We’re usually right to reserve judgement when it comes to conspiracy theories. But the reason they often sound plausible is a compelling one: What we do know about the secret activities of agencies like the CIA, FBI, KGB, NSA, etc. often points to a surreal, nefarious, extra-legal dimension full of plots Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick might have written. In such a dimension was born Project MK-ULTRA, the mind control program developed by the CIA in the early fifties and only officially stopped in 1973.
Most famous for introducing a young hospital orderly named Ken Kesey to LSD when he volunteered for an experiment—and thus acting as a primary cause of the Acid-fueled Haight-Ashbury movement to come—MK-ULTRA tested drugs, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, and psychological torture as a means of manipulating interrogation subjects. At the same time as the CIA drugged willing and unwilling participants, Army intelligence conducted research into using LSD as a mind control agent.
Raffi Khatchadourian tells the story in The New Yorker of Dr. Van Murray Sim, founder of the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal program of clinical research on psychochemicals. To his colleagues, Sim “was like Dr. Strangelove; he was a leader; he was the ‘Mengele of Edgewood’… manipulative and vengeful, ethically shortsighted, incoherently rambling… and devoted to chemical-warfare research.” He volunteered himself as a test subject for VX, a lethal nerve agent, for Red Oil, a “highly potent synthetic version of marijuana,” and for other hallucinogens designed for “psychochemical warfare.”
Sim dosed himself several times with LSD and in 1957 proposed a series of “practical experiments” with the drug at Edgewood. “It was deemed important,” writes Khatchadodourian, “to conduct LSD tests on people who were provided no information about what the drug would do.” You can see film of one of those tests above, conducted in 1958 on Army volunteers who, the narrator tells us, “responded like well-trained soldiers to the request: immediately and without question.”
The soldiers are put through a series of drills. Then they are dosed and drilled again. There is much laughter among the squad, but one man succumbed to such severe depression that five minutes after they begin, the medical officers “end his participation.” After a few more minutes, “the men found it difficult to obey orders. And soon the results were chaos,” the narrator says. In reality, as we can see, the soldiers seemed happy and relaxed, not in a “chaotic” state, though their unwillingness to obey would certainly seem so to the brass.
British intelligence also tested LSD on its troops. In the film above from 1964, several armed British Marines are given a dose and sent out into the field exercises. The results are strikingly similar. Immediately after taking the field the drugged marines begin to giggle, laugh, and relax. But one man “is more severely affected than the others, losing all contact with reality, dropping his rifle, and becoming unable to take part in the operation. In fact, he has to be withdrawn from the exercise a few minutes later.” The remainder of the test subjects collapse in fits of hilarity.
“In the end,” writes Rich Remsberg at NPR, the U.S. Army decided that LSD “was too expensive” and “unstable once airborne,” though it did lead to something called Agent BZ, “which was weaponized but never used in combat.” But at the peak of its testing programs, Army intelligence, the CIA, and even Operation Paperclip—the secretive program that recruited former Nazi scientists into its ranks—showed an obsession with the drug, amassing huge supplies of it, and testing it on witting and unwitting subjects alike.
In one operation, called “Midnight Climax,” unsuspecting clients “at CIA brothels in New York and San Francisco were slipped LSD and then monitored through one-way mirrors to see how they reacted,” writes David Hambling at Wired. “Colleagues were also considered fair game for secret testing, to the point where a memo was issued instructing that the punch bowls at office Christmas parties were not to be spiked” with acid.
While the CIA pulled pranks—and inspired Kesey’s Merry Pranksters—the Army took its program overseas to Europe under the aegis of “Operation Special Purpose.” Even today, Khatchadourian writes, “the non-Americans who were tested have still not been identified.” Operation Special Purpose’s experiments “were disastrous, offering little or no useful intelligence, and risking untold psychological damage to the subjects.” The Cold Warriors in charge thought of the drug as a weapon, and threw ethics and scientific caution to the wind. In certain tests, interrogators intended “to cause maximum anxiety and fear.” They degraded and threatened subjects “as long as the drug was effective: eight hours, or possibly more.”
In recent years, LSD research has made a promising return, and has shown that, when used for purposes other than mind control, torture, and manipulation, the hallucinogenic compound might actually have beneficial effects on mental health and well-being. Today’s research builds on experiments conducted by psychiatrists at the same time as MK-ULTRA and Operation Special Purpose. “From the 1950s through the early 1970s,” writes the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), “psychiatrists, therapists, and researchers administered LSD to thousands of people for alcoholism, as well as for anxiety and depression” in terminal patients.
As in the tests in the films above, they found that—with notable exceptions—the drug made people happier, more relaxed, and less afraid of death. “When used by people without a family history or risk of psychological problems,” reported The Washington Post in a story last year on new research, “psychedelics can make us kinder, calmer and better at our jobs. They can help us solve problems more creatively and make us more open-minded and generous.” Perhaps part of the government conspiracy to use hallucinogenic drugs for ill involved suppressing all of the ways they could be used for good.