The Astonishing History of Drug Use During WW2

Last updated on January 12th, 2023 at 10:35 pm

Drug use was rampant during World War II. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen turned to drugs for one reason or another. Some used drugs to escape the horrors of war, while others used them to boost their performance on the battlefield.

Drug use was not limited to soldiers in the armed forces. Many civilians also turned to drugs to dull the horrors of the war. So why was drug use so rampant during WW2? Let’s take a look at the relationship between drugs and war.

Drug Use In Wartime Is Not New

While drug use during World War II might seem new, it is not. Using drugs on the battlefield has been going on for centuries.

There has been a contradictory position amongst government and military officials about using drugs in wartime.

On the one hand, some believed that drugs could help soldiers cope with the stresses of war and boost their performance on the battlefield.

On the other hand, some thought drugs were dangerous for soldiers and could lead to addiction and other problems.

No matter the position, it seems that hypocrisy was the common denominator. For example, during the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies banned the use of opium.

However, both sides continued to issue the drug to their soldiers. In addition, military doctors doled out opiates regularly to help soldiers cope with pain, diarrhea, and coughing fits. One might go so far as to say that Civil War armies would not have functioned without the use of opiates.

It is estimated that over 400,000 Civil War veterans were addicted to morphine when the war ended. It was known then as “Soldier’s Disease.”

On many occasions, the drug was used as a preventative for dysentery. Morphine was readily available, even when soldiers left war and returned home.

While at home, soldiers could feed their addiction and continue to live in a drugged state. This is not to say that history limited drug use to the Civil War.

For instance, in Russia, during the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks were prohibitionists and labeled alcohol as a vice. Yet, despite this very public opinion, when they eventually took power, they taxed vodka and used the revenue to fund wars and fill state coffers.

While not immediately related to wartime, 18th and 19th-century powers relied on drug-funded activities to grow their power.

For example, Britain established what is known as a narco-empire when you consider the importance of the opium trade.

Drugs are a valuable commodity. All moral issues aside, governments realize they are profitable, portable, and taxable. While drug use has been around for a long time, drug use during wartime came into the spotlight during World War I.

The Start of WWI Marks a New Era of Drug Use

Though not as widespread as in WWII, drug use became more widespread and accepted during World War I.

Believe it or not, the government supplied cigarettes to soldiers in WWI to ease battle stress and reduce boredom. Before the war, less than 0.5% of Americans consumed cigarettes, but after WWI, Tobacco companies distributed approximately 14 million cigarettes daily.

Not only did the government hand out cigarettes, but they also supplied soldiers with Cocaine. It is estimated that over 500,000 doses of cocaine were given to American troops during the war.

And while most people think of cocaine as a party drug, in WWI, it was used as an energy booster to combat fatigue and deal with overwhelming anxiety.

Moreover, cocaine was so widely accepted that soldiers’ spouses would send packages filled with cocaine and heroin from London pharmacies.

While the government distributed some drugs, others were easily accessible on the black market. Opium dens became popular in European cities near army bases, and many soldiers became addicted to heroin and other drugs.

It’s estimated that over 40 million people died during WWI. Considering the devastation that war causes, it’s easy to see how it could have increased drug use.

In many ways, WWI marked a new era in drug use. It was during this time that drugs became more widely accepted and available.

Unfortunately, this would lead to addiction problems for many soldiers returning home from war. Despite the apparent disadvantages of frequent drug use, the wartime environment lends itself to increased drug use.

World War II Sees an Increase in Drug Use

While drug use rose during WWI, it became more common during WWII. World War II was a time of unparalleled loss and destruction.

Armies fought vicious battles across Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. The fighting was brutal and often lasted for days on end, taking a terrible toll on the soldiers.

To cope with the stress, many of them turned to drugs. In addition, governments forced drugs upon them to combat their physical limitations; in fact, much research and development created new medicines to help soldiers fight fatigue and pain.

Another reason drug use became more widespread during World War II was that advances in medical science allowed new, more effective drugs to be developed. Scientists explicitly created these drugs to improve soldiers’ performance on the battlefield.

For example, amphetamines were designed to help keep soldiers awake and alert. The drug was so effective that it became known as “go pills.”

While some of these drugs were aimed at soldiers’ performance, others were created to help them cope with the stress of war.

Benzedrine was supposed to treat anxiety and depression. The drug became so widely used that armies included it in emergency medical kits.

The powers that be did not limit the use of drugs by the soldiers. The general population also turned to Benzedrine to help them cope with the stress of the war.

Benzedrine was marketed as an over-the-counter remedy for asthma and congestion. There was an inhaled version that closely resembled an inhaler.

