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Matthew R. Pembleton

Writer and Historian.

Specialist in Drug Policy, 20th Century America,

and the U.S. in the World.


Matthew R. Pembleton is an historian of 20th century America and U.S. foreign relations and holds a Ph.D. from American University. His research interests revolve around government, politics and culture, and the relationships between citizen and state and the U.S. and the world. His first book, Containing Addiction: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Origins of America’s Global Drug War (UMass Press, 2017), examines the roots of U.S. drug enforcement and the process by which American drug warriors extended their influence to foreign lands while consolidating government power at home. Matt is a lecturer at American University and has taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Howard Community College. He is also a Fellow at the DC Policy Center and a history consultant at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. His writing has been featured in the Journal of American Culture, the Journal of Cold War Studies, History News Network, and the Washington Post.   

The story of America’s “War on Drugs” usually begins with Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. In Containing Addiction, Matthew R. Pembleton argues that its origins instead lie in the years following World War II, when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—the country’s first drug control agency, established in 1930—began to depict drug control as a paramilitary conflict and sent agents abroad to disrupt the flow of drugs to American shores.

U.S. policymakers had long viewed addiction and organized crime as profound domestic and trans-national threats. Yet World War II presented new opportunities to implement drug control on a global scale. Skeptical of public health efforts to address demand, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics believed that reducing the global supply of drugs was the only way to contain the spread of addiction. In effect, America applied a foreign policy solution to a domestic social crisis, demonstrating how consistently policymakers have assumed that security at home can only be achieved through hegemony abroad. The result is a drug war that persists into the present day.

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Praise for Containing Addiction

“Pembleton is a lucid, smart, and engaging writer, who will be read by scholars and general audiences alike. This is one of the essential books in American drug history.”
-Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug

Containing Addiction reads like a true crime page turner, yet delivers a straight-from-the-archives, lucidly argued history of the narcotics agents who built America’s global drug war.”
-David Herzberg, Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozax

“A path-breaking scholarly history told as a thriller . . . Containing Addiction is essential reading for policy-makers and scholars alike.”
-Max Paul Friedman, Nazis and Good Neighbors and Rethinking Anti-Americanism

“Matthew R. Pembleton uses narrative, fresh biography, and deep research to nail two important truths. What we call the drug war is really a series of wars stretching back nearly a century. And those wars . . . served many ends, national security interests and partisan politics chief among them. What they did not serve, Pembleton shows, was the goal of keeping Americans free from addiction, a plague worse at the end of a century of drug warring than at the beginning.”
-David Courtwright, Dark Paradise and Forces of Habit

“A seminal work of outstanding researched-based social policy history, Containing Addiction is an impressively informed and informative study that is unreservedly recommended for governmental, community and academic library Social Issues collections in general, and Federal Drug Policy supplemental studies lists in particular.” –Midwest Review of Books

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