Content warning: this article discusses drug testing and human experimentation.
In 1953, with the US in the midst of the Cold War and paranoia blanketing government foreign policy, Operation MK-Ultra was born. As a fully government-funded project, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ran MK-Ultra for over ten years, researching ‘truth’ drugs like Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) to aid ‘mind-control’, interrogation, and torture. The actions of the CIA and US government during this time period displays much about cold-war dynamic, post-war American power, and the nature of the American government itself. MK-Ultra is, most ironically, the story of how the CIA brought LSD to the US.
The US government was first alerted to the prospect of the Communist use of mind-control in 1949 during the trial of Hungarian Cardinal Mindszentry, a known opponent to the Communist regime. During his trial, Mindszentry looked absent-minded, showed ‘robotic movements’, and confessed to crimes that he had never committed. The US government, rather hastily, presumed some form of behaviour manipulation. Worried, the director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, quickly assembled a team to evaluate Russian interrogation practices. Another shock for the US government came via the return of US prisoners of war captured in Korea. Not only did the soldiers come home claiming that biological weapons had been used by the US army in Korea, something that the US government had always denied, but they also praised forms of the Korean lifestyle and criticised those of the US. With this, the US government became convinced of the Korean use of brainwashing. And so, in 1953, $25 million of government funds was given to the Technical Services Division for MK-Ultra projects to “study human response to drugs and environmental conditions that could manipulate individuals to perform behaviours against their will.”
It was Dr Sidney Gottlieb, chief chemist at the CIA, who was to be the mind behind MK-Ultra. Historian Stephen Kinzer emphasises the anonymous nature of Gottlieb’s role; even at the CIA, his work was completely unknown, yet Gottlieb had what Kinzer describes as a ‘licence to kill’ by the US government. Gottlieb was directed by Dulles to find a truth-drug in order to win the Cold War. Gottlieb’s approach was to first find a way to destroy the existing mind and then find a way to insert a new line of thought.
Previous work on hallucinogenic drugs was mostly conducted by Nazi ‘doctors’ in concentration camps during World War Two. Gottlieb decided, therefore, to hire Nazi scientists and their Japanese counterparts to discuss their findings. The CIA found that German military physicians working at Dachau and Auschwitz had been experimenting with barbiturates, morphine derivative, and mescaline for interrogation purposes since 1943. Gottlieb had been interested in Mescaline, which had been trialled at Dachau, as an attempt to ‘eliminate the will of the person examined.’ Yet, it had been concluded that mescaline was ‘too unreliable to be a truth drug. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.’ Therefore, the CIA looked towards a new Swiss drug: LSD. Gottlieb was so convinced by the effects of LSD that he bought the world’s supply for $250,000, in an attempt to hinder Communist attempts to secure the drug. In doing so, the CIA brought LSD to America. As a consequence, Kinzer describes Gottlieb as the ‘God-father of the LSD subculture.’ It is certainly ironic that the very drug believed to give the government the power to control minds ended up fuelling a generational rebellion that aimed to destroy everything the CIA stood for.
Kinzer suggests that MK-Ultra was simply the continuation of research started by the Nazis in concentration camps. Indeed, Gottlieb experimented on thousands of unwitting patients, most significantly prisoners. In Lexington, Kentucky, seven African American inmates were fed triple doses of LSD every day for seventy-seven days. This was all an attempt for Gottlieb to see how much of an overdose would destroy a human mind. In another experiment, inmates were given overdoses of LSD for year so that Gottlieb could study the long-term effects of the drug. These inmates were told that they were involved in experiments researching a drug for schizophrenia, and all MK-Ultra practices were conducted in absolute secrecy.
Gottlieb additionally tested in universities across the US, setting up fraudulent philanthropic foundations to fund research on LSD at institutions such as Yale, Harvard, UCLA, and Georgetown. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, got his first dose of LSD from one of these experiments, along with Allen Ginsberg, Robert Hunter, and Ted Kaczynski (‘The Unabomber’).
