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?
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.