How plausible is it that every major leader in the history of the world just said no? How likely is it that no historical figure ever used drugs or alcohol at the height of his significance? It’s not likely at all. In fact, you would have to be drunker than Joseph Stalin to believe that history’s great presidents, kings and tyrants all were completely sober. We were reminded of this fact a few days ago when U.S. Sen. Max Baucus slurred his words and verbally attacked a colleague on the Senate floor. (Was Baucus intoxicated? No one has confirmed. He did not appear to be sober.)
Whether or not world leaders get baked before they speak to the public, declare disastrous wars or agree to participate in the inexplicable (the Winter Olympics comes to mind) is part of what is called “hidden history.” Podcast host Dan Carlin has mastered the uncovering of hidden history. The self-described amateur historian’s popular show, “Hardcore History,” challenges conventional wisdom, debunks popular notions and asks questions such as, “Was President Kennedy stoned out of his gourd during the Cuban Missile Crisis?” (Answer: No. Well, probably, no.) Carlin spoke with Made Man about the “Hardcore History” episode “History Under the Influence.”
MM: Why is it that in history class, and in history books, with few exceptions, it is seldom acknowledged that major figures in history often got sloshed?
DC: Well, I think that sometimes this reality is acknowledged, it just depends on the teacher and the level of the coursework. For example, I never heard a teacher address this subject in high school. Perhaps parents wouldn’t want their kids hearing that a lot of the major figures in history probably rivaled modern rock stars in their drug and alcohol appetites from their high school history teacher. But once I got to college, I had some professors who would make it a point to let you know that this king was known to party hard, or that general was known to enter battle with a bottle – that kind of stuff. It depended on the individual teacher’s personality.
But another factor has to be the lack of direct information on this stuff. Try using the historical sources to show that Attila the Hun was drunk a lot of the time. In most cases the information one way or another just isn’t available.
MM: Ted Kennedy notwithstanding, the American public looks down upon politicians who drink too much or use drugs. Wasn’t our country founded by a generation of men who drank warm ale for breakfast and often spent all day drinking beer, wine and hard ciders? Did this affect their ability to govern?
DC: Well, I think this is the very question that we found intriguing, too. This was part of the focus of the episode we devoted to this subject. It’s a very fun idea to kick around and wonder about because there’s no real way to know the answers. We talked in the show about Hitler’s use of what would be called ‘speed’ if someone on the street were using it today, Churchill’s daily booze intake and rumors of Napoleon’s judgment being compromised at Waterloo by a recent dose of opium. But even if you can prove that they indeed were using the stuff – which you often can’t – how can you tell if it was affecting their judgment? We joked about wanting to bring them back from the past in a time machine so that we could drug test them. That would be the only sort of proof that would stand up in court.
MM: President Kennedy took drugs, including steroids, speed and, allegedly, cocaine. One of JFK’s doctors was nicknamed, “Dr. Feelgood.” We all know how much the Russians like the sauce. Are you amazed that neither country nuked the other at 3 am on a Friday morning during the early 1960s?
DC: No, I think we were pretty safe from a drunken nuke misadventure by that point in time. A single individual, even one who is ‘under the influence,’ had less ability by the 1960s to totally screw things up because there were more layers of power in place. Even in the Soviet Union the power of the regime was less concentrated in one person than it had been in the days of Stalin. A drunken Stalin would have had the power and authority to be able to order a nuclear exchange without getting anyone’s approval or agreement. Same thing with a tweaked-out Hitler. Kennedy or Khrushchev, though, would have had a whole host of advisers noticing erratic behavior, questioning their fitness for the job and such. Kennedy actually did have a few people around him doing just this when he was receiving those now-infamous injections. I think World War Three was actually possible at that time, but I don’t think it was any more or less likely to have happened because of drink or drugs. For all we know, the leader’s imbibing might have played a positive role. It was a very tense time. Maybe war was only averted due to some good vodka.
MM: In “Alexander The Great: The Invisible Enemy,” author John O’Brien theorizes that the Greek leader Alexander the Great, the man who built one of the largest empires in ancient history, was a raging alcoholic, even though the taste of ouzo does everything in its power to prevent repeated use. You agree that Alexander most likely was an alcoholic. Why?
DC: Well, I don’t think the view that Alexander drank an awful lot is particularly controversial. I think what made O’Brien’s book so interesting was that he actually linked Alexander’s known historical behavior to the booze. He basically accused him of operating a powerful empire under the influence of alcohol. The reason this is compelling is because it’s a theory that, if true, would answer so many questions about the contradictory nature of Alexander that historians have posed for ages. Was he the wunderkind , military genius, classically-tutored, philosopher-king? Or was he a drunken, genocidal, bisexual, power-crazed overachiever who thought he was a god? O’Brien suggests it may have depended on whether you ran into him before or after the daily wine-drinking contests got underway.
MM: Did Napoleon lose at Waterloo because he was high?
DC: I don’t think anyone could say that, because there’s just no way to know. He was using opium to treat pain, according to some sources. He was literally bedridden with hemorrhoids before that crucial battle and opium was a standard pain treatment back in Napoleon’s day, just as opiates are for pain today. The question that is intriguing is to wonder what effect it had on his judgment and decision-making. He certainly performed a bit ‘sluggishly’ at Waterloo, by his standards. Was he spaced-out when he needed to be sharp? Again, though, perhaps the pain treatment was the only thing that allowed him to even get out of the sickbed that morning to be in a position to act as a general at all. So opium might have played an important role in that battle but for an entirely different reason. It is fun to speculate.
MM: World War II – often called “The Good War” – might have been waged by drunks and druggies. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill drank from the moment he woke up until he went to sleep. Stalin was a big drinker and might have been on a bender when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. Adolph Hitler is said to have taken amphetamines, which would account for his descent into madness and his diatribe in this video. Germany’s No. 2 guy Hermann Goering was addicted to morphine and his air force was about as effective as the Cleveland Browns’ scouting department. How does all of this affect the way you view the second world war?
DC: Well, I think it colors it a tad. I think that everyone has always understood that the judgment, decision-making and leadership of all those figures you named were of prime importance to world history and the lives of hundreds of millions of people. What I think is unusual is to wonder what outside factors might have played into those critical judgment-related elements. I mean, if the head of the under-performing German air force is a morphine addict and nods off at critical staff meetings, does that affect the war? If I told you the head of today’s U.S. or the British air force had Hermann Goering’s issues, what would you think? I think it has to have had some influence. There’s no way to quantify how much.
MM: What is one historical event that makes more sense when you factor in that its major player or players probably had the munchies?
DC: Well, I like that Alexander the Great idea John O’Brien wrote about in terms of making more sense if someone were intoxicated. To me, the Alexander-alcohol link would be huge if it were true. I also wonder sometimes what the leadership of Imperial Japan must have been eating, drinking, injecting or smoking when they attacked the U.S., Britain and all the other Allied countries in 1941. It would make a lot more sense if historians found out someday that the food of the Japanese decision-makers had all been laced with angel dust or something. That decision just seems preposterously reckless in hindsight.