Inside MK-Ultra, the CIA’s Secret Program That Used LSD to Achieve Mind Control (1953–1973)

If the CIA ever wants to change its mot­to to some­thing hip and trendy that the kids’ll like, may I sug­gest “f*ck around and find out”? Because in this above mini-doc on the secret LSD mind-con­trol exper­i­ments known as MK-Ultra (1953–1973), they were cer­tain­ly doing a lot of the for­mer, and then they took a lot of the lat­ter and sent it down the old mem­o­ry hole.

Could the Sovi­ets be devel­op­ing mind-con­trol pro­grams? The CIA, as sev­er­al of these accounts tell us, became con­vinced they were. How­ev­er, it’s nev­er spec­i­fied why they were con­vinced. Could it be a bit of guilt for hir­ing some ex-Nazi (and/or Nazi sup­port­ing) Ger­man sci­en­tists through Oper­a­tion Paper­clip? Or was this all just a cov­er because the CIA real­ly want­ed to exper­i­ment with mind con­trol? I mean, it’s 70 years lat­er, you can admit it. There were all these new drugs being devel­oped that altered the mind, so why not start there?

Top among the cor­nu­copia of phar­ma­co­log­i­ca was lyser­gic acid diethy­lamide, and the man who knew LSD the best was Dr. Sid­ney Got­tlieb, the “Poi­son­er in Chief” as his biog­ra­ph­er Stephen Kinz­er calls him. (See his book: Poi­son­er in Chief: Sid­ney Got­tlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Con­trol.) Raised in the Bronx, Got­tlieb’s love of chem­istry and sci­ence earned him a pres­ti­gious place at Cal­Tech. By the end of the 1940s he had been recruit­ed by the CIA.

Gottlieb’s para­dox was his love of LSD. He took it more than 200 times. He tend­ed towards Bud­dhism, not sur­pris­ing for those whose mind has been expand­ed by psy­che­delics. And he lived like a pro­to-hip­pie, grow­ing his own veg­eta­bles and liv­ing “off the grid” for a while with his fam­i­ly. Yet at the same time, he had no prob­lems with absolute dev­il­ish behav­ior. Once he con­vinced the CIA to buy up the world’s sup­ply of LSD, he set to work. He’d dose col­leagues with mas­sive amounts and only tell them after­wards. He’d con­duct exper­i­ments on sex work­ers, pris­on­ers, or peo­ple with ter­mi­nal ill­ness. Many didn’t know what they were sign­ing up for. The LSD in heavy dos­es were meant to anni­hi­late the mind, and allow a new mind to be put in place. That didn’t work out that well, but Got­tlieb and asso­ciates kept try­ing, under the aegis of then-CIA direc­tor Allen Dulles and Chief of Oper­a­tions Richard Helms. In real­i­ty, Dulles and oth­ers high up in the CIA had a hands-off approach. Bet­ter not to know what Got­tlieb was up to, espe­cial­ly when it went against the Nurem­berg Code of exper­i­ment­ing on peo­ple against their will–the very things the Nazis did.

There were many vic­tims too, corpses that were the cost of doing busi­ness in the Cold War, and so many we will not know about. The high­est pro­file death—and what pulled MK-Ultra out of obscurity—was gov­ern­ment sci­en­tist Frank Olsen. His jump from a NYC hotel room was ruled a sui­cide by the gov­ern­ment, a result of work stress. (The whole Olsen affair forms the back­bone of Errol Mor­ris’ 2017 doc­u­men­tary series Worm­wood.) The uncov­er­ing of the truth helped expose the his­to­ry of MK-Ultra to a mid-‘70s Amer­i­ca that had lost faith in its gov­ern­ment and was ripe for con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries to take hold.

Yes, MK-Ultra was an actu­al thing. But because Got­tlieb and his boss­es had destroyed most of the records, con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries filled in the gaps. Were Lee Har­vey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan MK-Ultra exper­i­ments gone wrong? What about Charles Man­son, who author Tim O’Neill dis­cov­ered was a “lab rat” for CIA exper­i­ments? Mob­ster Whitey Bul­ger was part of a LSD exper­i­ment and the FBI let him con­tin­ue to com­mit crimes. The future Unabomber Ted Kaczyn­s­ki had tak­en part in “bru­tal” psy­cho­log­i­cal exper­i­ments while at Har­vard.

On the oth­er hand, the MK-Ultra exper­i­ments also affect­ed cul­ture in a good way. Allen Gins­berg tried his first dose in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, as did Ken Kesey, who came out of it a pro­po­nent of LSD and formed the nascent hip­pie move­ment.

Got­tlieb retired in 1972, and MK-Ultra’s results were lack­ing in any prac­ti­cal results. In 1999, Got­tlieb passed away from unknown caus­es. Pos­si­bly a heart attack…but who knows, right?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hofmann’s Potion: 2002 Doc­u­men­tary Revis­its the His­to­ry of LSD

Ken Kesey’s First LSD Trip Ani­mat­ed

Artist Draws 9 Por­traits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Exper­i­ments to Turn LSD into a “Cre­ativ­i­ty Pill”

When Michel Fou­cault Tripped on Acid in Death Val­ley and Called It “The Great­est Expe­ri­ence of My Life” (1975)

Ken Kesey Talks About the Mean­ing of the Acid Tests

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.