Updated: Aug 30
Ian Fleming describes the preparations for a secret and dangerous operation of his secret agent and assassin James Bond in the 1954 novel Live and Let Die. Among other essentials, ‘There was even a box of Benzedrine tablets to give endurance and heightened perception during the operation…’
Drug historians have quite rightly quoted this and similar lines from the Bond novels as an example of how the use of Benzedrine (an amphetamine more popularly known as speed) was quite wide spread throughout western societies in the 1950s. Charles O. Jackson even described the USA at that time as the ‘Amphetamine Democracy’.
Rereading the Bond novels we can detect more historical significance in 007’s drug use. Bond may be a playboy and a womanizer, an alcoholic according to present-day standards and at times a drug abuser, he is also a staunch pillar and defender of a tottering British Empire. There is a historical irony here: we notice that just before the emergence of a counter culture with a blooming use of all kinds of licit and illicit substances, a counter culture that will seem to threaten the very survival of the Empire itself, the potentials of drug use can work opposite ways. On speed you can either be ”on the bus”, as Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who were fuelled with amphetamines as much as with LSD. Or you can, as 007, be “off the bus” and stick to the old ways and manners of the Empire.
Film makers would try to solve this apparent contradiction by portraying a new character: the ‘hip’ secret agent, integrating the liberated pleasures of the counter culture in his lifestyle while defending the established order -for instance in In Like Flint (1967), the American answer to the British Bond movies. We now know the type better through its satirical representation in Austin Powers (who is all right if he can have sex in a consequence-free environment and take mind-expanding drugs).
There is more irony to detect in Bond’s drug use. In Moonraker (1955) 007 fortifies himself for a confrontation at cards with Hugo Drax, the German leader of a secret organization modelled by Fleming on the infamous Waffen SS officer Otto Skorzeny. A waiter brings him an envelope. It contained a white powder. He took a silver fruit knife off the table and dipped the tip of the blade into the packet so that about half its contents were transferred to the knife. He reached for his glass of champagne and tipped the powder into it… ‘Benzedrine,’ he said… It’s what I shall need if I’m going to keep my wits about me tonight. It’s apt to make one a bit overconfident, but that’ll be a help too.
Bond needs the amphetamine to sustain and enlarge his powers. In the same vein, various drug historians, such as Werner Pieper in his delightful anthology Nazis on speed and Nicolas Rasmussen in his otherwise excellent history of amphetamines, have claimed that the Nazi war machine that included Drax/Skorzeny was itself powered by amphetamines. If we believe them, German tanks and planes fought their way through Europe in a kind of ecstatic Blitzkrieg Bop, with credits to the medical officers liberally administering German amphetamines such as Pervitin, a close chemical relative of Benzedrine.
Life During Wartime
Historians have in this way recreated an older myth that we can trace at least to the Nazi enemies battled by Captain America in the early 1940s comics: the myth of a Nazi Superman, fuelled by drugs and often transformed and enhanced by genetic engineering. Why else were the Nazis so evil and so victorious?
The image of a German war machine powered by speed is quite attractive although I fear it to be too exaggerated. But this is not the point here. What I detect is that – unconsciously or at least not explicit – two moral judgments become mutually enforcing because of association. Nazis are obviously bad. That they use speed, or were doped by their leaders, shows them to be even worse (if that would be possible). It works the other way as well: if you see illicit drug use, more in particular that of amphetamines, as bad, its use by Nazis is a further demonstration how bad it is.
The strange thing here is that people use this guilt by association as a rhetorical argument, although they might be against Nazis, but not against drug use in itself. For instance Werner Pieper, besides being a great publisher and a very amiable man, was a friend of Timothy Leary and at one time in his life an acid dealer himself. He has nothing against drug use in itself. We also see the guilt by association argument implied in histories of medicine. That doctors used to prescribe substances now classified as illicit drugs shows them to be guilty by association; and that these drugs were used by doctors whose activities we do not like shows the substances to be bad drugs.
This whole guilt by association argument fails to realize that people in the past might have actually been taking drugs because they saw benefits in doing it, and that they could even have been justified in this assumption. And we’re not talking of people in fiction, such as 007. In the 1950s, in the Netherlands people would routinely swallow Pervitin to wean the effects of alcohol when they had to drive home safely. Unconsciously they copied Wehrmacht captain Hans von Stuck, who when on hearing that he was transferred from the Eastern Front to Africa told his driver: let’s swallow Pervitin and not stop till we’re out of Russia. One soldier captured at Stalingrad told his psychiatrist after the war how thanks to his Pervitin intake he was able to walk through the freezing weather to the prisoner camp, despite his injuries, while more unfortunate comrades didn’t make it and died horribly in the snow. Here at least was one guy happy with his drug, not because he was a Nazi Superman or defending an empire, but simply because he wanted to live.
Everyman's Little Helper
As for Bond, the morning after his confrontation with Drax he felt dreadful. ‘As well as acidity and liver as a result of drinking merely two whole bottles of champagne, he had a touch of the melancholy and spiritual deflation that were partly the after-effects of the Benzedrine…’