Got a history question? Ask World War II.
Q: I watched a documentary recently that described the distribution of stimulants to German soldiers to make them more aggressive in combat. The show went on to imply that American troops had used them as well. I fought in the European Theater of Operations but have no recollection of drugs in battle, either by the Germans or us. Were stimulants in fact used by either side?
—Arthur O. Spaulding, Ojai, Calif.
A: Amphetamines—often called pep pills, go pills, uppers, or speed—arrived just in time for World War II. While the Germans pioneered pill-popping on the battlefield during the first phases of the war, Japanese, American, and British forces also consumed large amounts of amphetamines—though, as indicated by Mr. Spaulding’s letter, each serviceman’s experience differed. As Lester Grinspoon and Peter Hedblom wrote in their classic 1975 study, The Speed Culture, “World War II probably gave the greatest impetus to date to legal medically authorized as well as illicit black-market abuse of these pills on a worldwide scale.” Armies had long consumed various psychoactive substances, but this was the first large-scale use of a synthetic performance-enhancing drug. While precise numbers are unavailable, all evidence suggests it was pervasive on all sides, except for the Soviets.
—Peter Andreas, author of Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs (Oxford University Press, January 2020).
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This article was published in the October 2020 issue of World War II.