Lester L. Wolff, Influential Former Congressman, Dies at 102

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Lester L. Wolff, Influential Former Congressman, Dies at 102

His voters in Queens (Bayside, Hollis) and Nassau County (Mineola, Great Neck, Roslyn), on New York City’s eastern edge, were mostly middle-class homeowners who liked his can-do style. Senator Robert F. Kennedy campaigned for his re-election in 1966, and he returned the favor in the 1968 presidential primaries. After the senator’s assassination, Mr. Wolff endorsed the antiwar Democratic senator Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota.

Traveling to more than 75 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America on fact-finding trips that his opponents derided as junkets, Mr. Wolff identified the “Golden Triangle” of Thailand, Laos and Burma as the major source of opium smuggled into the United States and to its forces in Indochina. In 1971, he estimated that up to 60 percent of Americans fighting in Vietnam were using drugs.

And in 1977, four decades before Donald J. Trump proposed a wall on the Mexican border, Mr. Wolff, as chairman of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, scoured the 1,900 miles of what he called “our Maginot Line,” where drug smugglers eluded border patrols like the German invaders who skirted fixed French defenses in World War II.

“We have six tons of heroin getting into the country a year, and last year the Border Patrol interdicted 14 pounds of it,” Mr. Wolff said. “You can just walk across the Rio Grande.”

Heading a congressional delegation to Beijing in 1978, Mr. Wolff met Deng, who had reformed China’s economy after Mao Zedong’s death. Washington still recognized the Nationalist regime on Taiwan as China’s legitimate government, although normalizing relations with the People’s Republic promised vast economic and political benefits for both China and the United States.

In a signal to President Carter, Mr. Wolff recalled, “Deng told me, ‘Don’t let Taiwan stand in the way of establishing diplomatic relations.’ I went home and told Carter about this.” Then, in one of the turning points of the Cold War, Mr. Carter announced that on Jan. 1, 1979, the United States would formally recognize Communist China and sever relations with Taiwan.

Author: Robert D. McFadden
This post originally appeared on NYT > U.S. News

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