Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954

Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954

Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954

Opium and Foreign Policy: The Anglo-American Search for Order in Asia, 1912-1954


William Walker traces British and American attempts to control the Asian opium trade from the fall of the Manchu dynasty in China in 1912 to the French withdrawal from Indochina in 1954. Analyzing the moral, cultural, economic, political, diplomatic, and security aspects of drug control, Walker argues that the fight against opium played a significant, and virtually unexamined, role in Anglo-American relations and security interests in the region.

Throughout much of China and Southeast Asia, many farmers had cultivated opium for generations, and at times survival itself seemed to depend upon the market for the poppy crop. Before World War II, the British tolerated the deeply entrenched culture of the poppy in China in order to safeguard their economic and political interests. Conversely, the Americans, who had far less at stake in Asia strategically or economically, consistently opposed the opium trade. During the war, the United States defined opium as a strategic commodity and tried to restrict Japanese access to it. Following the war, American hopes of limiting the Asian drug trade were thwarted by civil war in China. Finally, as the Cold War spread to Southeast Asia in the 1950s, drug control was subordinated to Western security concerns in the fight against communism.

Basing his study upon extensive archival research in British and American sources, Walker shows that the chances for opium control were never good and that ultimately the search for order in Asia on Western terms failed. United States drug-control officials, Walker contends, must share in the blame for that failure.

Originally published in 1991.


This book is an interpretive history of opium control in Asia in the years between the fall of the Manchu (Ch'ing) dynasty and the defeat of France in Indochina. Multiarchival research locates it in the broader context of Anglo-American foreign policy objectives across the Pacific. Great Britain and the United States were the nations not only most concerned about maintaining a Western presence in Asia in the first half of the twentieth century but also most active in the world opium control movement. For the period encompassed by this study, Asia captured the attention of the movement more than any other region.

The study of opium control possesses intrinsic interest, currently enhanced by the public's perception of drugs as a threat to society. The history of interAmerican drug control is explored in an earlier book, and this one assesses the extent to which Western nations encouraged antiopium activity in nonWestern societies during a time of great political turmoil and revolutionary upheaval. As a means of doing so, this book views opium usage, trafficking, and control as evidence of particular cultural outlooks. In China and Southeast Asia, external pressure for control constitutes a form of cultural interaction, that is, the process of conflict and cooperation that arises out of different, competing perspectives on the place of opium in society. Gradual changes over time in the political and economic role of opium underscore the possibility of cultural transformation.

The opium cultures of Asia affected Anglo-American relations after 1912. Policymakers in London and Washington did not always agree on how to deal with the presence of opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin, in a given society. Their varying responses were related to larger policy considerations in significant ways.

Generally, the British valued their economic position and prospects more . . .

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