The Cold War, the Drug War, and… Summer Camp in the 1980s, by Richard M. Balzano

The Cold War shaped the latter half of the American twentieth century, and the bipolar standoff and its peripheral contests could be felt in every corner of domestic American life. Washington’s security pursuits often generated results that contradicted domestic goals, especially so with drug policy. When Ronald Reagan assumed the US presidency in 1981 on a campaign promise to reignite the Cold War, he delivered on that promise in such a way that Cold War security initiatives exacerbated America’s drug crisis. In turn, Reagan responded by escalating the ‘war on drugs’ in all the wrong hardline places. These inconsistent and contradicting policies are evident throughout the 1980s, but most glaring when they intersect in the least likely of places: the American summer camp.

Nancy Reagan at Summer Camps, Hudson Institute

First lady Nancy Reagan visited America’s summer camps throughout the 1980s. During her visits, the first lady participated in recreational activities and spoke on matters of leisure and importance, using these visits as a platform for her ‘Just Say No’ anti-drug campaign. Although the campaign sought to reduce demand, ‘Just Say No’ was a far cry from the enlightened, support-based demand-reduction model that experts would promote in coming decades, nor was it a step in that direction.[1] ‘Just Say No’ appealed to individualism and personal responsibility through intimidation and alienation, aligning ‘“drugs”…with a dangerous and roughly defined “other”’, and presenting America’s addiction problem ‘as the consequence of collective personal failure in affected communities rather than a public health crisis’.[2] After extolling the virtues of accountability on campers, the first lady would on occasion seek to extract sobriety pledges from children as young as age six.[3]

The Reagan administration escalated both the drug war and the Cold War throughout the 1980s, although the methods and outcomes were contradicting. On the foreign policy front, the administration exacerbated civil strife in Central America by backing rights-abusing anticommunist regimes and insurgents. Despite legislative obstacles and congressional opposition, Reagan put his weight behind the Nicaraguan Contra insurgency and made overt and clandestine efforts to fund them, while his perception management team worked tirelessly to package these initiatives in the altruism and simplicity of Manichean Cold War rhetoric.[4] Ronald Reagan’s February 1985 State of the Union address famously identified the Contras as ‘freedom fighters’, a brand his administration vigorously projected.[5]

Ronald Reagan with a ‘Stop Communism in Central America’ T-Shirt

On Reagan’s watch, American intelligence enabled Nicaraguan expatriates to bring substantial amounts of cocaine into the US, and the proceeds of which were used to fund the Contra insurgency.[6] The Contra-cocaine connection was first exposed in late 1985 by journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger, and investigated further by then-Democratic Senator John Kerry as the Iran-Contra affair unfolded in 1986.[7] Diligent and controversial research by late journalist Gary Webb in the following decade exposed a labyrinth of American complicity, and Webb identified this particular supply chain as a catalyst in America’s 1980s ‘crack’-cocaine outbreak.[8]

Journalist Gary Webb

On the domestic front, the Reagan administration escalated the ‘war on drugs’—the same war that US intelligence was simultaneously exacerbating. Draconian legal penalties were introduced for non-violent and drug-related offenses throughout the 1980s, proving an early step towards America’s current mass-incarceration model.[9] The administration’s punitive and contradicting initiatives were flanked by Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign, presented in classrooms, summer camps, and similar environments.

Nancy Reagan was likely not privy to the scope of American complicity in the ‘crack’-cocaine outbreak of the 1980s, but the Iran-Contra scandal and the reports of cocaine trafficking carried out by her husband’s favourite pet insurgency would have been difficult for the first lady to ignore.[10] Perhaps Nancy Reagan dismissed the Contra-cocaine connection as a liberal media’s partisan conspiracy? After all, the Contras were supposed to be ‘freedom fighters’ central to American security. Dismissing the connection was much easier than the mental-gymnastics required to rationalize selling ‘crack’ for freedom and security—although the intelligence community held no qualms about it![11]

In the summer of 1987, Nancy Reagan’s only summer camp visit took place at the Agassiz Village camp in Poland, Maine. It was her first camp visit since the Iran-Contra story broke, and it would be her last camp visit as first lady. She pitched ‘Just Say No’ to 300 children aged six to sixteen, and 100 camp counselors, after which she invited them to declare their commitment to sobriety by signing pledge cards. Only 250 of the 400 attendees signed—a disappointing 62.5 percent.[13] If Hollywood’s depictions of the American summer camp experience have merit, we may assume that commitments to sobriety were lowest among camp counselors. If we move forward under the assumption that counselors monolithically chose Bacchus, or if they were gerrymandered and excluded from pledging, 250 pledges from 300 campers (83.3 percent) is not particularly impressive either, especially if one considers that the age six-to-nine demographic will sign most anything at the prospect of sugar or if the writing utensil produces colour. We may safely assume that the 150 missing pledges came from older campers and counselors.[14]

If Hollywood is wrong, which it usually is, then perhaps there was more to those missing signatures than teenage delinquency. Perhaps the first lady was unable to solicit a high number of sobriety pledges in her final summer camp visit because of the way her message resonated with her audience. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum describes Camp Agassiz as a summer camp for handicapped children, but this is misleading.[15] Although Agassiz Village integrated children with disabilities into their programming in the 1950s, the camp’s goal was ‘to provide a camping experience for boys from various social agencies, hospitals, clinics and schools in the Greater Boston area’. By the mid-1970s the camp was co-ed, and their doors were open to not only disabled children but children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and communities at the time of Nancy Reagan’s 1987 visit. Further, the camp enjoys a tradition of alumni returning as counselors.[16] Many of these economically disadvantaged campers were likely predisposed to the perils of addiction described in Nancy Reagan’s message, although it wasn’t a dangerous ‘other’ but rather a personal or communal experience. While it is tempting to presume that 150 of Agassiz Village’s campers and counselors chose an iconically dazed and confused American summer camp experience, perhaps they refused to sign because they recognized that the perils of addiction were brought on by the administration’s reforms and/or interventionist policies.[17] Nancy Reagan’s final summer camp visit was a blunder, indicative of the tone deafness of ‘Just Say No’ and America’s failing drug war on the whole.

