Harry J. Anslinger’s pioneering work as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics has largely been unsung, though experts see him as the founding father of America’s war on drugs.
In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration raised his profile with a symposium that focused on the decades he spent creating national drug policy, starting in the 1930s. Following that, in 2015, the agency’s museum opened an exhibition: “A Life of Service: Harry Jacob Anslinger, 1892-1975.”
When that closed in 2017, the D.E.A. Museum & Visitors Center created a virtual version, which is displayed on its website.
But neither the live exhibition nor the virtual one mentioned that Mr. Anslinger has been criticized for making racist and denigrating remarks, accusations that have trailed him for years.
In 1934, for example, Mr. Anslinger used a racial slur to describe a Black informant in a letter to narcotics bureau district supervisors, as described in a biography of the drug war czar by John C. McWilliams, a former history professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Other researchers have cited Mr. Anslinger’s book from the early 1960s, “The Murderers: The Shocking Story of the Narcotic Gangs,” in which he ascribed “Oriental ruthlessness” to the Chinese involved in the drug trade.
In response to questions, D.E.A. officials said museum administrators did not focus on Mr. Anslinger’s speech when creating the exhibition, which was organized around a timeline of his career. In a statement, the museum’s director, Laurie Baty, said: “D.E.A. has always acknowledged that the history of drug control policy and enforcement is complicated and ever-evolving.”
In its online presentation, the D.E.A. museum does say Mr. Anslinger’s tenure was “not without controversy,” but it does not discuss the issue of racial remarks and attributes the harshest criticism of him to “those opposed to laws governing marijuana.”
The issue of Mr. Anslinger’s remarks did surface during the D.E.A. museum’s symposium. One speaker, Charles Lutz, a retired D.E.A. special agent, defended Mr. Anslinger, who has also been accused of making other racist remarks, the origins of which are unclear. Mr. Lutz, who has studied Mr. Anslinger’s life, said his research indicated that “most of the statements attributed to him had actually been made by others.”
Mr. Lutz also said he had interviewed a Black Narcotics Bureau agent who worked under Mr. Anslinger and who was in the audience that day. That agent, William B. Davis, would say there were racists in the Narcotics Bureau, Mr. Lutz told the audience, adding: “But he’ll also tell you, as he told me, that Harry Anslinger was not one of them.”
But Mr. McWilliams, who also spoke at the symposium and whose book, “The Protectors: Harry J. Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930-1962,” provides a balanced look at Mr. Anslinger’s life, wrote that he saw the 1934 internal letter with the racial slur while reviewing documents at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.
Among those who objected to the slur at the time was a United States Senator from Pennsylvania, Joseph F. Guffey, who called for Anslinger’s resignation, according to the book.
In a telephone interview, Mr. McWilliams said Mr. Anslinger was respected by his peers as a narcotics expert and dedicated administrator but sometimes depended more on lurid accounts than sober analysis to generate support for his initiatives.
“He was a product of his time, when that sort of language was not unusual, unfortunately,” Mr. McWilliams said of the slur used in the letter. “He also impressed members of Congress and the media because he did go after organized crime and Mafia types.”
The full passage in Mr. Anslinger’s book, “The Murderers,” written with Will Oursler, says: “The Chinese underworld of dope — combined with gambling and prostitution — had its own special Oriental ruthlessness, which fitted the aura of violence and brutality and killing that has always been the hallmark of the narcotics underworld.”
Many museums and other cultural institutions are confronting issues of race as part of the broader discussion prompted by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody.
The American Museum of Natural History, for instance, is removing a statue of Theodore Roosevelt that shows him astride a horse, towering above an African man and a Native American, in a tableau that critics saw as symbolizing colonialism and racial discrimination.
Officials said that when the D.E.A. Museum & Visitors Center reopens this fall after a renovation, there were no plans to exhibit items associated with Mr. Anslinger, though the agency said that decision was based on space constraints. D.E.A. officials said the museum, in Arlington, Va., would frame the story of drugs in America around three major themes: examining how laws and policies were created in response to epidemics; looking at how major categories of drugs have affected people physically and cycled in use over time; and exploring the science of various substances.
The idea to create an exhibition about Mr. Anslinger was initiated, agency officials said, after the symposium at which members of the Anslinger family donated some items that had belonged to him.
A family member, a great-nephew, Jefferson Anslinger, said in an interview that his great-uncle was an honest man and a patriot with whom he regularly visited.
“I never heard him say anything disparaging about any race,” he said. “His whole life was dedicated to easing the suffering from drugs from around the world.”
Two of the donated items — a tan leather suitcase with brass fittings and a brown composite suitcase reinforced with wooden ribs and stenciled “H.J. Anslinger American Legation The Hague,” — appeared in the exhibit, which depicted Mr. Anslinger as a crucial forefather to the D.E.A. Other artifacts on display included a Bureau of Narcotics badge, an invitation to a dinner held in honor of the 1945 inauguration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a 1962 letter from the White House accepting Mr. Anslinger’s resignation.
Few officials had as much power and prestige as Mr. Anslinger did while leading the narcotics bureau during the administrations of five presidents. His admirers have long seen him as unfairly overshadowed by his better-known contemporary, J. Edgar Hoover.
Born in Altoona, Pa., he was appointed to the job of assistant commissioner of Prohibition at the Treasury Department in 1929. He then became the first commissioner of the Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which was founded in 1930.
While running the bureau Mr. Anslinger investigated the drugging of race horses with heroin, cocaine, caffeine and strychnine. In addition, he established ties with Interpol, arranged for international drug accords and offered some of the first evidence of the existence of a criminal network controlled by Sicilian-Americans.
Mr. Anslinger also championed measures that some drug experts today describe as draconian. He lobbied successfully for the passage of an anti-marijuana law in 1937, testifying during Congressional hearings that a single marijuana cigarette could induce a “homicidal mania.”
Johann Hari, a writer and critic of U.S. drug policy, described Mr. Anslinger in his book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” as someone who depicted drugs as dangerous by associating them with racial minorities. He said in an email message that his research indicated that Mr. Anslinger had adopted “a consistent framing that drugs are something nonwhite people disproportionately use.”