Washington (CNN) One of Richard Nixon's top advisers and a key figure in the Watergate scandal said the war on drugs was created as a political tool to fight blacks and hippies, according to a 22-year-old interview recently published in Harper's Magazine.
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people," former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper's writer Dan Baum for the April cover story published Tuesday.
"You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
Ehrlichman's comment is the first time the war on drugs has been plainly characterized as a political assault designed to help Nixon win, and keep, the White House.
It's a stark departure from Nixon's public explanation for his first piece of legislation in the war on drugs, delivered in message to Congress in July 1969, which framed it as a response to an increase in heroin addiction and the rising use of marijuana and hallucinogens by students.
However, Nixon's political focus on white voters, the "Silent Majority," is well-known. And Nixon's derision for minorities in private is well-known from his White House recordings.
The comments come as there has been a marked shift in attitudes toward handling drug use -- ranging from the legalization of marijuana in various states to White House candidates focusing heavily on treatment as an answer to New Hampshire's heroin epidemic while they were campaigning across the state.
Ehrlichman died in 1999, but his five children in questioned the veracity of the account.
"We never saw or heard anything from our dad, John Ehrlichman, that was derogatory about any person of color," wrote Peter Ehrlichman, Tom Ehrlichman, Jan Ehrlichman, Michael Ehrlichman and Jody E. Pineda in a statement provided to CNN.
"The 1994 alleged 'quote' we saw repeated in social media for the first time today does not square with what we know of our father. And collectively, that spans over 185 years of time with him," the Ehrlichman family wrote. "We do not subscribe to the alleged racist point of view that this writer now implies 22 years following the so-called interview of John and 16 years following our father's death, when dad can no longer respond. None of us have raised our kids that way, and that's because we were not raised that way."
Ehrlichman's comments did not surface until now after Baum remembered them while going back through old notes for the Harper's story. Baum said he had no reason to believe Ehrlichman was being dishonest and viewed them as "atonement" from a man long after his tumultuous run in the White House ended.
"I think Ehrlichman was waiting for someone to come and ask him. I think he felt bad about it. I think he had a lot to feel bad about, same with Egil Krogh, who was another Watergate guy." Baum told CNN.
Baum interviewed Ehrlichman and others for his 1996 book "Smoke and Mirrors," but said he left out the Ehrlichman comment from the book because it did not fit the narrative style focused on putting the readers in the middle of the backroom discussions themselves, without input from the author.
Baum equated Ehrlichman's admission with traumatic war stories that often take decades for veterans to talk about and said it clearly took time for Ehrlichman and other Nixon aides he interviewed to candidly explain the war on drugs.
"These guys, they knew they'd done bad things and they were glad finally when it was no longer going to cost them anything to be able to talk about it, to atone for it." Baum said. "Nobody goes in to public service, I don't think, on either side of the political aisle, to be repressive, to be evil. They go in because they care about the country."