One disturbing string of experiments conducted by MK-Ultra staff was titled ‘Operation Midnight Climax.’ The operation involved setting up specially designed apartments so that MK-Ultra staff could watch as female sex-workers (hired by the CIA) would bring home CIA agents and spike their drinks with LSD. The experiment was used to see if government secrets would be spilled whilst on the drug. Gottlieb concluded that the experiment merely revealed that men were likely to talk after sex: the involvement of LSD made little difference. These experiments are important in displaying who the victims of MK-Ultra were. Participants were often on the fringes of society and therefore incredibly vulnerable, chosen in the belief that if a victim ever found about their involvement in MK-Ultra, they were unlikely to be believed. In this respect, the CIA seem to have accomplished their aim, for many still believe that MK-Ultra is a conspiracy theory, despite government documentation proving otherwise.
Experiments were also conducted outside of the US though, just like domestic experiments, they violated basic medical ethics and were often even more brutal and inhumane. ‘Patients’ were suspected enemy agents, refugees, and captured North Korean prisoners of war, who had no connection to the outside world, thus making them easy to ‘dispose’ of. The international experiments resulted in a large number of deaths and involved intense combinations of drugs, torture, and interrogation techniques. Little official information is known about these experiments due to the destruction of MK-Ultra documents at the request of Gottlieb and DCI Richard Helms in 1973. This suggests that Gottlieb and Helms knew that their experiments were inhumane and – if their contents were leaked – highly damaging. Indeed, one CIA informant noted in a 1979 interview: ‘I think every last one of us felt sorry to attempt this kind of thing, we knew we were crossing a line. Every decent kid knows he shouldn’t steal, but he does it sometimes, we knew damn well that we didn’t want anyone else know what we were doing.’
After ten years of experimentation, MK-Ultra petered out. It was clear that, whilst a mind could be destroyed, it was all but impossible to configure a new one. However, Sidney Gottlieb’s career at the CIA continued. Kinzer describes Gottlieb, during this period, as the ‘poisoner-in-chief’ as head of the Technical Services Staff. A chemist by profession, Gottlieb helped to develop poisons to use for the benefit of the CIA. He was involved in plots to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba. Gottlieb was forced to retire in 1973 after the removal of Richard Helms following the Watergate scandal. As his patron and protector, without Helms, Gottlieb could not work under anonymity at the CIA and hence the MK-Ultra documents were destroyed.
Gottlieb, now in his mid-50’s, retired to India with his wife to help those suffering with leprosy. It was an odd activity for an ex-CIA agent to take up in his retirement from a career of brainwashing, interrogation, and drug experimentation, but one that Kinzer suggests was an attempt to clear his conscience. It was during his time in India that Gottlieb’s participation in secret CIA operations was revealed and he was called to testify for the Church Committee in 1975. The Church Committee was a US Senate select committee, set up under President Gerald Ford in 1975. It investigated abuses by the CIA, FBI, and other government services in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Although the Church Committee uncovered thousands of documents related to MK-Ultra, Gottlieb was seen only as a chemist, with the full extent of MK-Ultra yet to be exposed. Most of the work to reveal Gottlieb’s true role was conducted by the victims of his experiments. With the revelations that came out of the Church Committee, members of the public were able to slowly piece together their experiences and finally understand what had happened to them. However, Gottlieb died in 1999, having faced little consequence for his actions. Kinzer describes Gottlieb well as ‘an outlaw that served power. A creator but also a destroyer.’
MK-Ultra is a story that gives us just a small insight into the overwhelming power of the CIA and American government. It reveals the frantic, secretive nature of the Cold War and the levels the US government was prepared to go to in order to upstage the Soviet Union. However, in doing this they let thousands of their own citizens down, deceiving them and involving them in experiments that would haunt many for the rest of their lives. We only know a small section of MK-Ultra’s story; what we know are the details that the US government felt was acceptable to release to the public, though many documents remain classified or redacted, which suggests that the real history of MK-Ultra is a horror story beyond the greatest imagination.
Written by Eva Campbell
Kinzer, Stephen. “The CIA’s Secret Quest For Mind Control: Torture, LSD And A ‘Poisoner In Chief.’” Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air, NPR, September 9, 2019. Audio.
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Price, David H. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, The Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016.
Reelblack. “Mission Mind Control (1979).” Released August 2018. Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxFxLWaTNAM.
Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. “Stephen Kinzer – Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.”. Video.