Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
War and Society
Kyle Longley, PhD
Alex Bay, PhD
Charissa Threat, PhD
When the former senator and vice president assumed the Oval Office in January 1969, President Richard M. Nixon inherited a nation in crisis with drugs playing a central role. At a campaign stop a few months earlier, Nixon announced to a packed convention center in Anaheim, CA, that if elected president he would end the flow of the illicit drugs coming into the United States “decimating a generation of young Americans.”
True to his word, Nixon moved aggressively after his election victory to refocus the federal drug enforcement bureaucracy on drug source control, blaming Mexico as the main culprit. On September 21, 1969, Nixon officials launched Operation “Intercept”, a drug enforcement scheme sending two thousand U.S. Customs agents to execute a zero-tolerance inspection policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. Wreaking havoc on border economies for nearly a month and failing to produce any notable drug seizures, “Intercept” nonetheless succeeded, in the administration’s view, by compelling the Mexican government to sign Operation “Cooperation”, an anti-trafficking agreement that laid the groundwork for future U.S. bilateral and multilateral agreements on drugs throughout the region.
Operation “Intercept” and the Nixon administration’s perceived diplomatic success of unilateral coercion—an enforcement tactic in kind with his campaign pledge to restore “law and order”—formed the proof-of-concept for the drug supply control ideology that has underpinned U.S. illicit narcotics strategy in Latin America for more than half a century. Nixon’s failure to craft a sustainable diplomatic solution with Mexico at the inception of the “drug war” explains in part why outcomes for the U.S. antinarcotics efforts have fallen well short of their goals of reducing illicit drug use and related crimes in the United States.
By redefining the drug problem as a “foreign danger,” the Nixon administration also linked drug supply control ideology with anticommunist concepts of containment, international development, and national identity that hewed more closely to Cold War policy aims than previously understood. Within Latin America, Nixon’s Operation “Intercept” birthed a narco-dogma that has overshadowed the region’s diplomatic relations with the United States and often resulted in fatal consequences for many on both sides of the border.
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Reid, Justin M. "'An Exercise in International Extortion': Operation 'Intercept' and Nixon’s 1969 War on Drugs." Master's thesis, Chapman University, 2022. https://doi.org/10.36837/chapman.000412