For a time, Benzedrine came this way, but a few years later, a pill form was available. “Bennies” were promoted to be a “wonder drug” that could handle any ailment from obesity to depression.

Yet, no one considered the addictive potential or the long-term mental and physical damage that could occur. The effect of drug use on the soldiers was profound, but nothing had as far-reaching effects as the introduction of Amphetamines.

Methamphetamines – The Popular Drug

By the time WWII broke out, Germany, Great Britain, America, and Japan had researched the benefits of methamphetamines on their soldiers.

The drug was used during WWII to keep soldiers awake, but the drug soon became popular among civilians. Methamphetamine probably had the most considerable societal impact on Japan.

Japan’s Drug Epidemic

In Japan, the drug was supposed to give their soldiers a pharmacological edge over their enemies. So, the country contracted out the production of the drug to various pharmacies, but its usage didn’t stop there.

The drug helped ensure that pilots, soldiers, and sailors could routinely push past their limits to stay awake longer and work harder without rest. When marketed this way, taking methamphetamine was a patriotic duty.

Even factory workers took methamphetamines to help them work. In Japan, total war required total war mobilization. Under the guise of increased production, companies gave the entire laboring defense force methamphetamines.

Even after the war and its defeat, Japan had to deal with the consequences of its actions. Now, they were stuck with a massive problem as laborers and soldiers remained hooked on the drug and continued to take it because they could obtain it easily.

A massive stockpile flooded back into their market, drowning their society, fueling the Black Market, and giving organizations like the Yakuza a lifeline. In the early 1950s, about 5% of 18 to 25-year-olds were addicted to the drug.

Hitler’s Folly

Many historical sources credit Germany with being the first to use methamphetamines on their soldiers. However, its use didn’t stop there. Many in the German government used amphetamines regularly, even Hitler himself.

The drug was entirely known as something else; it was known as “Pervitin.” Germany was well-regarded as a producer of many drugs that later were outlawed, such as Heroin and Cocaine.

Pervitin was the first mass-produced methamphetamine and became widely available in 1938. The German military saw the drug’s potential; by 1939, 35 to 40 million doses were available for soldiers.

In addition, the pharmaceutical company, Temmler, saw the potential for the drug to increase the productivity of Germany’s soldiers. Using Pervitin, soldiers could stay awake for days and march continuously without resting.

Pervitin, an amphetamine used during WW2

Historical sources said that Germany’s “Blitzkrieg” was fueled by Pervitin and the soldiers who took it.

While Hitler may not have tried Pervitin himself, it was one of the few drugs he did not try. Instead, during the Third Reich, Hitler met with a man named Dr. Theodor Morell, who later became Hitler’s personal physician.

During their time together, the physician gave Hitler some 800 injections. These injections were largely vitamin-based and included a cocktail of amphetamines, barbiturates, and opiates.

The most notable of Hitler’s injections was the Eukodal, also known as oxycodone. Norman Ohler, a German novelist and filmmaker, thoroughly researched the subject of Hitler and his drug use over the years.

He concluded that Hitler’s drug use boiled down to three phases throughout his research.

  • The first phase – High doses of vitamins given intravenously.
  • The second phase – started in the fall of 1941 with the first opiate and hormone injection.
  • The third phase – Marks the Heavy Opiate phase.

America and Britain Follow Germany’s Lead

Neither the American or British governments wanted their soldiers to be at a disadvantage on the battlefield, so they followed Germany’s lead and supplied their troops with methamphetamines.

As a result, the British army consumed around 72 million doses of methamphetamines during the war in the form of Benzedrine.

The Americans supplied their troops with “Benzedrine,” soldiers were instructed to use the inhalers when they felt tired and needed a boost.

American armies abused the drug so much that the military issued around 250-500 million Benzedrine tablets to troops.

The army even added it to the American bomber kits in 1942 and 1943, meaning that approximately 15% of American soldiers took the drug.

The End Result

While many countries supplied their troops with drugs like methamphetamines, it was not without consequences.

After the war, governments had a vast surplus of drugs that they funneled back into their respective markets, eventually leading to widespread addiction.

Many veterans suffered the consequences of pill-pushing doctors and easy access to drugs. Yet, despite the adverse effects, countries still push to find a pharmaceutical edge for their soldiers.

For example, the American military is considering using Modafinil, a drug that is supposed to be less addictive and harbors fewer ill effects than amphetamines. Only time will tell what the consequences of these new designer drugs will be.

The bottom line is that while drugs may make soldiers more effective on the battlefield, there are always consequences to using them.

These consequences are felt not just by the soldiers but also by the civilians who live in the aftermath of war. So, the next time you hear about a new “wonder drug” in development for soldiers, remember the history of drugs in warfare and the consequences that come with them.

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