Richard M. Balzano is a PhD student of History at the University of Reading. He specailses in US foreign policy and inter-American relations in Latin America’s Cold War, and therein intersections of development, human rights and US financial assistance. 


[1] See Global Commission on Drugs, ‘War on Drugs: Report on the Global Commission on Drug Policy’, https://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/GCDP_WaronDrugs_EN.pdf (accessed 06 July 2021); Organization of American States (OAS), ‘The OAS Drug Report: 16 Months of Debates and Consensus’, https://www.oas.org/docs/publications/layoutpubgagdrogas-eng-29-9.pdf (accessed 06 July 2021).

[2] Michael McGrath, ‘Nancy Reagan and the negative impact of the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign’, The Guardian, 08 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/08/nancy-reagan-drugs-just-say-no-dare-program-opioid-epidemic (accessed 01 July 2021).

[3] Howard Kany, ‘First lady visits Camp Agassiz Village, Lewiston Daily Sun, 07 July 1987.

[4] There was a whole office designated to shape the media narrative around Washington’s Latin American engagements. The Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (OPD), run by Otto Reich. The OPD was created by Reagan and its supervision was limited to the US State Department, keeping it insulated from accountability. The OPD unraveled during the Iran-Contra scandal, and it was investigated and shut down after Congress determined it violated US law by projecting propaganda on US citizens. For the OPD, see Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2006), 124-136, 229. For a goldmine of documents on Reich’s activities, see Thomas Blanton, ed., ‘Public Diplomacy and Covert Propaganda: The Declassified Record of Ambassador Otto Juan Reich’, National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 40, 02 March 2001, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB40/ (accessed 01 July 2021). For a comprehensive account of the Reagan administration’s perception management efforts in Nicaragua, see Eldon Kenworthy, America/Americas: Myth in the Making of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995).

[5] The Reagan Doctrine was cast at the 1985 State of the Union address. Reagan’s support for ‘freedom fighters’ implied Washington’s intention to support subversive and insurgent forces when geopolitically convenient.

[6] Gary Webb, Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999); Robert Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’, Salon, 25 October 2004, https://www.salon.com/2004/10/25/contra/ (accessed 02 July 2021). In the spirit of bipartisan fairness, clandestine relationships between US intelligence and international narcotics operations were not unique to Reagan, occurring under administrations ‘across the aisle’ throughout the Cold War. See Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2003).

[7] Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’. Parry and Barger’s original piece appeared in AP on 20 December 1985, linking Contra cocaine smuggling to their war financing. The extent to which Contras smuggled and distributed cocaine in the US with intelligence complicity and de facto immunity was explored by Webb, Dark Alliance.

[8] For an unfortunate number of journalists and people on the whole, challenging the official word of the State Department in real time was enough to brand Webb’s Dark Alliance as a conspiracy. Webb was cannibalized by his own profession, although time has revealed his activist journalism was more accurate than not. Webb claimed ongoing intimidation during and after his research, and, as conspiracies go, his death was ruled a suicide, despite having died from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds… to the head. For controversy over Webb’s journalism, see Greg Grandin, ‘“The New York Times” Wants Gary Webb to Stay Dead’, The Nation, 10 October 2014, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/new-york-times-wants-gary-webb-stay-dead/ (accessed 01 July 2021).

[9] One in four persons incarcerated worldwide is in the US. The population of incarcerated persons in the US was 2.3 million as of  2020, which, in perspective, is 6.74 times the population of Iceland. If the US prison population were itself a country, it would have the 145th largest population in the world..

[10] Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’.

[11] To be fair, the intelligence community was not selling ‘crack’ per se, although the image of a black suit working a Los Angeles street corner in the 1980s makes for an appropriate metaphor. Washington simply allowed Nicaraguans to import cocaine and offered them de facto immunity, and that cocaine was funneled into the hands of notorious drug dealers of the 1980s like Freeway Rick Ross of Los Angeles, who in turn built a narcotics empire on crack-cocaine sales. The appropriate framing is that US intelligence allowed cocaine to be imported… for freedom and national security. See Webb, Dark Alliance.

[13] Kany, ‘First lady visits Camp Agassiz Village’.

[14] While it would be almost logical for non-Americans to presume that children who could not read were not required to sign a pledge, it should be reminded that children as young as five years of age are required to pledge their allegiance to the American flag at the start of each school day.

[15] ‘Nancy Reagan’s Travels as First Lady’.

[16] ‘The History of Agassiz Village’, https://www.agassizvillage.org/history (accessed 06 July 2021); ‘Parent and Camper Facts’, https://www.agassizvillage.org/copy-of-parent-information (accessed 06 July 2021).

[17] Perhaps the older counselors observed the administration’s budget cuts to food subsidies for low-income campers? Mary Battiata, ‘First Lady Downs Hot Dog, Bug Juice During Visit to Virginia Summer Camp’, Washington Post, 23 July 1982, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1982/07/23/first-lady-downs-hot-dog-bug-juice-during-visit-to-virginia-summer-camp/af5ade43-aaf8-4607-992b-8eeb689e06ce/ (accessed 01 July 2021).

This entry was posted in News, Summer Blog Series 2021 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.