19 November 2007

Hobson's and Nixon's War

Richmond P. Hobson, a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, is not a name people of my generation can be expected to know, but it has been familiar to me since I was a little boy. For some reason, I've always been attracted to more obscure conflicts than the Big Three of the American Civil War, the First World War and the Second World War. One of my early favourites was the Spanish-American War, largely on account of my liking the look of ships from that era. Amply illustrated books such as Frank Friedel's The Splendid Little War, certainly helped.

One of the most celebrated heroes at the time of the war was Lieutenant Hobson, who attempted to block the harbour entrance to the port of Santiago at a time when the Spanish squadron of four armoured cruisers and two destroyers was inside. He took a collier, the USS Merrimac, and tried to scuttle it at the narrowest point of the channel. Hobson's daring adventure ended in failure, but it gave him national celebrity.

Not many years after I first read the story of Hobson, on 17 June 1971, President Richard Nixon mobilized part of the resources of American government against what he called "public enemy number one" - illegal recreational drugs generally and heroin in particular. I have vague memories of newsmagazine stories about opium poppies (then predominantly grown in Turkey) and the heroin trade. Yet I was utterly unaware of Hobson's part in developing the thesis that heroin and other narcotices were a major cause of crime in the United States, and that it was vital to keep it out of the country.

Hobson had been an important spokesman of the movement that ended up giving us Prohibition in the 1920s. With his work done in that field, he turned his attention to narcotics, and spent the rest of his life writing and lecturing about the dangers criminals using heroin posed to civilized society.

The war Hobson urged and Nixon started has turned into a Thirty-Five Years' War that shows no signs of even getting near an end.

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