In the early 1970s, before he was an award-winning author and the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Alfred McCoy was a young rebel academic who waded into the war zone in Southeast Asia to investigate the relationship between the CIA, crime syndicates, and local drug lords. The result, which the Agency tried unsuccessfully to suppress, was his classic The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. In the 45 years since, McCoy has consistently probed the underside of American global power, analyzing how the United States uses covert interventions, local proxies, torture, and worldwide surveillance to maintain its global empire.
Those decades of investigation have yielded a new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, which investigates America’s use of cyberwar, space warfare, trade pacts, and military alliances and reveals the contours of the shadow war that Washington wages to maintain its status as the world’s sole superpower. I recently asked McCoy to tell me about the book, the world of covert interventions, the deep state, and whether Donald Trump is accelerating the fall of the American empire.
Nick Turse: You first gained notoriety 45 years ago when, as a graduate student, you set off to a war zone to explore the nexus of CIA covert operations, the heroin trade, and the war in Vietnam. You traveled the world, walked into an ambush in Laos, and were targeted by the US government. How did you do it—and why?
Alfred McCoy: The “how” was simple. I just followed one lead to the next from Hong Kong to Saigon, Bangkok, Rangoon, and Paris until I had circled the globe on a life-changing voyage of discovery. But the “why” was more complex. I was driven to understand the political dynamics of a war that was destroying three Southeast Asian countries and dividing my own.
By following the heroin trail from South Vietnam, where a full third of US soldiers were heavy users, into the mountains of northern Laos where the opium poppy was grown, I witnessed a secret war fought by the CIA’s “Armée Clandestine” of 30,000 local militia and an Air Force bombing campaign that was the biggest in military history. While hiking through those highlands, far from paved roads or even electricity, I looked up to see the sky completely covered with a cat’s cradle of wispy-white jet contrails from countless US aircraft on bombing runs.
A year later when my manuscript was in press, the deputy head of CIA covert operations walked into my publisher’s office to demand my book be suppressed. When rebuffed, he retaliated. Phone tapped. Taxes audited. Grad school fellowship audited. Sources silenced. Life scrutinized. By the time that book was done, I had discovered the extraordinary power of this covert apparatus, the core of a unique empire, to devastate a country on the far side of the planet or penetrate deep inside private lives at home in America.