australia. The wars have been well documented, but rarely will you find an account of how they were instrumental in rejuvenating and then expanding the heroin trade.

Before WWII, Mafia gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano was the head of a heroin importing syndicate in the US that made in excess of $1 billion a year supplying up to 200,000 heroin addicts. Among them were many of the sex workers in the 200 New York brothels that Luciano controlled. But Luciano’s luck ran out when his mistreatment of the women in his employ led them to give evidence against him in a case brought to trial in 1936. Convicted on 62 charges of forced prostitution, Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison.

At the end of February 1942, more than 70 allied merchant ships carrying supplies vital to the war effort in Europe had been sunk off the Atlantic coast in just two-and-a-half months by German U-boats. Earlier that month, the passenger liner Normandie caught fire and sank while moored in New York’s Hudson River. Spies and sabotage were suspected and tighter security on the New York waterfront was called for.

An anti-fascist union leader from the west coast, Melbourne-born Harry Bridges, had a different solution. New York’s waterfront workers should leave the corrupt, Mafia-controlled International Longshoremen’s Association and join the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union that he led. A cleaned-up waterfront could be relied on to support the war against fascism through democratic politics in a democratic union. But Bridges was suspected of being a communist, so the authorities spent their efforts trying to deport him and looked the other way while his supporters were bashed and murdered by Mafia thugs.

The gangsters remained in control and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) turned instead to Luciano’s pre-war partner in crime, Meyer Lansky. Lansky became the intermediary to the imprisoned Luciano as the ONI negotiated enlisting the aid of Luciano’s lieutenants in enforcing control on New York’s docks. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) forerunner to the CIA had previously made contact with a Sicilian Mafia decimated by Mussolini, trying to win their support for the planned invasion of Sicily in 1943. Luciano became involved in this project too. His reward was to be freed from prison.

The decision to involve the Mafia in domestic dock security and the liberation of Europe would quickly contribute to a resurgence of the US’s heroin problem. Deported to Italy in early 1946, Luciano wasted no time establishing heroin laboratories in Sicily and exporting the drug to New York via Cuba, where the Mafia had controlled illegal activities for years.

The US heroin market had fewer than 20,000 addicts at the end of WWII. But it was rejuvenated with the complicity of the OSS and ONI. CIA complicity in the trade would ensure that heroin became an enduring problem, in the US and beyond.

The heroin for Luciano’s European operation was initially sourced from the Italian pharmaceutical company Schiaparelli. When this supply was eventually cut off, the operation relied on raw opium from Turkey that was refined into morphine in Beirut and finally processed into heroin in Sicily, ready for export. The Sicilian operation proved to be the weak link in the chain. A number of couriers were arrested, largely due to incompetence and an arrogance that came from being in a position of some power courtesy of the OSS. The heroin laboratories were shifted to Marseilles, establishing a supply link that became infamously known as the French Connection. By 1952 the number of heroin addicts in the US had tripled to 60,000.

Marseilles' geographical location was ideally suited to Lansky and Luciano’s heroin production and distribution network. But it was only possible because of the defeat of communist-led militants on the Marseilles waterfront by a combination of Corsican gangsters, CIA money and imported Italian scabs during a strike against the Vietnam War in 1950.

The French Connection was broken in the 1970s; it was replaced by heroin supplied from the Golden Triangle. How it came to do so is the largely untold story of the Vietnam War.

[This is the first of a three-part series about how two wars contributed to the international drug trade and how the Sydney-based Nugan Hand Bank, staffed by the former director and deputy director of the CIA, helped to finance the trade. Read part two here. Read part three here.]