Rare Footage Shows US and British Soldiers Getting Dosed with LSD in Government-Sponsored Tests (1958 + 1964)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hofmann’s Potion: 2002 Doc­u­men­tary Revis­its His­to­ry of LSD

Ken Kesey’s First LSD Trip Ani­mat­ed

Ken Kesey Talks About the Mean­ing of the Acid Tests

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beau­ti­ful, LSD-Assist­ed Death: A Let­ter from His Wid­ow

A Short Anti-LSD Hor­ror Film Made by the Lock­heed Cor­po­ra­tion (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • mike hire says:

    Long sto­ry- but ‘staff’ ( being psy­chol­o­gists and social work­ers and oth­ers ) of my fair city’s Men­tal Health
    ser­vices in the mid 60’s were sub­jects of ‘LSD exper­i­ments’ — and it wasn’t ‘a secret’! Might sound crazy but it’s rock sol­id true. I learned many years lat­er that the CIA had actu­al­ly encouraged/sponsored these ‘tests’ through­out the coun­try in numer­ous Men­tal Health depart­ments. I think this was relat­ed in the MK-ULTRA book by the for­mer ‘agent’.

  • Tim Evans says:

    Hi there. I found this while search­ing for a piece of late 80’s ear­ly 90’s ani­ma­tion about a sol­diers expe­ri­ence of LSD. What drew my atten­tion was that I believe the two clips you show in your piece were also shown at the end of the ani­ma­tion. Basi­cal­ly I watched the ani­ma­tion late night when I was young and it kin­da stuck, prob­a­bly as I was­n’t expect­ing it to be any­where near as dark as it turned out to be. In short the ani­ma­tion shows a young sol­dier on leave with his bud­dies and he begins to have hal­lu­ci­na­tions, dodgems becom­ing weaponised, friends turn­ing into demons. At the end it turns out he’s in an insti­tu­tion of sorts and a doc­tor treat­ing him is attacked by one of his demons and a dark­ness as the sol­dier escapes and walks out of the build­ing. I’m hop­ing that some­one may have come across this ani­ma­tion and tell me what it is (not Aki­ra, Jacobs lad­der) and you may have come across it dur­ing your research. Any­way, thanks for tak­ing the time read­ing this.

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